Philippians 3:17–21

Philippians 3

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

In 1686, Isaac Newton presented his three laws of motion. They are:

  1. An object at rest remains at rest, and an object in motion remains in motion at constant speed and in a straight line unless acted on by an unbalanced force.
  2. The acceleration of an object depends on the mass of the object and the amount of force applied.
  3. Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first.[1]

Newton’s third law—more popularly expressed as “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”—is not only a scientific law, it is also a social and religious law.

It is true: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Movement in one direction will result in equal movement in the opposite direction unless something disrupts the movement.

Human beings tend to live in the extremes, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than in how they relate to God.

Now, God is the great center and grounding of all life. He is reality itself and the foundation of life itself. But human beings, fallen as we are, wildly and widely miss the grounding of God by our frantic and mad efforts to grasp Him. So we continuously swing past the grounding foundation of God while moving toward this or that extreme.

We see this in the scriptures. Paul had to deal with it all the time. And we see it now in his next words to the Philippians.

The ever-present temptation of the extremes.

Previously, Paul warned the church at Philippi about a group of people called Judaizers. The Judaizers were legalists, remember? They were the part of “Jesus and…” They were the people on the legalistic end of the pendulum swing saying, “Yes, you need Jesus, but you also need to become Jewish to be saved. You need to be circumcised and you need to keep kosher.”

So they were way over there. Their focus was law, ritual purity, and external compliance.

This is where Newton’s Third Law comes in.

The opposite of legalism is libertinism.

Legalism is obsessed with law. Libertinism says there is no law.

Legalism is obsessed with purity. Libertinism is obsessed with unfettered freedom.

Legalism is fearful that God will not be happy. Libertinism is fearful that the human self will not happy.

Legalism says, “Thou shalt not!” Libertinism says, “Oh, thou shalt all right!”

Legalism says, “Tremble and quake!” Libertinism says, “It is time to party!”

Paul, having warned against the legalists, now has to warn against the libertines. Listen:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

There are some who argue that these people about whom Paul is warning the Philippians are in fact the Judaizers. So, in that reading, “their god is their belly” is referring to their obsession with dietary food laws and their minds being set on earthly things refers to their fixation on externals like circumcision and outward adherence to the law.

But this does not seem to be the most natural reading of what Paul is saying here. No, it is most likely that Paul is speaking of the opposite tendency of human beings, that which legalism inevitably gives rise to: libertinism. I agree with Daniel Migliore’s assessment:

If Paul earlier combated those who thought they could achieve perfection by adopting religious rules and rituals, he now seems to have in mind people who wallow in self-indulgence…and crave social approval and material goods…With moral perfectionists on one side and moral libertarians on the other, Paul is indeed walking a moral “tightrope” with his warnings in this letter.[2]

These people:

  • “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ”
  • “their end is destruction”
  • “their god is their belly”
  • “they glory in their shame”
  • “with minds set on earthly things”

This is libertinism. Hedonism. The pursuit of pleasure. The pursuit of the flesh.

“Their god is their belly.” Meaning, they are ruled by their appetites. This refers to food, yes, but also to more than food. Craig Keener writes:

Greco-Roman philosophers and non-Palestinian Jewish writers (especially Philo) repeatedly railed against those ruled by their passions, often remarking that they were ruled by their “belly” (KJV, NRSV) or their (sexual or culinary) “appetite” (NASB), disdaining their neglect of eternal things. Gluttony especially became part of Roman culture, and its practice by the aristocracy was a frequent butt of satirists’ humor. But being ruled by one’s “belly” meant more than gluttony; it was used to mean any fleshly indulgence (cf. “bodily desires”—GNT). This would be a serious insult to those who thought they were zealous for the *law (*Diaspora Jews emphasized how the law enabled them to master passions); but Paul had already “shamed” their “glory” by his own example in 3:4-8.[3]

Paul used this kind of language before in Romans 16.

17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.

This is the party party. R. Kent Hughes put it powerfully when he wrote, “The Philippian apostates were digging their graves with their own teeth as they chewed upon their earthbound impulses and the cud of personal pleasure.”[4]

This is the “do as thou wilt” party, to quote Satanist Alister Crowley.

