“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:17-21 ESV)
In today’s vernacular, being called a “Stoic” often means little more than to bear adversity with a stiff upper lip. But in the first century, to be a Stoic meant to be committed to rationality as the governing principle of life and the universe.
Founded by the third-century B.C. philosopher Zeno, Stoicism taught its adherents to conform all of one’s thoughts, actions, and feelings to reason, or the Logos. By living in accordance with nature, one could achieve contentment apart from external circumstances. Central to this school of thought was the belief that the cultivation of virtue was integral to the good life and sufficient for one’s happiness.
Stoicism, unlike its rival Epicureanism, found common ground with Christianity as the gospel spread across the Greco-Roman world. Both Christianity and Stoicism emphasized the pursuit of virtue. Both grounded ethics in a transcendent principle. In the prologue of his Gospel, the Apostle John identifies the Son of God as the true Logos (John 1:1). And both the famed Stoic Seneca and the Apostle Paul wrote epistles of consolation that wrestled with suffering and transcendence.
Yet in other critical areas, Christianity parted ways with the pagan philosophy. Stoicism verged on pantheism, seeing the universe as permeated by a divine principle. Christianity, together with the Jewish faith from which it emerged, recognized the fundamental Creator-creature distinction at the root of reality. Thus, in pursuing the good life, the Stoic searched within, while the Christian looked outside himself—and outside this life altogether.
The Book of Philippians is one setting in which Paul’s complex relationship with Stoicism is demonstrated. In Philippians 3:17-21, Paul admonishes: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (v. 17). Seneca, in a similar vein, instructed, “Associate with those who will make a better man of you” (Letters from a Stoic). King Solomon had also attested: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20).
The Apostle warns of “many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). Paul is neither a Stoic nor a Cynic; he is moved to tears at the thought of the damage these opponents cause and the judgment that awaits them.
In what way are they “enemies of the cross”? Whether Paul has in mind the Judaizers from earlier in the chapter or the insincere preachers addressed previously, the meaning is plain. They oppose not only the power of the cross, which empties human deeds of merit (vv. 8-9), but the path of the cross, captured in the words of the Lord Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Refusing to deny themselves, in contrast to Paul who sought fellowship with Christ in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10), they do nothing but chase their own desires.
Their self-indulgence is evidenced by Paul’s next words. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (v. 19). This staccato statement sets up a series of contrasts: destruction and transformation (v. 21), the belly-god and the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 20), shameful glory and bodily glory (v. 21), and earth and heaven (vv. 19-20). It also reveals a deep depravity. These hell-bound unbelievers worship on the altar of appetite, reveling in their own undoing and fixing their minds on worldliness. Their downward descent is much like the pattern of sin and its consequences described in Romans 1, resulting in the same conclusion: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8).
By contrast, “our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul reminds us (v. 20). As residents of a Roman colony, the Philippians were already acquainted with the privilege and responsibility of citizenship. For the Stoics, one of the keys to the good life was to be a cosmopolitan—one who considers himself a citizen of the world and not just of a particular locality. “We are members of one great body . . . born for the good of the whole,” wrote Seneca. Yet this noble ideal is powerless to stop the indulgence of the flesh. The Christian answer is to live as citizens of the city of God—people whose loyalty is to a better kingdom.
In asserting the Christian’s heavenly citizenship, Paul is not denouncing material reality as somehow bad in itself. Ancient Platonism tended somewhat in this direction, and the Gnostic heresies that grew to fruition after Paul’s lifetime took the error even farther. Paul teaches us to distinguish between spiritual and physical but not set them against each other. Although the enemies of the cross set their minds on earthly things, they will be destroyed (v. 19). By contrast, those who belong to heaven anticipate the full manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ’s redemptive conquest of the cosmos, culminating in the transformation of their weak, corruptible bodies into glorious, resurrected bodies like that of Christ himself (v. 21; see 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 48-54). Heaven wins not by obliterating physical reality but by filling and consummating it. Christians await not merely the destruction of the world but its renewal into a place in which heaven and earth are effectively one (Revelation 21:1).
To live for our Lord, we must do more than bear life’s hardships with Stoic indifference. Our calling is to wage war against the sinful appetites of our flesh, putting to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). We can only do this by setting our minds on heaven (Colossians 3:1-3), from which Christ reigns and is putting all things under his feet (Psalm 110:1). Only then will we be of any earthly good.
I live surrounded by those who serve their stomachs, revel in their shame, and care only about earthly concerns. Help me to keep my eyes on those who, like Paul, live as citizens of your kingdom. Grant me to long for Christ’s return and the redemption of my body so that I may live in the new world and enjoy you forever.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray for the diminishment of the influence of carnal people on contemporary culture and especially on the church.
- Pray for a renewed willingness in the church to walk according to the way of the cross, regardless of the consequences.
- Pray for the church leaders and Christian workers you know to pursue heavenly things rather than fleshly desires. Ask the Lord to help them fix their gaze on him.