Philippians - Lesson 10

By Curt Niccum

Philippians 3:17-4:1


  1. The class will contrast the different results of earthly and heavenly citizenships.
  2. The class will know additional biblical passages that underscore the danger of "thinking” on worldly things.


  1. Bibles for every student.
  2. For making lists contrasting "worldly” versus "heavenly” thought, the teacher may want to make use of a chalkboard, overhead projector, or pass out pencils and sheets of notepaper to the class.
  3. If devotional period is desired, you may need songbooks and to designate people for singing, praying, and scripture reading.


"Thinking” like Christ as citizens of the heavenly kingdom is essential, for there is great danger inherent in "thinking” of worldly things.

Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class

Devotional Period (5 minutes)

  1. Read Philippians 3:17-4:1
  2. Sing up to two songs. (The following are suggested tunes.)
    1. Let the Beauty of Jesus be Seen
    2. Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?
    3. Unto Thee, O Lord
    4. O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee
  3. Prayer (some appropriate subjects for prayer are listed below)
    1. For us to be focused on the things of Christ and not on the things of this world
    2. Thanksgiving for the pattern of faith exhibited by our leaders
    3. To consciously imitate the life of Christ found in the leadership God has provided the congregation

Introduction (10 minutes)

  1. Call the roll or have someone check it. (It is very important to know who is present so someone can check on those who are absent.) Introduce and welcome visitors, take prayer requests, and make any necessary announcements.
  2. Review the previous lesson.
    1. Q: In 3:12-16, Paul uses what sport as a metaphor for the Christian life? A: Track
    2. Q: If a runner makes a mistake or is the victim of adverse conditions during the race, what will it take for the runner to complete the race? A: The runner must shake it off and focus on the goal ahead rather than the events that have already happened.
    3. Q: How does this relate to the Christian life and relationships in particular? A: People have a tendency to focus on the past, to hold grudges, to not forgive. For Christians to complete the race, they need to be completely focused on the finish line, not looking behind them.
    4. Q: What is the prize for which Christians run? A: Resurrection from the dead and eternal life.
    5. Remind the class again that this is a group effort, that the racing analogy can be pushed too far.
      1. We are not in competition against each other, but run as a team. Perhaps you remember the Olympics where a long distance runner injured his leg while running. He was on the last lap, but it now looked as if he was not going to be able to finish the race. Without hesitation, the runner's father jumped the fence and ran to his son and provided the necessary support. Together they crossed the finish line.
      2. Another story is told of a Special Olympics race. This was the last race culminating a year of competition. The runners had all faced each other before. This race was to determine who was the best. At the starting gun all took off running, but upon hearing a scream of pain the lead runner stopped, turned, and saw one of the runners had fallen. Instead of completing the race to be the champion, he headed back to the injured runner. Seeing this, all of the other contestants also stopped and returned to the fallen athlete. The cheering crowds suddenly became quiet. Oblivious to the attention brought upon themselves, the runners banded together to assist their injured competitor. As a group they struggled until they crossed the finish line together. The crowd erupted in cheers.
      3. Stories like these reflect the idea of the Christian race portrayed in 3:12-16.

Learning Experiences (25 minutes)

