Let's open our Bibles this morning as we come to our study of God's Word to Philippians chapter 3. And we will pick up where we left off a few weeks ago in our ongoing study of this epistle, which has become so beloved to all of us - the great letter to the church at Philippi. We are continuing along the same theme that we began in our last message, from verses 12-16 that is the theme, “reaching for the prize,” or “pursuing the goal.”
Let me read you verses 17-21; Philippians chapter 3, verses 17-21.
“Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
Now this great and thrilling passage, as I said, continues the theme of “pursuing the prize.” It focuses us back on that which we discussed in detail in our last message, and that is that the goal of the Christian life is to be like Jesus Christ.
And if I might this morning, I want to remind you of that very simple and basic truth. You might say to yourself, “It seems basic enough. Is it necessary for us even to be reminded?” And my response to that is, “I think so.” In this very complex Christian culture in which we live, where there are so many viewpoints and so many theologies and so many seminars and so many formulas and so many exercises, quote/unquote, in Christian growth, sometimes I think we can totally cloud the real issues. And if I might, I want to make a rather simple statement that is essential to Christian living and then see if I can't reinforce that with you this morning.
Spiritual living, the Christian life, is a process of pursuing Christlikeness. The Christian life is a process of pursuing Christlikeness, that in simple terms is the direction of the whole matter of sanctification. We must become more and more like Jesus Christ. Simply stated, that is the Christian life. As I said, there are so many books and so many tapes and so many formulas and so many different viewpoints of things that sometimes reality in its simplicity gets totally lost. If I might, I want to call us back again, as I did a few weeks ago, to this matter of simply pursuing Christ's likeness.
You remember when Jesus came and called His disciples, He said, "Follow Me." And that particular command has not been replaced or improved upon. The whole matter of the Christian life and Christianity is this matter of following Christ to become more and more like Him. The apostle John said that if you belong to Christ, if you abide in Christ, then you ought to walk as Christ walked. The apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, said, "I have pain until Christ is fully formed in you." And writing to the Corinthians he said a couple of times, "Be followers of me, as I am of Christ."
But most significant, perhaps to us, is the word of God the Father. Romans 8 records for us that God the Father's purpose in saving us was that we might be conformed to the image of His Son. Christ called us to be like Him. John reminds us to be like Him. Paul is in pain until we are like Him, and that is because that was God's purpose in the beginning, that we be made like Jesus Christ.
Now, the goal then of every Christian's life is to be like Christ. That is the goal. That is the thing which we pursue.
That is the purpose of our time here, and that is the pursuit of our sanctification. It then becomes the life-long objective of every Christian to become more and more and more like Jesus Christ. That is as basic as it can be stated.
Just to remind ourselves that this is the general theme of the text, go back to verse 12 for a moment, where we started last time. Paul says, "Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus." Paul says, “I haven’t arrived at perfection. I am not like Christ. But that’s why God laid hold of me, and that’s what I desire - I haven’t arrived; I haven’t obtained it. But I press on.”
Then he says it again in verse 13, "Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet." Now why would he say it twice? Why does he repeat it? Well, I think there's a sort of polemic here. It may well have been that the Judaizers, who were confusing the Philippian church, were claiming that through circumcision and law-keeping they had attained some kind of perfection. It seems as though Paul is arguing against something as much as just stating a case. Nonetheless, the point he makes is that, "I haven't arrived, but one thing I do" - I love that. Now, with that statement Paul has reduced the Christian life to its lowest common denominator. What do you do, Paul? “One thing.” What is that one thing? “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.” What's the goal? Christlikeness. “For the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
By the way, we noted last time that “the goal” and “the prize” are the same thing. “The goal” is Christlikeness. We pursue it. We don’t ever reach it in this life, but it becomes “the prize” that God gives us in the life to come. What is our goal here is our prize there. We will someday be made like Christ. Until that day when we receive “the prize,” we pursue that as “the goal.”
