A major part of Christian discipleship is finding the right people to imitate and avoiding patterning your life after the wrong people. Paul says in Philippians 3:17-19
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Then Paul mentions why they needed to imitate him and not others…
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.
We can follow godly men like Paul, or ungodly “enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Our world is all about following. Everybody follows something. Whether it is your favorite sports team, blog or friend; we follow things we care about and that matter to us.
In the early Church times, people wanted someone to follow. One of the great leaders was the Apostle Paul, who experienced an amazing transformation as he went from an angry murderer to a passionate follower of Jesus. People saw his passion and wanted what he had. They wanted someone to follow and Paul knew they would, so he said to them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Paul wanted them to know that he was also a follower and that if they truly wanted to follow him then they would have to know that he got his strength from being a follower first. Paul understood that Jesus was the reason for his changed life because he had tasted forgiveness, grace and a fresh start through Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.
But it is dangerous to follow some people. Paul tells the Philippian believers that some people are not worth following. Paul was careful to remind them “often.” Like a parent who knows that their child needs repeated instructions or warnings, Paul regularly reminded them that some religious leaders are not worth following.
But Paul also told them “even with tears.” It certainly didn’t delight Paul to call these people “enemies of the cross of Christ.” He wasn’t a heresy hunter. As a spiritual parent he did stay on the alert for false doctrine, but he did not gladly call people out for their errors.
What was even more sad, is that there were “many” who were trading in the preciousness of their faith in Jesus Christ.
We don’t exactly know who these people are. Some believe that they were Judaizers—that adding legal requirements to Christ made them “enemies of the cross” and their dependence on Old Testament dietary laws made a “god” out of their bellies and their emphasis on circumcision would be “glorying in their shame,” all of which showed that they were not spiritually minded, but earthly minded.
Others believe that they were false teachers who promoted lawlessness, particularly sensuality. This was very common among false teachers of that age. Their lifestyles repudiated all that the cross stands for, specifically the passionate pursuit of Christ and a cross-centered life of suffering. That pursuit was all foolishness to them.
Now, in these two verses Paul first gives a distinctive identifying title “enemies of the cross of Christ,” then gives four descriptive statements identifying the end and characteristics of these “enemies of the cross of Christ.”
So, what does it mean to be an “enemy of the cross of Christ”? Well, if these are Judaizers that Paul is talking about, they were “enemies of the cross of Christ” because they valued their own works in procuring their salvation rather than valuing and trusting in Christ’s work for them on the cross.
You can either try to work for your own salvation, or you can wholly trust in Jesus’ work for your salvation. His work was the work of the cross, dying in the place of sinners.
Judaizers were unbelievers not because they loved to sin, but because they depended upon their own righteousness.
Enemies of the cross diminish its value by emphasizing human worth or merit in addition to what Christ did on the cross. They lift up fallen man and bring down the holy God, thus shortening the “mighty gulf that God did span at Calvary.”
If, on the other hand, the people Paul was talking about were libertines, then to be an “enemy of the cross” means that one values their sins more than they value what Christ did for them on the cross. Libertines love their sin and they are unwilling to give them up, even though Christ died for their sins and is offering them forgiveness and eternal joy.
These people are unbelievers because they are unwilling to confess that they are sinners and have no desire to be saved. They love their sins and thus despise the cross.
Warren Wiersbe writes:
“The cross of Jesus Christ is the theme of the Bible, the heart of the gospel, and the chief source of praise in heaven (Rev. 5:8-10). The cross is the proof of God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8) and God’s hatred for sin. The cross condemns what the world values. It judges mankind and pronounces the true verdict: ‘Guilty!’”
The cross humbles human pride, because it shows us that our good works are not able to make us right with a holy God. It shows us that we cannot save ourselves from God’s righteous judgment. It shows that we cannot even help God out, because we are not saved by our merit, but only by the worthiness of the Lord Jesus and His shed blood. To come to the cross for salvation means that we must abandon all hope in our ability to commend ourselves to God and we must trust completely in the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A genuine Christian’s approach to the cross is expressed by Paul in these glorious words:
14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
Paul says that “their end is destruction.” That word “destruction” is the Greek word apoleia. It speaks of “ruin” and “loss.” It presents the picture of a wasted life.
The same Greek word (apoleia) occurs in 1:28, where it probably refers to unbelievers and eternal destruction.
It is used in Matthew 7:13 where Jesus speaks of the easy way “that leads to destruction,” as opposed to the narrow way that leads to life.
Judas is called the “son of destruction” (perdition) in John 17:12, as is the Antichrist in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 where he is called “the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” Revelation 17:8 and 11 also speak of the destruction of the Antichrist.
Peter, speaking of the end of the world, and the creation of a new heaven and earth, says this:
7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
That clearly links this destruction to the casting of these people into the lake of fire, as presented in Revelation 20:11-15…
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Thus, what Paul is saying is that these “enemies of the cross” will be those who experience eternal destruction in the lake of fire. According to Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
If you struggle with this, I encourage you to read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:668-679), where he argues that sin against God is a violation of infinite obligations and therefore is an infinitely heinous crime, deserving of infinite punishment.