J.B. Lightfoot referred to these people as “the antinomian reactionists.”[5] “Antinomiansm” is another way of saying extreme libertinism

Why is Paul having to warn the church about these people? He has to warn them because it is most likely that a libertine influence has infiltrated the church in some manner. Other suggests that these libertines may not necessarily be in the church but may have left it for their libertine ways but reside around the church and still exert possible influence over the members of the church. The possibility of a libertine influence seems clear enough in our text. If these people are not still in the church, their influence potentially is.

Paul is speaking to the church and encouraging them to stay focused on Jesus. He does not want them to be legalists. He also does not want them to be libertines.

Legalism and libertinism have longed plagued the church and both options seem to be present on almost every issue. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Take music. I know of a very traditional church in which the congregation voted that the Doxology must be sung every Sunday. It must be. Now that is fascinating to me. I am not saying they are wrong for doing that—I love the Doxology!—but it certainly has overtones of legalism to it and I do wonder about the precedence it sets. On the other hand, I am aware of a very large Baptist church that, some years ago, performed AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” on Easter Sunday morning. No, I am not kidding! And that does feel very wrong to me in the opposite direction.

But surely it is possible to avoid obscene music that does not honor God while not digging our feet only into one particular kind of worship music that we prefer? Surely we could allow appropriate freedom in music so long as it does not calcify into limiting legalism or obscene libertinism.

Legalism. Libertinism.

Let us take a controversial issue: same sex attraction homosexuality.

On the one hand, we see in the news a Baptist (though not Southern Baptist) church in which the members hold up crude signs saying that “God Hates [gay people].” I am editing here. And they will hold up signs saying, “Gays Die, God Laughs.” These kinds of things. You have likely seen these people on the news.

On the other hand, Roni and I went to Boston a few years ago and a solid 90% of the churches we saw downtown had pride flags and banners on them.

Cruel, vicious legalism. Unbiblical, celebratory libertinism.

But surely it is possible to hold clearly to the biblical teaching that same sex sexual behavior is a sin while yet loving homosexuals as created in the image of God. Surely it is possible for the church not to compromise its convictions while also not having some perverse desire for the destruction of sinners. Surely it is possible to call gay people to obedience to God’s design for humanity while yet being keenly aware of our own sinfulness in other areas.

Legalism. Libertinism. The church seems to swing wide into both of these extremes.

Paul had to deal with both. We have spoken at length about Paul’s battle with the Judaizers. But he waged similar war with the libertines. Romans 6 appears to be largely about libertine temptations in the church. Consider:

1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

And later in the same chapter:

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

What is significant about Romans 6:1 and 6:15 is that Paul is likely repeating the two major arguments of libertines within the church. They are:

  1. The more I sin, the more God forgives, and the more grace is magnified.
  2. The more I sin, the more I demonstrate that I do not live by the fear that the law brings but by the joy that grace brings.

Now, both of these are distortions of grace and the love and forgiveness of God, but this is how people claiming to be Christians sometimes justify their sin.

We are Baptist people and so most of us know better than to say these things out loud, but, if you watch yourself closely, you might find that these mindsets are always lurking around the edges of our rebellion or hiding beneath the surface. “Yes, that was wrong, but God delights in forgiving, so…”


Libertinism is the belief that since I am saved I can do what I do (i.e., whatever I want) and God will do what He does (i.e., forgive me for doing whatever I want).

You will notice, if you listen closely, that people on the extremes always use the language of the other extreme to describe any deviation from their extreme.

Let me give you an example.

A true legalist might look at a person who goes to secular music concert and say, “You must be a libertine or a liberal Christian.” But they are saying that in order to justify their own hard legalism, in order to paint anybody who does not agree with them on everything as a libertine, a liberal. But surely there are secular concerts that are not obscene or blasphemous or sinful, right? Of course. Yet, the extremes cannot make room for nuance or else their extreme position is handled.

Or take libertinism. A true libertine might look at a Christian who says, “I am not comfortable going to see that movie. I do not think I should watch that, as a Christian.” and say, “You are such a legalist!” But why is a Christian not wanting to see a particular movie legalistic? After all, there are some movies that are obscene or inappropriate.

