Philippians 3:18–19, “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.”
In calling the Philippians to pursue Christ and live cross-centered lives, Paul lifted up his own imitation of the Savior as a model for all to follow (Phil. 3:1–17). Understanding that Christian living combines proposition and practice, the Apostle knew his original readers would become conformed to Jesus’ image if they knew what to believe and had tangible behavior to emulate. Moreover, Paul not only commended the imitation of himself as he imitated Christ, but he also encouraged the Christians in Philippi to keep their eyes on others who walked in Christ’s way (Philippians 3:17).
This call to pay attention to those who follow the Savior was necessary for the Philippians due to some negative examples in Philippi. Philippians 3:18-19 warns about the enemies of the cross of Christ (Philippians 3:18), so we can conclude that there were professing Christians in Philippi who perverted the gospel by their approval of sin. It is unclear that the Philippian Christians were following these false Christians, at least when Paul wrote his letter, but these wolves in sheep’s clothing nonetheless threatened the health of the Philippian church.
Philippi was about a day’s walk from the coast, which made it easy for travelers to find their way to the city. Likely, some itinerant teachers encouraged others to see divine grace as a license for sin were popping up in Philippi regularly. Paul paints the teaching of these individuals in broad strokes in Philippians 3:19, but his description of their ways tells us that even the ancient church had to deal with those who believed the gospel does not have any objective, ethical implications for the way we are to live. It is easy for us to believe the early church was much purer than the church today when we see apostate denominations glorying in the shame of homosexuality, premarital sex, and other deviancies. But Philippians 3:18-19 shows us that the people of God have always had to deal with the problem of those who use the gospel to justify their sin. The solution for us now is the same as it was when Paul wrote to Philippi — in addition to preaching the true gospel, we must live in a manner shaped by the gospel. As we live in holiness, imitating others who imitate Christ, those whom God is calling to Himself will see the genuineness of our gospel and follow the authentic Jesus (Matt. 5:14–16).
Although we are rightly distressed when we see professing Christians pervert the grace of God into an excuse for sin, we should not be surprised that such things happen. After all, if people could glory in their shame while the Apostles walked the earth, they can certainly do so in this post-Apostolic era. The perversion of God’s grace should be a strong motivation for us to live in holiness so that others may see what the real gospel produces.