The Epistle of Joy (Philippians 3:1-3)
Careful students of Paul’s Epistles will notice the frequent occurrence of parenthetical passages. In Philippians, for example, it seems that the apostle was about to conclude abruptly in 3:1, for he had completed the main part of his treatise, but suddenly he was moved by the Spirit of God to launch into an altogether different topic. So he added a kind of parenthesis before he actually finished his letter.
Another example is seen in the Epistle to the Ephesians. All of chapter 3, after verse 1, is parenthetical, and in chapter 4 he concluded what he had started to say in 3:1. (Compare Ephesians 3:1 and 4:1.)
In Philippians 3:1 Paul wrote, “Finally, my brethren.” Yet in 4:8 where he introduced his closing remarks, he used the same expression: “Finally, brethren.” All of chapter 3 is a new subject, a message for which we can truly thank God, for we would have lost much precious ministry if it had been omitted.
It has often been said that this letter to the Philippians is the Epistle of joy, and indeed it is. As the apostle wrote, his heart was filled with the joyful recollection of his past experiences in scenes so dear to him. He wanted his fellow believers in Philippi to complete his joy by sharing with him in the gladness that was his in Christ, so he exhorted them to “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). Circumstances may be anything but conducive to either peace or gladness, yet the trusting soul can always look above the restlessness of earth to the throne where Christ sits exalted as Lord at God’s right hand. He is over all.
There are no second causes with Him. “Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” asked the prophet (Amos 3:6). This Old Testament verse refers to evil, not in the sense of sin, but in the sense of calamity, even if that calamity is the result of sin. Calamity cannot come unless it is permitted by the Lord. Knowing that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), why should the believer either doubt or fear? Waves may roll high, stormy winds may beat tempestuously, and all to which the heart has clung may be swept away, but Christ abides unchanged and unchangeable, the everlasting portion of those who trust His grace.
When the people spoke of stoning David because of a calamitous event for which they held him largely responsible, he “encouraged himself in the Lord his God” (1 Samuel 30:6). “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” Nehemiah reminded the remnant of Israel (Nehemiah 8:10). Before returning to the Father’s house from which He came, the Lord Jesus imparted His joy to the trembling company of His disciples.
It is not only the Christian’s privilege, but also his duty to rejoice constantly in the Lord. Holiness and happiness are intimately linked. How often we need to be reminded to rejoice, as the apostle reminded the Philippians. For our own well-being we should frequently be exhorted to “rejoice in the Lord.”
In Philippians 3:2, the Holy Spirit guided Paul to introduce an entirely new subject. The significant word “beware” is found three times in this verse, for our busy enemy has so many agencies through which he seeks to rob us of the joy that is our rightful portion.
“Beware of dogs,” said Paul. “Dogs” was the abusive and disrespectful title the Jew used when speaking of the Gentiles who did not bear in their bodies the mark of the Abrahamic covenant. In the Old Testament God used the term to distinguish false pastors or shepherds in Israel: “His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter” (Isaiah 56:10-11). In the New Testament Peter used the dog as a symbol of the false religious teacher who is going back to the things he once professed to abhor: “The dog is turned to his own vomit again” (2 Peter 2:22).
The Philippians, like the early Christians in general, were exposed to the ravages of such “dogs.” Evil teachers from Judaism were among the flock of Christ for the purpose of perverting the saints and leading them back into bondage. These “dogs” were motivated by their own selfish ends and thus the Holy Spirit referred to them with an opprobrious term. They introduced themselves in the assemblies of believers in order to tear apart the flock of Christ and gain special recognition as leaders in the new company. Professing to be ministers of Christ, they were in reality servants of Satan, as their works proved. They had no heart for the afflicted sheep and lambs for whom Christ died. These “dogs” fed themselves and not the flock, and their judgment is assured.
Paul added, “Beware of evil workers.” We do not need to distinguish “evil workers” from “dogs,” for false teachers, whatever their profession of righteousness, are workers of iniquity. In Matthew 7:15 the Lord referred to the same general class of people as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They deceive, mislead, destroy, and work havoc among those who confess Christ’s precious name. Legalists profess to have greater righteousness than that produced by grace, but as Paul pointed out in 1 Corinthians 15:56, the law proves to be simply “the strength of sin.”