There is a profound intolerance in the extremes toward any deviation. The extremes demand conformity.

Which is the greater threat to us? It is hard to say because, honestly, both are present in evangelical life: legalism and libertinism. I sometimes think that among older people legalism is the greater temptation and among younger people libertinism is the greater temptation. But then I meet older libertines and younger legalists and have to rethink that.

Paul addresses both groups in his letter. Here he addresses libertinism! Beware legalism, yes, but beware hyper-permissiveness, the kind of Christianity that seems to think any behavior and every behavior is good and acceptable and right.

What, then, is the answer to this?

The equilibrium of the Kingdom

How do we avoid the extreme swings of our age? Here is the answer: We stand in the equilibrium of the Kingdom. We stand in the way of Jesus. Listen:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

First Paul, points to himself as an example. Again, this is not conceit. Paul has simply reached the end of his own efforts and his thrown himself totally upon Christ Jesus. Paul’s call was to imitate himself insofar as he himself imitated Jesus. Paul knew he was a sinner (1 Timothy 1:15, “the chief of sinners”) and is not claiming otherwise. He does not say, “Be perfect as I am perfect.” He says “join in imitating me” in his own following Jesus. He is simply calling for the enactment of the principle, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Notice too that Paul does not only call upon the Philippians to imitate him alone. He also says, “and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” So, follow not only Paul but follow all who are walking well in the way of Christ. But then Paul says:

20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

The key to getting off the swinging pendulum of this world is to come to Jesus and have a whole new orientation into the citizenship of the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus, we become citizens of God’s Kingdom. So we are no long subject to the vacillations and swings of the kingdom of the world.

The world swings wildly back and forth past the gounding heartbeat of Jesus. A wide swing over here gives birth to a wide swing over there. Extreme begets extreme. And, tragically, the church in the world is subject to the same swings.

But not so the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom of God we:

  • strive for holiness not because we think our efforts win our salvation but because of our gratitude that we have been saved!
  • thank God that His grace covers our sins while simultaneously realizing how obscene it would be to use that fact on the front end as a preemptive excuse to sin!
  • celebrate Christian freedom while not letting it regress into license.
  • do not impose our own scruples upon one another in disputed or grey areas while simultaneously realizing that not every area is grey!
  • rest in the mercy and promise of God’s grace while trembling before our great God who is not mocked!
  • challenge one another to holiness, to live good and moral lives, while not becoming the sin police who are preoccupied with the sins of others.

In short, the answer is a radical, uncompromising anchoring of ourselves in the life and way of Jesus Christ.

20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Jesus is our focus. He is changing us and will change us. His way is different from the way of the world.

Jesus is the center. Jesus is the foundation. Jesus is the heartbeat of the Christian.

Beware the pendulum swing of human instability.

Come to Jesus and rest in the equilibrium of the Kingdom.

You do not have to spend your life on the pendulum. Rest in Christ. Avoid the legalism that tries to perform for God’s applause. Avoid the libertinism that wants only what it wants.

Take the cross. Follow your King. Rest in Him.




[2] Migliore, Daniel. Philippians and Philemon.Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Gen. eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 146.

[3] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (IVP Bible Background Commentary Set) (p. 564). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Hughes, R. Kent. Philippians. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.157.

[5] Lightfoot, J.B. Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1903), p.155.

One thought on “Philippians 3:17–21

  1. One of your best messages ever; took me several times through both the Video version and the text to get “a hold” of it; it is more better from you as those little off script items and parts NOT spoken but written here always helps me tremendously esp. the foot notes lead me out way beyond thee. This one topic in my short journey seems to have been right in the middle of a world of hurt and caused NOT just a little damage to local churches both small and large. Part of the “rescue” plan for me was Wyman and part was due to reading well out beyond the SBC basics in early “little c” writings and some of the desert fathers and/or mystics as some would have it. Thank you again for just “telling it plain” as gospel plain can be. Me no do church wars no more 🙂 Go CBCNLR & go Wym!!!!!!!!

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