“A Christian Example” (Philippians 3:17 sermon)

“The morning of August 14, 1821, 200 West Point cadets … who were touring New England, marched out from Boston to parade past the house of John Adams, who had been President of the United States 20 years before. Flags were flying, and bands were playing. They said half the town turned out for it. Adams watched from his front porch, and provided breakfast for the cadets at his own expense. When they lined up before him, Adams made a brief speech, his old voice very faint at first but growing stronger as he went on. And what did he tell them? He said they needed to keep the example of the character of George Washington before them at all times. Imitate him. 

You know, I think one of the big problems we have today, is the lack of examples of good character for our young people today like George Washington was for his generation. People need an example to follow. To whom today can we point people to pattern their lives after? Surely not many of the characters they see in the news, and in the movies. But who? Who can they pattern their lives after? Surely the Lord Jesus. But are there living, human example around us that we can imitate now? The Biblical answer is, “Yes!” 

Last week, we talked about the Christian attitudes of humility, and forgetfulness, and ambition. How can we learn these things? Jonathan Edwards wrote there’s 2 means of Christian learning: one is by “precept;” teaching it. The other is by example. Both are commended in Scripture, and our passage for today commends this second: the importance of Christian example.  Paul writes:

“Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.

I. What following an example will NOT do:

Notice the very first word in this verse. A lot of times in our Bible reading and study, we just quickly skip over words that are very important. Remember what II Timothy says: “All scripture in inspired by God.” That is, “all the writing.” Every word. We need to carefully consider every word of God when we read and study.

And what is the first word here? “Brethren …”. Someone might think, well, that isn’t very important; he’s just using that word to address the people. And he IS using that term to address the people, but the word God’s Spirit led him to choose here is important: It is a key word. He says he is addressing, “BRETHREN.” He specifically says he is talking here to those who are already “brothers (and sisters)” in Christ. 

This is important. Listen, it is important that we follow the examples God has given us, and that we try to be good examples; we are going to spend the rest of the message talking about that. But in order to do that, you must first know that you are a “brother” or “sister” in Christ.  We have talked about this before. God made us all to be His children; but we sinned, and separated ourselves from Him. But He still loved us, and sent Jesus to die on the cross and pay for our sins, so that if we would repent of our sins, and come back to Him, we could be “adopted” back into the family of God. Those who do this become “brothers and sisters in Christ,” part of God’s family. It is THESE people, “brethren,” to whom he is writing, that we should be imitators, and good examples.

And we also need to realize that he is NOT saying, “Imitate me as a good example, and that will get you into heaven.”  And I feel like I need to say that, because that is what a lot of people think. They think, “If I am a good person; if I follow a good example, and if I am a good example to others, then I will be a good person, and God will take me to heaven when I die.” And that that is a HUGE mistake to make. Because we can’t do it. 

For example, there are people who say, “I’m just going to follow the philosophy, ‘What would Jesus do?’, and I’ll just do that, and surely that will find favor with God. And they think that is what makes them a Christian, because they are trying to “do what Jesus would do.” Well, it IS commendable to try to follow in Jesus’ steps and it can often be a good idea to ask yourself “What would Jesus do?”, in a given situation. But trying to imitate Jesus doesn’t make you a Christian; because if trying to imitate Jesus shows you anything, it shows that you fall short of His example, and that you DON’T deserve to go to heaven.

For example; you say you’re just gonna do what Jesus did to get to heaven; ok, well what did Jesus do?

— Well, first of all, when Jesus began His ministry, He fasted 40 days and 40 night … ok, NEXT! That rules US all out, right? Well, maybe there’s a very few of us who can fast for 40 days, but that just gets us started. Now continue on trying to imitate Jesus’ life:

— AFTER He fasted 40 days and 40 nights, the devil himself came to tempt Jesus, time after time, with the most deceptive and insidious temptations ever — but Jesus NEVER gave in to one of them. Every time he countered Satan’s temptations with the truth of God’s word. Jesus never stumbled once. Hebrews says, “He was tempted in all things as we are — yet without sin.” Is there anyone here who can claim you’ve done that? (oh, and by the way if you do claim that, I John 1 says you’re a liar …) No; we all know we haven’t done that. We should TRY to imitate Jesus by resisting temptation, but we all fall short, right? 

     Now we could go on and on with things that Jesus did that we can’t do, but I think for the sake of time, we get the point, right? We can never live up to the standard of imitating Jesus in order to get to heaven. We all fall short of it.

And that’s just what the Bible says: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Jesus did NOT come to be an example we could follow and be saved; He came to die on the cross because we are not ABLE to follow His example and be saved!  You can’t be saved by imitating Jesus. You are saved when you admit you CAN’T imitate Jesus, and by asking Him to save you by His mercy on the cross.  

