Study Notes from Philippians by Dr. David Nelson

Philippians 3:17-4:1: Standing Firm in the Lord

By Dr. David Nelson

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul shared how his sufferings resulted in the advance of the gospel. He wrote to exhort the church to solve their internal problems so that they could bond together as one man for the advance of the gospel. Churches today need to work together for the advance of the gospel even in the midst of suffering and hardships.

17Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. 4Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.[1]

In 3:1-11, Paul shared how he forfeited his privileges and accomplishments in order to know Christ and become like him. In 3:12-16, he stated that he had not become perfect yet in his knowing Christ and becoming like Christ. But he was focused (“one thing”) on pursuing spiritual maturity. This is what all the believers of the Philippian church should do. Focus on knowing Christ and becoming like Christ every day. In this passage, Paul exhorted the church to stand firm in the Lord (4:1). Believers today are to stand firm in their relationship with Christ and in His Word. There are two ways we can stand firm in the Lord.

In 4:1, Paul concludes chapter 3 with an exhortation to stand firm (present tense) in the Lord. His affection for the church is evident as he addresses them as brothers. Even though they are Gentiles, he views them as brothers in the Lord. They are beloved and eagerly longed for brothers. We can sense his tremendous love for them. In 1:7-8, he stated that he had them in his heart and he longed for them with the affection of Christ. He looked forward to seeing them (2:24). He also calls them his joy and his crown. He presently rejoices at what God has done in their lives through him. In the future, they are his crown before the Lord (1 Thess. 2:19). Crown (Gr. stephanos) was a wreath placed upon the victor’s head at the games as his reward. So too, the Philippian church is described as Paul’s crown before the Lord at the judgment seat (2 Cor. 5:10ff). The church is his pride and joy. They will stand firm in the Lord in this way. In this way looks back to 3:17-21. The words stand firm (Gr. stēkete) is also used in 1:27 of standing firm together as one man, striving together for the advance of the gospel. Here, in the Lord they will stand firm focusing on godly examples and focusing on their heavenly citizenship.

First, we can stand firm in the Lord by following godly examples (3:17-19). Paul encouraged the church to imitate his example of passionately pursuing Christ. In 1 Cor. 11:1, he also encouraged the Corinthian church to follow him as he followed Christ. We learn by imitating our parents and eventually by imitating others that we want to be like. We personally must be examples for others to follow and we ourselves also should follow godly men and women whose lives are worthy of emulating. People are looking for role models to follow. This is obvious by listening to young people talk about movie stars and sports figures. Avid fans engage in fantasy sports annually by choosing popular and successful players. What if people today looked at Christian leaders for who they want to become like? Paul stated that he and his companions live (Gr. peripateō, “walk”) as “examples” (Gr. typos) (cf. 1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Thess. 1:7). They should follow their examples and not the lives of those who live contrary to the gospel. Paul stated this with great compassion (“with tears”). There were many who lived as enemies of the gospel (“cross of Christ”). These bad examples may have been professing Christians because they lived as enemies of the cross and Paul approached this topic with tears. Unbelievers naturally live as enemies of the cross. What is appalling is to see confessing Christians living as enemies of the gospel. These people may have been opponents of Paul stirring up trouble for him in Philippi. Their behavior, their lifestyle, and their speech were not worthy of emulating nor are they worthy of emulating today. The end of such a lifestyle is destruction because they were feeding their physical appetites, glorifying their shameful acts, and focusing only on earthly things. When they face judgment, they will be rewarded with destruction for their worldly lifestyle. These confessing Christians are not genuine because they live as enemies of Christ. Their lifestyle is contrary to the gospel.

Second, we can stand firm in the Lord by focusing on our heavenly citizenship (3:20-21). In contrast (“for our,” cf. 3:3), the believer’s citizenship (Gr. politeuma) is in heavenly. “For our” gives a contrast to the behavior of the so-called Christians of 3:19 just like Paul does in 3:3 about the Judaizers who imposed circumcision for salvation (“for we are the circumcision”). A lifestyle that focuses purely on satisfying sensual desires is not indicative of the believer’s lifestyle because we are citizens of heaven. Citizens of Philippi focused on their Roman citizenship with its rights and privileges. Philippi was a colony of Rome and was governed just as if it were a part of Rome. The word politeuma means commonwealth or colony. Paul explained that they have greater privileges and responsibilities as citizens of heaven. We are eagerly anticipating the Savior from heaven – the Lord Jesus Christ. Citizens of Rome had an earthly emperor. Citizens of heaven have a heavenly emperor – the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is called “Savior” because He will deliver us from this present evil age. Believers today need to live with their heavenly citizenship in view. We are to live today with a view towards Christ’s soon return (“we eagerly anticipate”). This was a focus of Paul’s theology – the already but not yet. We are part of a global kingdom and global nation that has greater blessings and privileges and will last forever and ever but this kingdom has not yet come in its fullest expression. Fee explained,

Here is a classic expression of the eschatological framework of Pauline theology, that present life is “already/not yet,” predicated on Christ and his coming(s). Although the passage begins with the “already,” the accent falls on the “not yet,” thus giving perspective to the Philippians’ present situation—and to much else in the letter. Christ has gained his present glory through humiliation (2:7–11); he is now “in heaven” where we “eagerly await” his coming as “Savior”; when he comes he will “transform” us into his “likeness,” so that our present bodies that know weakness and “humiliation” are conformed into the likeness of his present “glory”; and he will accomplish that in keeping with the same divine “energy” (cf. 2:13) whereby he will also subject “all things” to himself (= “every knee shall bow”).[2]

Many times, Christians focus on their national citizenship. American Christians focus on their American citizenship as having some of the greatest rights and privileges of any country in the history of the world. But here we learn that believers are part of a greater kingdom and nation. Christ is the king and there is no rival or equal. His kingdom will last for a thousand years (Rev. 20:1-3; 2 Tim. 2:12; Isaiah 11). Not only should we live differently because our citizenship is in heaven, Christ will transform (Gr. metaschēmatizō) our lowly bodies (Gr. sōma) (cf. Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49). This new body will be conformed to His glorious body. John witnessed Christ with this glorious body in Rev. 1. His hair was white like wool. His eyes were like a flame of fire and his feet like bronze. His face shined like the sun “shining in full strength” (Rev. 1:14-16). Daniel 12:3 states that those who are wise will “shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” Christ will accomplish this by the power (Gr. energeia) that enables (Gr. dunamai) him to even subject (Gr. hypotassō) all things to Himself. In 1 Cor. 15:24-25, Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father after He has subjected everything under His control.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Php 3:17–4:1.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), pp. 376–377.

 

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