Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Imitators of Christ

Philippians 3:17-4:1

“Pattern your lives after mine,” Paul says. Imitate me, in other words. At first glance, it seems like a rather boastful thing to say. Shouldn’t we be imitating Christ?

Well, first things first, let’s look at what Paul has to say in context. He already admitted in verse 12 that he was not perfect. Instead he says, “I am focused on pressing on toward the goal.” None of us is perfect, but we should all be pressing on toward the goal of being more like Jesus.

And practically speaking, the Gospels were not written at this point. Well, maybe one or two, but even if they were, they were not yet in wide circulation in the early Church. There was no way for Christians to “go to the book” to read about Jesus and see his life, his words, his character, and his actions there. If they were to see Christ-like character, they had to see it in the lives of other believers.

And in a way, that is still true. There are many people out there in our world who will never crack open a Bible. If they are going to know what Jesus is like, it has to be because they see Christ lived out in the lives of his followers, you and me. The 16th century mystic, Teresa of Avila, wrote, “Christ has no body on earth but yours.”

That is an awesome privilege and a great responsibility. We get to represent Jesus, to present him again to the world in our living. Are you living your life in such a way that you can offer yourself as an example of what Jesus is like? If the answer is no, then why not? I find that question quite challenging. I hope you do, too.

But, of course, there are some who claim the name of Jesus whose conduct shows that they are truly enemies of the cross.

Paul says, “I say it with tears.” There is no joy to be found here. There is no happiness to be had in the thought that some people who claim Christ are actually enemies of Christ, on the road to destruction. Later Paul says, “I love you, so please stay true to the Lord.” We can’t love people without wanting to see them experience salvation and eternal life in Christ. It is no act of love to let people continue in a way that leads to death.

But what does it mean to live as an enemy of the cross? Well, what does the cross represent? It represents self-denial, self-sacrifice, and the death of the power of

sin to rule in our lives. So to live as an enemy of the cross is to live a life that is self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and to allow sin to continue to have dominion in our lives.

Now Bible scholars don’t agree who exactly Paul has in mind here. Some think he is talking about those who claimed Christ but were influenced by Gnostic ways of thinking. Gnosticism was a religious philosophy of the time. It influenced Christianity and other religions, as well. One of its basic beliefs was that everything physical, everything material, was essentially and irrevocably evil, including the human body. Only the soul could be saved. The body was beyond reform, so don’t bother trying. And subsequently, most Gnostics said, “Go ahead and let the body have its way. It’s meaningless. Go ahead and do anything your body desires to do.”

Other Bible scholars think this may refer to those who had distorted the idea of “Christian liberty.” We are free in Christ; we have liberty. But some turned that freedom into a “license to sin.” “After all, the more you sin, the more grace you receive from Christ. Grace is good. So go ahead and have at it! Do whatever you want and you will receive more grace.” Either one of these could be in mind here.

Paul lists three traits of these who “live as enemies of the cross.”

First, “Their god is their appetite,” or literally, their stomach. This is meant to describe someone who is ruled by their passions, a slave to their desires. Such a person is prone to gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual sins of all kinds. And if you look into the lifestyles of the aristocracy in the first century Roman Empire, that was a fairly apt description. Dinner parties with excessive amounts of alcohol and exotic foods were the order of the day. Male and female prostitutes, male and female sex slaves, pedophilia, adultery, and so on were pretty common in the upper classes.

The second is that “They brag about shameful things.” This just means that not only do they do all these things, but they are proud of them. There is no sense that what they are doing is wrong or shameful. They are proud of their sin.

And the third is they only think about earthly things. There is little or no sense of eternity and greater things. Life is squarely centered in this world and what it can offer. Perhaps faith in Christ is seen only as an “insurance policy.” Live it up in this world and don’t worry about eternity. Just keep Jesus in your back pocket. I suspect some people still take that approach to religion!

“But we are citizens of heaven.” Now Paul is using a cultural phenomenon to talk about the Christian life here, so we need to understand the cultural phenomenon to get the meaning.

Philippi was a Roman colony. One of the things the Romans did to try to hold the Empire together was to establish colonies all throughout its territory. And if you were a citizen of a colony, then you were also a citizen of the city of Rome. Most people in the Empire were not citizens. You could be a citizen by birth if your father was a citizen. Or you could earn your citizenship or buy your citizenship. In the case of Philippi, most citizens earned it by military service. If you served 21 years in the Roman army, you earned your citizenship.

The idea of a colony was that it was supposed to be a little Rome far away from Rome. A Rome away from home, if you will. Citizens of colonies were expected to live like Romans: To speak Latin and to adopt Roman customs, Roman dress, and even Roman morals, which weren’t very good. So every citizen of Philippi was also a citizen of Rome, even though many of them had never been to Rome. They lived like people of a place they had never visited.

Paul relates that to the Christian life. We haven’t been to heaven yet, but that is where our true citizenship lies. So we should live like citizens of heaven. We should have the language, the customs, and the morals of heaven until Christ returns.

This passage ends with the first verse of chapter four. Paul says of the Philippian believers, “You are my joy and crown.” In the Greek language, there were two different words that meant crown. DIADEMATA meant “royal crown,” the kind a king wears. STEPHANOS meant “victor’s crown.” This is what an athlete received when they won the contest, or what a soldier received when he came home victorious.

If the Philippians keep their faith, then Paul’s reward, his crown, is to see them in the resurrection, and to know that they came to faith through his witness and kept their faith through his encouragement. “So stand firm.” This is the language used of a soldier holding the line on the field of battle. Again, language these Philippians, many of whom were veterans, understood well.

If we wish to receive the victor’s crown, then we must imitate Christ. We must live according to our true citizenship. And we must stand firm in our faith.

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