Models and mentors. We could all benefit from having close and trustworthy relationships with people who show us how to do what we want to do, and more importantly, how to live well. From childhood, we learn by imitating others — which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what’s modeled for us. As I suggested previously, if we want our children to grow up to be people of good character, they have to see that character in us. “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” simply won’t cut it.
Paul tells the Philippians to imitate him because he knows what kind of person he has been in their company; he has shown them by example what it means to follow Christ wholeheartedly. That’s not to say, of course, that he always gets it right. But that’s even better: he can let them see how a Christian responds faithfully when he gets it wrong. And he doesn’t just point to himself as a model; he encourages them to pay attention to others who show them what it means to live fully as a Christian.
Paul’s instruction to imitate good models doesn’t just come out of the blue. His ongoing concern is that while some of the people who passed through Philippi had lives worth emulating, many did not. Apparently, negative examples abounded:
For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. (Phil 3:18-19, NRSVUE)
Who exactly were these people? Nobody knows. Of course, there’s no shortage of theories, and each has its own merits and demerits. Was Paul talking about non-Christian persecutors? Perhaps, but then it’s hard to say why Paul would have to warn them so often not to follow their example. Wouldn’t it be obvious?
It’s also possible that Paul was referring to people who considered themselves to be believers. The word translated as “live” here could be translated as “walk” instead — a biblical way of talking about one’s life and conduct. If these people were believers, their values and priorities had gotten so twisted that Paul grieved for them. Remember that in his letter, Paul has already urged the Philippians to live what I have called a “cross-shaped life.” Because of this, Paul could call these errant believers enemies of the cross.
As we’ve seen previously, those who live a cross-shaped life know that they’ve been joined to the life of Jesus: they have died to sin, been raised to live in newness, and anticipate a future resurrection. Paul’s final words in the passage above are reminiscent of what he wrote to the Colossians, again connected to resurrection:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:1-3)
The words are also reminiscent of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter (Matt 16:23; Mark 8:33). Though he knew Jesus to be the Messiah, Peter was not ready to hear Jesus speak of his coming death, and tried to get him to stop talking that way. Though he probably thought he was doing the right thing, Peter was thinking only in terms of his earthly desires and priorities. For that he earned a stinging reprimand.
My own suspicion is that the “enemies” are people who tempted the Philippians to compromise their stance to avoid persecution. Who knows? What matters is that Paul is aware of the many moral influences in the lives of the Philippians. He seems to have told them repeatedly to be wise about who they considered to be models, and wants to help them keep their priorities straight.
Again, we don’t know who Paul was tagging as enemies of the cross. But if they were indeed people who considered themselves believers, this is an important lesson for us. Not everyone who outwardly calls Jesus Lord actually does God’s will; Jesus himself warned his disciples of that (Matt 7:21). We cannot assume that everyone who claims to be a Christian will live a life worth emulating.
Let’s be thoughtful about what kind of influence we accept. And just as important: let’s be wise about the examples we set for one another in the community of people who call Jesus their Lord.