“Beware of the concision,” wrote the apostle. “The concision” is a contemptuous term Paul used to refer to those mutilators of the body who taught that the observance of circumcision was imperative to give one a full standing before God. The apostle would not agree that the mere ordinance is true circumcision. Since the cross, the only true circumcision is not a carnal ordinance, but the putting off of the sins of the flesh. Circumcision of the heart is recognition of the fact that the flesh has been put to death in the cross of Christ. Only as the soul accepts this and uses the sharp knife of self-judgment on his flesh is he delivered from its power.
Externalists, including legalists and ritualists of all descriptions, always make more of ordinances and outward forms than of the soul’s condition and the spiritual truths symbolized by those rituals. Legalistic Israelites, who provide the best example, boasted of their connection with the temple of the Lord and gloried in legal observances while they were actually far from God and under His disapproval. Christians should not forget that it is just as possible for believers today to be occupied with ordinances and church position and to forget the more important issues of true piety and self-judgment. Nothing that God has commanded is unimportant. But our Lord said to the Jews of His time concerning their intense regard for religious rites and their neglect of justice and mercy, “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).
Philippians 3:3 makes four distinct statements that we will consider in detail. The first statement is “We are the circumcision.” That is, we are those who have accepted by faith the death of the flesh in the cross of Christ. We recognize the utter corruption of the flesh and its powerlessness for service to God even when placed under the most careful training and supervision. Therefore we have put off the flesh in the cross of Christ, “where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). We began with God by accepting the mark of judgment on the flesh; now we do not look for anything good in it, but triumph only in Christ.
The second statement in Philippians 3:3 is “We…worship God in the spirit.” The worship of the old dispensation was of a ritualistic character, but the Lord Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). Outward forms and services, music and genuflections, do not constitute worship. They may even be hindrances to it. Real worship is that of the heart. The Spirit of God shows us the things of Christ and as we are occupied with Him, true praise and adoration ascend to the Father.
The third statement is “We.. .rejoice [glory] in Christ Jesus.” Our boast is in the Lord. We ourselves are utterly unprofitable, without anything to commend us to Him who in grace has saved us. All our boasting is about His lovingkindness and His mighty power that is exercised in mercy on our behalf.
The last statement in Philippians 3:3 is “We…have no confidence in the flesh.” The flesh of the believer is no more to be trusted than the flesh of the vilest sinner. Regeneration is not a changing of flesh into spirit; nor is sanctification a gradual process of such a change within us. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The fleshly nature is never improved, and the new nature received at the moment of new birth does not require improvement. “The carnal mind…is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). The spiritual mind is the mind of Christ. As we walk in the Spirit, we are delivered from the desires of the flesh. Even after years of godly living, the flesh itself is not the least bit better than it was at the very beginning of our Christian life. For this reason we dare not trust the flesh, for however blessed the work of God is in our souls, in our flesh “dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18).
Gain and Loss (Philippians 3:4-7)
Paul had learned by experience the utter unprofitableness of the flesh. From a human standpoint, he had far more to glory in before he was converted to Christ than any of the “concision” among the Philippians had even afterward. If anyone had grounds for confidence in the flesh, or thought he had, Paul could say, “I more” (Philippians 3:4). Those to whom he wrote were Gentiles by natural birth and therefore “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).
But it was otherwise with the apostle. He was born within the circle of the covenant. He bore in his body the mark that indicated he was within the sphere of the Abrahamic promise. Circumcised on the eighth day, he was thus separated from the Gentile world. Nor were his parents merely “proselytes of the gate”—that is, Gentiles who had forsaken idolatry and, turning to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had come within the blessings of the covenant through the rite of circumcision. No, Paul was of the stock of Israel. For generations his family had belonged to the covenant people. Then too he was descended not from a bondwoman, but from the favorite wife of Jacob.
Moreover, when the ten tribes revolted and turned away from the house of David, Paul’s tribe (Benjamin) had remained loyal to the true kingly line. The tribe of Benjamin had failed so grievously in the day of the judges that they were almost exterminated. But afterward, through enabling grace, they remained steadfast and thus won for themselves an immortal name. To be a Benjamite was something in which the flesh might well pride itself.
