February 21, 2016

February 21, 2016 - Philippians 3:17-4:1

1) The crosses of the world: (pressure, persecution, temptation)
2) The cross of Christ

Dear fellow believers, long ago and in various ways God spoke to people in times past, but in these days He has now speaks to us through His Son, Jesus Christ; who is the express image of the Triune God, and Word made flesh. Therefore, God speaks to you today through His Son, in the words of Philippians 3:17-4:1:

Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. 18 For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame-- who set their mind on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. 4:1 Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved. 

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” Think of flattery as a synonym for glory, something that the Bible talks a lot about. Flattery has a crasser connotation in our culture than glory. Often flattery is hollow and subjective while glory is deeper. Is imitation really the highest form of flattery, or possibly even glory? We might think that a compliment or a gift is a better way to show flattery or glory. But the saying really makes a point. Imitation, or conforming your actions to another, is really a much stronger message of respect and honor than a simple word or token. Change does not come easily in people, and when someone can change the way you act or think, it’s pretty powerful.

We think of both imitation and glory today because out text talks about both. The very first word is literally a plea to “imitate.” Going back to the Greek helps us understand the emphasis of this word given by the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the order of words often stresses the importance of the thoughts in each sentence. If a word comes first, it is the dominant thought of the sentence. In our English wording it sounds as if “Brethren” comes first, but it doesn’t. The first word is literally “imitate.”

Paul calls for his fellow Christians to follow his example in how to walk in this world. Paul isn’t prescribing an exercise routine; rather he is talking about how we Christians conduct ourselves, the manner in which we live. We don’t often think of comparing ourselves to others as a good thing. A lot of problems can happen when we do this. Measuring our life with someone else’s may lead us to feel that God hasn’t been as good enough to us. We may covet the skills or possessions that others have when we are making that comparison. If we follow the example of others, we may not make decisions on our own, but rather cave to the pressures that others have for us.

But when Paul says to imitate, it’s not for his own flattery. Paul wants us to imitate him because of the Godly example in in his life. He says that we have a “pattern” to follow in the lives of our fellow Christians. Think of the symbol of a superhero as an example. That symbol represents the actual hero. It is meant to bear testimony to all the qualities that superhero has and what they stand for. When people see the symbol, they are to think of the one it represents.

Paul says the same thing should be happening in the lives of Christians. When others look at us they should see the glory of Jesus. When we desire to follow the example of our Savior, we should be able to follow the way that our fellow believers walk. If this isn’t happening in our lives, we should consider what needs to be changed. If people can’t tell that you’re a Christian, or if the attitudes you see in your fellow Christians are contrary to God’s Word, then we aren’t walking the path that God wants us to walk.

Paul tells us what our symbol or pattern looks like too; it’s the cross of Jesus. Our highest calling and priority in life is to live in the forgiveness of the cross. When others look at the way we conduct ourselves they should see the cross of Jesus clearly, no matter what action we may be invested in at the moment. We aren’t always involved in “religious” activities. In fact, you might say that we rarely are. Normally, the activities of our religion happen one day a week, or at other short moments from day to day. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t witnessing of the gospel of salvation. People should be able to see that in everything we do – from the words we speak to the attitudes we express to the way we manage our time. If we’re only Christians when we doing the religious things in our lives, then the gospel hasn’t really changed us as Paul says it should.

Imitation Under the Cross
1) The crosses of the world: (pressure, persecution, temptation)
2) The cross of Christ

Those who oppose the cross of Jesus really fit into one of two categories: those who serve another idol or false god, and those who serve themselves. These two alternatives end in the same place, rejection of Christ and outright unbelief. But Paul addresses the service of self because that was a major temptation for the people he ministered to. The same is true of us today. We live in an increasingly self-centered and materialistic world. Every day we are presented with tons of opportunities to put the important things of life on the back burner in place of what our own desires want. We are conditioned by media, technology, and even schools of higher education to care only about today and improvement for myself.

Paul has a striking statement for those who would rather serve themselves than Christ. He says they have made their belly their god. There are two aspects to this warning. To serve your belly is to first focus only inwardly. Literally, to be consumed with the very core of your material being. A person who is caught up in this thinking rarely, if ever, considers to needs and concerns of others; for he is focused on his center, his self. This is more the metaphorical aspect of the belly.

The second is more literal, more physical. The belly is that which digests your food and distributes nutrients to your mortal body. The actual word for “belly” means more than just your stomach. It involves the entire digestive process; all the organs that function to create energy for your body. Those who make this belly their god focus entirely on the physical, material things of the world. Literally, the food that you eat to keep yourself alive. Things like that become the sole focus of that person’s being and existence. This is the opposite attitude of faith, where our focus is on the works and words of God.

Serving one’s own belly in either way is the antithesis of Christ’s command to “seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33).” It’s entirely opposed to Christ’s other admonition to “lay up treasures in heaven and not on earth (Matthew 6:19-21).” Paul stated the difference well in his letter to the Colossians: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 2:2-3).”

