Philippians Part 8: What do you find your identity in?
August 30, 2020 Series: Philippians
Passage: Philippians 3:1–3:11
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake or Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The letter takes an abrupt turn. Paul, by mentioning “finally” shows that he is taking a turn towards the end of the letter.
My goal this morning is to bring you to be lost in wonder at Paul’s words. This passage is remarkable for that very reason – it contains some of the most treasured words about Jesus Christ and his glory and wonder that should surpass all within ourselves.
In Jesus is all right-ness. Or, better said, righteousness. There is no wrong in him. There is no shadow of darkness, no selfish hidden agendas or motives lying within him.
And he himself is turning our hearts and attention to the things that are right, and true within us. This passage begins with Paul’s appeal to joy through way of reminder, and the passage itself goes immediately into a working out of true right-ness. What does it mean to be in the right before God? What does it mean to stand in the right before him?
I get to hear people’s responses first hand all the time whenever they hear that I am a pastor, because the majority, after hearing that, begin trying to tell me how religious they are because they carry with them religious guilt. Guilt for not doing enough religious deeds, because they have some feeling somewhere that they should be doing more.
Religious guilt is very, very common among most. One time in Jersey, after a blizzard, I had two gentlemen show up with shovels in my front yard and began immediately shoveling my driveway. I said, “hey thanks guys I appreciate your help” and they said “we don’t charge that much.” And I said, well I don’t have any cash to pay, so I can’t pay anything. And then they looked at me, and I could tell immediately they were addicts, and they were already on a trip, and they were looking for quick cash. I simply didn’t have any cash at all, and then they kind of began crowding around me. I could tell that I was in trouble, I’m a skinny guy who doesn’t know how to fight, and I had to think fast. In those days I was pastoring at a mobile church, and the church box truck was in my driveway. I see it, and instantly I blurt out “I’m a pastor, I was wondering how can I pray for you guys this morning?
Suddenly one guy looks at the other and slowly shakes his head “no.” My plan worked, as I could tell there was an immediate fear laced somewhere in them. I ended up inviting them into my house for a cup of hot tea, and we were able to pray for them and see them off. That’s the only time where religious guilt worked in my favor.
Religious guilt exists because of a deep insecurity that says “am I doing enough for God? What if I am not doing enough for him? How do I know if I am actually a Christian or not? How do I know if I am in right standing before him?”
Even for many of you who have been walking with Jesus for a long time – we are not past this struggle. It can take various forms. Sometimes we think our church attendance is enough, or we think our tithe dollars makes us more right with God. We think that “doing our part” keeps us in right standing before God, or if you are given a special privilege or a title at church because you have done so much for God, that you are definitely more in the right with him.
Or, in the negative, we can wallow in guilt by looking at our life and thinking, “what am I doing? How can God possibly be pleased with me? I haven’t done enough for Jesus! Am I even a Christian?”
All of this boils down to our understanding of righteousness. What does it mean to be righteous? And what does it mean to have righteousness before God?
In this passage, Paul seems to warn them of an internal threat towards the Philippian Church, an internal threat in the undeveloped, immature early church that didn’t quite understand the relationship between Torah in what we now call our Old Testaments – Torah, meaning Law, the T in the “TaNak” – and Jesus in the New Covenant. There were some early Jewish Christians who thought that the sign of the old covenant – circumcision – still needed to be had among Christians if they were to be in the right before God.
Now for the majority of us today, this isn’t a conversation anymore, or a struggle. However, the early Church began as a Jewish sect that was initially just a branch of first century Judaism. It was a BIG deal for these early Jewish Christians to begin ministering to Gentiles, because there had developed in this ancient Jewish world a very unbiblical understanding of Gentiles (non-Jews) among these ancient Jews that did not represent Torah. So much so that when Peter was called to go and share the Gospel with Cornelius, a Roman solider, all the evidence shows in that chapter (Acts 10) that Peter had never stepped foot in the home of a Gentile before, since he had been trained to think that they were all wicked and rejected by God. As the Spirit fell on the Romans before him, he knew that the Gospel was indeed for all people, and all of his Jewish Christian friends were amazed.
Nevertheless, the struggle still persisted in the early Church. Do new Christians need to take on the sign of circumcision that shows they belong to the people of God? Do they need to take this on if Israel’s spiritual borders have now been opened up to Gentiles too? God commanded circumcision to Abraham, and thus to be in right standing before God and to be a part of the people of God, do we not need to take on the sign of the old covenant as well?