Paul could also have had “confidence in the flesh” because of his religious convictions. Saul of Tarsus had been a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was not merely a Jew by birth, as are some who are indifferent to their Hebrew faith. To the very core of his being he was a follower of the first Hebrew, Abraham himself.
As far as the law was concerned, Paul was in practice, faith, and name a Pharisee. Of the various Jewish sects existing in his day, the Pharisees were the most intensely orthodox. They clung most tenaciously not only to the revealed Word of God, but also to a vast body of human traditions that had been handed down from their forefathers and had become in their eyes as sacred as the written Word itself. Our Lord described many of them as hypocrites, but when He wished to emphasize the need for positive righteousness, He said, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). He would not have referred to the Pharisees thus if it were not well known that they insisted on obedience to the law of God. On another occasion Paul said, “After the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee” (Acts 26:5). He professed Judaism of the strictest kind, and he lived what he professed.
Paul’s zeal for the traditions of the elders was seen in the fact that he was a relentless persecutor of the newborn Christians. “Exceedingly mad against them,” as he himself confessed, he “persecuted them even unto strange cities” and “compelled them to blaspheme” (Acts 26:11). Yet there is no evidence that he was naturally a man of fierce and implacable disposition. In fact the words of the glorified Lord seem to imply the contrary: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 26:14). What he did, he did from a stern sense of duty, not as the fulfillment of his natural desires.
In fulfilling the righteousness that the law demanded, Paul was outwardly blameless. He told us in Romans 7 that of all the commandments there was only one that really convicted him of sin. There was no external way of detecting the violation of that one commandment; those who looked at the stalwart champion of Jewish orthodoxy could not see the covetousness that was in his heart. His outward life gave no evidence of his sin, so he could speak of himself as “blameless” (Philippians 3:6).
But then this religious bigot—this stern, unyielding champion of what he believed to be the truth of God—was brought into contact with the glorified Christ. On that never-to-be-forgotten day on the Damascus turnpike, Paul realized in one moment that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). “What things were gain” to him—those things on which he had been building his hopes for eternity, those things which gave him a standing in the eyes of his fellow men and caused them to look on him with admiration— he now saw in their true light. He saw all those things as utterly worthless and polluted garments, unfit to cover him before the eyes of a holy God and deserving only to be cast away. So Paul exclaimed, “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
Note that he did not count them “loss” merely for Christianity. In other words, he was not simply exchanging one religion for another; he was not replacing one system of rites and ceremonies with a superior system; he was not setting aside one set of doctrines, rules, and regulations in order to make way for a better set. Many people think that “changing their religion” is all that conversion means, all that God requires of them.
Paul’s experience was otherwise. He came into actual contact with a divine person, the once crucified but now glorified Christ of God. He was won by that person forever, and for His sake he counted all else as loss. If anyone does not comprehend the difference between Paul’s conversion and “changing religions,” he is missing entirely the point the apostle was emphasizing in Philippians 3:4-7. Christ, and Christ alone, meets every need of the soul. His work has satisfied God, and it satisfies the one who trusts in Him. When we rest in Christ, our confidence in the flesh is forever ended. All our confidence is in Him who died and rose again, and who lives to intercede for us.
The Steadfast Mind (Philippians 3:8-11)
Many years of faithful witness-bearing intervened between verse 7, which closed the last section, and verse 8, which opens this. Paul had counted all things but loss for Christ when he first saw His glory on the road to Damascus, and the long and arduous years since had not lessened his devotion. He still counted all things to be of no worth compared with that which had so dazzled the vision of his soul: the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus the Lord.
How different is the experience of many others. At first their love is fervent and self-sacrificing, but soon the fine gold of their devotedness dims and their early freshness passes away. When their hearts begin to “wax wanton against Christ” (1 Timothy 5:11), the world, which once seemed so worthless in view of the matchless glory shining in the face of the Savior, begins again to exercise attractive power. But never for one moment did Paul go back on the great renunciation he had made when he was won for the exalted Christ whom he had ignorantly persecuted.
And so in Philippians 3:8-11 Paul reaffirmed the faith with which he had begun. He still counted all that the world could offer as dross and refuse compared with Christ’s surpassing glory, which was the focus of his life. Paul’s words were not mere mystical rhapsodizing, for already he had “suffered the loss of all things,” even his liberty. All his losses were in accord with the dominant purpose of his life: to “win Christ” and to “be found in him” in the great consummation (Philippians 3:8-9).