This does not mean, however, that unbelievers “go out of existence.” Scripture is unambiguous when it describes the fate of the devil, Beast, and False Prophet in the lake of fire: “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). So, the Beast’s “destruction” is everlasting torment in the lake of fire and it is likely that this is the same for all unbelievers in the lake of fire as well. Matthew 25:46 says, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Both destinies are everlasting; they do not cease.
Although these people had names and faces, and the believers in Philippi knew them, their destiny is eternal punishment in the lake of fire.
Gerald Hawthorne comments on apoleia saying:
…the precise meaning of apoleia is difficult to pin down. Hence, as is often the case it is best explained in terms of its opposites: soteria (“salvation,” Phil 1:28); peripoiesis psuches (“the preserving of one’s soul,” Heb 10:39); zoe aionios (“eternal life” John 3:16).
For Paul, then, to reject the crucified Christ as the sole means of salvation is in effect to reject salvation. It is to lose one’s soul and thus to forfeit life. Elsewhere he says of such people, to telos ekeinon thanatos (“their end is death,” Rom 6:21), a condition in which the destiny of life outside of Christ is turned to its opposite, i.e., corruption (Gal 6:8) or destruction (Rom 9:22 in the active sense of the word), ‘the absolute antithesis of the life intended by God and saved by Christ.”
We will see an entirely different destiny for believers down in verse 21.
This is why I don’t believe that Paul is talking here about believers. A Christian’s “end” is NOT destruction, but rather life.
Paul then explains that this destiny was deserved because “their god is their belly.” In other words, they make their “belly,” these bodily desires, an idol to serve. Instead of being in control of their passions, they willingly give themselves over to any and every bodily desire.
These people give free rein to the satisfaction of their sensual “appetite[s],” and do not restrain the flesh (cf. Rom. 16:18; 1 Cor. 6:13; Jude 11). “Belly” here has a broader reference to sensual indulgence in general. They live to serve their lusts.
Paul warned the Roman Christians about divisive people, saying “such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites.”
If Judaizers, this would point to their dependence upon dietary laws to save them. Paul reminded the Colossian Christians:
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink” (Col. 2:16)
If libertines, it points to those who follow their own passions to the point of being enslaved by them. They are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4). The priority of their lives is to serve their sensual needs.
Kent Hughes remarks:
It was not merely the pleasures of the stomach that was their god, but the bodily desires and sensual delights that displaced the divine and became their god. The Philippian apostates were digging their graves with their own teeth as they chewed upon their earthbound impulses and the cud of personal pleasure. The pursuit of creature comforts displaced the pursuit of Christ and the cross.
And David Guzik notes:
Paul had to contend with people like this in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and Romans 6, who thought that salvation comes without repentance and conversion, and who thought that as long as your soul was saved, it didn’t matter what you did with your body.
The Bible does not promote asceticism, the self-imposed denial of all pleasure as a means of purifying oneself and getting right with God. Rather, it teaches that God has richly supplied us with all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). But if we remove God from the center as the chief object of our joy and replace it with some earthly pleasure, we are guilty of idolatry.
Another characteristic of these doomed people is that they “glory in their shame.” In other words, “they find satisfaction and take pride in things that they do that should cause them “shame” (cf. Eph. 5:12). They boasted in their supposed “freedom,” when in reality they were slaves to their lusts.
This refers to sensual excesses, especially sexual ones, the immoral practices of pagan, pre-Christian lives. This is how many of today’s neo-pagans live and glory. As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote:
Sex is the mysticism of a materialist society, with its own mysteries . . . and its own sacred texts and scripture—the erotica that fall like black atomic rain on the just and unjust alike, drenching us, blinding us, stupefying us. To be carnally minded is life!
Again, if the “enemies of the cross” were Judaizers, it likely refers to their boasting about circumcision as a means of God’s approval. Remember that earlier in this chapter Paul had said:
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–
If the enemies were the libertines then they were boasting about their abilities to indulge in any sensual behaviors without repercussion, possibility believing it was “God’s job to forgive.” Many false prophets in that age, as today, promised their followers maximum happiness in this life, appealing to their fleshly desires.
Finally, Paul says that these people have their minds “set on earthly things.” They give heaven little or no thought, because their focus is entirely upon the things of this life.
Instead of thinking about spiritual things, they only think of physical realities. Instead of thinking about heaven, they focus on the earth. Instead of exalting God, they exalt man. They leave God out of everything.
The effect of these four terse descriptions is to show that the enemies of the cross had come full circle. By abandoning the pursuit of Christ and the cross, their minds once again were set on pre-Christian things rather than on “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). “They stand diametrically opposed to those whose commonwealth is in heaven.”
If these enemies were Judaizers, this description means that they place more value on earthly rituals that God had given to Israel, than the heavenly blessings that they would have in Christ.
If libertines, this refers to the foolish characteristic of never giving a thought to eternity, of their mortality and what happens after death, or even of God himself. They take none of that seriously. Their attitude was the same as the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21.
Now, I think it is entirely possible for believers to live this way, at least at times. True believers, however, are not characterized by these attitudes. Unbelievers are characterized by these attitudes.
For these people, Paul says that their “end is destruction.” Their life is wasted both now and for eternity. They will experience ultimate loss in eternity. They will experience eternal punishment.
I love what Charles Spurgeon said in his sermon “The Wailing of Risca”:
Spurgeon said, “If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay….If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned or unprayed for.”