15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you;
16 however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.
17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. [NASB ‘77]
Paul finishes this section on sanctification that he began in verse 7. He already told his readers how he sees his pursuit of Christ and what it looks like in his life. Now he urges them to take the same approach. What they (we) have to remember, however, is that following Paul’s example means we see ourselves as he does – not yet complete, but pursuing Christ with all our might and making it the mission of our lives.
If you wanted to make the case that the Bible sometimes contradicts itself, comparing verses 12 and 15 might be a good place to start. In verse 12 Paul says that he’s not yet perfect. In verse 15 he refers to himself and his readers as those who are perfect (same word in the Greek). How can that be? In verse 12 he seems to mean that he’s not perfect in regard to the Law like he thought he was before Christ laid hold of him (vs 6). Now that he’s redeemed he understands that only Christ is perfect and he’ll never reach that state until he shares Christ’s glory in the next life. In verse 15 the context of the term is likely maturity. For those of us who are mature, we need to have the same attitude that Paul has.
What is his attitude? It’s what he just explained in verses 7-14. He considers any personal credential that might suggest his own righteousness as loss in comparison to gaining Christ. He doesn’t care about anything he’s accomplished apart from Christ. He’s all in on knowing Christ, of living in the power of Christ’s resurrection, sharing in Christ’s sufferings, and being conformed to His death. He also makes knowing Christ the highest mission of his life and pursues Christ in light of God’s calling on his life. He makes every effort toward his sanctification but does it in the strength God provides. That’s the attitude of the mature Christian.
But don’t miss another aspect of this maturity. If we truly adopt Paul’s attitude then we also have to see ourselves as Paul does – as not having arrived. Thus an essential element of being mature is understanding that we aren’t fully mature. We aren’t perfect and know we’ll never be perfect, so we never stop pursuing Christ and striving to be more like Him. Which means the one who thinks he’s complete shows by his attitude that he’s not complete (“Being powerful is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” ~ Margaret Thatcher).
Since that’s the case, it means the further we go in our sanctification the more we’ll understand how far from reaching the goal of Christlikeness we are. In some ways, the goalpost moves farther and farther away as we approach it. The closer to Christ we get, the clearer our differences from Him appear. That’s why humility is one of the clearest marks of maturity. How can we feel superior to anyone when we understand how far from the mark we fall?
The humility of the mature Christian dovetails with Paul’s earlier teaching that we should have the attitude of Christ, who didn’t regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (2:5-6). Thus as we progress in our sanctification, our humility grows both as we approach Christ (and are awed by His glory) and as we become more like Him (and reflect His humility).
In the second half of the verse, Paul explains another side of sanctification. He tells his readers that if they don’t have the attitude he says they should have, God will reveal that to them. What he seems to mean is that part of the maturing process is God revealing to us where we need to mature. He already assured us that God will complete the work He’s begun in us (1:6). As a matter of fact, he used the same word – perfect – to describe what God will do. This verse gives us another nuance to that truth. In perfecting us, God will show us where we need perfecting. If we aren’t where we should be – if we don’t have the right attitude toward our sanctification – God will reveal that to us as He works in us for His good pleasure (2:13). Thus God truly takes care of us. He shows us through His scriptures how we ought to think and then points out to us where we don’t measure up. It’s all part of preparing us for the day of Christ Jesus.
It pays to remember this as God brings things into our lives. He probably won’t accomplish this by appearing to us and explaining where we fall short. Instead He works through His word and through circumstances and people (friends, strangers, difficult people, nice people, enemies, frenemies). We must understand that when tough times come it’s all part of God perfecting us for the day of Christ Jesus and perhaps showing us where we need to grow. He also reveals our weaknesses through His word expounded by others. Oftentimes it’s the word in the hands of others that shows us where we need to mature. It’s why hearing the word is as important as studying it on our own. Thus trials, people, sermons are all ways that God reveals to us that we aren’t fully perfected yet.
That God will reveal to us where we need to grow doesn’t give us license to sit back and be careless about our conduct or thinking. We must keep living by that same standard to which we have attained. What we’ve attained seems to refer to where we are in our sanctification. We must live according to what we know and what we’ve learned and who we are in light of our redemption. We must practice what we believe. This goes along with what he said earlier about living in a manner worthy of the gospel (1:27). And we never reach a point where we rest. We keep living – keep pursuing, keep striving in the strength God provides. We endure and persevere.
This admonition is similar to what Paul says to Titus about how to instruct the redeemed – For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:11-14). We must walk according to our calling. Christ saved us for Himself and we look to His redemption and the promise of His return. We keep living by the standard of our redemption and future glory.
Verse 17 somewhat repeats what he says in verse 15, but makes it more personal. He tells them to follow his example and follow others who live as he does. When he says ‘us’ in the second half of the verse he may mean Timothy and Epaphroditus since he’s already discussed them and the Philippians know them. All three men are worthy of imitation.
By saying this Paul doesn’t contradict his earlier statement about not being perfect, nor is he being proud or self-righteous. He merely holds himself up as someone who has the correct approach to sanctification. He said that nothing in his life is more important than knowing Christ and becoming like Him – it’s the ONE THING he does (vs 13). And he said that he knows he hasn’t arrived yet. In all these things he’s on the right track – and he knows he’s on the right track. Thus to tell them (us) to follow his example simply means to adopt his attitude – what he already said in verse 15. His attitude is the right one regardless of where he is in his righteousness. If we adopt both his urgency in striving to become like Christ and his humility in understanding where he is in comparison to Christ, we will progress in our sanctification as we should. And we will live in a manner worthy of the gospel and our calling.
This points to one of the amazing aspects of God’s word. God doesn’t just give us a list of rules or a book of doctrine. He also gives us examples of how others lived according to His word (or, in some cases, didn’t live according to His word). This letter to the Philippians is a prime example. Paul doesn’t just tell us how to live; he also shows us how he lives in light of his own words. We see the truth and then see the truth applied in Paul’s life. He explains what God’s done through Christ and then tells us how those truths affect him personally. Thus we get it all – instruction for living and examples for living. We look at Paul’s words AND his life. And from both we better understand how we should live. It’s why the Bible is God’s living word – it instructs with doctrine, it instructs with warning, it instructs with positive examples, it instructs with negative examples, and in all things it gives us the fullest picture of God we can understand. It’s all we need to please Him and live in a manner worthy of Him.
- We must have the attitude of Paul that he lays out in verses 7-14.
- That attitude includes humility born of understanding how far we are from fully becoming like Christ and fully knowing Him and His power.
- True maturity is realizing we aren’t truly mature.
- Part of God perfecting us for the day of Christ Jesus is showing us where we aren’t perfect.
- We have a responsibility to live according to what we know and according to our calling.
- We must follow Paul’s example of always striving toward Christ.