When Paul declared that he wanted to be found in Christ, he was sharing with his readers the secret of the supreme emotion of his being. The apostle was not talking about an attainment or something he hoped to earn by self-abnegation. It was as if he were saying, “Ever since I saw Christ in the glory of God, I have considered nothing else worth living for. He has so won my heart that nothing now counts with me but the blessedness of knowing Him and of being completely identified with Him in life, in death, and beyond death. Now, even if I could, I would not want to stand before God in my own righteousness. I desire only to be found in Him. I long only to know Him more intimately—let the suffering involved be what it may. I would even die as He died, or die any other way that He might choose, in order to be included in the great rapture of all saints at His coming. I want to follow whatever way will lead me to the glorious ‘out-resurrection from among the dead’ (literal translation of Philippians 3:11). Then I will have attained my goal. I will be so completely identified with Him who has won my heart that I will be like Him forever and with Him through all the ages to come.”
This paraphrase of Paul’s words shows that there is no element of uncertainty. The apostle did not fear that he might miss the first resurrection through unfaithfulness or lack of watchfulness. Those who teach that the rapture is only for certain devoted saints and that even Paul himself was haunted with the fear that he would fall short of it, lose entirely the sense of the rich grace of God. This grace will work in us that glorious change which will make us like Him for whom we wait. The consistent teaching of the apostle is that “they that are Christ’s” will rise “at his coming” (1 Corinthians 15:23). In this hope the aged prisoner of the Lord faced the prospect of martyrdom in its most cruel form. Martyrdom would be merely the appointed means by which he would attain the blessedness of the first resurrection.
When Paul wrote about the out-resurrection (or resurrection out from among the dead), he was not referring to a present experience, as the verses following Philippians 3:11 show. He was referring to that one great event for which every instructed Christian should wait with eagerness: the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him. The apostle did not have in mind the power of resurrection life working in him here on earth, enabling him to live in a “first-resurrection experience,” as some have designated it. Their interpretation is dangerously near to the “death to nature” theories, which were promulgated by earnest but misled men in the last century and resulted in grave departures from sobriety and Scriptural order.
No one had more fully experienced “the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10) in his human body than the apostle. Yet he thought of participation in the out-resurrection as the climax of all his years of devoted service. Everything would be incomplete without that. I know of no place in the Word of God where the expression “out-resurrection” is used in reference to the believer’s present experience. In fact the prepositions in Philippians 3:11 intensify the thought of a selective resurrection; that is, Paul was referring to the first resurrection as distinguished from the second which brings up the unsaved dead for judgment (Revelation 20:4-5).
Scripture clearly teaches that there are two resurrections, not one general rising of the saved and the unsaved at the same time. “The resurrection of the just,” “the resurrection of life,” “the first resurrection,” “the resurrection from the dead,” and “the resurrection out of the dead” are all terms synonymous with the one the apostle used in Philippians 3:11. For a further explanation see “The Two Resurrections” and “The Judgment” on pages 881-888 of The Mackintosh Treasury by C. H. Mackintosh (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1976).
With his eye and heart set on the out-resurrection, the apostle could cast aside all obstacles that would cause him to glory in the flesh or give others occasion to glory on his behalf. Like a racer stripped of heavy garments that would impede his performance in the contest, Paul struggled ardently on, with his eye on the goal. While looking toward the out-resurrection, he could not be daunted by suffering or terrorized by death. He saw in both an opportunity for fuller, sweeter fellowship with his Lord. Paul would “count it all joy” (James 1:2) to drink of His cup of suffering and to share in His baptism of death. Of course, his share in the baptism of death was only as witness-bearer, as was promised to James and John before him (Mark 10:39).
How little most of us enter into this holy “fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Some who make the greatest pretense about fellowship in ecclesiastical things would be found sadly wanting if opportunity were given for them to enter into this fellowship of sorrow and pain. In no other phase of fellowship does the soul enter as fully into communion with Him who was on earth “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).
