In this tenth posting, we are continuing the blog series with content from biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published the New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with HarperChristian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.
In this blog series, we’ll be sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World.
For twelve weeks, Bible Gateway will publish a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the tenth study, A Common Life of Imitation | Philippians 3:12-4:1
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
15 All of us, then, 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. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sis- ters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
Educators know that students learn more by watching and doing than by reading or listening. You can’t always tell the teachers to know this by the way they (or I) teach. Not to dismiss either listening or reading, but think about this: you can’t learn to hit a golf ball long and straight by reading a Ben Hogan book, nor can you learn to make risotto by watching Natasha’s Kitchen. You have to make some risotto and fail and taste it to see what al dente feels like.
You don’t learn to teach by reading about teaching but by teaching and embracing feedback from both students and seasoned teachers. The ancient world had a term for this: imitation. You learn best by seeing and then trying to do it.
Paul has enough chutzpah to use himself as an example to be imitated. His most famous statement like this is 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example,” and he justifies that bold claim by deflecting himself to “as I follow the example of Christ.” In our passage Paul completes his previous personal conversion story, which we looked at in the previous study, by admitting “not that I have already obtained all this” (Philippians 3:12). He says this three times if you want to count them in vv. 12–13.
In this passage, he becomes the classic model of teaching by imitation. He tells us what he does (3:12–14) before he turns to what we can all do by imitating him (3:15–4:1). That’s what I mean by chutzpah.
What He Does
In denying his full-on arrival at perfect kingdom living three times, he states twice what he is doing before the kingdom’s arrival. What he does is “press on” (3:12 and 3:14). “Press on” is not as colorful as the Greek term itself, which could be translated as “I chase” or “I pursue.” Behind the word “press on” (Greek diōkō) stands the very same term Paul just used in 3:6 for the intensity of his zeal, there translated as “persecuting.”
What he wants the Philippians to imitate is his passion, his zeal, his pursuit, and his running after. He pursues “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (3:12), which he explains in verse 14: “the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
He uses the image of the laurel wreath, which is the prize in running races. But it’s an image of a transformed body fit for the kingdom itself. Jesus “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (3:21). (Paul discusses this transformation extensively in 1 Corinthians 15:35–57 and 2 Corinthians 5:1–5 , which you might read to fill in the picture of Philippians.)
He does not believe in a spirit-only or soul-only eternal existence. We will not be ghost-like. He believes in the body but a body-that-is- transformed for a new existence. Call it Body 7.0, with seven as the Bible’s perfect number.
He attaches two ideas to his pursuit: he forgets “what is behind,” and he strains for “what is ahead” (3:13). The behind-him life points us back to his former high-status accomplishments in a life of radical law observance (3:4–6); the “what is ahead” is that glorious body future (3:21).
His pursuit then can be summarized like this: He is pursuing being with Christ; he is no longer pursuing status as an observant Pharisee; he is pursuing a life that is worthy of being with Christ forever; he is pursuing a life that defies death because it affirms the resurrection; and he is pursuing a body that swallows up what our bodies are now to become kingdom-shaped bodies fit for an embodied kingdom life.
What We Can All Do
“All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things” (3:15). The term “mature” almost suggests one who has reached one’s goal, but such an accomplishment creates serious tension with the same term in 3:12 where Paul says he has most clearly not “arrived at my goal.” This English translation “mature” helpfully corrects the KJV’s “perfect,” a translation that, as Lyn Osiek writes, “inspired generations of frustration.”
Maybe instead of either full perfection or even complete maturity, Paul means “those of us committed to the goal of final perfection.” At any rate, the “mature” are those in pursuit of the king and his kingdom.
He now gets right to the heart of imitation, instructing them to “ join together in following my example” (3:17). This can be translated more concisely as “become co-imitators of me!” since (he adds) “as you have us as a model,” and that means at least Paul and Timothy and probably others in his circle.
Notice what he does here. It’s important to see that Paul is not self-absorbed. He widens the circle to imitate with “keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (3:17). He has broadened worthy examples to all who are in the pursuit of the kingdom. Not just imitating himself, but Christ and all those following Christ.
Lynn Cohick helpfully gives us an image to think about here: Paul’s model for education is not the teacher-student image but the master-apprentice relationship. Another help for me comes from Osiek, who gets this just right when she says, “Paul never poses himself as an end but rather as a means to Christ.”
Imitation as genuine education is a splendid idea if your example is Paul, the embattled apostle. You may already know the drill about Paul: he arrives in a new city, goes to the synagogue, and preaches the gospel, some turn to Jesus as Messiah, some Gentiles believe, Paul does not require observance of the law for the Gentiles, some are not happy about Paul’s liberal stance–opposition ensues. Everywhere he went he experienced people who didn’t like him and who gossiped about him and who did what they could to discredit him.
(Read 2 Corinthians 10–13 someday. Nearly every verse echoes the harsh words of his critics.)
“Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18). We have to guess who these “enemies” are but probably the ones mentioned in 1:15–18 and the dogs of 3:2. He now fills in the picture of his opponents with a few choice put-downs: they’re headed toward final “destruction” and “their god is their stomach” and “their glory is their shame” (3:19). That is, their pursuit is “earthly things.”
Their earthly pursuit contrasts with Paul’s heavenly pursuit, even if the heavenly one occurs in the heat of opposition. Imitating Paul, friends, was chancy, and I’m not sure we think about this often enough. He faces opposition and death; his opponents cave to the opposition and join it. He faces it because his political kingdom citizenship is “in heaven,” and on earth, the believers are forming into kingdom colonies.
A heaven-shaped pursuit requires what Michael Gorman calls a “bifocal” life: one that looks all the time in two directions–at both the first, earthly life of Jesus and at the second coming of Christ.
Let’s tie this now together. Paul’s goal (3:12), what he takes hold of (3:12), the heavenward prize (3:14), the heavenly citizenship (3:20), and what he waits for (3:20) has the “power that enables him to bring everything” into its proper order with Jesus as the Lord (3:21). That’s the example he’s urging others to follow. To imitate Paul then is to “seek first his kingdom” (Matthew 6:33), to pursue a life now that approximates the heavenly kingdom then. It is to live like Christ.
One more consideration before we close shop on this passage. Try reading Philippians 2:6–11 and then read the last few verses of chapter three. If one asks what it means to live like the Jesus of 2:6–11 our passage is a plain speech example of what that means.
Questions for Reflection and Application
- As Paul offers himself as an example to be followed, what kinds of things does he say about himself and what he does?
- What does Paul mean when he invites the Philippians to imitate him and others, like Timothy, who “live as we do”?
- How does imitation work as a form of education?
- Who has served you as a model to imitate in the Christian life as you seek to become more like Jesus? What have you learned from them?
- How are you serving as a model for others? Who are you disciplining, and how are you leading them to become more like Jesus as they imitate your example?