“How Are Believers to Walk in This World?”
(Philippians 3:17-21 – Lent 2 – March 17, 2019)
Philippians 3:17-21 – Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. 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 set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.
Dear citizens of heaven, who walk by faith in Jesus Christ:
You are familiar with the game “Follow the leader.” The leader chooses where and how to walk – circling around this tree, backing around this rock, balancing on this beam, doing the limbo under this branch. Those who follow are supposed to try to walk and act the same way, following the leader’s example, following those ahead in the line who are following the leader.
The apostle Paul says: “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” But he is not playing games. As he wrote in Ephesians 5:15-16): “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” This world is not like a playground where one may run freely with friends without danger. It is more like a mine-infested battleground in which the enemy, the devil, sets deadly traps for God’s children. It is a matter of life and death that we walk in this world very carefully, because the evil one plants enemies of the cross of Christ among God’s children, like weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). By their teaching and example, they would lead us into deadly traps of sin and unbelief. This “follow the leader” exercise that Paul encourages us to take is like a fellow trustworthy soldier of the cross going ahead with a minesweeper, guiding us around enemy mines saying, “Step where I do, follow my example, and you’ll be safe.” That is, follow the true Word of Christ which I both preach and practice. It is the Word by which our Savior leads us safely, step by step, through this world to heaven.
In light of our text we ask: “How Are Believers to Walk in This World?” 1) Not as enemies of the cross of Christ, 2) But as those whose citizenship is in heaven.
1) Not as enemies of the cross of Christ
Paul says: “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 set their mind on earthly things.”
Often, these enemies of the cross of Christ come among God’s children in disguise, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. In the context, Paul has been warning about some of the main enemies of the Gospel in his day called Judaizers. These false teachers seemed very holy and believable on the outside when it came to talking about God. But Paul warned that in fact, their teachings lured souls away from Christ. After Paul established congregations and moved on in his missionary journeys, these men would move in and start teaching that salvation was not a free gift of God, given simply through faith in Christ; but that salvation depended also on your obedience to outward religious laws and rituals. To these Judaizers, it was all about getting outwardly circumcised, what day you worshiped on, what foods you ate, etc. They wanted to make Christians into Old Testament Jews all over again, as if Christ had not come. In effect, they wanted to play follow the leader saying: “Follow our example and do all the religious stuff you need to do to get right with God. We will show you the way to heaven through holy living.”
It sounds like harmless fun to follow this voice of works-righteousness. Our proud sinful nature wants to be able to boast, “Look how I can walk! God is pleased because I do so well at following the lead of His perfect Law.” Our sinful nature wants to listen to the preacher whose message is all about your holy living, and what you do for God; but is missing Christ crucified, and all He has done to save you from sin. Paul would say, “Beware of such enemies of the cross in disguise, who call themselves Christian but really are ashamed of the message of the cross. Do not follow them. Their religion is worldly-minded, gratifying their sinful desire for the praise of men. They seek your following them, to have one more reason to boast in themselves.”
The devil knows how to play follow the leader. If his effort to lead us in one direction away from Christ does not work, he will try another. Besides those enemies of the cross who hide falsehood under a show of holiness, Paul points to outwardly sinful walks of life by which they might be recognized. He warns about their end in destruction, lest we are tempted to follow.
He says their “god is their belly.” If one has no higher aim in life than to gratify his flesh, to eat, drink, and be merry, and to enjoy the pleasures of this life while it lasts, the name of the god he worships is “belly.” He is living to please his sinful nature. He is an enemy of the cross of Christ. Again, our sinful nature tempts us to play follow the leader this way, and to think we are missing out if we do not join the world in chasing after all the wealth and pleasures it offers. One priority takes the place of another, and soon we forget about seeking first God’s Kingdom and righteousness in Christ. Instead, we serve the God of Mammon (Matthew 6:24). “Don’t go there,” Paul warns. Don’t follow the example of many who walk the broad path of destruction. In trying to gain the world, they have forfeited Christ and His eternal treasures (Mark 8:36).
