Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
Paul has a lot on his mind. We have already noticed his concern that the Philippians may fall prey to those who believe receiving God’s grace is conditional on observing the stipulation of the old covenant by enduring circumcision. Now he turns is attention to those who imagine that grace frees one not only from circumcision but from all law whatsoever.
If we characterize the first group as legalists – those who believe that relationship with God is dependent on our observance of the law – than we might describe the second as libertine – those who believe that relationship with God liberates them from any and all laws altogether.
The difficulty with this position is that it ends up being highly individualistic, even egocentric. Keep in mind that the law was never intended as a means by which to establish relationship with God; rather, it was given as a gift to those already in relationship with God to help them get more out of life by caring for their neighbors. God gives us law, that is, because God cares for us, and if I look out for you and you look out for me, we’re much better off than if we only look out for ourselves.
So where the legalists makes the mistake of elevating the law – “these are the things you must do in order to be in relationship with God” – the libertine makes the mistake of devaluing the law – “I can do whatever I want with no regard for the people and world around me”.
As Paul and the whole Old Testament witness, when we get so caught up in pursuing our own individual wants that we have no regard for each other our end can only be destruction. And the thought that his friends may be tempted down this path drives Paul to tears.
We were made for more than slavery – either to the law or to our own wants. We were made for freedom, the freedom to give and receive love freely and joyfully. And this is precisely what Paul so desperately wants for the Philippians…and for us.
Prayer: Dear God, remind us that you free us from the need to earn your love precisely so that we have share your love with others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.