So let’s just be clear on this right off: following a good example is a VERY important thing for a Christian to do — as we are about to see. But let’s make sure right off that you are not imitating for the wrong reason, thinking that this imitation will save you, because it won’t. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, only faith in Jesus saves. Put your trust in what HE did on the cross for you — and THEN, in gratitude and obedience for the salvation He has freely given you, seek to follow Him and be a good example. But don’t think that following a Christian example will save you. It won’t.

II. The Benefit of Following Christian examples

SO, speaking to Christian “brothers & sisters,” saved through faith in Jesus, Paul then says: “join in following my example.” The Bible says we ARE to make it our goal to follow the examples of godly people to help us grow in our Christian life. We aren’t saved by doing that, but if we are saved, we will want to do that, in order to grow spiritually. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, there are 2 ways to grow as Christians: 1) we can grow by “precept,” (by being taught the facts) but 2) also by “example;” by seeing it in others. And seeing it in others can actually be one of the most powerful and effective means of growing.  

John Adams told those young army cadets in 1821 that they needed to follow the example of George Washington. Washington was, indeed, one of the great example to follow in all of history. He was called “The Father of our Country” because without him our country would likely have never come to pass. And it was his EXAMPLE to his troops, in the most desperate times, that held that army together when any other army would have quit. He didn’t just tell them to do things; He did them himself. When they were without permanent sleeping quarters, Washington the general himself slept in a tent, just like his men did. Once, when his men working on a hard project, Washington was found working with them in his shirt sleeves. Most of all, in battle, Washington led by fearless example. He sat there on his horse, enemy bullets literally whistling by him, as if he were sitting in a park on a spring day; telling his men to be calm and hold the line. And his example held them steady. He didn’t just “tell” them; he showed them. And when it came time to charge, he was willing to lead the way. George Washington’s example, of leading his men by his own personal example, kept the army together, and was perhaps THE most significant factor in the birth of the United States of America. 

And here Paul tells us, that following Christian example is perhaps THE best tool for spiritual growth that the Christian has:

— He says first of all follow my “Example.” This Bible word is for “example”is “mimetai;” we get our word “mimic” from it. He’s saying, “mimic” me. Do what you see me doing.  

— And not only him; he adds: “AND observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.”

So he says, both follow my example, and the examples of others who are following this same pattern 

Learning from the example of others is one of the best ways we have to grow spiritually. Now, it takes humility (which we talked about last week) to learn from other Christians’ examples, doesn’t it? Because you have to humble yourself, and admit, “I don’t have it all together; I don’t know how best to do everything; I need help; I need to learn from the examples of other Christians.  

See, too often what happens when we see good Christian examples is that Satan tries to take that, and make us jealous of that person and cause a bitterness or a division – when what God intends is for us to see that person’s example and LEARN from it; and IMITATE it. Following the examples of other Christians is one of THE very best, God-given means of spiritual growth that He has given us. Don’t be jealous of other people’s gifts; learn from them!

I think this is one of the roles of spiritual gifts. Nobody has all the gifts; and everyone can learn something from someone else’s spiritual gift.

— We don’t all have the gift of evangelism; but we can learn how to be better evangelists by learning from and watching those who do. 

— we don’t all have the gift of giving, like some do. But when we see others giving generously, it encourages us to do better at it ourselves.

— some people are just always SO encouraging — I wish I were as encouraging as some people I hear, but when I hear the person with the gift of encouragement, it challenges me to be more encouraging myself.

We should learn from the examples of godliness we see and hear in other Christians.

— Not long ago I heard one of our ladies talking to my wife Cheryl about how she does her morning prayer and Bible time; I thought, that’s wise; because Cheryl has one of the best, most consistent morning devotion routines – since high school really – of anyone I know. You would do well to learn from her example. 

— I don’t know if he did it this last time or not, but I know earlier this year when we had our first outreach BB!, Thurman Kruger sat up all night at the church to watch the bbq. All night long! That is commitment! Now, we don’t all need to sit up and watch BBQ, but we can all imitate that kind of commitment to the ministries that God has called US to do.

— We had a huge outreach event last weekend that I asked Deb Peterson to coordinate for us, and she did an amazing job at it (I told her she did so well, she was promoted from being a Captain to a Colonel!). But then, after that long day of service, our nursery coordinator posted on Facebook that we needed someone to volunteer to cover for a spot in the nursery — and Deb Peterson said “I’ll do it!” I thought, are you kidding me? After a day like that? We can all learn from that kind of sacrificial example.

— I saw Carroll Wood not long ago, go right up to a lady she didn’t even know, who came to visit our church, and she sat right down by her, and talked to her, and make her feel included. I thought, WOW, what a wonderful thing to do to reach out like that!  That can be hard to do, I know, and that may not be your gift (or mine!) But by watching her, we can all learn from her example and be better at it. 

