One of the tremendous exhortation themes in Paul’s epistles is about whether we have an earthly or heavenly perspective. Do we think short term or long term? Paul addresses the issue in Philippians 3 by first talking about his own example. He had been a top religious Jew, outlining his resume with things like “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (v.5). But now, in Christ, those things were counted “as rubbish” (v.8). Paul had followed the example of his Lord, outlined in chapter 2, who “emptied himself” (2:7) of his status as the Son of God in order to submit to the humiliation of death on a cross.
For first century Jews the cross didn’t make any sense and it proved to be a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23) for them. Paul, along with the rest of the ecclesia, found themselves on the receiving end of persecution from short-term thinking Jews, including the Judaizers who had pretended to be brethren. Their focus was on the here-and-now, glorying in the works of law rather than the long-term outlook which comes by faith. We don’t have to deal with Judaizers today, but their spirit is very much alive. Whether it’s the world around us with its own focus on short-term gain, or within the ecclesia when we are confronted with the same spirit, and often within ourselves as we struggle to focus on eternal things.
At the end of Philippians 3 Paul draws out the contrast between short- and long-term thinking. He calls the short-term thinkers “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v.18) and then describes them in four ways: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (v.19). They’re enemies of the cross of Christ because the cross is fundamentally opposed to short-term gain. Isaiah 53:8 says Jesus “was cut off out of the land of the living” in the prime of life, when most people are endeavoring to make a name for themselves in this world. But while short-term thinking can get us ahead in this life the “end is destruction”. Again, we can contrast this with Christ. Isaiah 53:10 says, despite being cut off for a time, “he shall prolong his days”.
The words “their god is their belly” remind us of the serpent in Eden who was cursed to slither along on his belly. He represents those who can only think in the short-term, like animals. Their focus is on satisfying the natural desires and hungers of the flesh. Empty shelves in supermarkets, and lack of concern for others during the pandemic, reminds us that things haven’t changed since Eden. Then Paul says, “they glory in their shame”. What does that mean? A clue is back in verse 2 where Paul says these short-term thinkers “mutilate the flesh”. He’s talking about the way in which first century Jews and Judaizers emphasized the importance of physical circumcision. That’s how they gloried in their shame. Whether or not you’re circumcised should be a private matter, but the Jews boasted about it. Paul contrasts their physical circumcision with a reminder that “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (v.3). The glory of Jesus Christ was seen in him being cut off out of the land of the living – spiritual circumcision. Our religion is meant to be about the things of the spirit, not the outward show of the flesh.
Finally, Paul says these people have “minds set on earthly things” – they have a short-term perspective to do with the things of this life. There’s an interesting echo here with the apostle Peter. For a moment he fell into the trap of short-term thinking just after Jesus told his disciples, for the first time, that he must die: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matt. 16:21). Peter’s famous response is “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (v.22), words which sound a lot like what the serpent said in Eden – “you shall not surely die”. While Peter’s motive was not evil, he was at this time thinking only of the here-and-now and had bought into the Jewish concept of an eternal Messiah who would conquer the Romans and certainly not die on a cross. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is extremely strong because he had said exactly what the flesh wants to hear. Apart from calling him “Satan” he also said, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (v.23), using the same Greek as Paul uses in Philippians.
In the last couple of verses of Philippians 3 Paul finishes by demonstrating the contrast between the opposing perspectives. Instead of minds set on earthly things “our citizenship is in heaven”. Our god should not be our belly because “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”. Instead of our end being destruction and glorying in our shame, when our Lord returns, he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body”.
The world around us, and our own flesh and blood nature, expects us to focus on the short-term. It’s a constant struggle for us to have an eternal perspective but by taking up our cross and following Christ – spiritual circumcision – our present denial of self will reap for us immortality and eternal life. In ten billion years’ time (if time means anything when we’re immortal) we’ll look back at our mortal lives and be thankful we didn’t buy into short-term thinking. Our lives now are a mere speck in eternity. Focus on the future; it’s going to be infinitely better than anything this world can offer.
Simi Hills, CA