Gilbert Lennox explored the “safety announcements” in chapter three and called us to press on towards knowing Christ and becoming like Him.
Paul begins this part of his letter with a safety announcement. In fact there are two of them in this part of his letter. In each warning, he sets out the danger, the wrong way of going about spiritual maturity, and then he sets out the true, safe way.
What is at stake is their spiritual safety and this is what Philippians 3 is all about. We tend to ignore safety messages. Some people think that we are okay – we don’t need to listen to warnings! Paul clearly didn’t think that.
The language is strong. In the first warning, he speaks of dogs (wild scavenger dogs). He refers to mutilators – those who do huge damage. People who are zealous, active, religious. In the second wraning, he speaks of those who are enemies of the cross and they are equally dangerous.
He begins with a call for them to rejoice in the Lord. This is a deep confidence (much more than being happy) in the Lord. The “dogs” that Paul was talking about were those who said that the Jewish rite of circumcision should be imposed on Gentile believers. But being circumcised has nothing to do with being Christians. We are under a new covenant, which according to Hebrews is not like the old covenant. God has not taken Gentiles and added them to the Jews. He has taken both Jews and Gentiles and made a new people of the new covenant.
What lies at the heart of this is the wrong kind of self confidence. Having confidence is psychologically very important, otherwise we would not use the gifts that we have been given. Paul is not warning us about that (he has already spoken of his own confidence). The issue is where we place our confidence and the mindset he is warning us about is the mindset of religious people who place their confidence in “the flesh”.
What does Paul mean by that? In the Bible, Through the Old Testament and especially in the New Testament “the flesh” came to acquire a sinister meaning – it was the source of confidence that replaces God as the source, it is rebellious, independent and opposed to God. This chapter reveals that there are two sides to this.
The end of the chapter is more familiar – people whose God is their “belly” – their fleshly appetites” rule them (the permissive side). But the flesh also has a religious side. The dogs that Paul warns against are those whose confidence before God lies in themselves. In their own religious zeal and devotion. In their own pedigree and heritage. It is pride in their own self righteousness. To set opposite that the true way of Christianity is to glory in Christ and have no confidence in the flesh.
The contrast is not between atheists and believers. It is between those who seek salvation in rules and religious observance taking pride in their spiritual heritage and those who truly seek salvation by faith in Christ alone. It is “religion” as opposed to the Christian gospel.
Paul gives us a list of where his confidence used to lie. He was a Hebrew of Hebrew. He was a strict Pharisee. He was faultless – he had followed the whole pattern of religious life. He was extreme in devotion and personal zeal. His all consuming passion to serve God led him to full opposition to Christ. In certain circles, Paul was truly impressive. He had won great respect and authority among other Jews.
Where do we place our confidence? What do we rejoice in? If you were to make a list like Paul, what would be on it? Our religious identity and heritage? Our rituals? Baptism or communion… Our zeal? Supporting missions, attending prayer meetings, coming to New Horizon… Our devotion?
The Gospel is not a way of us gaining favour with God by what we merit. The gospel excludes boasting in anything other than what Christ has done and given for us. When Paul encountered Jesus a huge switch in his value system took place. What he thought were gains, he now considers loss. It was a waste of time. Conversion to Christ for Paul involved letting go of everything he used to put his confidence in.
This isn’t Paul feeling sorry for himself. He considers that all “rubbish”. There is a sense of relief, libertation and joy.
Justification before God has nothing to do with merit and religious heritage. It is entirely a gift from God. It is by faith in Christ plus nothing!
This is part of a safety announcement. The danger for these Philippians who were so keen. There was a voice in their ear, “If you want to be truly spiritual, these things need to be added.” These people are dogs, mutilators. They want to compromise faith in Christ by getting you to submit to law-keeping . Having started well you end up being mutilated.
I have met many peole who are mutilated in their spiritual lives, who have found themselves under a professing Christian regime that has battered them into submission. Christianity has become a grim, duty-driven performance, the fear of thinking that acceptance with God depends on individual merit and that service for God is about piling up religious self effort to “merit” God’s grace.
We will never be good enough. We so easily slip back into religious self-confidence, in arrogance – looking at the consistency of our devotions, even down to the version of the Bible we read.
