Thursday, January 31, 2019

Keep Your Eyes on Good Examples

St. Paul in Prison, by Rembrandt
"Brothers, join in imitating me, 
and keep your eyes on those who walk 
according to the example you have in us." 
- Philippians 3:17

In this verse, the apostle Paul exhorts the Philippian saints to imitate him. A careful reading of this letter will reveal that Paul has been teaching by example throughout the letter. He began the letter humbly calling himself and Timothy "slaves of Christ Jesus" while using the formal titles for the leaders of the Philippians church ("overseers and deacons"). He had used his own mindset in prison to exhort the Philippian saints to prioritize the well-being of the gospel above self (1:12-18). He had used his own conflicted thoughts as a prisoner facing a potential death sentence to teach the Philippians contentment and joy in life and death (1:12-18). After recalling the example of our Savior in 2:5-11, he notes how similar traits can be found in him, Timothy, and Epaphroditus (2:19-30). He also warned the Philippians against false teachers by recounting his own story, how he willingly suffered the loss of his reputation and position for the sake of Christ, forsaking the confidence in the flesh that these false teachers now promoted (3:4-14).

Now Paul calls the Philippians to imitate him, to adopt his mindset, even as Paul has adopted Christ's. Yet, he also makes it clear that he is not the only one to be imitated. The essential part is not Paul, but the common pattern of life found in him and in other mature Christians. He includes others "who walk according to the example you have in us" (the "us" refers to Paul, Timothy, and perhaps Epaphroditus; these three have exemplified a way of life that can be found in others).

We ought to learn from Christ himself and the example he gave in his life (Phil. 2:5-11), but it is helpful to find the same pattern lived out by many people in many circumstances in many ages. These examples will not be perfect - in fact, a humble recognition of their dependance on Christ is a key trait they will exemplify. Paul's way of thinking that he wants you to imitate is found in Philippians 3:12, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." As other Christians grow in grace, humbly realizing their need of Christ, repenting of their sins, and becoming more conformed to His character, they blaze a trail for us to follow. Some Christians blaze a better trail than others. Following more than one mature Christian and rooting yourself in Scripture can help you avoid the times their paths go astray. Yet, if done right, following their trails is much better than trying to blaze your own trail. Moreover, the alternative is not necessarily blazing your own trail. If you don't follow mature Christians, you will likely follow someone else. And as Paul notes in the following verses, there are bad examples out there who are paving a path to destruction (Phil. 4:18-19).

As you apply this verse, look for mature Christians from the past and present. You can look to mature Christians in the Bible, in church history, and in our own day, to see what it looks like to manifest the mind of Christ, what it looks like to share in his suffering and the power of his resurrection. This work of imitation also brings us unity - we “join in” imitating good Christian examples. These mature saints give us a common heritage, a common way of life, one which transcends the barriers of culture and age. Together we seek the one mind of Christ found among his disciples.

Study the lives of the saints of the past, especially Christians who were particularly mature and Christlike. Each life is different and can bring out different lessons. One of the benefits of the saints of the past is that we can view their whole life story from beginning to end. These saints give us encouragement - we are not the first ones to walk this way. They kept the faith unto death.

Set your eyes also on mature Christians in the present. Identify people today who walk according to the example that Paul set. Examine their way of life and the way they make choices. Before you consider who is cool, who you like, or who is attractive, consider: who is like Christ? Who is like Christ's disciples? And make that person your pattern. Seek that type of person as your mentor or counselor. This goes for the young, who are in particular need of examples, having lived less years, but this goes for everyone! Paul does not limit himself to the young. We are all disciples, seeking after this goal. None of us have reached it. None of us are perfect. So learn from Christ, learn from God’s word, but also learn from mature Christians, past and present, and imitate them.

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