So, Paul is saying, "Look, I haven't arrived." There's no perfection here. He is not a perfectionist. He doesn't believe that you can reach a point where your sin is eradicated, where you no longer sin or transgress against God. That was not his experience, nor was that found in anything that he had received by way of revelation from the Spirit of God. So he is saying, “I’m in a pursuit, and my life is boiled down to one thing: to be like Christ.”
You say, "Well now wait a minute. Don't we have more things to do than that? Aren't we supposed to be glorifying God?" Yes, and the more you glorify God, the more you're like Christ.
"Aren't we supposed to be evangelizing the lost?" Yes, and the more you do that the more you're like Christ, because He said He came “to seek and to save that which was lost.” The goal of the Christian life and the pursuit of sanctification is simply reduced to Christlikeness.
Now that leaves us with a necessity to understand two things. How is that going to happen? Well, there is an objective and a subjective element. The objective element is the Word of God. If we're going to become like Christ, we have to know what Christ was like. If we want to know what Christ is like, then where do we go? We go to the Bible, right? Because this is the disclosure of Christ. This is the revelation of Christ. The Old Testament sets the scene for Him, creates the need for Him, announces that He is coming. The gospels record His arrival. The book of Acts records the immediate impact of that.
The epistles delineate the significance of His life and ministry. And the Revelation talks about the consummation. But Christ is the focus of it all. So as we study the Word of God, we study it in order that we might know what Christ is like.
Beloved, may I encourage you along that line? That's such a basic truth in Christian living but very often gets lost. We study the Bible for the sake of theology. We study the Bible for the sake of answering someone's questions. We study the Bible for the sake of argument. We study the Bible thinking that somehow imbibing some biblical data is going to impact our spiritual life. And in some cases, of course, it makes a contribution to that end. But the product that God is after in giving us the revelation is that we, in understanding more about Christ, might therefore know better the goal of our own living. And if you study the Bible for anything less than understanding more about the Christ whom you are to be like, you have missed the point.
The second and subjective element in this matter is the work of the Holy Spirit. If we are going to be like Christ, we are dependent on knowing what Christ is like, and that means we must study the Word of God. We are also dependent on the spiritual work of changing us into the image of Christ, which is the work of the Holy Spirit. Second Corinthians 3:18 says that as we gaze at the glory that is revealed, the glory of our Lord, the Spirit changes us into His image. So objectively we are committed to the deep study of the Word. Subjectively we are committed to submission to the Spirit of God. A Spirit-filled believer who lets the Word about Christ dwell in him richly is one who progresses toward the goal. Understood? And that is the simple statement, the bottom line of Christian living. And I emphasize it because I'm quite confident that it's been fogged in our day, and it can be lost as to its simple and very core significance.
We are to be like Christ. That is to consume us. Paul says, "One thing I do...I press toward that goal of Christlikeness." That’s the “one thing I do.” Does that simplify the focus of your spiritual life?
You say, "How can you reduce life to that?" Look back at verse 7. Paul had a very complex life before he was a Christian.
He was trying to keep all the laws and traditions and formulas of Judaism, both divine and human. He was trying to follow all of the privileges and all that they deposit into his account. And in all of it, he found not what he sought. And then, you remember, on the Damascus Road he was confronted by the living Christ. And immediately, coming to the realization of the fact that Christ was everything, verse 7 says, "Whatever things previously were gained to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ." “Once I met Christ, I realized that everything in my asset column was a liability. Everything I thought was gain I counted loss. I found all I needed in Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but dung, manure, rubbish, trash, garbage in order that I may gain Christ.”
You see, Christ is everything to him. And in Christ is everything. Do you need to be reminded of His great statements in Colossians chapter 2 where he says that in Christ, verse 3, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”? That is amazing. That is a comprehensive statement. Where are “the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”? They are in Christ. They are all in Christ. The more I know about Christ, the more I know about wisdom and knowledge. That is why verse 6 says, "as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him." Pattern your life after Him. Verse 9, "For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete." Paul understood it. It's all in Christ.