This is ugly, self-righteous, arrogant and religious “flesh” and it still struts its stuff in churches across the land.
Paul’s confidence is in Christ and that is revealed in his ambitions, in the spiritual orientation of his life. No longer is it about making himself more acceptable before God. It is not about justifying himself or even to become a morally righteous person. His goal is to know Christ.
What does that involve? The power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not one without the other. Paul’s pressing desire is to know more and more of that same resurrection power in his life at the same time as knowing more and more about sharing in Jesus’ sufferings. It is not about feeling powerful. It is not about feelings of power, it is about experiencing resurrection in our life. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us to make us holy. It is power to help us to grasp the dimensions of the love of God.
Have I experienced what Jesus experienced? When I am reviled do I bite back? Knowing Christ is knowing the partnership in His sufferings. We don’t belong here. We need to remember that. As Paul tells us later, our citizenship is in heaven. The world will hate you because you don’t belong to it. Paul said, all who live a godly life will suffer… it is part of knowing Christ. Peter says, “Don’t be surprised.” This is normal.
Following Christ means that we follow a king that the world rejected. The early Christians counted it a privilege to be worthy of sharing his suffering. And yet at the first sign of a nasty comment on social media, how hurt and angry and defensive we can be! Knowing Christ is very practical – knowing His resurrection life and participating His sufferings.
You know the theory that Christ forgives. Do you know Him enough to forgive yourself? So as Christ forgave others, can you do the same? That is knowing Christ.
It is one thing to be able to do a study session on the attributes of God and answer questions on an exam paper. The real exam paper is today.
If you are holding onto grudges against other believers can you really say you know Christ?
Has the gospel touched my life. This is not easy. But this is Paul’s crying ambition.
He speaks of becoming like Christ in His death and His resurrection. Paul is not speaking of obtaining the event of the final resurrection. Paul had no doubt that one day he would be with Jesus. What he is talking about living resurrection life – a moral and spiritual conformity to the risen Christ that will finally be accomplished at the coming of Jeuss. He has set his heart on that goal by seeking to know Christ. Not to allow his service to turn into religious drudgery.
Remember where this chapter began. Rejoice in the Lord. Know Christ. Become like Christ in His death on a cross. The cross was God’s verdict on human flesh and human self effort. The more we carry our cross and say, “No” to self, the more we become conformed to the life of Christ.
And in all this desire, there isn’t the slightest hint that Paul thinks that he has arrived. I remember talking to my mum, 50 years ago at least and she said she was brought up with the kind of preaching and teaching where the preachers never admitted that they hadn’t arrived. I’m not suggesting that all of us shake out our dirty linen in public. But if the apostle Paul can say, “I haven’t arrived.” I’m certainly going to have to say it.
Think of what he has already obtained. Churches planted all over the place. Thousands won to Christ. How tempting it would have been to revert to his former way of things and be impressed with his achievements. What an ugly thing when leaders behave like that.
Paul rejects what some people have called a “super spirituality” or celebrity status. There is no spiritual stagnation. He refuses to settle back. He is in prison but he knows there is always progress to be made.
Why not see this day as the gift of God that enables me to know Christ and to make progress – to experience more and more of that resurrection life and the “x” over self so I can follow Jesus. This is the context of his famous statement, “Forgetting what is behind and straining on towards the goal, to win the prize…” this is the athletics metaphor again. I know that one day I will be transformed but that is not a motivation to sit back. I am going to focus and strain every sinew and press towards the line of being more like my Saviour.
To be with Jesus is the ultimate glory and purpose of life.
This is the attitude of true spiritual maturity. At least, live up to the level of progress you have made so far. Don’t let it slip back. Keep pressing on. Strain forward towards the glory that has been revealed. Don’t be content with yesterday’s progress.
I have just turned 66, I feel the temptation to settle down. But, I have not known Jesus as a 66-year-old before. There is a point in the Chronicles of Narnia where Lucy says to Aslan, “You are bigger” and he replies, “That is because you are older, little one. Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
What a wonderful thing. Every year we grow. Christ doesn’t get smaller, He gets bigger. One of the reasons why sadly there are so many bored Christians is because we have lost sight of this ambition of knowing Christ and being like Him.