  1. Paul moves from "running” to "walking” in Philippians 3:17-4:1. Most Christians have become familiar with the biblical language that portrays the Christian life as a walk. When one hears a phrase like "She walks the walk,” one understands that as a statement about her faithfulness to Christ in how she acts and what she does. This phrase comes from the Greek New Testament. Although "to live” is an acceptable translation of the Greek verb, one loses the connection of movement (in a particular direction for a particular purpose) that ties this passage to the racing analogy in the immediately preceding verses. (Note also that the NIV translates the word meaning "keep in step,” another movement verb, as "live up to” in 3:16. Again, this translation maintains the meaning of the text, but sacrifices the word picture Paul employs to get his meaning across.)
  2. In 3:18, Paul reminds the Philippian Christians that there are two opposing races, lifestyles, or "walks.” One focuses on the upward calling (3:12-16). The other "thinks” of earthly things (3:17-18). A person either embraces the cross or is an enemy of it. Paul seems assured that the Philippians are on the right track. At the same time, he is concerned that they might start heading in the wrong direction.
    1. Q: What is Paul's proposed solution to the problem he gives in 3:17? A: To join others following Paul's own example and to take note of those who live according to the pattern.
      1. (Here too is a connection with the race metaphor of 3:12-16. The verb translated "take note” could be [poorly] translated as "scope out,” and in 3:14 the phrase "toward the goal” could also be [poorly] translated as "with your scope on the goal.” The English word "scope” comes from the Greek, and Paul uses that Greek word here in verses 14 and 17.)
      2. As we run the race, having our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can learn from and be empowered by those who are on our team, those who are running the race with us, not against us. There is danger if we start imitating the wrong team. (You may want to spend some time discussing those in the congregation worth imitating. This could extend the similar discussion about heroes of the faith done several weeks ago.)
      3. One can view this in terms of a large track meet. There are always a large number of events going on at the same time. As some are running, others will be doing the long jump, the high jump, the pole vault, throwing the javelin, the discus, or the shot. It could be disastrous for a long distance runner to suddenly become enamored of a different sport in the middle of a race and to head off in a different direction!
    2. Q: What ultimately defines worldly citizenship according to Paul in verses 18-19? A: Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and they glory in shameful things. They think only of worldly things.
      1. Paul paints a pretty dismal picture here of humanity apart from God.
        1. When we read descriptions of the ancient world, things do not appear that bad. Paul probably presents here the ultimate end-product of the earthly lifestyle rather than describing the typical unbeliever. (Note that these descriptions hardly fit Jewish false teachers.)
        2. As discussed when examining the beginning of the third chapter, Paul's concern is that the church will dismiss this personality clash between the two women as something "minor.” This "minor” incident, though, could only occur through thinking of earthly things. If the church continues down this path, even if they currently look very religious and have a wonderful reputation, they will end up glorying in shameful things.
      2. Read Romans 1:18-32. Paul here describes the worldly life as a downward spiral. Once one chooses not to follow God's will, it starts one down the road of total rebellion against the Creator. Some people have not become so totally depraved. Paul's point, however, is that they are on the track that leads in that direction. The start of both races, that of the heavenward calling and that of the downward spiral, may look similar. The end results, though, are quite different, and that is what matters. We need to remain on the right track.
      3. Note also Peter's confession. Read Mark 8:27-30. Peter is a disciple of Jesus. He seems to be one of the good guys. His life appears to be in order. On the other hand, he does not seem to be quite on the right track. Read Mark 8:31-33. Here Peter's current understanding becomes clear, and Jesus calls him nothing less than Satan! His mind is on worldly things, not on heavenly citizenship. Is Peter at that moment a totally depraved sinner? No. But he is in danger of heading down the wrong track.
      4. There is no indication that Paul considers the Philippian church lost in any way. He writes a friendship letter employing numerous terms of endearment. These reveal the positive outlook he has for them. I believe that Paul is not concerned about major doctrinal issues or false teachers creeping in. Such things do not appear in this letter. Instead, I believe a strained relationship between two women has taken on proportions that now affect the church's unity and "thinking.” As a deterrent to the "minor” crisis, Paul draws the church's attention to the ultimate result of this type of worldly thinking. If this personality clash does not get resolved by putting the mind of Christ on the cross in action, the Philippians might find themselves crossing the wrong finish line. This seemingly inconsequential personality conflict over worldly things is potentially lethal spiritually. It only takes a misstep away from the creator God to head down the track that leads to "their god is their stomach.” The cross must always be the focus of God's people.
    3. Q: What ultimately defines heavenly citizenship according to Paul in verses 20-21? A: An enjoyment of the Savior's total power and a transformation of the earthly to the heavenly, especially our mortal bodies.
    4. Have the class contrast these two citizenships. It might be helpful to make two columns on the chalkboard or on an overhead. Starting from Philippians 3, but by no means being restricted to it, contrast the two. (Romans 5:12-19 and Galatians 5:19-25 might be helpful in creating discussion should the class be slow in drawing comparisons.)
  3. Note Paul's mention of the eagerly expected savior (3:20). Should time permit, a class discussion about the relationship between hope and behavior would be beneficial.
    1. One could use the movies Annie or the Little Princess where the main characters have lost parents, but their behavior is controlled by their belief that the parents will return.
    2. One could also use examples from family life. Most have found that "dangling carrots” can sometimes control children's behavior, i.e., some type of reward is promised for good behavior and so the child is temporarily obedient because of the desire for this reward.
    3. The world focuses on instant rewards, but the reward of the Christian is future. We have not attained it yet. The hope of Christ's return and our glorious transformation, though, should be a motivating factor for staying the course and finishing the race.
  4. Paul has moved from running to walking. Now, as he closes this part of the letter, he ends with the idea of "standing,” a repeat of Paul's hope for the church introduced in 1:27. Paul quite often mixes metaphors, but this may not actually be the case here.
    1. Paul has clearly crafted this entire section of the letter. The larger section (1:27-4:1) is marked by the inclusio using the words "citizenship” and "stand.”
    2. The more immediate passages have a theme of movement directed toward a specific goal. The reference to the "crown” in 4:1 is particularly noteworthy. This is not the word that refers to the crown of a ruler. This word describes the crown won in an athletic contest. It is the crown granted those that win the race.
    3. We have already seen how salvation is both a present reality and yet a future goal for Paul. I believe Paul's language here reinforces this tension between the "now” and the "not yet.” We are running the race, but so long as we are running in the right race our "standing” is secure. In a sense we are running the race and yet have also finished it. The reward both is and will be ours, so long as we continue to fix our eyes on Jesus and those that model the life of the cross.

Application (10 minutes)

  1. The primary area of application must be in terms of the danger of worldly thinking. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that God will not mind if I commit this one sin, or even worse, to disguise sin as an act of righteousness. It only takes a simple move away from God like this to start a pattern of rebellion that could end in the lifestyle described here (and in Romans 1). Romans 6 and other passages clearly state that the transformation made at baptism is total and complete. Certainly, as long as we remain spiritual creatures in a physical world there will be times in which we fail. Thanks to God's grace, we know that in such cases, Christ's blood continually cleanses us from sin (1 John 1:7). But an ongoing sin, like the continuing strained or broken relationship between the two ladies in the Philippian church, unless addressed and redressed through repentance and a mind like Christ, suggests that one is heading down the wrong track. (Troubles at Enron might be a useful analogy for this. Apparently small, easily excusable, accounting methods resulted in a cascade that destroyed the company.)
  2. Another area of application, that is certainly secondary in the text, but not so in Paul's heart, is concern for the lost. Paul here writes "the letter of joy” while crying (3:18)! Such a love for the lost of this world explains his strong zeal for mission work. This same love must be at the core of the church's heart. Part of having the mind of Christ is "thinking” of others. Christ came to seek and save the lost. This must be at the core of the church's ministry as well.

Assignment (1 minute)

  1. Each class member with an ongoing sin, including any long term broken relationships, should resolve to fix them today, or at the latest some time this week.
  2. Each class member should read 4:2-9.

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