“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:17-21).
When we’re children we’re encouraged to find good role models to emulate. When we grow up we still do well to have godly people whose faith and virtue we try to follow. Interestingly, however, we might question the humility of a person who boldly tells an entire community of believers, “Join with others in following my example” (v. 17). But this is precisely Paul’s invitation above. “Follow me!” And I think to myself, “How arrogant and rude!” But perhaps I’m missing his point altogether.
Upon further reflection I believe Paul is not primarily lifting up himself as the example to follow but rather drawing their attention to “the pattern we gave you” (v. 17). In other words, Paul urges people to follow his example insofar as his own conduct aligns with this same pattern of life. So, where does this pattern originate?
We should know this answer by now: Christ. Paul says this much elsewhere. In I Corinthians 4:16 he strongly states, “Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” But why Paul? The answer comes in I Corinthians 11:1 where he says, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” Bingo. Paul is following the pattern set by Christ and we should follow Paul insofar as he follows Christ.
The sad reality, however, is that many will always live according to a different pattern than Christ — “the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2). Paul sees no middle ground for people in this life: people either live with an eternal perspective with our eyes on Christ awaiting our final transformation and redemption; or they live with their minds set on “earthly things” and without reference to the activity of God in Christ. The end for such people according to Paul is not pretty: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame” (v. 19).
But before one is tempted to past judgment on such unbelievers Paul provides us with an attitude check. Notice that our attitude toward these “enemies of the cross of Christ” should not be arrogance or anger or bitterness or hostility or judgment (cf. 1 Cor 5:12). Rather, Paul’s heart breaks to the point of shedding tears for them (v. 18). Elsewhere Paul was willing to give his own life up if only by doing so his fellow Jews would come to know Jesus as Savior: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Rom 9:2-3).
Should this attitude surprise us coming from someone who is following the example of Christ? Paul no doubt knows the account of how Jesus wept over Jerusalem as he watched them reject God at their own peril: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt 23:37).
So, let us follow Paul as his life follows the pattern set by our Lord Jesus who is both the goal and means of our salvation — the puzzle box cover whose image we will some day reflect. This is precisely Paul’s point today: “The Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (v. 21).