Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:17-19)
The Apostle Paul now shifts to contrasting role models vs. bad examples that we may look to in our journey following Christ. First, he commends himself and others who follow the example he and his compatriots in preaching the gospel leave for the Philippian believers. He’s already written extensively earlier about his own example. So we can assume we should be imitating those who demonstrate a wholehearted commitment to Jesus and do their best live according Christ’s law of love.
In contrast, Paul would dissuade the Philippians from following those who the apostle classifies as “enemies of the cross of Christ.” These may not be people who are antagonistic to Christians as such, or even unbelievers. But they show an unwillingness to take up their cross, to embrace the need we all have to crucify our base desires. These bad examples place priority on the disordered and overrun passions found in fallen human nature. “Their god is their belly” indicates that they have made an idol of basic human drives—hunger, sex, sensual pleasures.
These natural passions, have their place—we need to eat, we need love, we need things to delight us in an otherwise humdrum or even miserable existence at time. But when they take precedence as our primary end over loving God and our neighbor, then we run the risk of idolatry.
On top that, there are patently disordered passions that we should never seek to fulfill—taking delight in others’ pain or misfortune, pursuing vengeance, dehumanizing or harming others for sport. These are diabolical and have place in the life of one following Jesus. On top of that, many who practice such lawless lives, lacking self-control, wind up “glory[ing] in their shame.” They actually try to make a positive out of what the Holy Spirit of God has declared a clear negative. The end of those who allow such passions and attitudes to consume them is ultimately “destruction” as Paul writes.
It’s clear that we aren’t too different nowadays from Paul’s day. We find ourselves bombarded with commercial images that try to keep us in a state of constant wanting more, never having enough. We still read stories of those who pursue vengeful or dehumanizing actions against others in business, politics, and regular daily life. We probably know at least one person who’s told that worn-out joke that hell has gotten more fun after the death of someone known for their rock-n-roll lifestyle.
In reality, any thoughtful picture of hell is not a Dionysian paradise, but a despotic tyranny of demons and unfulfilled humans now separated from any goodness, clawing for any taste of even a drop of something they used to enjoy in earthly life, as they suffer in their self-imposed exile from God, the source of all that is good, beautiful, and true. Some Christians even speculate that such fallen angels and humans will ultimately cease to be as their separation from the Author of Life necessitates their abdicating existence. Perhaps some sad picture of diminishing figures in a hell that results in annihilation is a possibility, as angry and desperate beings flicker in anguish for a season as the remnants of what goodness or life they have fade like flickering flame until nothing is left.
But not all is darkness. Paul holds out the promise resurrection and the glories of eternal life in his Gospel. We have the chance to apprehend that promise by faith. And in believing we are given the Spirit of Christ to empower us to live according to the godly examples in see in Paul and others who have counted all loss in this life because they’ve discovered knowing the Giver of all good things better than the gifts he gives.
Whose example(s) do you find inspirational in your journey with Christ? What natural desires do you struggle with? What unnatural passions, if any, do you need to ask divine help to fend off? What ways have you accommodated sin as good instead of regarding them as the destructive ills they actually are? What godly motivations do you desire to cultivate?
Gracious Lord, deliver us sinners from esteeming that which is harmful as good, and grant us a deep drive from your indwelling Spirit to keep natural desires in their place, to ward off diabolical passions, and to find our greatest joy and motivation in knowing Jesus as we follow others whose lives bear witness to your wondrous goodness. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.