Paul also says of the enemies of the cross of Christ that their “glory is in their shame.” Often the world around us prides itself in shameful behavior. Without batting an eye, people flaunt sexually immoral lifestyles that God’s Word calls shameful (Romans 1:18-32). The sinful world accepts and honors such things more and more. One of the saddest things is when false teachers under the Christian name promote shameful lifestyles as God-pleasing, misleading and soothing impenitent souls to think they are safe in the path they walk. Our sinful nature tempts us by all this excusing of sin to play follow the leader, to become more “open-minded” and share in the sin of others, and also to downplay our own sin. Again Paul warns: “Don’t go there.” True members of Christ’s Body cannot walk in the pattern of enemies of His cross. We know our sins caused Jesus painful suffering and death on the cross, as He saved us from sin’s condemnation. How could we join the world in making light of sin?
Paul warns about what happens to those “who set their mind on earthly things.” Where does their follow the leader game lead to? Their “end is destruction” – eternal death and damnation. Let us be careful not to walk after the pattern of those who are enemies of the cross of Christ.
If there is anything in life that is sacred to a Christian, it is the cross of Christ. There is a reason why we sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory.” We confess that we are miserable sinners by nature, and that without the cross, we would have remained children of wrath whose end is destruction (Ephesians 2:3). But we praise Christ that on the cross He took our place and paid for all our waywardness in following the wrong example, and following our own sinful nature. By Christ’s suffering and death, He saved us from our sin and eternal death, and He won forgiveness and eternal life for us. By His holy living and not ours, by His innocent sacrifice and not ours, He now presents us before His Father as holy and righteous.
Therefore Paul says, “Join in following my example” by keeping your eyes fixed on Christ crucified as your Savior, following Him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Let us say with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
2) But as those whose citizenship is in heaven.
That is to say, we walk in this world as those whose citizenship is in heaven. As it says: “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”
Our citizenship is in heaven. As Christians, this means we live in two realms at the same time. Physically we are in the world, but spiritually our life is in heaven. As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:3-4): “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” By God’s grace, we have died with Christ to sin; we have repented and crucified the flesh with its desires (Galatians 5:24). And we have been raised with Christ through Baptism and faith to a new spiritual life (Romans 6:4). We are living for the day when He will bring us home to His heavenly glory.
Shouldn’t we feel like strangers and pilgrims here (Hebrews 11:13)? Shouldn’t we feel like a traveler in a foreign land who has no inheritance or possessions there, to whom the things he sees are strange? There is a reason why we sing: “I am but a stranger here; heaven is my home.”
Our hope is centered on our heavenly homeland that is ours in Christ. He has earned a place in heaven for us by leading a perfect life under the Law, and by removing all our sin that would have kept us out of heaven. He has ascended to heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:2). Hebrews 12:22-23 reminds us: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven.” Our names are written in heaven. So how could our greatest joy in life be in the treasures this strange land offers? How could our greatest goal be to settle here in this vale of tears, when we have that eternal home of glory awaiting us, where we will gather in that joyful assembly around the throne of our Savior?
This does not mean we are to treat God’s earthly blessings as nothing, or to stop providing for the bodies He has given us. We can enjoy His good creation and make life pleasant for ourselves and our loved ones in a God-pleasing way. With Paul we can say that we desire “to depart and be with Christ, which is far better”; yet as long as He wants us to remain here, we can use the things of the world to serve Him and build each other up in faith (Philippians 1:23). We can follow the pattern of Abraham. While living in the earthly land God gave, Hebrews 11:10 says: “he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” As we set our minds on Christ and that glorious heavenly home He is giving us, it inspires us to use the time, abilities, and possessions He gives us here on earth to His glory; and to share His Gospel with others, so that they too may rejoice in His greatest gift of salvation and eternal life.
As we walk with our eyes heavenward, Paul says: “we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” On the Last Day, Jesus tells us we will see Him coming on the clouds in all His glory (Mark 13:26). He tells us we can look up and lift up our heads to greet Him in joy (Luke 21:28). For this is our loving Savior, who once walked to the cross to pay for our sins. This is our faithful Good Shepherd, whose lead we follow as we listen to His Word and walk by faith. This is the true Friend of our soul, who will greet us with a smile and say: “Come, walk with Me forever in Paradise.”
Paul says He “will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.” We will be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at His powerful Word. Our corruptible bodies will be replaced with the incorruptible, and mortality will be replaced with immortality. Jesus will give us a glorious body like His resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15). We will be delivered from all evil, sickness, and pain. He will lead us to fountains of living water and wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 7:17; 21:3-4). We will walk with Him who endured the cross for us, and who faithfully led us through this world as He promised.
In the glorious presence of our God and Savior, we will join saints and angels in joyful song: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing! … Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever! … Amen!” (Revelation 5:12-13).