Resurrection-Perfectness (Philippians 3:12-16)
Very early in the history of the church, there were men who confused certain spiritual experiences, real or imagined, with the teaching of the Lord and His apostles in regard to the first resurrection. Hymenaeus and Philetus, for example, are mentioned in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The apostle indicated that they had erred concerning the truth and overthrew the faith of some by “saying that the resurrection is past already” (2 Timothy 2:18).
Nothing is more detrimental to Christian testimony than making lofty claims that cannot be substantiated by experience. For example some claim that sinlessness or the eradication of the evil nature is the privilege of Christians. If practical experience later proves to them that it is impossible to maintain such a state, they are in grave danger of becoming utterly disheartened and possibly renouncing the faith entirely unless preserved by divine grace.
In Philippians 3:12-16 the apostle was careful to make it clear that he did not claim to have reached a state of resurrection-perfectness here on earth. To describe that state he used a word that means “completeness” or “that to which nothing can be added.” Paul declared that he had not yet attained this state. But he did have it in view, for he knew that at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ he would be made like Himself and thus forever free from all tendency to sin. Meanwhile he could only “follow after,” earnestly seeking to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus had laid hold of him (Philippians 3:12). He could exemplify in a devoted life the power of Christ’s resurrection in which he shared.
Philippians 3:13-14 can be rendered, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the calling of God on high in Christ Jesus.” Paul was professing to have apprehended, or laid hold of, only one thing. The “one thing” was the understanding that the path of blessing is found in forgetting the things that are past and seeking to lay hold of his portion in Christ from day to day while always keeping the goal in view. To do this is to “follow…holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
It is a great mistake to teach that this verse in Hebrews means that unless one attains to certain experiences in holy living, he will be forever barred from a sight of the Lord. What the verse means is that he who will see the Lord is one who follows that which characterized his Master here: an inward and outward separation from all that is contrary to the mind of God.
The calling of God on high (Philippians 3:14) is that heavenly calling which is characteristic of the present dispensation of grace. Christ is no longer on earth and His world-kingdom has not yet been set up. But believers are linked with Him as the glorified Man at God’s right hand, and they are called to represent Him on earth. The prize is the reward He will confer at the end of the race. Toward that end Paul was pressing on, counting as refuse all that would hinder his progress.
To his fellow believers the apostle said, “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded” (Philippians 3:15). Earlier he said that he was not perfect. Here he wrote as though he were, and linked others with him in this perfection. Was Paul contradicting himself?
The fact is that in verse 12 Paul used a word that implies perfection in growth or development. An apple in June may be a perfect apple so far, but it will have a much greater perfection or completeness in August or September. The same is true of the believer.
In verse 15 Paul used a word that refers to the perfection of full growth (somewhat like the maturity of the fathers in 1 John 2). Christians who are perfect in this sense have shunned the world and its follies. Christ has become to them the one object before the soul. To live for Him and to seek His glory are the only things that count in their estimation.
And yet such saints are still surrounded by infirmity. They are likely to err in judgment. They may make grave mistakes and come to wrong conclusions (influenced as we all are by early education, environment, and mental capacity). They may even be misled as to doctrinal questions. Nevertheless theirs is the mind of Christ, and they may be comforted by the apostle’s words in Philippians 3:15: “If in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.” Where there is willingness to be taught of God, the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit can be depended on to open up His Word and to guide into all truth.
But he would be a bold man indeed who would dare to say, “I understand all truth; all mysteries are clear to me. I have perfect apprehension of divine revelation.” Only the most shameless egotism could lead anyone to make such a statement. How patient we need to be with one another, how ready to confess that we know only in part. We must recognize the fact that we are always in need of further instruction.
However, there are truths and principles so plainly put in God’s Word that any Spirit-taught believer may see them readily. It is our responsibility to walk in these plain truths, and we should walk in them together. As Paul said in Philippians 3:16, “Let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.” We should walk together as far as possible, counting on God to reveal to us whatever may be lacking as we patiently and prayerfully learn from Him through His Word. A wider recognition of Paul’s words would lead to more kindly consideration of one another and would tend to make us helpers of each other’s faith rather than judges of each other’s doubtful thoughts.
