return to religion-online

Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson


Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Epistle for the Second Sunday of Lent (Reminiscere): Philippians 3:17-4:1


The text for this Sunday focuses on the questions of how a Christian ought to live and why. Two options are in view for the "how" question. The first, v. 17, is that the readers ought to "live according to the example (they) have in us" (in Paul and others). The second, vv. 18 and 19, is to live "as enemies of the cross of Christ." Verses 20 and 21 indicate why Paul believes his readers pursue the first option.

The historical context of these verses is set in the third decade of the Christian movement. It was a time when Christians were asking what their faith meant for the character of their lives. They may have had access to "a pattern of teaching" (Rom.

6:17), i.e., a definite form of ethical instruction. Yet their use of and response to such a pattern is neither clear nor uniform. To some who delighted in the law of the Jewish heritage and found it saving, the teachings of Jesus Christ enriched the deposit. Legalistic and ascetic Christians were able to add new requirements to old (Gal. 3:1-5; Phil. 3:2). To others the gospel meant freedom. They had come to believe that salvation was not the result of their obedience to the law, but the free gift of God’s love, and what mattered now was a faith that worked through love (Gal. 5:6). Among those who celebrated this good news of freedom were persons who neglected this positive use of faith’s freedom for the works of love. These held that "all things were lawful" (cf. 1 Cor. 6: 12f.) and celebrated as freedom the license for a self-indulgent, profligate and uncaring life.

It is to this latter group that vv. 18 and 19 of our text refers. They live, Paul writes, as "enemies of the cross of Christ." Their god is their belly. . . their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things." The phrase "enemies of the cross of Christ" does not by itself identify these persons. There were many such enemies, but these Paul distinguished as being devoted to their belly (koilia). Liberated from food laws, these probably economically upper middle class Christians had become gluttonous. They seemed to think that the Kingdom of God was a matter of food and drink (Rom. 14:17), and they gave themselves to serving not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own "sensual appetites" (koilia - Rom. 16:18). Perhaps they were people like those referred to in 1 Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14-15, who were more concerned with their freedom to eat whatever they pleased than they were with the spiritual health of those whom they might cause thereby to stumble; or they may have been like those at Corinth’s agap feasts whose gluttonous sensual impatience created divisions in the Body of Christ, and who ultimately made it necessary to eliminate the common meal in favor of a fasting communion(cf. I Cor. 11:17 ff. and Jude 12).

This devotion to their bellies was but one illustration of their problem. These enemies of the cross had set their minds on earthly things; on a self-indulgent planning and getting, owning and spending. They sought the meaning of life in visible, tangible, ephemeral phenomena. They had subverted the glorious freedom available in Christ into a shameful bondage of irresponsible self-seeking. And in doing this they had become "enemies of the cross."

That these persons would have recognized themselves as "enemies of the cross" is very improbable. For they too celebrated the cross and resurrection of Christ. Yet, in Paul’s judgment, the description was appropriate. This becomes evident when considering our text’s other option: the alternative way of life to which Paul is calling his readers. He wants them not merely to celebrate the cross of Jesus, but to share it. They were to be imitators of the One who had embraced the cross. The literary context of v. 18 forcefully supports this observation.

By itself the verse (18) urges the readers to "join in imitating (Paul) and to observe those who live according to the example you have in us (plural)." Paul is not pointing to himself alone, but also to Timothy (2:20), Epaphroditus (2:29f.) and others (3:17), as exemplars. Yet none of these are the ultimate example. That designation belongs to Jesus Christ. Paul made such an appeal explicit in writing to the Corinthians. "Be imitators of me," he wrote, "as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).

That this is Paul’s meaning in v. 18 is supported by the character of the letter as a whole. The concern for fellowship is dominant. The word fellowship (koinoia) appears in every chapter. The prefix syn (with) appears with verbs that speak of striving, struggling, rejoicing, and sharing with one another. Syn also appears with nouns identifying co-workers, fellow soldiers, fellow imitators and sharers in the faith and work of the gospel. And clauses calling readers to "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord, looking to the interests of others" are frequent. Together these all demonstrate the letter’s deep concern for fellowship and unity.

The focus of this fellowship is their life in Christ. In him they are to find their unity; the same mind, the same love, the full accord. The injunctions to "do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit" but rather "look to the interests of others," are motivated by the example of Christ (2:1-5). "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." And then with the help of a hymn (2:5-11) he elaborates.

Like him (Jesus) they were not to regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather they were to empty themselves of their selfishness and live their lives out in service to one another; "to the point of death, even death on a cross."

That Paul and his co-workers took Jesus’ example seriously is evident throughout the discussion that continues on through to our text. In 2:1 7f. he considers with joy the prospect of his life-blood "being poured out as a libation," which he, along with his readers, can offer in the service of the gospel. In 2:20f. he comments on Timothy’s Christ-like concern for their welfare. In 2:29 he tells how Epaphroditus "came close to death for the work of Christ." From this wider context it is clear that the imitation Paul is calling for in 3:17 is rooted in a profound commitment; to the point of letting go of, or dying to, the self-seeking self and coming alive to a Christ-like life.

The data for imitation here consists not of a series of rules for behavior, but of a new perspective. From this perspective one approaches life motivated, not by "selfish ambition or conceit," but by a concern that "looks. . . to the interests of others." This perspective Paul calls the "same mind." It is a mind like that of Jesus Christ (2:3-5). This "same mind" he urges upon both the mature Christians mentioned in the verses that immediately precede our text (3:15) and upon the two women of Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, in the verse that immediately follows our text (4:2).

That those who share this mind are friends rather than enemies of the cross is clear from Paul’s discussion of his own aspirations. Like Christ he had come to a place in his life where he sought to empty himself. He did not cling to the things of which he once had boasted. Now he had come to regard his credentials, his honors, his achievements, his own goodness, as "loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (his) Lord" (3:8). The pattern of Christ’s self-emptying had become the pattern of his own life. Motivated by "the same mind," "the same love," he sought to give himself in the service of Christ to the interests or welfare of others.

The reason why Paul’s readers ought choose the option of living their lives according to the example they have in Paul and others is thus addressed in the context leading up to the first verse of our text. To live that way is to take on a Christ-like life. It means knowing Christ, not merely knowing about Christ, but experiencing Christ as significant for one’s total life.

As Paul saw it, the example involved not only a self-emptying, but also an exaltation. The verses 20 and 21 also reflect the influence of the hymn in 2:5-11. Having urged his readers to follow the example of those who look to the interests of others (the friends of the cross), and having described the other life option (that of the self-indulgent enemies of the cross), Paul now focuses on the hymn’s words about God’s work of transformation.

In the gospel story God exalted Jesus who had given himself, not to selfish pursuits, but to a life for others. Though humans had rejected him, God exalted him, giving him "a name above every name." Divine approval was given to that which humans had discounted. Looking at Jesus’ self-giving love, Paul concluded that this is what God intended for humans.

Paul’s personal hope was to be like Christ, not only in his death, but also in his resurrection (3:10). In this hope he invites his readers to share. The profound myth of the Christian movement held that the fullness of humanity was not to be found in food and drink or in the temporal accomplishments, but in the realization of one's life in God. God is to be "All and in all" (1 Cor. 15:28). This means, using a spatial metaphor, that "our citizenship (or homeland) is in heaven." From there the One who already has shown us the way, will come to lead us on into the fullness, the glory, of God. Thus he shares in completing the transformation of selfishly oriented selves into his likeness. For now we live in expectation that the good work begun and being done in us will be completed (1:6).

Viewed 87826 times.