Text: Phil 3:1-9 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 21/11/04
About 10 days ago I read something disturbing, which I shared in my message last week. To remind you of it again, or to inform you if you weren’t here, Michael Hart has recently published a revised edition of his original 1978 book “The One Hundred”, which he describes as his ranking of the 100 most influential people in history. Describing himself as neither a Muslim nor a Christian, he makes an observation that Muhammad has more influence over the lives of Muslims than Jesus has over the lives of Christians. Michael Hart is an observer of people, and that’s how it looks to him.
As I said, I read a reflection on those thoughts of Michael Hart the week before last .. but it has continued to exercise my mind this past week as well. While I was reflecting on it earlier this week, another quote came flooding back to my mind which I first read many years ago. In 1879 in England, a notorious criminal named Charles Peace was being led to the gallows to be hanged for murder. A Christian minister walked beside him, speaking to him about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, about the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life available to him if he would trust in the Cross of Christ.
The story goes that Peace turned angrily on the man speaking to him and said, “If I believed what you say you believe, I would crawl across England over broken glass on my hands and knees to tell people it was true!” .. Michael Hart & Charles Peace: Two very different kinds of people in two very different circumstances, a century apart. .. But offering a chillingly similar outsider’s observation of people like us, of the church, of those who confess Christ. And today there are thousands who would willingly sacrifice their lives for the destruction of people who will not follow Muhammad .. and there are too few who would sacrifice comfort to bring Christ’s forgiveness and eternal life to anyone who will trust Him.
We can receive words like that as just another reason to feel condemned, miserable and guilty. Or we can receive them as opportunities to consider how much Christ and his Gospel are truly worth to us. The latter I hope is how we’ll respond in our hearts this morning to a passage in which Paul shares what’s really quite a personal part of his own story. The reason I describe it that way is that it’s an admission by a zealous man that most of the years of his life had been ultimately a failure from the perspective of God .. he had devoted years of the prime of his life to something he believed was a treasure .. only to learn that it was worthless. If I came to see the past 20+ years of my life in those terms, I’d be keeping it to myself.
So this is a very transparent reflection by Paul, and it stands as an invitation to us to look at our own lives in the same honest way.
As I spent this past week preparing to feed your spirits with this portion of God’s word, it dawned on me that there’s more here that I’d like so much to share with you than there’s really time to do. So I’m going to be focussing basically on 3:1-9. But I encourage you to meditate on the whole passage through to verse 14 or perhaps even 16 in your own time; and we might even get to taste a bit of it at least tonight at the bible forum, if you’re able to come then.
These honest words of Paul which we read today speak to us of how to have a life that counts in eternal terms. I think they give us three warnings: Don’t confuse religion with relationship; Don’t expect heaven’s joy without the Cross; Don’t settle for less than the Gospel offers. Three warnings, but I’m going to hone in on just one of them, which I think is the main one for Paul.
Don’t confuse religion with relationship
That thought I think is what occupied most of what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote this chapter. .. You have to read between the lines sometimes in Paul’s letters, and this is one such case. In vv2f he’s using some strong metaphors which he obviously expected his readers at Philippi to recognise straight away, but at first glance it might not add up too well for 21st century Aussie reader. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh–.
Circumcision was and still is today a mark of initiation of a male into the Covenant of God with the nation of Israel, centred on God’s special calling of Abraham to be the Father of the nation, and reinforced when God made a later covenant through Moses’ leadership, when God gave the Law. So, to the Jews of Paul’s time as today, you can’t be in fellowship with God unless all the males of your family are circumcised.
But into that system of religious Law stepped Jesus the Son of God, offering eternal reconciliation with God through his Cross to Jews and non-Jews alike. And then as the church formed by Jesus Christ is taking shape, God calls a righteous, Law-loving Jew named Paul to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. And Paul builds churches across the Gentile world, preaching a Gospel which offers relationship with God solely through faith/trust in the blood of Christ – apart from circumcision or works of the Law.
.. And so there’s a clash of “Gospels”. As you read the middle chapters of Acts and quite a few of Paul’s letters, there’s a frequent debate within the early church about what’s needed for salvation in Christ. It’s that debate that lies behind what Paul says in the verses I read a moment ago – Phil 3:2f. There are some within the church at Philippi, as elsewhere, who are insisting that you can’t be in covenant fellowship with God without being circumcised. .. To that, Paul says (v2) “Watch out for those who mutilate the flesh – those who believe and insist that salvation rests on taking a knife to your foreskin. Trust the blood of Christ, and you need no other salvation.” And then he adds, “The real circumcision isn’t about satisfying religious requirements, or making your best efforts .. it’s all about trusting in Christ.”
Why does Paul think that’s such a big deal? Would it really matter if someone trusted in Jesus and got circumcised as well? .. The answer to that question would depend on the reason for being circumcised. What Paul’s talking about here, if you read v3 again, is where your confidence for salvation lies. He says the kind of ‘circumcision’ (using ‘circumcision’ as a metaphor) that counts is the state of mind and heart that rests with utter confidence in the blood of Christ, and nothing else. In other words, if you think you need to add some religious duty or performance or qualification to your faith in Jesus, then Jesus is not your Saviour and you haven’t grasped the full freedom of the Gospel. If you’re confident in the flesh (that means in human performance of some kind) .. then you are not confident in Christ. .. In the shadow of eternity, this is life or death! That’s why it matters. Paul cares about the salvation of the church
It’s out of that deep pastoral concern that Paul goes on in the next 4 verses (4-7) to drive home his point about confidence in the flesh versus confidence in Christ. He says “If religious performance could save, I’d be first cab off the rank! .. Look at my religious pedigree:
• 5 circumcised on the eighth day – that’s the right day to be circumcised, the Law says so – well that’s me, on the inside track from start
• a member of the people of Israel – and not just any old Israelite either – an Israelite, to be precise,
• of the tribe of Benjamin – now admittedly that’s not quite as impressive as the royal tribe of Judah which King David came from, but heck it’s the next best thing. The first king Saul (the one before David) came from that tribe, and Benjamin was the only tribe apart from Judah itself to remain faithful to David and his successors when all the others betrayed him. That’s a bit like saying “I don’t live in Toorak, but Malvern’s pretty good.” or “I can’t afford a Porsche, but a Commodore with alloy wheels sure beats a Daihatsu.” .. But can you see what he’s doing .. he’s acting out the thinking of those who believe you have to earn God’s favour by having the religious edge.
