The Warning and Hope of Philippians 3:17-21

Hope and Change Warning Sign Yellow warning road sign with word Hope and Change with sky background
Hope and Change Warning Sign Yellow warning road sign with word Hope and Change with sky background

There is nothing quite as heartbreaking as watching people walk away from the faith. To watch people who you love reject God, deny the gospel, and leave the church is gut-wrenching. But every time it happens I remind myself, “You could do the same.” It’s important to remind ourselves that our spiritual life call us to be diligent, to work to cultivate and continue it. Paul tells Philippians, in chapter 2, that they must “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And yet, while he gives the Philippians a stern warning about their spiritual life, he also re-assures them of the hope they have in Christ. Philippians 3:17-21 serves both to motivate us to spiritual activity and yet call us to trust in active savior.

Throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians there is a tension that calls us both to action and rest. There is both a sense of duty we have for our Christian lives, and a sense of dependence upon God. Paul can say, then, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” because he wants the Philippians to take seriously their responsibility to fight for their faith (see 1 Tim. 6:12). Yet he adds, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). So, work, Paul says, but ultimately it is God who works in you. Paul does this same sort of “double-speak” when he writes to the Galatians about how he lives, and yet how it is not he who lives but Christ in Him (Gal. 2:20). There is, in Scripture, and particularly in Paul, a sense of working because God is the one who ultimately works in us. There is both activity and submission, both responsibility and surrender, that are involved in the Christian life.

This duality is important. If we simply sit idly by and expect God to just “zap” us and make our spiritual lives take off we will flounder in the faith. We will be unprepared for the challenges and hardships that come in following Jesus. We will essentially, fail to follow Jesus. Yet, if we think that all our striving is what makes Christians progress we will be sorely mistaken and drift slowly towards a kind of legalism and works-righteousness that God hates. We will, in a slightly different sense, fail to follow Jesus. It is a both/and, both responsibility and surrender. The Christian life is both action and submission, both doing and trusting. This is an important part of what it truly means to follow Jesus.

Paul warns us, through his letter to the Philippians, that we are not to neglect the first part of this equation: our responsibility. He writes to the Philippians:

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body,by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Verses 17-19 set up the warning. There are some whom Paul used to speak of and talk about in his ministry journeys, but whom he now speaks of with tears. They are some who used to be like he, but now “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” It’s not entirely clear who these “enemies of the cross” are. Were they Jewish false teachers? Former Philippian church members? Gentile false teachers? Any of those answers is possible. Paul contrasts them, however, with himself. He speaks of the church’s need to “imitate” him, but there is also the danger that they might imitate these “enemies.” Paul contrasts his “walk,” in v. 17, with their “walk.” The Philippians were to “walk according to the example” of Paul and the apostles. These others “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” In other words, their lifestyle denies or distorts the gospel of Jesus. Their “god is their belly,” which means they are ruled by their desires. They “glory in their shame,” which means they boast in immorality and delight in it. They set their minds “on earthly things,” which means they are consumed with the things of this world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, as John would say (1 John 2:16). Their end, ultimately, is destruction. It’s a warning to all. If you do not make it your goal to follow Jesus, to walk in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), then you may find yourself going the path of these men. Paul warns the church to take seriously their responsibility to imitate godliness.

Yet, he re-assures them too. If all our hope hinged on our faithfulness to imitate godliness there would be little reason to hope. We know our frailty and fickleness. We know our weakness and inconsistency. If all hope hinged on our faithfulness then all is lost. Instead, then, Paul gives us this encouragement in verses 20-21: Jesus Christ will transform us. He makes the contrast clear when he starts in verse 20 with “But.” While these “enemies” have their minds set on earthly things, Paul states we have a “citizenship in heaven and from it we await a Savior.” We have every reason to hope because this Savior is coming and He will transform our weakness, frailty, fickleness, and inconsistency. He will change us. In fact, the same “power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself” is the power at work in us. We can trust this Savior because He has the power of a supreme sovereign Lord. Nothing can stop Him. He “works in us that which is pleasing” to Him. We can trust this Savior because we have the promise that “He who began a good work in you will see it through to the day of completion” (Phil. 1:6). It is a guarantee. We work, but ultimately He works and we trust.

This is a complex relationship, one that is in many ways beyond my ability to explain. God call us to action, there is no passivity in the Christian life. And those who now “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” are a serious warning to us (see also Heb. 6:4-6). Yet, we have this confidence, a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform us! We work and He works. His work is the sure guarantee of our hope, our work is the response of confidence. We work because He works. It’s an important duality to hold in tension in your Christian life, friends. Embrace this duality.

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