With news of organised crime, mass murder, terrorism, and the like, there are two basic concerns. Firstly, for the people that become involved and affected by the events themselves and, secondly, that others will get ideas and start copying what they have heard, seen, and read. And this why there is a growing reluctance to report every single detail in case others should get ideas.
Of course modern concerns—about people copying other people’s behaviour—are fuelled by the ready availability of information. If something happens on the other side of the world, we no longer have to wait months to hear about it. Indeed, all it now takes is a click of a button. But modern concerns have also been heightened because we are constantly reminded of the world situation, with the desperate situations that many people face, and with the desperate solutions that many may think are necessary.
Now there is nothing new in people copying other people’s behaviour. But unfortunately, it seems to be at the forefront of pour minds, these days, and for all the wrong reasons. Which is a shame, because while we may not want to encourage people to copy bad behaviour, there is much to be said about copying good behaviour. And we don’t want to lose the positive side because of fear of the negative.
B. IMITATING OTHERS
And one of the people who was aware about both was the Apostle Paul. Indeed, he was well aware that people copied other’s examples, subconsciously, if not deliberately. And as a consequence, in his letter to the Philippians, he pleaded with them not to copy people unthinkingly, but to imitate everything that was positive in the things that they saw when it came to the Christian faith.
And Paul argued his case from a very interesting perspective. Because he lay side by side worldly ways with godly ways, and he then challenged the people to choose which path they should take.
1. The Negative – The Enemies of the Cross (17-19)
And in regard to the worldly ways, Paul identified four different types of people that others often imitated:
Firstly, there were those who were anti-Christian, or who found the pull of the world too strong. And he included those who were not only antagonistic to anything Christian, but those who had no room for anything religious as well.
Secondly, there were those who recognised no authority outside of their personal satisfaction. Indeed, they believed that they had it in themselves to cater for their own needs. They were dependent upon no-one and needed no outside help whatsoever.
Thirdly, there were those who gloried in things of which they should have been ashamed. In other words, these were people who highly prized things that debased their own lives and whose practices debased others.
And fourthly, there were those whose horizons were totally earthbound and set on earthly things. People who were consumed with the acquisition of wealth and material possessions.
And with all these four different groups of people, Paul stated, there was one common factor to them all. All four excluded the presence of God in their lives. And as a consequence, the result of following any of them would result in the rejection God. They would then be enemies of the cross, and their only reward would be eternal destruction.
2. The Positive – Christ Our Hope (20-21)
But as an alternative to those negative and worldly ways, Paul gave one alternative model to imitate. And whilst he didn’t claim to be perfect himself, he did recognise his responsibility as a role model, and the responsibility of the other church leaders to be role models as well. And the model that Paul proclaimed was that of a true Christian. And this time he mentioned three distinctive attributes—not alternatives—and all part and parcel of the same.
And the first attribute was the possession of godly values that reflect not only a belief in the importance of things eternal, but the importance of Jesus’s crucifixion as the basis of Christian living.
Secondly, as a consequence of that, it was that life was to be lived in the expectation of Christ’s second coming. In other words, it involved a longing for the time when the new heaven and new earth would come and our bodies transformed ready for the eternal journey.
And, thirdly, it was that life was to be lived in the expectation that the second coming was not only certain, but imminent. In other words, to live a life where there was no time for idleness, where there was work to be done, where there was a concern for people who didn’t know Jesus; and where there was a need to share with others the message of eternal life.
3. The Logical Conclusion (4:1)
Then having outlined all the worldly ways —in its four different forms—and the alternative of Christianity—all models that could be imitated and copied from others—Paul gave the challenge, “which will you choose?” One of the four negative ways which lead to eternal destruction, or the one positive way—with its three different attributes—which leads to eternal life?
To which Paul naturally concluded that there was only one logical choice. And that was that his readers should stand firm in their faith, against whatever odds they were facing, because the rewards for being faithful to what they believed would be theirs if only they stood firm.
C. TWO CHALLENGES
Now in the light of the current trend to discourage people from imitating extreme negative behaviour, Paul’s example shows quite clearly, there is good behaviour that can be copied as well as bad. We should be concerned, therefore, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Nevertheless, to just blindly follow the example of someone else is always a bad idea, no matter who they are. Which is probably why Paul put the alternatives side by side—bad behaviour first, followed the good. So that way his readers could not claim to be ignorant about the consequences.
And as a consequence of that, Paul gave his readers (and us) two challenges:
1. Consider the Alternatives
And the first challenge is the obvious one: Have we considered the alternatives?
