With the judgment theme of the Old Testament and the Gospel, the preacher will likely be drawn to preach a rather predictable—yet entirely appropriate and edifying—sermon concerning the coming judgment against our sins and the good news about the death of Jesus as Judgment Day come early. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him! You may choose to take the sermon in this direction and build on the image of Jesus as shelter from the storm of God’s wrath.
St. Paul, however, directs our attention, not to the message of judgement, but to the messenger. First, he addresses specifically those who bear the office, as is clear from the letter’s context (1:1) and the imperative: “Συμμιμηταί μου γίνεσθε, ἀδελφοί.” Be imitators of me, brothers, that is, together with me, following my lead and your people will follow. Is it not true? Sometimes it feels like the congregation simply does not understand you or your teaching. But eventually, after years of teaching, a congregation—for better or for worse—starts taking on the doctrine and life of its pastor. The pastor, therefore, becomes either a blessing or a curse. Surely God works through even evil men (Augsburg Confession VIII), because Christ is faithful to His office, but so often pastors who are set on earthly things (pay checks, parsonages, tax breaks, vacation time, etc., etc.) become enemies of the cross of Christ, even unwittingly. God spare us and His Church!
The language of σκοπεῖτε (defined as ‘to look at intently or examine’ in v. 17) is a wonderful way to describe how young pastors ought to learn how to carry out the office of Seelsorge. We often think knowing some Greek and Hebrew, something of the Lutheran Confessions (or whatever your particular confession is) and having some ideas about proper liturgical practice is sufficient to be a minister of the cross. This is absurd, and we all understand it after just a short time under that cross. This is why Paul says not only to look at our doctrine, but to look and examine our ‘peripatetic’ way, that is, look at the way we walk in the office. We emphasize doctrine so heavily in the Church, and so we should, but Paul is also talking about life. How many orthodox pastors have been derailed by the flesh to the detriment of their flock? Paul’s words serve as a warning for us all. His solution is to give preachers an invitation to conform their way of life to the apostles and to find other pastors who conform to that way. They are a type (τύπον) for us. Consider the faithful pastors around you or those whom you know and respect, because they conform their lives and their doctrine to the apostles and to Christ. Give thanks for them, imitate them, and become a type for your people and the other pastors around you. “So that they have this saving faith in Christ, God instituted the Predigtamt of preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments” (Augsburg Confession V). It is pure comfort for us and our people that God wants to work together with us and through us to bring about faith by preaching the forgiveness of sins.
All which is to say, this reading ought to preach to us pastors first. At v. 20 we have a significant homiletical shift in the text. Paul’s reason for boasting and for insisting the preachers in Philippi should move as he moves in the office is that we are bound for another country. The mortification of the flesh which we preach to our people this Lent starts with us. On the one hand, this means preaching the Law to put to death our idolatrous ways. But so much more, it means preaching the Gospel that establishes us as statesmen in heaven. How can we live for the body which is wasting away? Paul’s argument seems to be this: why would you try to eat, drink, and be merry in this life, when these bodies are merely in a state of humiliation (τὸ σῶμα τῆς ταπεινώσεως), in the same way Christ was in a state of humiliation? It is not that the body does not matter. It is that our bodies, like Christ’s body, will be transformed into a glorious body or a heavenly body. We will have to wait to see what this means, but we have already seen enough in Christ to set our hope on its fulfillment in us.
Everything in the text sets up the polarity of earth and heaven, mortification and glorification, humiliation and exaltation. We preach the Cross, because it is the only way to glory. Just look at Jesus, who set His face toward Jerusalem, endured the cross, despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of power, with all things under His feet (Philippians 2). From thence (ἐξ οὗ — v. 20!), He will come with His salvation for those who long for (ἀπεκδεχόμεθα — v. 20!) His appearing.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Philippians 3:17-4:1.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 3:17-4:1.