Few preachers would dare to make the appeal that the Apostle Paul makes in Philippians 3.17. J. B. Lightfoot translates the Apostle’s words as: “Vie with each other in imitating me.” The NIV says: Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
The odd thing of course, not that we even have to even spell it out, is that Paul calls on the Philippians to imitate him. He tells them not to imitate Moses or Jesus Christ, or God the Father but him. Join in following my example.
Paul’s instruction appears on the surface to be an expression of intolerable conceit. What arrogance for a man of God to call others to a life copying him when he could just as easily have held up the life of Jesus Christ, a life which was and is fully perfect in every way. One expects him to say: follow Jesus Christ, but once again, Scripture proves to be most unpredictable.
We can rule out at the start the idea that here we are dealing with an inflated ego. The apostle Paul was a man of deep humility who was never ashamed to set forward his own failings. In this very letter, Philippians, immediately before this new section that we are dealing with, he speaks of his lack of perfection and his struggle to attain the prize. He says:
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus.
Paul was indeed a humble servant well aware of his faults and limitations. Nevertheless, he was extremely confident that his own way of life—characterized by self-denial, humility, and service to others—and his own beliefs—were so thoroughly right and true, that he is unafraid to present himself as a model for others to follow. What is startling is the confidence he has in his own way of life. Would you be that confident in your way of life that you would be able to make this very appeal?
Like an experienced craftsman who shows an apprentice how to do a difficult job (Grayston) or as a scout who knows the way and leads a group through treacherous terrain, Paul is in no way ashamed to say “Follow me!” and he does so without any arrogance at all.
You see it is one thing to say, “Follow God!” but God cannot be seen. God does not appear in the situations that you and I have to face and each and every day and so it is not always easy for us to know what the right thing to do is by looking towards God. God gives us the Scriptures but he isn’t at the office with us when the boss is breathing down our necks. He isn’t in the boardroom, or at the school, or in the shop. He never had to stand in a long queue at the bank waiting for service. You see while God is with us always, we cannot see him ever. God is not physically present, but his people are present, and we can learn a great deal from one another by examining each other’s lives and by seeing how we ought to behave in certain situations.
All of this shows for me the importance of having the right role models. Those early Christians, coming as they did from a pagan society with values often totally at odds with Christian values, needed not only to hear what was right but also to see it done. It was inadequate for them to have Christian truth presented only in the form of rules and regulations. They needed to observe it embodied in the lives of Christ’s ministers. It’s one thing to know it in your head; it is another seeing it lived out in real life.
Paul was very conscious of his own responsibility to give the Philippians something tangible to follow. The Philippians remember had no written scriptures and so they were dependent on human lives to be their “model,” and it is as such that Paul claims to have lived among them since his first visit (in Acts 16:12–40) when he bore the shame of a beating and an imprisonment.
One can only imagine what a wonderful man of God Paul must have been to have felt confident, not in himself, but in the, message of the Gospel that he could call on others to follow him.
I wonder how many of Christ’s messengers could do the same today? I wonder how many of us could say to our fellow brothers and sisters here today: follow me. How many of us could say to the members of this congregation: guys if you need guidance on how to live, on what to do, on how to act and react, follow my example.
Most preachers begin with the serious handicap that they have to say, not, “Do as I do,” but, “Do as I say.” Paul could say not only, “Listen to my words,” but also, “Follow my example and follow the example of my associates. There’s Timothy and Epaphroditus: follow them. What incredible examples these men were, and that is the responsibility, especially of Christian leaders: to model the love of Jesus Christ. And it is for us not only to follow those who model Christ but also to be a model of Christ ourselves.
You know everybody follows somebody. So who do you follow? Who leads your life? Who drives your interests and passions? All humans beings are like sheep. The Bible compares them to sheep all the time. Sheep need a leader. They need to follow someone or something. In the absence of a good leader they will follow a bad leader. We as human beings learn by modeling our behavior on the behavior of others. We are sticklers for role models. And we become like the role models we emulate. So the question remains: who leads and drives you? Who do you copy? Who do you respect and emulate?
There are four areas of life where we learn to model ourselves.
First is family. We all model ourselves on our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, extended family. Whether we are conscious or not we acquire their traits and behaviors, their opinions, their habits, their worldviews. Children watch their parents closely to see how they behave in circumstances and when they encounter the same circumstances in their own lives they act in the same way. If dad is rude at the post office, they will be rude at the post office. If mom runs out every time there is an argument, they will run out too. We learn our behavior from others. Very seldom is anyone’s behavior original. It’s mostly copied from someone else.
This can be good or bad, depending on what is being modeled. You and I are a combination of patterns of behavior learned from multiple sources. Some good patterns, some bad patterns. The home is the place it all starts. That’s why parents have a responsibility to model Christ to their children.
The second area Christians model themselves is the Church, and especially the leaders of the church. Leaders are meant to set before the congregation of God’s people the example to follow. This is an incredible responsibility and at the same time it is a burden because people are watching all the time to see exactly how you behave.
