May 19 – An Excellent Example

Join in following my example.

Philippians 3:17

There is no better historical example of a Christian than the apostle Paul. He’s a dominant figure in the New Testament, so we can conclude that God wants us to pattern our lives after him.

Paul is a model of virtue, worship, service, patience, endurance through suffering, victory over temptation, and good stewardship over possessions and relationships. He shows us how a godly man deals with his fallenness—something Christ could never do because He was sinless (Heb. 4:15)

Paul’s life is a marvelous pattern for ours. That’s why he told the Corinthians, “Imitate me” (1 Cor. 11:1). He also commended the Thessalonians, saying, “You have become followers of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:6). Paul is my own personal example in ministry. I look at how he handled situations and try to respond the way he did.[1]

Following After Examples

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. (3:17)

For the third time in this chapter Paul affectionately addresses the Philippians as brethren (cf. vv. 1, 13). The phrase join in following my example literally reads in the Greek text “be fellow imitators with me.” Paul urged the Philippians to imitate the way he lived. He was not putting himself on a pedestal of spiritual perfection (cf. the discussion of vv. 12–16 in the previous chapter of this volume). Instead, he was encouraging the Philippians to follow him, an imperfect sinner, as he pursued the goal of Christlikeness.

The New Testament records Paul’s failures as well as his triumphs. Outraged at his abusive treatment at the hands of the high priest, he cried out, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3)—an outburst for which he promptly apologized (Acts 23:5). Because of his struggle with pride, the Lord gave Paul a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7). Three decades after his conversion, he still thought of himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).

Had he been perfect, Paul would not have been an example believers could follow. We need to follow someone who is not perfect so we can see how to overcome our imperfections; someone who can show us how to handle the struggles of life, its disappointments, and its trials; someone who can show us how to handle pride, resist temptation, and put sin to death. Christ is the perfect standard, model, and pattern for believers to emulate. But Christ never pursued perfection; He has always been perfect. Paul was a fellow traveler on the path toward the unattainable spiritual perfection, and thus a model for believers to follow. He modeled virtue, morality, overcoming the flesh, victory over temptation, worship, service to God, patient endurance of suffering, handling possessions, and handling relationships.

Moving beyond himself, Paul commanded the Philippians also to observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. Skopeō (observe) is the verb form of the noun translated “goal” in verse 14, and could be translated “fix your gaze on.” Paul is in effect saying, “Focus on those whose walk (daily conduct) is according to the correct pattern—the one you have in us.” That would include Timothy and Epaphroditus, whom the Philippians knew, as well as the overseers and deacons at Philippi (cf. 1:1). The word us, however, is most likely a literary plural, a humble way for Paul to refer to himself.

Paul’s example was available to the Philippians in print, as it is to believers today. But they had also observed his life firsthand during his stay in Philippi. Believers have always needed examples of godly living as patterns. Those examples are the pastors and elders of the church, who are to “show [themselves examples] of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:12) by modeling humility, unselfish service, willingness to suffer, devotion to Christ, courage, and dedication to spiritual growth.

Those who teach and preach the Word must handle it accurately. That is especially important today, when the correct interpretation of Scripture has been hopelessly blurred and seemingly any view is tolerated. Paul exhorted Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). But accurate teaching of the truth must be backed up by a godly life.[2]

  1. Deeply moved by what he is about to write, Paul addresses the Philippians with the endearing word Brothers (see on 1:12; cf. 1:14; 3:1, 13; 4:1, 8, 21). He continues, join in being imitators of me. Should not brothers show that they belong to the same spiritual family, and are, therefore, really brothers? Should not their attitude of heart, speech, and conduct remind one of the same model? “Let me be that model,” says Paul, as it were, and this in self-renunciation over against self-complacency; in humble, Christ-centered trust instead of arrogant self-esteem; in idealism versus indolence (Phil. 3:7–14); and thus also in spirituality as contrasted with sensuality, that is, in heavenly-mindedness as opposed to worldly-mindedness (verses 18–21).

But is selection of himself as an example consistent with Christian humility? Answer:

(1) Before pointing to himself as an example, the apostle had reminded the Philippians of Christ as the chief example (Phil. 2:5–8). Accordingly, they knew that what Paul meant was simply this, “Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

(2) The apostle was not placing himself on a pedestal, as if he were perfect, but, quite the contrary, was urging his friends to strive after perfection, in the full realization that they were still far removed from the ideal, as was he himself.

(3) Surrounded by immorality on the part both of pagans and of nominal Christians (see verses 18 and 19), these Philippians needed a concrete example of Christian devotion, a picture-lesson. The apostle had every right to point to himself as such an example.

(4) The justifiable character of his exhortation becomes even more clearly evident when it is seen in the light of what immediately follows, showing that when Paul urged the Philippians to imitate him, he was not thinking of himself alone but of himself in company with others, such as Timothy (Phil. 2:19–24) and Epaphroditus (2:25–30). Note the pronoun we instead of I in the continuation: and watch closely those who are walking according to the example that we have set you. Instead of fixing your attention upon individuals who have confused Christian liberty with license, focus it upon those who are safe guides of Christian conduct. Let them be your example (see N.T.C. on 1 Thess. 1:7).[3]

17 The command to “join … in following [Paul’s] example” (cf. 1 Co 4:6; 11:1; 1 Th 1:6; 2 Th 3:7) and the mention of a “pattern” (typos, GK 5596) confirms that Paul has been setting patterns, both negative and positive, before the Philippians. They are to follow the positive examples. Urging imitation rather than issuing authoritative prescriptions is far more effective in accomplishing this goal.

The verb “observe, take note of” (skopeō, GK 5023) recalls the blepō (“consider,” GK 1063) in 3:2. The preposition syn (symmimētēs, “join … in following my example,” GK 5213) suggests that they be unified in their imitation of him. The NIV’s “the pattern we gave you” may suggest that Paul is using the literary plural to refer to himself. Williams, 215–16, comments, however, that the singular would have defeated his purpose: “He wants to show the unity they have in their example. It is not just himself, but others who follow this model.” The other examples are Timothy and Epaphroditus, both of whom are well-known in Philippi. They set the example, forfeiting everything to serve Christ, with the hope of attaining the resurrection through him. The Philippians may not be able to abandon the Jewish-privilege system to know Christ, but they can let go of the Roman cultural advantage and abandon the power and status of the Roman Empire.[4]

3:17 Now Paul turns to exhortation, first by encouraging the Philippians to be followers, or imitators of himself. It is a tribute to his exemplary life that he could ever write such words. We often hear the expression in jest, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Not so the apostle! He could hold up his own life as a model of wholehearted devotion to Christ and to His cause.

Lehman Strauss comments:

Paul considered himself the recipient of God’s mercy that he might be a “pattern”; thus his whole life, subsequent to his conversion, was dedicated to presenting to others an outline sketch of what a Christian should be. God saved Paul in order that he might show by the example of his conversion that what Jesus Christ did for him He can and will do for others. Was not this the special object our Lord had in view in extending His mercy to you and me? I believe He has saved us to be a pattern to all future believers. Are we serving as examples of those who have been saved by His grace? May it be so!

And note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. This refers to any others who were living the same kind of life as Paul. It does not mean to mark them out disapprovingly, as in the next verse, but to observe them with a view to following in their steps.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 156). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 254–255). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 179–180). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 247). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1976). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.


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