Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 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. (Phil 3:17-21)Interesting. Paul, here, writes about two groups of people. One is "us" and the other is "them". The "us" are instructed to "join in imitating me". I find that amazing and disturbing. Amazing because I have a hard time finding anyone these days who would make such a statement. "Imitate me!" Disturbing because I'd have such a hard time in making it myself -- not seeing myself as someone to imitate -- which speaks poorly of my advance toward Christ-likeness.
He goes on to speak about the "us" and "them", giving characteristics of both. He starts with the "them". Who are "they"? Paul isn't clear. We know he weeps for them, reminiscent of his "great sorrow and anguish of heart" he felt for lost Israel (Rom 9:1-5). And he had just made the argument that the Philippian Christians should "look out for the dogs" who "mutilate the flesh" (Phil 3:2), a reference to the judaizers. So these might lead you to think that the "them" to whom he's referring are the Jews. I don't doubt it, but keep in mind that the judaizers were Jewish Christians, at least by profession. They weren't anti-Christians; they simply sought to make Christianity conform to Jewish laws. Thus, the "them" in view here are self-professed Christians who are not "us". (More to come on the "us".)
How do we tell "them" from "us"? He gives us several of their characteristics. 1) "Their god is their belly." They worship themselves. Their sacrifices are for themselves. They work to achieve their own ends, whether it is lusts or greed or personal satisfaction. They are dedicated to their own senses. 2) "They glory in their shame." That is, that which God considers shameful they see as a mark of pride. God says, "I consider a man lying with a man as abominable" (Lev 18:22) and they say, "We think 'love' is beautiful." God says, "By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph 2:8-9) and they say, "God appreciates our good works more than your faith." God says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt 28:19-20) and they say, "No, it's wrong to push your beliefs on others, but we do care about social justice." God says, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image" (Gen 9:6) but they say, "The death penalty is immoral and murdering babies in the womb is a woman's right." 3) "Their minds are set on earthly things." These people view the world from the earthly perspective. Where Scripture disagrees with that perspective, Scripture is wrong. Where God's values disagree with earthly values, God is wrong. If the Bible requires us to give up what we want for our own satisfaction, the Bible is wrong. They interpret God's Word through their own earthly lens rather than from God's perspective. Of this group, Paul says, "Their end is destruction." By this he might mean that they will be destroyed in the end, or he may mean that the results of their thinking and living produces destruction for others. Which is right? My thinking is that both are right. They cause destruction for others who follow their examples, and, in the end, they receive the just sentence of God -- their destruction.
How do we tell "us" from "them"? First, there is an "other world" perspective. "Our citizenship is in heaven." This is in direct distinction with their minds being set on earthly things. It is clearly contradictory to the focus on "their belly", a dedication to worldly pleasures and earthly satisfactions. If you are a believer and are mostly concerned about personal pleasures and comforts, you might want to rethink that. The "us" in this passage are people who are not citizens of Earth. Second, there is an "elsewhere" course. We aren't planning to stay. This -- that which is around us, that which is going on, that which is available here -- is not our interest. Instead, "we await a Savior." We are not planning to make our existence better. We are planning on being transformed out of this existence into one like His glorious existence. We expect to obtain this due to His absolute sovereignty -- He "subjects all things to Himself" -- which clearly negates our own self-rule.
They are self-identified Christians whose perspective is the world, resulting in values precisely contrary to God's stated values, resulting in destruction for them and any who follow them. God's true followers are self-identified Christians who see this world as a "tourist attraction", a place we visit until we go home, not a place that is home. We are going somewhere better and, while we may participate in this place for God's purposes, we are headed for something far better under the command of a Sovereign Lord.
Paul was walking that way. Imitate that. Be someone that others can imitate. Most importantly, check yourself. Be sure you're not among the "them", focused on self and the "here and now" and personal pleasures and comfort. Be sure you're part of the "us", looking for a better elsewhere and a new "you" changed by the power of God. The alternative is destruction.