Are we the anti-Christian or just too wrapped up in the world? Do we live as though we are self-sufficient and need no outside help? Do we do things of which we should be ashamed? Are we consumed with earthly things?
Or do we imitate the beliefs and behaviour of people like Paul, in adopting the Christian faith. Where our beliefs are characterised by a distinctive set of godly values; where we live in expectation of Christ’s second coming; and where we live with the urgency that that expectation bring?
The first challenge then: Have we considered the alternatives?
2. Being Role Models Ourselves
And the second challenge is: If people like Paul were role models for us, what kind of role models are we?
Whatever decision we make regarding how we want to live our lives, whether we like it or not, in some way we are all role models. And the lifestyle we live, will be the kind of lifestyle we broadcast to others.
Those involved in organised crime, mass murders, terrorism, and the like are all role models. They attract people who want to adopt their ways. And people who are Christians, or who claim to belong to a church, are role models too. Because others see us and mould their lives on what they see just as much as what they have heard.
Indeed, if we proclaim the faith in a casual manner—i.e. in a manner inconsistent with Paul’s description of the Christian faith—then that is the kind of message that we will spread to others. And no matter what we say, people will learn from our behaviour.
If we’re erratic when it comes to the expression of our faith—in our morals, in our standards, in the way we hold ourselves, and in our priority of the Christian faith—that is what people will learn from us—and copy from us—and even conclude that faith is an optional extra.
If we’re a bit hit and miss when it comes to going to church, then that is what others will adopt. They will conclude that worshipping God as a community, that caring for one another, and that supporting one another is not important either.
Indeed, if we are causal in our faith, we should not be surprised when the gospel is misunderstood and new people just don’t come through the church door.
But if we proclaim our faith in the manner that Paul described, if we are vibrant and excited about our faith, and if we look forward to and work towards that day when Jesus comes again, well . . . imagine how much that excitement will rub off on others. And imagine a church where it is not just us who are active in the faith, but where the new people who have come in—following our example—are very active too.
D. UNDERLYING PRINCIPLES
Now that would be very exciting indeed. But it would involve a dramatic change in attitude in many of churches today.
In the meantime, we should the underlying principles behind Paul’s message, because these principles underpin the whole of Paul’s argument that he addressed to the Philippian church.
And these principles, briefly, are:
1. Holding the Truth in High Esteem
Firstly, that believers need to hold the truth in high esteem. That means they need to live lives which accord to the truth about the cross (18) and the second coming (20). Because only when we have truly grasped those truths—and taken them into ourselves—will they be the motivation on which we should live our lives.
In other words, the integration of what we say and do will only happen when we have fully accepted the truths about the necessity of Jesus’s death on the cross. That is, the realisation of what Jesus has done for us as, and the acceptance and looking forward to the fulfilment of Jesus’s promise to come again—to gather his faithful people and to judge the rest of the world.
2. Marrying the Truth to Love
The second principle is that we should always be actively concerned about the future welfare of others. Knowing what will happen at the end is one thing but keeping that knowledge to ourselves and not letting others know of their impending doom is contrary to the Christian way.
Paul may have been engaged in many a controversy because he taught the gospel. But he was not a detached, disinterested teacher. He not only encouraged believers to stand firm but actively encouraged non-believers to review their error. And, indeed, he wept over those who were mistaken.
3. Balancing Individualism with Pastoral Care
And the third principle is that just as we might be concerned with our own spiritual progress—with the development of our own personal relationship with God—so we should be concerned with about the spiritual welfare of others. Indeed, the Christian should be ready at all times to help others and to bear each other’s burden.
A Christian may at times feel as though others are holding them back. But helping a weaker brother or sister is just as much part of a Christian’s journey. And a very important part it is too.
So who do we imitate, and what kind of role models are we? Are we a good role model or bad? Because even the Apostle Paul knew about role models. And even though many of them were negative, he was able to outline one positive model too—the life of a true Christian.
But which one do we choose? Because there were four that led to eternal destruction, and only which led to eternal life.
The questions we need to ask ourselves today then are: firstly, what option—what role model for life have we chosen? And secondly, what kind of role model do we present to others?
Paul’s preference—the model he described for any true believer—was for the need to possess a godly set of values, to live in expectation of Christ’s second coming; and to live as though the second coming was imminent. But is this the model we have chosen for ourselves?
Because like it or not, how we live says much about our beliefs. And, like it or not, others will copy what we do. And that gives us a huge responsibility to not only get it right for our own sake, but for the sake of others as well.
Posted: 6th January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis