15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained. 17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
In the previous verses, Paul has been speaking about the great value he places on knowing Christ. He has expressed that he values knowing Christ more than anything else: "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Phil. 3:8). He has explained what he means by knowing Christ: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death" (Phil. 3:10). He has admitted that he has fallen short in this knowledge, and has expressed his great desire to complete his knowledge of Christ: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:12-14).
Now, in our text this month, Paul states: "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things" (Phil. 3:15). We should all, as Christians, have the overriding desire to perfect our knowledge of Christ. Paul wrote the preceding verses, not just for the opportunity to describe his personal attitude and feelings, but that we might apply what he is saying to our lives. Paul, effectively, is saying in verse 15, "It is not only me who should have this attitude, who should strive to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, who should strive toward that for which we are called heavenward. It is all of us who `should take such a view of things.'" We must all read the Holy Scriptures that we might apply them to our lives. As Thomas Brooks said: "If it be not strong upon thy heart to practice what thou readest, to what end dost thou read? To increase thy own condemnation?"[Footnote #4]
Paul continues: "And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you" (vs. 15). Paul here is pointing out that not all Christians have the same maturity level. This fact should be obvious, but it seems we forget it at times. We are quick to criticize younger Christians who, often through ignorance, show their weaknesses. Paul does not criticize those, who through lack of maturity, "think differently"; rather, he treats them with patience, and leaves their Christian growth up to the work of God. We should do the same thing. We must not be too quick to chastise, but rather be quick to teach. We who have been Christians for a long time must not display a "high and mighty" attitude, but rather humbly seek to correct our weaker brothers and sisters.
Throughout the Bible, spiritual growth is depicted as a gradual process. In Proverbs, we read: "The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day" (Prov. 4:18). Younger Christians are likened to infants, who need "milk, not solid food" (Heb. 5:12; see also I Cor. 3:1-3; I Cor. 14:20). Here in Philippians, Paul is speaking of those who, because of their spiritual immaturity, do not have an overwhelming desire to know Christ. They cannot yet say with Paul: "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Phil. 3:8). Mature, true Christianity is "all-out" Christianity. The words of advice, "All things in moderation", do not apply to service of the Lord. Many think that we should not be fanatical about our faith, but this is not borne out in the Bible. The Bible encourages, even requires, such fanaticism. What is it but fanaticism to say: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
Not all of us have such "fanaticism", so Paul says, "And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you" (vs. 15). Note again that Paul leaves up to the work of God the maturing of those "who think differently", those who lack an overwhelming desire to know Christ. Yes, Paul could try to yell, scream and argue the younger Christians into maturity, but this would not be effective. Prayer is more effective than argument. Leave such work up to God. God cares about our spiritual growth (what a blessing!), and will, in time, bring us all into spiritual maturity. As Paul said earlier in this epistle, "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).
Having conceded the fact that we are at different levels of spiritual maturity, Paul then exhorts us to continually progress in our spiritual growth: "Only let us live up to what we have already attained" (vs. 16). There's no turning back! (It's a horrible feeling to slide backwards in our spiritual maturity). Continual spiritual growth can be had by adopting the same attitude that Paul had already expressed: "Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14).
Paul next offers before them an example to follow: "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (vs. 17). This sounds arrogant of Paul, to recommend himself as an example to follow; however, Paul could objectively look at what he had become through the work of the Holy Spirit in his life, and rightly so, offer himself up as an example. There are few better examples. "For in the imitating of Paul all these virtues are included, pure zeal, fear of the Lord, modesty, self-renunciation, docility, love, and desire of accord."[Footnote #5] Of course, Paul was only a worthy example insofar as he followed our supreme example, that is, Christ. As Paul says elsewhere: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (I Cor. 11:1).
Throughout the Bible, we are not only given commandments concerning how to live our lives, but also examples of saints living godly lives. Examples are a very powerful method of instruction, giving life to the commandment. "Precepts instruct us what things are our duty, but examples assure us that they are possible."[Footnote #6] In the Bible, we can find godly examples for many situations, and many walks of life. "The prince [can find an example] in Josiah and Hezekiah (see II Kings 23 and II Kings 18ff); the counsellor in Hushai (see II Sam. 17); the rich man in Abraham (see Gen. 13,14 et. al.); the poor in the Shunamite (see II Kings 4); officers in court, in the eunuch of Candace (see Acts 8:26ff); the captive in Daniel and the three children (see Daniel 1-3); the afflicted in Job (see the Book of Job); the banished in Joseph (see Gen. 39-41); the soldier in Cornelius (see Acts 10); women in Sarah (see I Pet. 3:6); the magistrate in Moses and Joshua or Nehemiah; ministers in the apostles of Jesus Christ, a zealous, self-denying complany, who left their all to promote the gospel. And then of all graces, Abraham for faith, David for devotion, Job for patience, Timothy for temperance, Paul for diligence and activity in the Lord's work."[Footnote #7]
In general, insofar as they are Christ-like, we are to use other, mature brothers and sisters as examples. In fact, whether we like it or not, we as Christians are all examples: examples to our children, examples to younger Christians, even examples to non-believers who know of our faith. Unfortunately, when we stumble, we can be horrid examples, turning people away from the Christian faith.
Father, help us to be good examples, living a Christ-like life before those who look up to us. Also, give us discernment in who to follow as examples, as we seek to be sanctified. And Lord, give us the overwhelming desire (like Paul) to know Your Son. May this be the overriding desire of our lives. In His name we pray these things, Amen.
4. Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices, from The Works of Thomas Brooks, Vol. I; pg. 9.
5. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle, pg. 280.
6. William Bates, cited in A Puritan Golden Treasury, edited by I.D.E. Thomas, pg. 95.
7. Thomas Manton, "Sermons Upon Philippians III" from The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, Vol. XX; pg. 111.