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Philippians Bible Study, Week 17

Philippians 3:15-19

Let us therefore, as many as are perfect [or mature], have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. Philippians 3:15-19 (NASB)

Things to think about

Are you more spiritually mature now than a few years ago? Is God working in your life, transforming you? Are you becoming more and more like Jesus?
Are you becoming more useful for God’s purposes?
Do you welcome trials and tests?
Do you think more about earthly, temporal things than heavenly, eternal things?
How are disciples made?

“Most Improved”

More than a few times, during primary and high school, I received the annual “Most Improved” award for my class. I always felt a bit embarrassed to receive this award because of its implicit suggestion that I must have been a poor or immature student at the beginning of the school year. Somehow, I still feel that this label of “most improved” applies to me – with both its negative and positive connotations – because I still seem to be learning so much about God, about his will and about his world, and about myself and my place in his will and world.

I used to think that as a Christian person got older, and had (hopefully) moved a little closer to the goal of spiritual maturity and perfection, progress would slow down because there would be fewer areas left to be worked on. I had assumed that much of the major transforming work would have already been accomplished, with only a fine-tuning and a final polish still to come. This, however, has not been my experience.

When I look back, I can see that God has helped me to overcome tremendous emotional and social inadequacies, and yet I am equally aware that God is still very much at work in major areas of my life. God is still moulding me more and more into Christ’s likeness and better equipping me for his service (Phil. 2:13).

I am extremely grateful for God’s transforming work in my life (Rom. 8:28-29): that he is transforming my inadequacies and weaknesses into strengths. I am glad that God is making me more and more useful and qualified for his purposes. I am even grateful for the mostly difficult and painful periods of stretching and proving which hasten spiritual growth and development (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).

In many ways I am far from being mature or perfect (cf. Phil. 3:12). My life continues to be very much a work in progress and there is much to look forward to and “reach out” for (Phil. 3:13). I know that I will not graduate from the Christ’s School of Discipleship in this lifetime – unless I live to see the Day of Christ (Phil. 3:20-21). So, in the meantime, I hope that I will continue to be a contender for the “Most Improved” award.

Maturity and Perfection

In Philippians 3:10-14, Paul had presented to the Philippians his personal focus and goal of spiritual perfection. However, Paul did not regard his goal as something only some Christians, like apostles, should aspire to. Spiritual maturity and perfection was, and is, for all Christians. Paul expected the already mature and “perfect” Christians in Philippi to recognise this. While some theologians have suggested that Paul is using irony in here – by saying that mature Christians should aim for maturity – others suggest that Paul is highlighting the fact that we can attain a functional level of spiritual maturity and perfection while continuing in our pursuit for further perfection.

The word for “perfect” or “mature” used in Philippians 3:12 and 15 is teleois.[1] Teleios and its cognates are common words in the New Testament and are often used in verses with vital theological significance.

Teleios in Greek has a variety of interrelated meanings. In the vast majority of them, it signifies not what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose. It means to be full grown as distinct from underdeveloped; for example, it is used of a fully grown adult as opposed to an underdeveloped youth. It is used to mean mature in mind, and therefore means one who is qualified in a subject as opposed to someone who is still learning. (Barclay  2003:77)

Paul seems to graciously allow for some of the Philippians who held other, different views, believing that God would, in time, reveal to them the truth of Paul’s position. Perhaps these Christians were thinking that the pursuit of maturity was an unnecessary waste of effort and exertion, or conversely that compete spiritual perfection was available now. “If the Philippians are lax in their spiritual goals or erroneously suppose they have already arrived, they need to understand Paul’s declaration.” (Kent 1978:143)

Whatever their views, at the very least, Paul urges the Philippians in verse 16 to keep living according to whatever level of maturity they have reached, and not to go backwards. The Greek verb phthanō used in verse 16 can mean “advance” and “make progress.” So Paul may be urging the Philippians to advance beyond the level they have attained. Most English translations, however, do not give this interpretation.


Paul did not just provide words for believers to follow, he also gave himself as a practical example to follow. Nevertheless, Paul always pointed his disciples to Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul wrote, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” Paul was continually walking closely with Jesus Christ, and at the same time was continually leading people to follow Jesus Christ. This is the essence of true discipleship.

Discipleship is not about believing certain doctrines, it is about spending time with a mature believer and observing how they follow Christ, so that the disciple can learn from them how to live the faith and follow Christ. Accordingly, the writer of Hebrews urged his/her readers to imitate the faith of diligent Christians (Heb. 6:12) and godly leaders (Heb. 13:7).