Beloved, somehow remind yourself to strip away anything that clouds that or covers that and get back to that basic, glorious reality that we are pursuing Christlikeness. And so when you study the gospels, you study them in order that you might know Christ better.
By the way, I, I, in all the years I've been at Grace Church, have never wanted to be at a time in my preaching ministry when either Sunday morning or Sunday night I wasn't preaching one series or another on the person of Christ. Because He must be our focus. One of the reasons I chose to go through Philippians was because I wanted to dwell a long time in chapter 2, talking about Christ and the glories of His incarnation. We must be focused on the person of Christ. And when you read the Word of God, let it speak to you of Christ, let it reveal the glories of Christ to you. And as you yield yourself to the Spirit of God in obedience, let it be with the desire that He mold you and shape you from one level of glory to the next, until you are more and more made like Jesus Christ.
Now in verses 12-16, Paul exhorted the readers to that. He exhorted all of us to move in that direction, to press toward that mark, that prize, that goal. In fact, in verse 15 he said, if “you have a different attitude,” if you're not willing to do that, God's going to have to deal with you. There may be some chastening. And then in verse 16 he says, "Whatever standard you've come to, move on from there, keep pursuing Christlikeness."
Did you ever have somebody say to you, "You know, you really ought to read the Bible every day. You really ought to study the Bible every day?" And sometimes you say to yourself, "Well, I'm doing that, but I'm not quite sure what I'm supposed to be learning or what I'm supposed to be getting." Keep this in mind: the purpose of all of that is to mold you into the image of Jesus Christ. It is to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” It is to let the Spirit of God fill you so that that Christ-shaping may take place.
Now, as you come to verse 17, Paul wants to get practical.
And he suggests to us that there are three necessary elements in this pursuit that will enhance us as we pursue. Three things that are necessary for pursuing Christlikeness. Number one: following after examples. Number two: fleeing from enemies. And number three: fixing on expectations. Those are the three things he deals with in verses 17-21 - following after examples, fleeing from enemies, and fixing on expectations.
This is very practical, and I'm only going to give you number one this morning, because the other two demand a great deal of our thought.
Let's look at number one. If I am to pursue this goal of Christ's likeness, then I need to follow some example to show me how. Look at verse 17. "Brethren," - that, by the way, is the third time he's used that word in this chapter. He's feeling very warm-hearted toward them, very conciliatory. "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us." Now that whole verse is just about follow others who are pursuing this prize.
Now let me talk to you about that for just a moment. I want you to understand it. First of all, Paul is not putting himself on a pedestal, not a pedestal of perfection. Paul is not saying, "I'm perfect; be like me." What Paul is saying is, "I'm perfect - I'm imperfect; follow the way I move toward that perfection." He wants us to understand in verses 12-16 that he has not obtained it, that he is not already perfect, that he has not already arrived. And if you read the New Testament, you are very much aware of that. God had to give him a thorn in the flesh to keep him from being too proud, because he was prone to pride. He had to be rebuffed and rebuked significantly for letting his mouth flow against the high priest at the end of the book of Acts and say things that he never should have said. No, he was not a perfect man. And in that lies the significance of his example.
In fact, in 1 Timothy 1:15 he said, “I am foremost of sinners,” - not “I was,” but “I am.” And surely he understood the principle of 1 John 1:7 and 9 that if you say you have no sin you make God a liar. So he is not sinless. He has not reached perfection. He has not had his sin nature eradicated. There's no second work of grace here that's put him in a different category from all the rest of the folks. He is saying, “I am sinner. I have problems with my flesh, but I am pursuing the goal. Follow my example.”
If I were to climb a high mountain - a dangerous climbing expedition - alone, which is a very remote possibility, folks. But should it occur, there is a little adventure in me. And I should decide to climb this mountain, and I should get equipped with all the stuff you need to climb this precarious precipice, of what significance would it be for a helicopter to fly across the peak of that thing and drop some guy on the top and have that guy up there looking down and shouting, "I'm up here. This is where you want to come. If you can just get up here, this is the top"? And I'm looking up, and I'm down here, and he's up there. The problem is, he got up there by a helicopter, and he doesn't know the way up either. He hasn't gone that route. He is not of much help to me. In fact, the more he hollers at me on the way up, the more frustrating it will become. What I would rather have is some guy ahead of me who is climbing the path and says, "Follow me. I know the way up."
What I need is somebody who models the way up, who shows me the process. How do I deal with my fallen flesh? How do I deal with the struggles of life? How do I deal with disappointment? How do I deal with trials? How do I deal with pride? How do I deal with temptation? How do I deal with sin? Somebody's got to show me that path, because it's only in the overcoming of my sinfulness that I move toward being like Christ. So I have to follow somebody who is battling to overcome sin. If I'm going to climb this precipice, I want somebody who knows the way, with a rope around his waist hooked to mine, who pulls me up the right way.
That's Paul. Paul put himself in that position numerous times. And he is saying, “I’m not the perfect model. That’s Christ. I’m just somebody you can follow on the path of victory.”
So he says - look at verse 17 - "join in following my example."
Literally the Greek says, “be fellow imitators of me,” or “keep on being fellow imitators” – summimētēs, from which we get the word mimic. Sum means “together with.” It's a sort of a collective call. He's saying, “All of you, all of you be fellow imitators of me, mimic me, follow the way that I live my life.”
Back to verse 14, "I am pressing on toward the goal. You watch how I do it." You know, I believe that there isn't any better historical example than Paul. And that is one of the reasons, surely, why the Holy Spirit filled the New Testament with that one man. He dominates everything after the gospels. He dominates the book of Acts from chapter 13 on. Thirteen of the epistles came out of his pen and out of his heart and out of his mind and out of his life. He's a dominant figure. And why?
Because we can pattern ourselves after him. We can see how he struggled with the flesh. He is a model for us of virtue. He is a model for us of morality. He's a model of victory and temptation. He's a model for us of worship. He's a model for us of service. He's a model for us of patience and endurance and suffering. He's a model of handling temper. He's a model of handling possessions. He's a model of handling relationships. In so many ways he shows us how godliness deals with fallenness, something Christ could never show us because He was not, never fallen. And I believe that one of the reasons the Holy Spirit has loaded the New Testament with this man is because he is such a marvelous pattern. That's why he said to the Corinthians twice, "Be followers of me." That's why he wrote to the Thessalonians, chapter 1, verse 6, "You became imitators of us and of the Lord whom we imitate."
So, as you study the New Testament, and as I do, we can see through the life of Paul so much that helps us. And I confess to you, beloved, that through the life of this guy in my ministry, the number one model has been Paul. He is the pattern of the pathway, the pursuit. He's the climber that I try to follow after. I try to see how he handled situations. I try to hear his heartbeat. I can go back and read and read and read the same things over and over and over about Paul as reminders of how I'm to respond, how I'm to live, how I'm to act, how I'm to order my priorities, how I'm to deal with trials and suffering and trouble. He is a constant pattern for me - constant.
But it goes beyond that, and I want you to note that he knows that. Go back to verse 17. He says, "join in following my example, and observe." And that, by the way, skopeite, is the same root word as skopos, which is translated “goal” in verse 14. And when it says “observe” it means “fix your gaze on.” It's like looking at a goal and fixing on it. So he is saying, “Fix your gaze on those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.”
By the way, I prefer the idea that "us" there refers to Paul. It's what I call, I guess you would call it a, a literary plural designed to manifest humility. It could refer to Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and it wouldn't be wrong to assume that. But I - Paul uses that a couple of places, and I think it's kind of a literary device that sort of wants to defuse saying, "Follow me; follow me. I'm the perfect." He just says "us," which sort of defuses a little bit of that personal aggrandizement that someone might accuse him of.
