Generally I don’t imposing word studies on people. But a worthy exception exists in Philippians 3:17. The word is translated “imitate” in the ESV and the grammar here points to a single-minded focus among the Philippians (if you have a Strong’s Concordance the word number is 4830). 1 Corinthians 11:1 uses the same word, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Here is my point. How do we mimic Paul? I think it’s a fair question, and have often asked it myself. Generally our culture mimics style. Is Paul just a celebrity Christian we should copy? It’s doubtful. There are numerous areas most of us will never mimic. Take for example his singleness, career path, convictions regarding bi-vocational ministry, spiritual gifts, or even his approach to missions. None of this really works for us. So on one level we don’t mimic Paul. We certainly don’t mimic his style. Instead we mimic him in his imperfect pursuit of Christ. We pray for divine assistance in living like the apostle in his love for Christ, and persistence in the face of failure. The end is Christ likeness, and the means is discipleship. The specifics depend on your mentor.
When you consider what Paul achieved as a missionary, church planter, theologian, writer, preacher, and leader of early Christianity, it’s easy to be impressed. We have appropriately esteemed him as a hero of the faith. If he were alive today everyone would want to go to his church. What is more difficult for us to understand was his condition at the time all this was happening. He was anything but admirable. He was not riding the wave of ministry success. On the contrary, he reminds the Philippians that his whole purpose in life was following Christ…for whom I have suffered the loss of all things. Can we follow a person who has lost everything because of who they chose to follow? What performance indicators were used? If you chose to follow Paul’s example you also had to partake in the consequences of his actions. Hunger, abuse, and ridicule are not typical selling points. Christians followed Paul in his day, and consider him heroic in our day, because Christ was shining through him as the essential goal. Anyone will follow and pay the price is they see Christ. True believers want to be saved by him, and also shaped by him.
What does it mean to keep your eyes fixed on Godly examples? That is the key command from Paul in Philippians 3:17. The answer is we continually look in the direction of those who are a few steps ahead of us in our walk with the Lord. It means to focus intently, keep watch, and be attentive. Sometime the idea is negative, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out [same word] for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 6:17). God hates discord in the church (Proverbs 6:19). Divisive people invite the discipline of the Lord, and you don’t want to be counted among them when it happens. Look carefully at these people and do not imitate them. However, sometimes the idea is presented in a positive way. The practice of esteeming and looking has an imperative force in 3:17. Spiritual leaders should be identified, verified, known, and imitated. Good examples live in front of other people. They are watched and followed as an empathetic yardstick for how well we are imitating Christ. Let’s get past the idea that we are originals, and work hard at finding the right people to copy.
Being an example takes guts and integrity. You can’t tell other Christians to follow your example without being confident you are leading them in the right direction. There is too much at stake. Jesus tells us it’s better to be drowned than to lead others astray (Mark 9:42). When the apostle Paul tells all the churches to follow him (Philippians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 4:16), he is putting himself in the way of intense scrutiny from both God and man. This is the difference between a person who wants to be admired, and a person who wants to be followed. It’s the difference between a celebrity and a mentor. If all you want are admirers, it doesn’t matter how you live. You can be dazzling from far off. Your lifestyle is not the point because people are attracted to your status. You become a brand. When you want to be followed in your flawed efforts to imitate Christ, it is precisely the opposite. Your lifestyle is all that matters. You live among other people who see you for who you are. You are a person, visible in your moments of weakness. Status is irrelevant. This made Paul vulnerable and great at the same time.
Paul regulates ministry in various ways. The very fact that he tells us to keep our eyes transfixed on those who walk according to the example he gave suggests that there were people who didn’t (Philippians 3:17). There were men in positions of spiritual leadership that did not live up to the expectations in Scripture. These men are not only to avoided, but are personally called out by other apostles, Peter most notably, for their habit of being domineering. 1 Peter 5:3 is a warning to all elders they must discharge their leadership duty in love, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” You cannot be domineering, and a good example. The two are incompatible. This is good for both flock and shepherd alike.
