Persevering Joy in Philippians 3:17-4:1
Earlier this month, I posted my weblog commentary for Philippians 3:1-16. In those verses, the apostle Paul commanded his audience, and the Holy Spirit commands us today, to have a desperate joy in the Lord. We believers are to guard against false teachers’ deception (vv. 1-2), prize Christ above all (vv. 3-11), and strive for the goal of heaven (vv. 12-16). Paul continues to elaborate on practical expressions of joy in Philippians 3:17-4:1, which will be the focus of today’s post. In Philippians 3:17-4:1, we see that we as Christians are to have a persevering joy. We can organize Paul’s thought in these verses as follows:
- Exhortation: Imitate the joy of Paul and other trusted leaders (3:17).
- Negative Explanation: False believers have no hope (3:18-19).
- Positive Explanation: True believers have a sure hope (3:20-21).
- Exhortation: Persevere in your joy in the Lord (4:1).
Joy to Imitate
Paul’s joy is joy to be imitated. He should be imitated because he joyfully prizes Christ above all else (vv. 3-11) and thus guards against deception (vv. 1-2) and presses on toward heaven (vv. 12-16). In addition to imitating Paul, other trusted leaders are to be imitated, particularly “those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Paul and Timothy are the “us”; “those who walk according to [that] example” would include such people as Epaphroditus (2:25-30), along with “Clement and the rest of [Paul’s] fellow workers” (4:3).
Remember that Paul is not setting himself up, though, as a perfect example: he has not “already obtained” the resurrection; he is not “already perfect” (3:12). Paul is saying, in effect: “I am following the perfect example of Christ. Follow me in that same path as I walk it.” He gives us even more details in 4:9 when he commands, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things.” What had the Philippians learned, received, heard, and seen in Paul? Acts 16 records how Paul planted the Philippian church. The Philippian believers had seen Paul heal a demon-possessed slave (Acts 16:16-18) and how he and Silas were thrown in jail for doing so (vv. 19-24). They saw Paul’s jailer and his household come to faith in Christ and join the believers of that new church by baptism (vv. 25-34). Although we do not know how Paul “encouraged” the believers after his release from prison (v. 40), we get a picture of what the Philippians learned and received from Paul even in this letter, namely that they should rejoice in the Lord (Phil. 3:1). Paul thus reminds the Philippians in 3:17 to “join in imitating” him in his joy in the Lord.
Hope to Avoid
Verses 18 and 19 of Philippians 3 present Paul’s negative reason for commanding the Philippians to imitate him: “many … walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). These people are not Christians because “their end is destruction” (v. 19). Christians’ end is blissful eternity in the new heavens and the new earth with God. Revelation 21:27 promises that “only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life,” i.e., Christians, will enter eternal heaven. And Revelation 20:15 similarly promises that anyone whose name “was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
These people to whom Paul refers in vv. 18-19 are not Christians because they set their hope in vain things. These people are ruled by their appetites (“their god is their belly”). These people flaunt their sin (“they glory in their shame”). These people, in short, have their “minds set on earthly things.” These false believers are “many,” but though (or because!) they walk off a cliff into hell, Paul warns true believers not to hope in these vain things but to “join in imitating” his joy in the Lord.
Hope to Hold Onto
Indeed, this is Paul’s positive reason for his earlier command: “our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20)! As Revelation makes clear, our names as believers are already written in the Lamb’s book of life! Our salvation is secure. We “await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” to return for us from heaven. We cling to the wonderful promise of the angels in Acts 1:11, which tells us: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Paul’s words here are similar to the encouragement the writer of Hebrews offers: “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (13:14). And that city does come, in Revelation 21 and 22.
But this eternal bliss in heaven is not merely spiritual; it is physical. When Jesus returns for his bride, the Church, he will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21). Paul is here condensing his sustained argument in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
And the amazing thing is that our bodies will be like Jesus’ glorious body! The “redemption of our bodies,” for which we “groan inwardly” and “wait eagerly” will finally be accomplished by the Lord at his Second Coming (Rom. 8:23). This is a sure hope; this is a hope to hold onto. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15-17). What glorious hope! We shall be with the Lord, physically, in glorified and resurrected bodies, forever, throughout eternity, in the glorious New Jerusalem!
Joy in which to Persevere
“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1). Paul comes full circle: imitating Paul’s joy is something to be done continually, something to persevere in. The warning to avoid vain hopes and the encouragement to maintain sure hope were reasons to imitate Paul (and his joy); now the warning and encouragement are reasons for persevering in that joy.
Why does Paul want the Philippians to persevere in joy? He “loves” them. He “longs for” them. They are his “joy and crown.” These are the reasons why Paul wants the Philippians to “stand firm thus in the Lord.” And they are to “stand firm” in the joy of hoping for the Lord’s return, for the redemption of their bodies, to the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. And this same hope is what we are to stand in today. We are to stand firm in the hope that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ could return for us from heaven at any moment. Don’t let your god be your belly, or glory in your shame, or set your mind on earthly things: this is how enemies of Jesus’ cross behave! Rather, persevere in joy by imitating Paul and standing firm in the hope that the Lord will return, as he promises in Revelation 22:12, “soon.”
“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)