But nonetheless, what he is saying is not only “follow me,” but “observe others who walk according to the pattern that I manifest.” So - follow this - he probably does have in mind Timothy and Epaphroditus. But beyond them - they've already been mentioned in the epistle - they were known to the Philippians. He is saying “follow other people who follow me.” Now listen carefully. We can all follow Paul, because he's in print. But that has its limitations. And so what he is saying is, “Go one beyond that and follow flesh and blood.” Timothy and Epaphroditus and the others never wrote New Testament books. We have no historical record.
So if we can sum it up. The idea here would be this: Christ is the goal; Christ is the standard; Christ is the model; we are to be like Christ. In order to know how Christ is, we study the Word of God. We study it until the Word about Christ dwells in us deeply. Then we have a deep understanding of Christ so we know what He's like, so we know what we're to be like.
Secondly, we yield to the Spirit of God who keeps molding us into that likeness which we understand.
Now in order to get on that path and have someone to follow, we follow Paul, who literally is revealed to us in a replete way in the New Testament. So we have plenty of data in order to know how he lived and how he acted. But beyond that, we need some flesh and blood, tangible, living, breathing people that we can also follow. And so Paul takes it a step further and says, “Observe those who walk” - that is daily conduct – “who daily live their life according to the pattern you have in me, or in that ‘us’ idea.”
Now how does this practically come down to us? Beloved, we have the same situation today. The goal is Christ. We have a wonderful pattern for pursuing the goal in Paul. But we need some flesh and blood examples, don't we? We don't have Timothy. We don't have Epaphroditus. They didn't write anything. So we have nothing to follow by way of written material. But we do have godly pastors and elders. And I believe the responsibilities of the Timothys and the Epaphroditus of that age are the responsibilities of the pastor-teachers, elders, of this age. And we have that great responsibility of following after Paul, toward Christ, in such a way that we become the flesh and blood that others follow. This is our responsibility. This is the responsibility of those elders and overseers and pastor-teachers and teachers who lead. We are to set the pattern.
This is so important, so important. Paul, in writing to Timothy, says, "Be an example. Be an example." And he even delineates the categories in which that exemplary living is to take place. “Be an example” in speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity. Live an exemplary life. Why? You're showing people the path. Yes, they see the perfection of Christ. Yes, they can read about the path of Paul. But they need somebody they can touch, somebody they can watch, somebody they can feel, somebody they can talk to, somebody they can know - somebody in their world, in their time, in their place they can follow. Paul is not saying, "Imitate my gifts." He's not saying, "Imitate my calling, my privileges, my achievements." No. He's saying, "Imitate - and others who also are imitating mine - virtues, our humility, our unselfish service, our willingness to suffer, our devotion to Christ, our courage, our effort in spiritual growth." That's what he wants us to imitate.
But, beloved, it weighs heavy on my heart that I have that responsibility - as do the elders of this church and every church and every pastor and teacher - to be people that you can follow. That is a God-ordained mandate. It is important what I say. It is important what any teacher of the Word of God says. It is essential that we teach truth, that we be true to the Word of God. But it must be sustained, supported, surrounded, undergirded by a virtuous life. You're coming up that same mountain, and you can see the goal at the top, but you need somebody whose rope you can hang on to, somebody you can touch and grasp so that you can follow the path.
Personally, I believe this is one of the most serious failings in the church today. I don't know all that church history will record in the future. But I think it will record with the disastrous collapse of so many spiritual leaders, quote/unquote, that the standard of expectation was lowered and many, many, many thousands - if not millions - of people lost their way on the path to Christlikeness. That's the tragedy. That's the tragedy.
I mean, where do you go to find the Timothys and the Epaphroditus? Where are the holy men? Where are the truthful men? Where are the kind, and those who manifest the meekness and gentleness of Christ? Where are the powerful? Where are the humble? Where are the unselfish models of virtue? Where are those who show us the path of victory over temptation? Where are those who walk that holy walk? Where are those who show us the path of prayer, in adversity? Where are those who show us how to handle trial and difficulty? Who can we observe? Who can we hold on to? Whose rope will help us climb? Who lives the truth? Who are the leaders that can say, "Imitate me. Don't just listen to me, imitate me?" That's the mandate. That's the mandate.