The truth is that every day people all around the world are daily being let down by the Christian leaders. One falls into adultery, another falls into this, another into that. We have recently heard of how the leader of the Rhema church is getting divorced for the second time. It is headline news as one gets in one’s car on a Sunday to go to Church.
The world almost takes a kind of perverse delight in the downfall of Christian leaders. And we have seen our fair share. Who can forget Jimmy Swaggart, a non-denominational American pastor, teacher, singer, pianist, and televangelist who was involved in a high-profile 1988 sex scandal that involved sex with a prostitute? Initially Swaggart denied the accusations but as a media investigation proceeded he acknowledged that some allegations were true.
More recently we have seen Ted Haggard a former American evangelical preacher. Known as Pastor Ted to the congregations he served, in November 2006, a male prostitute alleged that Haggard had paid him to engage in illicit acts for a period of three years. He also claimed the pastor purchased and used crystal methamphetamine.
Closer to home one of my pastors when I was growing up got the Church secretary pregnant and then later divorced his wife. It took years for the Church to recover from that. It affected me personally.
Such acts on the part of Christian leaders have the capacity to seriously undermine the credibility of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures call on leaders to be above reproach:
1Tim. 3:2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.
Another area people model themselves is in relation to friends and peers. Children learn acceptable and unacceptable modes of behavior by forming close friendships. A friend is like a mirror. They help us to see who we are and also we are not. A friend is someone I can measure myself against.
Teenagers especially have a need to make friends because they are forging their identities. The problem is that at that age they are especially vulnerable. If they do not have a strong personality of their own, they can very quickly assume the persona of the friend for the sake of approval and acceptance. Parents need to be vigilant and watchful about the friends your children are making, especially if your child is a person with a weak personality who is easily influenced and led astray. That’s why it is good for them to develop strong beliefs of their own. Don’t put them down when they form an opinion different from yours. That’s good and healthy. It shows they can think for themselves. Make sure that the friends that they mix with share common values. If your child has friends who are bad news cut the friendship. Saving your child’s life is more important than not hurting someone’s feelings.
Other models include leaders of our society: teachers, doctors, politicians, business men and women, sportsmen and sportswomen, the leaders we encounter each and every day. A President of a country must be a person of exemplary moral character and our children should feel that they are able to copy his good example. This expectation was recently challenged when the Sunday Times reported that our President Jacob Zuma has fathered a love child with a 39 year old woman. The child was born in October last year and is said to be his 20th child. Zuma’s patterns of behavior are especially reprehensible given the Aids pandemic that we find ourselves in. Even the secular media is asking what kind of leader he is and what kind of example he is setting for young people.
All of the role models I have mentioned are important for us in the formation of our identity and the development of our characters: parents, family, spiritual leaders, peers, secular leaders and politicians. Almost any human being has the capacity to be a role model that others follow.
But I think that when the apostle Paul called on the Philippians to follow him, he was saying more than this. You see what Paul modeled was not just a pattern of behavior, not just his own personal ethics, his goodness. He is not saying: I live such a holy life; you guys should be like me. He is not saying, check out what a great Christian I am and try to be the same.
No, what he is modeling is a kind of Christianity. Paul is saying this: of the competing types of Christianity out there, you need to follow the kind that I represent.
Think about this. If you and I look out at the Church today we see a great variety of Christianity. And we sometimes wonder which kind to follow. And we sometimes wonder of it really matters. Does it matter if I am a Presbyterian or a Baptist or a Pentecostal or a Charismatic. Paul says it does. He says: my Christianity is based in the cross of Christ. It is all about the cross. I am setting before you the way of the cross: the way of self-denial, service to others, humility, forgiveness. That is what I teach and preach and live: follow it.
But there is another kind of Christianity. That Christianity is all about power, success, prosperity, etc. Don’t follow that.
Phil. 3:18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.
You see there is a right way to follow Jesus and there is a wrong way. The right way is difficult and narrow. The wrong way is easy and broad.
Matt. 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
So the real question is which Jesus are you following? Is it the Jesus of Paul or the Jesus of someone else? Is it the Christ of the cross, or the Christ who is the enemy of the cross?
Ultimately, Paul’s appeal here is not for us to follow him, but for us to follow the true Jesus: not the Jesus of our own making and fancy, but the Jesus who came, bled and suffered for you and me.
The final criterion for us in terms of the role models we follow is whether or not they embody the values and teachings of the cross of Christ: not: is this person nice, or friendly, or successful, or accomplished, or rich, or dynamic or charismatic, or attractive or influential: but: does this person’s life conform to the standard of the cross of Jesus Christ?
That’s why you can freely follow Paul because by following him, you will ultimately find your way to the true Jesus. As long as people are leading you to that Jesus follow them. But when they are leading you to someone else or something else it’s time to break the ties that bind.