And we could go on and on. In all kinds of different ways, we can learn from the examples of other Christians. We may never be as good as they are at what they do, but we CAN all learn from them to be better at it than what we are now: we can learn to have BETTER devotional times; we can be MORE committed; we can learn to be MORE sacrificial; we can learn to be MORE friendly; we can LEARN from the examples of others.  That is what God is saying here: He wants you to follow the examples of the mature believers He has placed around you. Not one of those people is perfect, but by the way they use the gifts God has given them, they are showing you an area in which you can imitate them, and become better in some of these areas — and become more like Jesus, who of course is our ultimate example. Learn from the examples of other Christians.

Then finally, I think we can take it a step further:

III.  Are you BEING an example to other Christians? 

Paul doesn’t really “say” this here directly, but I think it is strongly implied. Just as we are to FOLLOW the example of the godly Christians we see, so we should also strive to BE one of those godly examples ourselves to the other Christians who are looking at us, as well.

Paul could say to the church in Philippi in :17, “join in following my example.” And he said, “observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us.” I think each one of us should ask ourselves: could I say to people, “Follow my example”? And would YOU be one of those people of whom Paul, or the Lord, might say, that you are walking according to the right pattern, that others might follow?  We are not only to FOLLOW godly examples; we should strive to BE godly examples for others to follow. Some of the best ministry you can have to others, is the example you show them.  Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor, once said that the greatest gift a pastor can give to his flock is the example of a holy life. I think that’s a poignant statement: not anything that he preaches, or anything he teaches, but the EXAMPLE of a holy life. That’s challenging! 

But listen: that is not just for pastors – that’s for ALL of us. We should ALL seek to be examples for others — if the truth be known, we ARE all examples for others!  The question is, what kind of example are you? 

— SS Teacher, are you just “teaching a lesson” on Sunday morning, or can you say to your class: “Follow my example?

— It’s important in the home too. Many children over the years have gotten tired of their parents’ hypocrisy; telling them to live one way, while they themselves are living another way. Your job is really the same as a pastor’s, mom & dad; the best gift you can give your children is the example of a holy life. Are you doing that? Can you tell your kids, “Follow my example”?

— It’s true at church, at home, at work; wherever you are. Are you being an example that other people can follow? We should continually have that thought in our mind.

Here is a question I often ask myself, when I am uncertain in some situations: “What if everyone else in the church, did what I am doing?”

— I do that all the time especially when I have a question about giving. We should ALL tithe, of course; give the first 10% of our income to the Lord. That is what keeps this church going. A lot of us should ask:  What if everyone in our church tithed the way that I do — what kind of shape would our church finances be in? What would we be able to do as a church if everyone gave like I do?

Of course, tithing is the same for everyone; it’s 10%. But if you’re like me, sometimes it gets harder on some of the other offerings. How much should I give to the Building Fund, or “Acts 1:8,” or the Lottie Moon offering, or some other kind of special offering? It’s hard to know what to give sometimes, isn’t it? Well, this is where I will use that question: “What if everyone gave like I am giving to this? If I’m giving $20 to this, what if everyone gave $20 — would that meet the need? What if everyone gave like I did? 

— If everyone gave to the building fund what I give to the building fund – would we be able to make our monthly building payment? 

— If everyone gave to missions the way that I do – would we be able to keep our missionaries on the field?  

— If everyone gave to the special speaker what I am giving; would that person be able to make a living?

So to me, this can be a helpful question to ask: “What if everyone else in the church, did what I am doing?”

And we can apply that same question to all kinds of areas in our church:

— what if everyone was as faithful as I am to attend services; how many people would we have here every week?

— what if everyone witnessed and invited people to church the way that I do; how many people would be saved, or come to our church?

— what if everyone prayed the way that I pray; how powerfully would God move in our church?

— what if everyone in our church used their gifts to serve the way that I am using MY gifts; would the work of our church be strong? Or would we always be needing workers? 

— what if everyone in the church exhibited the attitude that I do? Would our church be filled with whiners and complainers — or would we have a church overflowing with love, and joy, and peace, and patience? 

And on and on. Think of yourself as an example: “What if everyone else in the church, did what I am doing?” What kind of an example am I being?

Of course, everyone can’t see everything that you do. But they see plenty. You ARE an example. People DO see what you do. What kind of example are YOU being to others in the church? How are you impacting them? You ARE impacting others by your example. 

John Donne was an English writer, minister, and politician in the 1600’s, who is primarily remembered the opening line of one of his works, when he wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

That quote has endured all these years because it is true. “No man is an island.” Too many people use the excuse, “What I do doesn’t affect anyone else.” That’s not true. You’re not an island. What you do — or do NOT do — DOES affect other people. You ARE an example.  Really, the question is not “Are you an example?”, the question is, “What KIND of example, are you going to be?” 


— Are you growing, following examples in the church, or “stagnant,” even jealous of others?

— What kind of example are YOU being to others? What if every church member was like you — did what you did — what kind of church would we have?

— Do you know for sure today that you are saved — NOT by trying to “follow an example,” but by faith in Christ?

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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