Another reason that the whole process of spiritual growth toward Christlikeness is so blurred and marred today is because the leadership has fogged up the issue. The pattern is very simple. Christ is the goal. Scripture reveals what He's like.
The Spirit of God is the power to move you into His image. Paul has given you a path to follow. The church is to put flesh and blood leadership in your view that you can observe very closely in order to see how to walk. But so much has skewed that very simple construct. The goal and the pattern is still Christ. The interpretation of the Bible has been hopelessly blurred in this particular age which tolerates anybody's view on anything about anything. And it is very indistinct as to interpretation. In fact if you interpret it distinctly and clearly, you'll usually lose most people - if you don't offend them.
Furthermore, a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the ministry of the Holy Spirit has skewed the process by which He brings about the Christlikeness. And then you come down to the level of the apostle Paul, and they can't even agree on the character of his teaching. Then you come down to the level of spiritual leadership, and all kinds of people are in positions of spiritual leadership who are anything but patterns to follow.
And the net effect of all of this disintegration is the blurring of the whole matter of Christlikeness. People are lost in the process - distracted, deviated from the real goal.
We have a sick and distorted church because we have lost our way. We have lost our way simply because we've lost sight of Christ. We've lost sight of the Word and the Spirit. We've lost sight of the clear, crystal clear patterns of teaching in the apostle Paul's revelation. And we don't have the leadership that we so desperately need to follow. And we tolerate a lower standard of leadership than the Bible would ever allow.
The simplicity of Christian living, beloved, is to be like Christ. That covers all the bases. That’ll take care of living to the glory of God. That’ll take care of all the relationships in your life, because Christlikeness produces right relationships. That’ll take care of the matters of Christian service. That’ll take care of the matters of evangelism. How did we ever get so diffused into so much stuff and lose sight of the simplicity of becoming like Jesus Christ? Let's bow together in prayer.
Father, it's hard for us to imagine why You would even want to allow us to pursue such a goal. I pray that You would make me more like Christ, that I may know Him so deeply, that I may know as much as is possible what He is like, that I might know what I'm to be like. Help me to follow the pattern that Paul set, who struggled so much with his weakness, with his pride, with his flesh. Who struggled so much with trials and troubles and temptations and testings, and yet in all things was so patient and enduring. Who in the midst of difficult situations could speak a fitting word and minister grace. Who was so bold and courageous - even as Christ. Who lived for one great cause and that was eternal. Help us, Lord, to see him as the pathfinder, the trailblazer down this path that pursues Christlikeness.
Thank You, Lord, also for the others in my life, the modern-day Timothys and Epaphroditus, who showed me the way, who continue to show me the way, who have taken hold of my hand. And they, following Paul toward Christ, have led me.
And, Lord, I pray for this whole congregation that all of us would realize that the only real reason that the pastors and elders are to play that role, take that responsibility, is that they might teach the congregation to do that for each other. And help us to know that the chain comes all the way down to every one of us being the example that somebody else can follow. Even as Paul said to the Philippians, “I’m a pattern. Timothy and Epaphroditus are a pattern. Now you follow them so that you can be a pattern.”
Lord God, nothing could thrill my heart more than to know that this whole church congregation were pursuing Christlikeness.
Give us a new hunger for Your Word that we might know Christ better, as is revealed there. Give us a new devotion to the Spirit of God who can shape us into His image. Give us a new desire to follow our leadership, closely, that we might be the leader for someone else to move to being more like You. What a privilege.
And, Father, fill our hearts with that wondrous knowledge that that which is an unattainable goal in this life becomes “the prize” in the life to come, that when “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” comes and we are called to glory, then we shall instantly receive “the prize” of being like the one we have pursued all our life. What an unimaginable privilege for which we thank You in Jesus' name. Amen.