Enemies of the Cross (Philippians 3:17-19)
If we think of this passage as one sentence, we realize that the sentence is incomplete and needs the verses that follow it to conclude it. But I have left out the conclusion on purpose so that we may consider the first portion more carefully. The conclusion has to do with another, happier theme. In the first portion the apostle spoke of the responsibilities and snares of the pilgrim path. In the conclusion he pointed to the goal where all danger will be forever past—as will all opportunity to bear faithful testimony to a rejected Lord.
It behooves us to consider the brevity of the time allotted to us for bearing witness. It will soon be forever too late to suffer for and with Christ. It will also be 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. It is a mistake to waste its precious moments—few at the most when compared with the eternal ages—on things that are of no lasting value.
Paul was an example both in life and doctrine for all who would come after him. It was not proud egotism that led him to plead with saints to follow him and his faithful companions as they in turn followed Christ. Paul lived what he taught. He was not one man on the platform and another in private or in business life.
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 worked night and day making tents 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 he preached and taught publicly and from house to house with a diligence that few if any have equaled and none have surpassed. He was also careful about his personal communion with the Lord and strove to keep his conscience void of offense toward both God and man. What an example for us all to follow!
It goes without saying that he could not please everyone, even his own brethren, at all times. His work was belittled, his appearance ridiculed, his apostleship denied, and his integrity questioned. Some even intimated that he was a crafty deceiver who, by an appearance of frankness, caught the unwary with guile, and at times did evil so that good might result. Paul indignantly refuted all these charges and insinuations, but never allowed slander to embitter him. He did not return railing for railing or seek to injure those who would have injured him so willingly.
Paul 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 wanted to malign him. Therefore he could say, “Be followers together of me” (Philippians 3:17). He could call on the saints to observe his consistent ways and walk in the same paths.
Centuries have rolled by since wicked men sought to dishonor Paul and since the Roman executioner’s ax severed his head from his body. Long ago Paul finished his testimony in laying down his life for his Master’s sake, but he still remains the pre-eminent example of what the Christian should be. Sustained by divine grace, we can pass through this valley of death’s shadow as Paul did.
Let us examine our own ways and see how they measure up to his. We cannot excuse ourselves for failure on the basis of the fact that times and conditions have changed. The same One who worked so effectually in him centuries ago will work in us today if He finds a willing mind and a sanctified determination to take Paul’s path of unworldliness and devotion to Christ.
Philippians 3:18-19 warn us about people who are altogether different from Paul. Many, then as now, professed to be on the pilgrim path, but their profession was hollow. They proclaimed themselves to be Christians, but their actions proved that they were “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Paul did not say they were enemies of the blood or of the death of Christ; their opposition was directed against His cross, which signified His shame and rejection by the world. Paul, on the other hand, gloried in that cross. By it he saw himself crucified to the world and the world to him. But world-lovers refused to see themselves this way. They wanted the benefits of Christ’s death while refusing to identify with His shame. They lived for self-indulgence, yet made a pretense of piety. The expression “whose God is their belly” really indicates that they worshiped themselves. “Belly” refers to self-gratification.
How many today live for self! But when that self is devoted to Christ, out of it flows living water for the refreshment and blessing of others (see our Lord’s words in John 7:38). Until self is displaced as the object for which to live and is surrendered to God as an instrument to be used by and for Christ, there can be no true pilgrim character.
The apostle declared that for the enemies of the cross the end will be destruction. Consider the solemnity of his statement. Those who live for self-gratification while on earth will, in the life to come, be in a condition where 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” (Luke 16:19). But when the rude hand of death suddenly snatched him away, he found himself in great torment in a place 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.
Heedless of their eternal destiny, these enemies of the cross go on in their folly, indifferent to the admonitions of Scripture, conscience, and the Holy Spirit. They are also indifferent to the warnings and entreaties of men of God who, like Paul, have chosen the better part and know whereof they speak. Casting all godly counsel and sound advice to the winds, these flamboyant fools sport on the edge of a moral precipice, display their heedlessness and folly before everyone, glory in their shame, and exult in that which should cause them to bow in penitent grief before redeeming mercy.
Those who live for self are unlike Mary who chose “that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). They are unlike Moses who chose to “suffer affliction with the people of God” rather than “enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Hebrews 11:25). Instead they deliberately reject the good and choose the evil. They forfeit the hope of Heaven for a brief time of sensual or sensuous pleasure here on earth.
