Good and Bad Role Models

Thomas Lieth

In Philippians 3:17, the Apostle Paul presents himself as an example: “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example” (cf. Phil 4:9). This entreaty of Paul is not a reflection of pride, rather of his life, his service, his devotion and fervor for Christ and the Church.

“To emulate Paul” means to trust in Christ alone and to regard all else as dirt, just as Paul did: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Phil 3:7-8).

“To emulate Paul” means to commit totally to Christ and to discard all human fears. “Emulating Paul” includes being a prayer warrior, always being alert to the needs of the Church of Christ. It also encompasses his sufferings, his total and uncompromising submission. It means to take Paul as an example in one’s actions, one’s thinking and one’s life (Phil 2:17-18).

However, Paul did not think of himself as a unique role model, but speaks of “them which walk so as ye have us for an example” (Phil 3:17). Such as Timothy, for instance, who together with Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians and whom Paul praised very highly (Phil 1:1; 2:19-22). This is what he says about Timothy: “For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state” (Phil 2:20). And not to forget a certain Epaphroditus, who also was singled out and complimented by Paul: “my brother, and companion in labor, and fellow soldier…for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me” (Phil 2:25-30).

The highest embodiment of an exemplary life, of course, is Jesus Christ Himself: “Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem [the] other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:2-5). Paul emphasizes this again and again. Since his conversion, his whole life is patterned after Christ’s example. As he says in his letter to the Corinthians: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).        

If we talk about an example to follow, it must never become adulation of a human being. Neither Paul nor the other disciples ever fell into that error. Quite the contrary. Paul vehemently opposed the habit of some to say: “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (1 Cor 1:12). In this connection he states: “…lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (verse 17). It is all about Christ and the gospel of the cross, not the veneration of a human being.

This is just as relevant today. It is legitimate and helpful to learn from great men of the faith; and yes, to emulate them. “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation” (Heb 13:7). But we must never let these shining examples have center stage. We should copy their faith—that is the decisive factor—because in their spiritual life Jesus Christ was the unquestionable focus. And then Paul warns about seducers, who of course must not become our inspiration. He even calls them enemies of the cross: “(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: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things)” (Phil 3:18-19).

Paul repeatedly warned the churches concerning false doctrine and fraudulent teachers. In his letter to the Roman congregation, for instance, he writes: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Rom 16:17-18). And to the Galatians he wrote: “…there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7). Finally, to the Ephesians he sent this admonishment: “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Eph 4:14).

The first churches were made up of Gentiles and Jews—coming from the most diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. For instance, take the Judaizers: they were Jews whose very identity resided in the law and sacrificial worship. They were open to the gospel, yet wanted to cling to the law. This could have been for different reasons, such as avoiding a threatening persecution of Christians. Also, the expression “whose God is their belly” could be referring to Jewish law (also self-righteousness) concerning dietary regulations. Basically, this would be rejecting grace and clinging to the belief that if I keep the dietary laws (“my God is the belly”), I can merit God’s good will.      

Concerning honor, “…whose glory is in their shame” (Phil 3:19). This could also be an allusion to circumcision: again, an external formality which will gain one favor with God. These Jews were proud of their sacrificial services, the dietary laws, and even more so of the circumcision. This was what distinguished them from the heathen. “As many as desire to make a fair show in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh” (Gal 6:12-13). Paul specifically spoke on the subject of circumcision earlier in chapter 3: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:2-3).

These verses can let us deduce that when Paul warns of the enemies of the cross, he is thinking of the Judaizers. But this forewarning also fits the so-called “liberals”—those who came out of a heathen nation, usually influenced by either Greek or Roman culture and religion. And it is indeed the same today; we must always deal with two extremes. There are those so steeped in legalism that they disregard grace, constantly veering toward self-righteousness; and on the opposite side, those who completely pervert the concept of grace, abusing it for their selfish purposes. For those, “God is their belly” means: “Everything is lawful to me. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In their lives no change can be observed. There is no difference in that kind of “Christian” from the ungodly. Solemnly and in tears Paul says: “Whose end is destruction” (Phil 3:19).

We see a classic example in the church of Corinth: “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed and might be taken away from among you” (1 Cor 5:1-2). The Corinthians were proud and puffed up, instead of hiding in shame: “And whose glory is in their shame.” Thus, it appears that Paul’s admonishing words fit both groups. Whether Jew or Gentile, whether legalistic or liberal; the central and fundamental issue is skirted: “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil 2:21).

The shocking aspect in all this is the fact that we are not dealing with enemies from the outside; rather with those who are within the congregation (read also Acts 20:28-30). The greatest enemies do not lie in wait outside the church door—they are already ensconced in the pews. They are like metastases, which slowly but surely eat away at the congregation from the inside. Paul comments again: “…of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18). Paul is deeply grieved that God’s grace is met with such blatant disregard. Paul’s tears are not for himself, not because he felt deprived of the fruits of his labor; no, it greatly pained him to see the cross trodden underfoot.     

The cross was always Paul’s central focus, and now he had to see God’s grace thoughtlessly rejected in many places, and the precious blood of the Lord Jesus being treated like dirt. That was distressing, especially when it was done by those who have heard the gospel and initially seemed to understand it. Paul weeps, perhaps also with compassion and love for those who are lost and “whose end is destruction,” but far more out of love for God’s grace and His work of salvation. Beyond this it is also his love for the body of Christ, and his concern about the devastating effects of those deceptive metastases, once they have taken root in a congregation.

Paul’s plea and prayer concern, after all, is for the churches to increase and grow in love: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ. Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:9-11).

The more one is focused on Christ and rooted in the Word of God, the clearer one’s ability will be to discern and judge divergent spirits. Only then can one be armed against false teachers and misleading doctrines. We must follow those role models who are spiritually minded, who focus on Christ’s central importance and who preach the gospel of the cross.

Enemies of the cross—and I mean those within the Church—are those who are worldly minded. Their lives are not marked by devotion to Christ and His Church, but rather characterized by self-centeredness and self-righteousness. “Whose end is destruction…who mind earthly things.” But “…our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:19-20).

Midnight Call - 08/2018

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