20 September 2017

“Dealing with Religious Rubbish” PHILIPPIANS 3:1-9

Paul began this section of his letter with the word ‘Finally’. In 4:8 he uses ‘Finally’ again. That is a comfort to all preachers. Finally does not necessarily mean the end. When Paul wrote ‘Finally, brethren…’ he was not concluding his message, he was only moving to a new theme.

1. Paul’s approach to the Philippians

Paul’s opening command sets the tone for the chapter and the theme of the whole letter, ‘Rejoice in the Lord’. Our rejoicing is not to be in who we are or what we have done. Our rejoicing is to be in Jesus Christ and all that He has done. “Rejoice in the Lord”. Jesus is the ultimate source of all joy which is different from happiness. Happiness springs from happenstance; joy springs from Jesus Christ.

2. Paul’s alarm for the Philippians

“Beware of false dogs”. Paul was deeply concerned for the Philippians. False teachers had crept into the church and were attempting to add circumcision to God’s plan of salvation, incorporating works of the flesh with the grace of God. Paul explained that if anyone could be saved by virtue of their religious works and heritage, he should be that person. If Paul by works had failed to achieve acceptance with God through his virtues, then no one else could climb up to God  on his own merits.

“To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous…” Paul was repeating a warning he had already alluded to when he had spoken of standing firm and holding forth God’s Word as a light to a dark generation. Now he repeats the warning because he loved and cared for these believers.

Paul showed a spirit of tolerance toward those who were preaching the gospel with wrong motives (1:16-18), but he was bold and blunt when he spoke of these Judaizers who taught that believers must become Jews before they could become Christians; without circumcision he could not be a part of God’s family.

Such teaching was a perversion of the Gospel. For that reason Paul alerted the Philippians to beware of ‘dogs’, ‘evil-workers’, and ‘mutilation’. This was not a reference to three different brands of false teachers. He was describing Judaizers in three different ways.

(a) Beware of dogs. ‘Dogs’ – not a very complimentary term, but it is found frequently in the Old and New Testaments. “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool to his folly” (Proverbs 26:11) (See also Isaiah 56:10; 2 Peter 2:22; Matthew 15:26). These ‘dogs’ were false teachers who were bringing legalism into the Christian gospel.

(b) Beware of evil workers. ‘Evil workers’ were those who crept into the congregation to teach doctrines which were alien to the gospel. They were zealous and aggressive in working for their own redemption and teaching others to do so (See 2 Corinthians 11:13).

(c) Beware of the concision. These false teachers tried to persuade believers to mutilate their flesh in order to be saved. They came with a knife in one hand and a Bible in the other. Grace comes through Christ alone and not through the works or mutilation of the flesh. Grace and legalism are not compatible.

3. Paul’s adoration of Jesus Christ

In contrast to these Judaizers, Paul described the true worshiper: “We are the circumcision, who worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (See John 4:24).

(a) The true worshiper rejoices in Christ alone. Paul taught that every true believer finds his joy not in the cutting of the flesh but in Jesus Christ. Paul said: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Galatians 6:14).

(b) The true worshiper refuses to trust in the flesh. Paul concludes with a reaffirmation that the believer ‘has no confidence in the flesh’. True believers know they are not capable of earning God’s favour through the works of the flesh (See Luke 18:9-14).

4. Paul’s assets as a Jew

Paul’s pride of his ancestry is summarized in seven short statements. If anyone had a right to justify himself before God it certainly was Paul.

(a) Circumcised the eighth Day – Proper Ritual.

God gave circumcision as a sign of His covenant (Genesis 17). Thereafter, every Jewish male had to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Only converts to Judaism were circumcised as adults. In mentioning circumcision Paul went to the heart of the Judaizers argument, for he knew that many of these false teachers had not been circumcised.

(b) Of the stock of Israel – Proper Relationship.

Paul traced his roots back to the patriarchs. He was not a convert to Judaism, He had been a Jew from birth. His genealogy was pure (See 2 Corinthians 11:22).

(c) Of the tribe of Benjamin – Proper Respect.

Benjamin was the last son of Jacob. Out of Benjamin came Israel’s first king, Saul. Paul’s parents named him ‘Saul’ after King Saul. The Benjamites were true Israelites and the aristocracy of Israel.

(d) A Hebrew of the Hebrews – Proper Race.

Paul was a Hebrew boy born to Hebrew parents. He spoke the Hebrew language and lived by Hebrew customs. He was schooled in the Hebrew tradition (See Acts 22:2-3).

(e) A Pharisee – Proper Religion. Paul was not only a Jew, he was a Pharisee among the Jews. Late in his ministry he still claimed ‘I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee’ (Acts 23:6; See Acts 26:5).

(f) A zealous persecutor of the Church – A Proper Rascal. Paul pointed to his religious zeal and his fanatical activity as a Pharisee. As a strict Pharisee, he believed that killing Christians was a noble service to God. He took his assignment seriously (See Acts 22:4-5). Even after his conversion, believers were afraid of him.

(g) Blameless before the Law – Proper Righteousness. This certainly did not mean that he was sinless. Paul had kept the outward rules of the law so meticulously that no one could point an accusing finger at him. For Paul it would have been a great crime to enter a Gentile’s house; on leaving the public street he would have carefully washed his hands of any defilement contracted through touching anything handled by the uncircumcised. Paul was taught to fast twice per week and give tithes of all he possessed.

Like Paul, the great preacher George Whitefield was a very religious person before his conversion. As a teenager, he desired to live a religious and serious life. He prayed and sang psalms three times every day besides his regular morning and evening devotional times. He religiously fasted every Friday when he received the Sacrament, but, like Paul, he was lost.

One day he met Charles Wesley who gave him a book by Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. When Whitefield read that book he realized he was not saved. He recalled what happened: “I must bear testimony to my old friend Charles Wesley. He put a book into my hands . . . whereby God showed me that I must be born again or be damned . . . I learned that a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the Sacrament, and yet not be a Christian.”

“‘Shall I burn this book? Shall I throw it down? Or shall I search it?’ I did search it: and, holding the book in my hand, thus addressed the God of heaven and earth: ‘Lord if I am not a Christian, for Jesus Christ’s sake show me what Christianity is, that I may not be damned at last.’ I read a little further, and discovered that they who know anything of religion know it is a vital union with the Son of God – Christ formed in the heart. O what a ray of divine life did then break in upon my soul!”

For Paul, just as for George Whitefield, there could be no salvation until all objects of faith were removed and Christ alone was at the centre of his heart.

Victor Maxwell