• Well he goes on: a Hebrew born of Hebrews – I’m no half-caste, not one of those Greek speakers who’ve jumped through a few ceremonial hoops so they can claim to be Jews, but they’re really not. No, I’m the real deal!
• as to the law, a Pharisee – if you wanted to be really sure you knew the Law inside out, so you’d know when you were pleasing God and when you weren’t, just ask a Pharisee. They were the lawyers! Well, as a matter of fact, I’m one of them.
• And 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church – how much more loyal to Israel can you get? I didn’t just talk about those pedlars of a rival faith – I got out and fixed them!
• And to top it all off: as to righteousness under the law, blameless. .. I was one of those scholars who knew the Law so well, who kept it so meticulously, that I missed nothing in doing what would satisfy God and earn his favour.”
Paul, to use a touch of Aussie lingo, was a true-blue Jew. He had it all. .. But then as he reflects from v7 onwards, he gazed into the eyes of Christ the Son of God .. and glancing back at the framed certificates on the wall in the study .. he realised it was all worthless, utterly worthless, by comparison. .. In fact that’s putting it politely (and this is family viewing time after all, so a bit of decorum please, Paul.) But in v8b he says “I now regard everything that I once prized and trusted in as ‘rubbish’ (NRSV) .. just to have Christ.” But a more direct translation of that word I have as rubbish would be ‘dung’ – and there’s another word I wouldn’t use .. but Paul did. .. That’s how worthless religion had become to a man who found himself standing unashamed before God .. through Christ, and Christ alone.
Jesus himself told a parable (Mtt 13:45f) about a man who was a pearl merchant, who finally one day found one pearl which was of such unmatchable value, that he went and sold everything else he owned just so that pearl could become his. And Jesus said that’s what it’s like, when you find the Kingdom of Heaven. And Paul said, “When I found Christ, I took all my earthly religious achievement and flushed it down the toilet, just for the joy of standing before God in Him.”
I ask you to consider right now, where today is your trust for eternity? Is it really in Christ, and Christ alone? .. Or is there a track that plays over in your mind, perhaps embedded so deeply in your subconscious that you didn’t know it was there? A track that says: “I need to do more .. I’m not prayerful enough to merit the Father’s love .. I need to work harder, longer .. I need to do more for other people.”
You cannot have both Christ’s righteousness and your own. If you rely on you to find the Father’s embrace, give that reliance up today .. and find Christ as he really is. .. Don’t confuse religion with relationship.
If you’re one of those who attended the first Christian Life & Witness Course a week and a half ago, you’d have received as part of your kit a little booklet called “My Heart – Christ’s Home”. Don’t imagine for one moment that the Christian growth teaching in the Christian Life & Witness Course has nothing to offer to people with theological degrees and years in pastoral leadership. Quite a bit of what’s been covered in the two weeks so far has pulled me up short in regard to the quality of my love for Jesus and his word and people around me. I was particularly moved by that little booklet, even though it’s not the first time I’ve read it or something similar to it. Anyone who thinks they have no need of the blowtorch such words apply to the heart should reflect deeply on Paul’s confession to the Philippian believers about the radical realignment required in his own life.
“My Heart – Christ’s Home” uses the rooms of a house as a metaphor for the process of handing over each part of our hearts and our lives to the Lordship of Christ our guest. As my mind was exercised this past week on Phil 3, my eyes passed across one particular section of this booklet. Let me read it to you now:
Next we went into the dining room, the room of appetites and desires. Now this was a large room, a most important place to me. I spent a lot of time and hard work trying to satisfy all my wants.
I told him, “This is a favourite room. I’m sure you will be pleased with what we serve here.”
He seated himself at the table and inquired, “What is on the menu for dinner tonight?”
“Well,” I said, “my favorite dishes: money, academic degrees, stocks, with newspaper articles of fame and fortune as side dishes.” These were the things I liked, thoroughly secular fare. There was nothing so very bad in any of them, but it was not really the kind of food which would feed the soul and satisfy true spiritual hunger.
When the plates were placed before my new friend, he said nothing. However, I observed that he did not eat. I asked, somewhat disturbed, “Saviour, don’t you like this food? What is the trouble?”
He answered, “I have food to eat you do not know of. My food is to do the will of him that sent me.” He looked at me again and said, “If you want food that really satisfies you, do the will of your heavenly Father. Put his pleasure before your own. Stop striving for your own desires, your own ambitions, your own satisfactions. Seek to please him. That food will really satisfy you. Try a bit of it!”
And there about the table he gave me a taste of doing God’s will. What flavour! There is no food like it in all the world. It alone satisfies. At the end everything else leaves you hungry.
One day a true blue Jew held up his exemplary life of religious achievement and satisfaction before the light of the splendour of Christ, and discovered it was all worthless and counted for nothing, by the values of the Kingdom of God displayed in his Son. Why have your life count for everything according to what this passing world of ours says is precious .. only for it all to melt away on the Day of Christ, displaying nothing of eternal worth. Whatever else you do, go after more of Christ and his satisfaction, beside which nothing and no one is precious.
Make your life count.