A sermon on Philippians 3 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 12 December 2021
Our passage today from Philippians chapter 3 shines like a gem with many facets. It is not flat and lifeless with just one simplistic message. Instead, Paul’s message in these verses radiates in different ways, depending on the angle from which you look at it.
An accountant or economist, for example, might be drawn to Paul’s talk about profit and loss, and about how he had invested himself in a way of life that ended up worthless and gave it up for something of greater value.
A sociologist might be interested in Paul’s notion of privilege, about his former confidence in the flesh, in his heritage and in the traditions of his ancient people.
A professional athlete might be impressed by his driven nature. About how he set a goal and pursued it ruthlessly, about how, even when he changed his goal, he could put aside all needless distractions to strive towards some future reward.
Even for the likes of us there are things in this passage to admire and to learn from. For example, we may not all be accountants, but we are all people of faith. As people of faith we can’t ignore the message that it is not good enough to be sincere in our faith and to be passionate about our beliefs. It’s no good running fast in our life if we end up running in the wrong direction. In his former life Paul was as sincere and passionate as anyone could be and he ended up considering it without meaning or value.
And we may not all be professional athletes but we are followers of Jesus and members of his church. And there is a great lesson in Philippians chapter 3 that it is no good to add conditions on others’ salvation that lead them away from Jesus instead of towards him, and that weigh them down instead of setting them free.
In verse 2 Paul wrote,
Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.
Paul was talking about Jewish Christian teachers who were telling people that it wasn’t good enough for non-Jews to believe in Jesus. They needed to be circumcised. They needed to avoid eating forbidden meat. They needed to keep the Sabbath and offer sacrifices at the temple. Basically, the message was that that people needed to become Jews if they wanted to be true Christians. After all, Jesus had been a Jew. What made anyone think that they could believe in the Jewish Messiah and not accept the whole package that he came with. It would be like wanting a pet, without wanting to look after it. It would be like ordering a hamburger from McDonalds and only eating the pickles.
Paul held nothing back in condemning these teachers. He called them “dogs”. He called them “men who do evil”. He called them “mutilators of the flesh”, because they insisted that Gentile men become circumcised like Jews. This is not polite language. This is not the way I was brought up to talk about people I disagree with. But it reflects the danger to our life and faith that Paul saw in these men’s teaching. In a nutshell Paul believed they were robbing Jesus of his glory and undermining faith in him. As Paul wrote,
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.
By “we”, Paul means people like us, people who love Jesus and follow him regardless of our race or background. Whether we are Jews or Greeks or Poles or Scots or indigenous Australians, Paul means us. Whoever we are, we who follow Jesus are “the circumcision”, meaning not something done to baby boys, but something that happens to our heart when we accept Jesus as Lord, as our sins and selfishness are cut away like dead wood, cut out like a cancer, cut off like a toe with gangrene, so that we may serve God with new hearts and minds, forgiven and set free. We shed an old way of life like a snake wriggles out of an old skin, and we start to live a new life of joy and hope and love.
It is we “who worship by the Spirit of God”, not with the blood of bulls and goats in a temple of stone and wood, but with lives transformed by the Spirit as we apply the values of Jesus to our day to day lives.
It is we who glory in Christ Jesus, putting our faith in him, giving him all the credit for our salvation.
It is we who put no confidence in our own flesh, relying on Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, drawing on the power of his risen life to justify us before God, and not relying on anything that we do. Not boasting of our own privileges or achievements, but truly believing that we were lost until Jesus found us, that we were sinners until Jesus washed us clean, that all our achievements are worthless compared to what Jesus has achieved for our sake.
Whoever we are, whatever our background, Jesus is enough for our complete salvation. All we need to be a true Christian is to trust and follow Jesus. The Jewish Christian teachers’ additions, their insistence on circumcision, Sabbath keeping, the Old Testament food laws, were just different ways of saying that Jesus is not enough, and that he needs our help, and that our real problem is not that we are all sinners, but that some of us were not born Jews.
Paul knew that that kind of thinking was dangerous, because he used to think like that too. For if anyone had good reason to put confidence in his own flesh, and not in the crucified and risen Jesus, it was Paul. In verses 5 and 6 Paul listed all the grounds for his own self confidence. He himself had been circumcised on the eighth day. Born a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin. A Hebrew, the son of a long line of Hebrews, who could speak Hebrew and read Hebrew, the very language of God’s written Word. If that had not been enough, he had been an adherent of his people’s strictest sect, the Pharisees, and among his peers he had stood out for his zeal and passion for his people’s traditions. If any Jew could stand before God and show his credentials and rely on his privilege and achievements it was Paul. If anyone was in the black in life’s ledger book with regard to all the requirements of the Old Testament it was Paul.
