I was reading sections of Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon by Dennis Hamm. This is the latest entry in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series. Here’s what he wrote on Phil. 3:18 (he notes that his interpretation draws heavily on Gordon Fee’s interpretation of the passage). All words in bold and italics are his.
“Having reminded the Philippian Christians whom they should take as models, Paul now reminds them of those they should not imitate—those who conduct themselves as enemies of the Christ. Some scholars take this to be another reference to the Judaizers mentioned earlier (the ‘dogs’ of 3:2). But Paul’s further description of this group suggests otherwise. That they are many and that he has often told the Philippians about them, and now tells them in tears suggests that (1) they are not part of the Philippian church, for then the Philippians would not need to hear about them from Paul, especially if they are ‘many’; and (2) they are nonetheless fellow Christians, for we would hardly expect Paul to be reduced to tears by the normal behavior of pagans. That they are ‘enemies of the cross’ implies that they know both what the crucifixion of Christ means and its implications for disciples. Thus Paul seems to be referring to slackers who identify as Christians but fail to live the self-emptying way of life modeled by Paul, Timothy, and the other co-imitators of verse 17. Since Philippi was situated at a crossroads, on a major road from Rome to Asia Minor and with access to a nearby port, the Philippians would have had occasion to meet travelers who were nominally Christian but whose worldly behavior was quite the opposite of true Christian conduct.” (135)
D.A. Carson says these people “talk a good line, dupe the unwary and the undiscerning, parade themselves as Christian leaders, and perhaps even exhibit a good deal of ‘power.’ But what is missing, judging by Paul’s expression, is a focus on the cross, a focus like his own.” (Basics for Believers, p 92) He goes on to say, “We are reminded of the tears of Christ, who Paul is emulating. When Jesus denounces the religious charlatans of his day, he ends up in grief as he looks over the city (Matt. 23). For our part, we must not become people who denounce but who do not weep. Neither may we become people who weep but who never denounce. Too much is at stake both ways.” (93)
Before leaving let me leave you with one final word from Hamm on Phil. 3:17.
“Paul describes the imitation in a careful way: join with others in being imitators of me, literally, ‘be co-imitators of me.’ Since this word appears nowhere else in the New Testament, nor in Greek literature generally, it seems that Paul has coined it to emphasize imitation as a communal enterprise; they are to collaborate as a church in emulating Paul’s way of life. Indeed, he develops that idea: observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us. They are to imitate one another as they follow Paul’s way of imitating Christ himself. The plural ‘us’ underscores the fact that Paul is not the only model. For example, his cosender Timothy and the Philippians’ emissary Epaphroditus are also to be viewed as models. (2:19-30).” (135)