Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.) (vv. 17-19)
The sentence is incomplete and needs the verses that follow to conclude it properly. But I have purposely left it so that we may consider this portion of it the more carefully, for the next part has to do with another and altogether happier theme. Here, the apostle is occupying us with the responsibilities and snares of the pilgrim path. There, he points us on to the goal when all danger will be forever past and with it all opportunity to bear faithful testimony to a rejected Lord in a scene of contrariety. How it behooves us to consider the brevity of the time allotted us for witness bearing! It will soon be forever too late to suffer for and with Christ, and this necessarily means too late to win an honored place in the everlasting kingdom of our Savior God. That which we call time is the training school for the ages to come. What a mistake to fritter away its precious moments—so few at the most, as compared with the eternal ages—in things that are of no lasting profit.
Paul was an example both in life and doctrine for all who should come after him. It was not a prideful egotism that led him to plead with saints to follow him and his faithful companions as they followed Christ. He lived what he taught. His life was the practical exemplification of his teaching. He was not one man on the platform or in the meeting, and another in private or in business life. For we need to remember that Paul was no gentleman of leisure. He was not a clergyman afraid to soil his hands with honest labor. He wrought night and day tent-making, when funds were low or when he felt the need of setting an example of activity to any inclined to slothfulness. Yet all the while preaching and teaching publicly and from house to house with a diligence that few if any have equaled, and none have surpassed. He was careful also as to his personal communion with the Lord, striving to keep a conscience ever void of offense toward both God and man. What an example for us all to follow!
That he could not please everybody, even his own brethren, at all times, goes without saying. His work was belittled, his appearance ridiculed, his apostleship denied, and his integrity called in question. There were those who even intimated that he was a crafty deceiver who, by an appearance of frankness, caught with guile the unwary, and at times did evil that good might come! All these charges and insinuations he indignantly refutes in various parts of his writings, while never allowing calumnies to embitter him. He did not return railing for railing, or seek to injure those who would so willingly have injured him. He kept on the even tenor of his way, living Christ and preaching Christ with unchanged ardor to the very end. His wondrous life stood as an abiding answer to those who would malign him. Therefore he could say, “Be followers together of me,” and he could consistently call upon the saints to mark his ways and to walk in the same paths.
And though centuries have rolled by since wicked men sought to dishonor him, and the executioner’s axe severed his hoary head from his body by Caesar’s order, thus finishing his testimony in laying down his life for his Master’s sake, he still remains the preeminent example of what the Christian should be, sustained by grace divine while passing through this valley of death’s shadow. Let us examine our own ways and see how they measure up to his—not excusing ourselves for failure on the score that times and conditions have changed from those that surrounded him. The same One who wrought effectually in him so long ago will work in us today if there be but a willing mind and a sanctified determination to take his path of unworldliness and devotion to Christ.
Of an altogether different class the next two verses warn us. Many there were, then as now, who, while professing to be in the pilgrim path walked in a vain show, by word proclaiming themselves Christians but by their actions proving that they were enemies of the cross of Christ. Mark it well: they were not said to be enemies of the blood or of the death of Christ. Their opposition was directed against that which told of His shame and rejection by the world—His cross. In that cross Paul gloried. By it he saw himself crucified unto the world and the world unto him. But the world lovers refused this. They desired the benefits of His death while refusing to be identified with His shame. They lived for self-indulgence, yet made a pretense of piety. The expression, “Whose God is their belly,” really means that they worshiped themselves. Belly is self-gratification; and, alas, how many live for self! And yet it is out of this same self, or person, that, when devoted to Christ, living waters shall flow for the refreshment and blessing of others, as our Lord says in John 7:38. Until self is thus displaced as an object for which to live, and surrendered to God as an instrument to be used by and for Christ, there can be no true pilgrim character.
The apostle declares that for these enemies of the cross the end will be destruction. Consider for a moment the solemnity of this. They lived for self-gratification while in this scene. In the life to come they will be in a condition where the gratification of the smallest desire will be utterly impossible. Our Lord told of one who on earth was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, but when suddenly snatched away from it all by the rude hand of death, he found himself in greatest torment, where not even his anguished prayer for a drop of water to cool his parched tongue could be granted. Such is the destruction awaiting those who live for self, ignoring the claims of the Christ of God. And yet, heedless of all this, they go on in their folly, indifferent alike to the admonitions of Scripture, of conscience, and of the Holy Spirit—indifferent also to the warnings and entreaties of men of God who, like Paul, have chosen the better part, and know whereof they speak.
Casting to the winds all godly counsel and sound advice, like flamboyant fools sporting on the edge of a moral precipice, displaying their heedlessness and folly before all, they glory in their shame, and exult in that which might well cause them to bow in penitent grief before redeeming mercy. Unlike Mary, who chose that good part never to be taken from her, or like Moses, who chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, they deliberately reject the good and choose the evil. They put away the hope of heaven for a brief season of sensual or sensuous pleasure here on earth. It is all summed up in the four little words—”Who mind earthly things.” Despising the heavenly calling, they choose the earthly and become indeed “dwellers upon the earth,” only to be exposed to the fierce vials of the wrath of God in the day when He arises to shake terribly the earth. No wonder the apostle wept as he wrote of such and warned them of their peril in pursuing their evil ways.