There is a difference between teachers and mentors. The first add information to the ignorant in hopes they will retain facts. But most facts are practically useless. We sense this by about the third grade. We say we’re never going to need most of this knowledge, and we’re usually right. Mentors are masters of subtraction. They distill knowledge into wisdom. Most teachers (like salesmen) tell you what to do, but mentors tell you what not to do. There is a fine distinction between useful and useless information. It takes a wise mentor to help us sort out all the things we could know (or memorize), but don’t need to. The most successful people know where to find the information, or at least who to call. They don’t clutter their minds. The Apostle Paul was a master at simplifying his life, both physical and spiritual. He tells the Philippians he had one thing. When you find a person who has mastered living with one thing in mind, and that one thing is Christ likeness, then you have found a useful person to have around. True mentors teach us how to preserve a pure and simple devotion to Christ in a complex world.
Good works, as the Bible defines them, are activities and a pattern of obedience coming from the fountainhead of a desire to be like Christ. Most of us have witnessed the pathway to Christlikeness from both an objective and subjective angle. Objectively we know Christ through the Word. It is essential to know him as he is revealed in the Scriptures, and this answers the question: Why do I read the Bible? If the answer is simply knowledge, then it will inevitably lead to pride. If the answer is to know Christ, it will result in humility. The same activity can have two totally different outcomes. Subjectively speaking, the Holy Spirit works in us to give the will and the power to obey. The Holy Spirit is the vital controlling element in sanctification. If you want to be sanctified you must be filled with the Holy Spirit. Ironically the work is made much easier when the leverage of the Holy Spirit is applied. Good works (obedience to the commands in Scripture) in the life of the Christian become the rule, not the exception.
We need to avoid the spot in life where punishment is the normal process of learning (Hebrews 12:5-11). God himself will discipline a believer to correct us and put us back on a track. When our walk is right the normal relationship is characterized by obedience and blessing. Trials do come, but they are part of the kindness of God as he refines us into the image of Christ. To be clear, Paul raises this issue in the context of dealing with those who would be inclined to rest in their spirituality (Philippians 3:15). These are likely critics who like to tell everyone else how to behave. Christians who are actually running the race don’t have time to judge the technique of other runners. The focus is in the prize. Even Paul has only so much time to correct the wayward Philippians who were being derailed. Essentially he hands them over to God for correction. God loves them even more than Paul and he will be faithful to discipline them according to his will.
What is the best solution to problems in the church? Lessons can be taken from the way Paul handled the issues in Philippi. From his perspective, hundreds of miles away and unable to be of much practical help, he gratefully hands it over to the Lord. This is a best practice even when you are present and think you can offer practical help. He believes that God will work in the lives of the dissenters. This is faith in action. Paul is drawn to the fact that God began the work in each Christian, will complete it (1:6), and works in them for his purposes (2:13). Furthermore, he has all the tools to fix people. Only God can effectively discipline (Galatians 5:10), prompt them to move on (1 John 2:19), convert them if they are not saved, or persuade them by the Spirit to get on board and not be divisive. Notice what Paul does not do. He refuses to attack them or develop a legalistic structure to control them. He will not create policies to manage every situation or address every derivative opinion. He won’t even dignify the dissenters with a personal address. He leaves it to God.
Wouldn’t it be great if Christians agreed on everything? Imagine a church were that happened. Well that church doesn’t exist. Furthermore, if we are tempted to look back longingly at the early years of the church we would see the same problems. Paul says “and if” anyone has a different attitude to what he is promoting in Philippians 3:15, meaning since there were people with that mindset. There is no debate. The fact is even born again believers stray. Some, maybe many (v.17) in the congregation did not believe Paul. Likely Epaphrodites told him about the Judaizers, the perfectionist, the lawless ones, and even the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche. This is a problem, but the answer is not to sit back and hope it goes away. Instead Paul addresses those who are out of line. Those prone to “think otherwise” were endorsing ideas outside the sphere of biblical truth. These are the immature, but not necessarily the unsaved. Identifying the others is a difficult task. It must be approached with great humility and caution. However, the more diligent the rest of the church body is at shepherding them, the more healthy it will remain in the long run.