And yet something happened to make Paul re-evaluate his complete belief system, to see that all his pluses were really minuses. That he was not in the black in the ledger book, but in the red. And that something that happened was the day that Paul met the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul had been on the way to put followers of Jesus in gaol, and instead of serving God, Paul could then see that he had been actively working against God. Instead of being a hero of his people’s traditions, Paul discovered that he was the villain. Instead of being the greatest saint, Paul realised that he was a great sinner. And none of his privilege, none of his achievements, none of his passion and sincerity was worth a thing, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus and receiving his forgiveness.
Paul had dismissed Jesus as a fake and a phony. He had persecuted Jesus’ followers for being blasphemers and heretics. But when Paul saw Jesus with his own eyes, sitting at the right hand side of God Paul knew that he’d been wrong all along and that Jesus was in the right.
This extraordinary experience led Paul to become the great missionary to the non-Jews. If Paul, although the Jewest of all Jews, could be in the wrong with God and only Jesus could put him right, then Jesus could put anyone right without insisting on any other condition except receiving salvation from him as a gift by faith. Yes, we get to choose. We get to choose Jesus. We get to receive this gift of salvation and open it and enjoy it. We talked about that last week. But it’s like a man dying of thirst choosing to accept a drink of water. Because the mere act of choosing it admits our own great need of it.
Paul’s experience also explains his anger at the Jewish Christian teachers insisting on circumcision. It was like a former addict finding out that drug dealers were selling their poison outside the local high school. It was encouraging others to make the same mistakes that Paul had once made. In response Paul spelled out for the Philippians the new life that he had found in Jesus.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his 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.
Paul had lost everything that he once thought important to follow Jesus. He’d been cast out of the community of Pharisees and treated like a traitor to his people. His former friends treated him like an enemy. And he considered it a fair trade, if it meant gaining Jesus. Like trading in all your empty soft drink bottles for real money. Paul didn’t care any more about being circumcised. His Jewish birth had got him nowhere with God. His traditions had not led him to God but away from him. Now all he wanted was to have Jesus in his life, to know the power of Jesus’ risen life in his own life, and to become like Jesus in his suffering, treated as an outcast and a traitor, if it meant becoming like Jesus in the glory of his resurrection. How could he go back to his old life that had all but destroyed him?
The point being, How could his friends in Philippi be tempted to make the same mistakes that he’d made? It’s like when you realise that celebrities have all the same problems that we do and have their own extra dramas. For all their fame and fortune many of them are miserable. Who would want to be famous? Paul’s point was who would want to be a person like he used to be? But it was exactly what the Jewish Christian teachers were offering. A dead end, pointless life that meant nothing and gained nothing, if it meant not gaining Jesus.
In verses 12 to 14, we see that what Paul had to do was to put his old life behind him.
One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul knew that he wasn’t perfect and didn’t want to give the impression that he thought he was. The opposite, in fact, was the case. Paul had realised that he was the villain, that he was the great sinner. But that Jesus was a great saviour. And to grasp that forgiveness from Jesus he had to believe that he was forgiven. That his past, with all its pluses and minuses, with all its privileges and mistakes, meant nothing. That he was no longer the person he used to be, but that Jesus had taken hold of him and called him upward to heaven. He was a new person, with new values and a new goal, not because of anything he had done but because of Jesus and all glory to him.
It meant that to believe that Jesus had forgiven him, he had to forgive himself. Do you believe that Jesus has forgiven you? Do you struggle to forgive yourself? What pride or shame are you holding on to that is keeping you from gaining the new life that Jesus gave his life for?
Philippians chapter 3 shines like a gem. But it’s simple message is that Jesus is enough for our complete salvation. If we cling to our privilege or add conditions on other believers that they have to keep to be true Christians we are just saying that Jesus is not enough. You don’t have to be born a local to belong. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie. You don’t have to be on one of our rosters or serve on our Committee of Management. Whether you are the minister or an elder or one of our regular members or not one of our members, there are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God. Jesus is enough for you complete salvation and only your pride or your shame is holding you back from believing it.