Disciple-making has always been God’s main method of bringing people into his Kingdom and nurturing them. God intended that there should be a continuous succession of disciple-making from the time of Jesus’ first disciples onwards (Matt. 28:19). Sadly, until recently, this understanding has been largely ignored and neglected by the church with devastating effect. One consequence of our failure to make disciples is that our churches have contained too many ill-informed, lazy, and often unrepentant churchgoers. Another consequence is that there are masses of people who still have not heard the message of salvation.

There is a high cost in true discipleship. The sacrifice involved in following Jesus has dissuaded many people from becoming disciples. Jesus did not shy away from clearly revealing the sacrificial cost of true discipleship;[2] however he also clearly taught that there are tremendous rewards in this life and in eternity for those who choose to follow him wholeheartedly (Mark 10:29-30).

It is evident that Paul was committed to disciple-making and understood the process, including the idea of succession (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Tim. 3:14; 2 Thess. 3:7-9). We see this succession in Timothy, clearly one of Paul’s disciples, who was charged with making more disciples (1 Cor 4:17; 2 Tim 2:2). Moreover, in 1 Thessalonians 1:5-7, Paul wrote how he (and possibly Silas and Timothy) had lived among the Thessalonians, had been examples to them, and now the Thessalonians were, in turn, an example to others.

Earthly Things

Being a disciple of Jesus and pursuing spiritual perfection entails having a heavenly, eternal mindset rather than an earthly, temporal one. As Paul wrote, we must our minds “on things above not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2).  And “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). As believers, to some extent, we are already living the eternal life and we are already partakers of the divine nature, but we need to keep cultivating a spiritual mindset; we need to keep renewing our mind (Rom. 12:2).

Paul again reveals his passionate pastoral heart in Philippians 3:18-19. He weeps over those who were once following Jesus Christ but now indulge their appetite for ungodly, earthly pleasures. These people were not members of the Philippian church, but the Philippians knew about these people because Paul had previously spoken about them.

These people appear to have been antinomians. Antinomian literally means “anti-law”. Paul refers to these antinomians as living lives that make them enemies of the Cross of Christ. Antinomians wrongly believed that:

. . . in Christianity, all law had gone and that Christians were at liberty to do what they liked. They turned Christian liberty into un-Christian licence and gloried in giving into their passions. There were those who distorted the Christian doctrine of grace.  They said that God’s grace was wide enough to cover every sin, people could sin as they liked and not worry; it didn’t make any difference to the all-forgiving love of God. (Barclay 2003:80) [cf. Romans 6:1-2, 12-18ff]

Our freedom in Christ does not mean that we have the freedom to live undisciplined, lawless lives. What it does mean is that we can have freedom from the bondage of sin and guilt (Rom. 6:12-18), and freedom from the bondage of religious rituals, such as the Jewish rite of circumcision (Gal. 5:1ff). God wants us to use our freedom in free-will service to others and to him.

You my brothers were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another. Galatians 5:13 (NIV) cf. Romans 9:19.
Live as free people and but do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but live as bondslaves of God. 1 Peter 2:16.


[1] Perschbacher (1990:404) defines the adjective teleios as “brought to completion; fully accomplished, fully developed James 1:4; fully realized, thorough, 1 John 4:8; complete, entire, as opposed to what is partial and limited, 1 Cor 13:10; full grown, of ripe age, 1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:13; Heb 5:14; fully accomplished in Christian enlightenment, 1 Cor 2:6; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; perfect in some point of character, without shortcoming in respect of a certain standard, Matt 5:48; 19:21; Col 4:12; James 1:4; 3:2; perfect, consummate, Rom 12:2; James 1:17, 25; . . .”

[2] Jesus said: “If anyone does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” Luke 14:26-27. (See also Matt 8:18-22;16:24-27; Mk 10:17-30; Lk 5:27-28, 9:23-26 & 57-62; 14:26-33.)

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Week 16: The Onward, Upward Call – Philippians 3:10-14
Week 18: The Day of Christ – Philippians 3:20-4:1

2 thoughts on “Maturity and Perfection – Philippians 3:15-19

  1. Dear Marg Mowczko
    Thank you for the work you do. I am preaching tomorrow, as Euodia. I appreciate the help from your notes. My first Euodia sermon had Euodia and Syntyche quarreling, but I had to re-write it after I read your studies. I don’t think I preached heresy the first time, but I believe I’m closer to the truth this time around… growing in maturity, just like what Paul wanted! Thank you and blessings.

    1. There probably was some kind of friction between the women, but Paul speaks well of them, so I think we should too. He wanted them to be edified, not slandered.

      All the best with your message tomorrow!

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