The contrast between imitating God and imitating sin is abundantly clear. That’s not what makes it difficult to put into practice. The trouble is that we still are hindered by sin. Therefore, remember the importance of your symbol to imitate: the cross. Paul was as pointed as he could be to the Colossians: “You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” That’s what the cross did. It wasn’t just Jesus’ body that hung on the cross. All of our sins, mistakes, transgressions, and iniquities were there too. The very things that made us who we were before faith, sinners under God’s law, died that same day. Therefore we boast with confidence as Paul says, I have died and been raised by Christ. My life is now hidden, it is protected, with Jesus Christ. We are different now. We are changed.

Those who reject the cross; they remain where they were. They imitate the world, they follow sin, they serve the god of the belly. What glory do they seek? Paul says v. 19: their glory is their shame. There you see the complete foolishness of unbelief. Even non-Christians can recognize it, even if they don’t want to believe it or confess it. Humans are moral creatures. We naturally know right from wrong. Therefore, it makes no sense to boast or glory in that which is shameful. Shameful things are called shameful because no one wants to admit them or be seen practicing them. That kind of imitation does not bring flattery. And yet Paul says, those who serve the belly no longer consider sin shameful but actually boast in it. What is rightfully called sinful by God becomes a source of flattery for the one who serves himself.

It’s a total contradiction, morally, to glory in one’s shame, but isn’t that what we see in the world? When you take God’s law apart, piece by piece, you are left with no moral foundation. When your own wants outweigh God in importance, you have no more reason to listen to His Word. In a world where God is deconstructed by man, what is truly shameful will become what is popular. We, of all people, should understand this best because we are living in it more than any other Christian generation before us. Obviously, the deconstruction of God’s law was happening even at Paul’s time, which is why he needed to address it. But there’s a key difference.

For the most part, Paul was still witnessing to people who were seeking the truth; people who understood that truth existed even if they didn’t realize it came from Christ. Think of the Athenian stoics of Acts 17 as an example. They had an altar to the “unknown god.” They understood that truth existed, they just didn’t know where to look. So some served Zeus, some served Diana, some served themselves, and so on.  We see the same today too, but the major difference is that we live in a culture where people are taught to deny that truth even exists. That was never the case in the Greco-Roman mind. They strove their entire lives to find the truth because they recognized its existence as moral creatures.

Our culture in America was once built upon those same principles, but in more recent times people simply want to deconstruct all things down to the bare elements. Instead of building upon the truths and principles laid out before us, our culture is now systematically doing away with the way things were and allowing all ideas and opinions to exist equally. At least, that’s how it sounds in theory. In reality, not all opinions are valid. There must be a determination of truth. But if all one wants is “free play for everyone,” no lines, rules, or distinctions, then deconstructing the law of God is the best way to achieve it.   

Given the state of the world we live in, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imitate God and the Christians before us. In order to take such a stand you have to abide by Christian principles. To imitate God is to defend what His Word says, as absolute truth, not subjective interpretation. To imitate believers before us means to seek confessional unity, not to bypass differences in doctrine. To imitate Christ in our families is to conform our lives to His will. We put others above ourselves. We wait for marriage before we live as husband or wife. We take seriously the marital promise that we made. We obey and respect our parents even if all other teens are rebelling and disobeying. We allow God to determine when life is to be taken or when it is to be spared. These are just a few of the principles of life that God ordains. There is no end to the possibilities of how we could change and twist these principles to serve our own appetites. There’s always opportunities to back down from the difficult, Christ-centered stance so as to save ourselves some backlash and opposition.

In all areas it really comes down to one question: Do you imitate Christ to His glory or do you imitate the world for its glory?

As difficult as it is to be a Christian in our culture, we should be on our knees constantly thanking God. We have been given the blessed privilege of following in the very example He set on earth. And not only that, we deliverance and salvation. Paul calls it “citizenship in heaven.” If you struggle in imitating Christ think about that. That’s a message that can lift you up or bring you back in any situation. Your life belongs in heaven. As soon as you come to faith in Jesus you are a foreigner here in this world. You are a refugee waiting to get home. But you also have work to do. Each of you has a purpose here on earth to present in your being the clearest picture of your Savior. That means what you say, what you think, how you act, and what you choose to do on earth. But despite all that power, you don’t have to do it. You can serve yourself if you want. It’s actually easier to do that very thing. You are allowed to forsake God and glorify your belly.

But then you forfeit that citizenship in heaven and you go back to being a citizen of the world. For many in the world, that feels worth it. Sometimes it might be enticing to us too and it may lead to a more enjoyable and prosperous life. But when time runs out, when the fun fades away, and it does for everyone, where do you want to call home? Who will you trust? There’s a reason that so many of those who spent their entire lives serving themselves, have death bed confessions near the end. Without God, you’ll be mighty lonely when that day comes in your life.

The joy we have today is that we know better now. We don’t have to wait for the desperate feeling of being alone to motivate us toward God. We know Him right now by faith. And the beauty of faith today is that we are privileged to imitate Him now. That’s power from the cross. That’s the change we see in our lives immediately. As Christians we are citizens waiting to leave, but right now we are imitators of our Savior. Truly, that’s the highest form of glory we can offer our Lord. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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