Paul summed up their attitude in four little words: “who mind earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Despising the heavenly calling, they choose the earthly and become indeed “dwellers on the earth” (Isaiah 18:3), only to be exposed to the fierce wrath of God in the day when He arises to shake the earth. No wonder the apostle wept as he wrote of the enemies of the cross and warned them of their peril in pursuing their evil ways.
Heavenly Citizenship (Philippians 3:20-21)
The Greek word politeuma is translated “conversation” in Philippians 3:20. It means “commonwealth or citizenship” and might be transliterated “politics”; actually the word involves all three thoughts. Comprehension of its scope, as used by the apostle here, should help the Christian to understand his true relationship to and position in the affairs of this life on earth.
When Paul was writing this letter, Philippi was a Roman colony. Roman citizenship had been granted as a mark of special favor to all the free-born citizens of the former Macedonian capital. Citizenship was considered a great privilege. It enabled each Philippian, though dwelling in Macedonia, to say proudly, “My citizenship is in Rome.” He was responsible to the emperor, not to the provincial government of Macedonia.
These thoughts about citizenship can be applied to the Christian. Saved by matchless grace, though still living in the world, his commonwealth—the government to which he owes primary allegiance—is in Heaven. He is subject directly to the Lord Jesus Christ, and his conduct is to be regulated by His Word.
The realization of his heavenly citizenship, while keeping the Christian free from entangling alliances with the affairs of this world, will not result in lawlessness or lack of subjection to rulers in this world. A Philippian subject to imperial authority would not be a lawbreaker in Macedonia, for it was the imperial authority that had instituted the government of Macedonia. And as the apostle told us in Romans 13:1, “The powers that be are ordained of God.” Thus Paul commanded Christians to recognize the divine authority by which magistrates rule and to be subject to them in all things.
But one will search in vain the distinctly Christian part of the Bible (namely, the New Testament Epistles) for any hint that Christians are to seek worldly power or dominion during this present age. Our place is one of subjection, not rule, until Christ returns to reign.
The emperor to whom the Philippians owed allegiance lived in Rome. If he appeared in Philippi, he would recognize with special honor those whose citizenship was directly linked with the capital of the empire. Similarly our Lord is in Heaven and from there we expect Him soon to descend; then He will openly acknowledge all those whose citizenship is in Heaven. He will recognize them before an astonished and fearful world (see 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12).
As a result of archeological discoveries we know that the term kurios, which is the general word for “Lord” in the New Testament, was an imperial title. Kurios was never used in reference to an emperor until he was deified in a public pagan ceremony; thus we know that the term was used as a divine title. At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, it was common to address the brutal man who occupied the imperial throne as “our Lord Nero.” How marked was the contrast when Christians, often writhing beneath the bitter persecutions of this unspeakably wicked tyrant, looked expectantly toward the heavens for the return of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
At His coming, the first resurrection will take place; the sleeping saints will be raised and living saints will be changed. First Corinthians 15:53 tells us, “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” Our natural bodies will be changed to spiritual bodies.
Philippians 3:21 says that the Lord will “change our vile body.” When the King James version of our Bible was translated in the seventeenth century, the word “vile” did not necessarily have the connotation of evil. That which was “vile” was lowly or common; so here “our vile body” is really the body of our humiliation—the body that links us to the lower creation, a body common to both saint and sinner. At the Lord’s return it will be transformed and made like the body of His glory. In that resurrection body He came forth from the tomb, showed Himself to His disciples, ascended into Heaven, and appeared to Saul of Tarsus. In it He will soon return with glory.
The natural body is really a body suited to the soul. A spiritual body is a body suited to the spirit. It is not that one is material and the other immaterial. Both are material, although the spiritual body is of finer substance than the mortal body and no longer subject to certain laws by which the natural body is controlled.
In bodies of glory we will dwell forever in the city to which we belong even now. It is our own, our native country. As children of God we will never really be at home until we are there with our glorified Lord.
The same divine energy that worked in Christ to raise Him from the dead, will continue to work through Him until He subdues all things to Himself. Then, as we learn from 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, He will deliver the kingdom to the Father so that God in all His fullness—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—may be “all in all” forever, fully manifested in Christ Jesus, who remains eternally our Lord and our Head.