All of these questions and more we will be wrestling with today. The answers to them may be surprising, I think. One reason why this was such a difficult sermon for me is that this is one area of my understanding of Scripture that I am still very much wrestling with understanding. I’ve had some shifts as of recent, as I really want to understand what these things mean. So let me pray and invite the Spirit to be with us as we work through this text this morning.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh.
Paul apparently has either written this things to them before, or he has preached similar messages to them before, and he is reminding them of it all. “Look out for the dogs” – dogs, being a traditional way that the Jews in the first century referred to the Gentiles, non-Jews, but Paul as we see is actually aiming those words at other Jewish Christians – “look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”
Again, as we join this one-sided telephone conversation, the Philippians would have been immediately aware of who Paul was addressing. We, however, need to do the homework of trying to figure this out. It seems that this is the same crowd Paul was addressing in the letter to the Galatians. This is an internal conflict in the early church, Christians between other Christians. The issue at hand is, as we will see, righteousness. What it means to be in the right before God, primarily seen by being “in” the people of God.
If you were to travel back in time, and become an ethnic Jew living in the first century beneath Roman Rule, there was a culture that said a few things about being in the right before God. There are many ways to sum it up, but it could be summed up generally in two ways:
- Your ethnicity as a Jew made you right before God
- Your faithfulness to Torah, the Law found in Genesis-Deuteronomy
Now of course we could break down what they meant by faithfulness to Torah, which is long and complicated. But what we need to know this morning is that the early Jewish Christians, still kind of stuck in this mode of thinking, didn’t quite know what to do with Gentiles claiming to worship Yahweh God. Therefore, even if they were not ethnic Jews, they needed to join in the faithfulness to Torah and Jesus if they were to be in the right before God.
Paul goes on blast mode towards these teachers, and he does a little bit of resume bragging – but only to prove a point. First, speaking to ROMAN gentile Christians in Philippi, perhaps a few ethnic Jews among them but not many, he begins by saying “we are the circumcision.” How are Romans, Gentiles, considered to be ‘circumcised,’ or considered in the people of God? Because they worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus. Briefly he says, if you really want to be in the people of God, you need the Spirit of God – not an external sign. In fact, the whole POINT of this external sign of circumcision was to aim towards the heart, as Moses said early on in Deuteronomy 10:12-17. Paul in Romans 11 describes Israel as an Olive Tree, that in Christ Gentiles have been grafted into it, wild shoots that do not belong. Foreigners have been joined to Israel, and in Christ all walls of hostility has been broken down. Time and time again the prophets foretold of that say to come. And it has through the work of Christ and the unleashing of the Spirit. Jesus, fulfilling all the law, has stretched the tent of Israel to include all peoples, as Isaiah foretold. Far from some sort of super sessionism or replacement idea of the church overriding Israel, the truth of the matter is that Israel has only radically grown and expanded. Anyone now can be in the people of God through the work of Christ, and be given a soft heart and a new heart in Him. More to that in a moment.
Paul then digresses a bit. He says, basically, “Do they think these things matter? If they matter, well then I should be an expert in every way! Even more so than those teachers. If those things matter to being in the right before God, I should have more confidence than most!” Let’s look at Paul’s resume:
If anyone else thinks he has confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
From Paul’s words, we learn of how the early Jews understood being in the right before God. (Hang with me – there is a lot going on in this text this morning, so if you’ve clocked out try to hang with me as we work through it because we will bring this home to today soon enough). These early Jews, generally speaking, saw two ways in which they were to be in the right before God, and Paul speaks of his resume based around these two things:
1) Ethnicity. If anyone else thinks he has confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews
You don’t get more Jewish than that. His name before he was in Christ was Saul. Saul, the first King of Israel, was of the tribe of Benjamin. During the split of the Kingdom after King Solomon, Benjamin stayed with Judah. They were a revered tribe in Israel. He’s a Hebrew through and through.
2) The second marker of being in the right before God was faithfulness to Torah. Paul says,
as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In summary, he is saying: I was a Pharisee, a zealous teacher of the Law who tried to destroy the church, and beneath this system of living under the Law, in the eyes of my peers around me in that world, I was blameless. No one could have been more faithful than me, says Paul.
If righteousness were found by ethnicty and faithfulness to Torah, Paul wins. Why would he mention this? What he’s trying to say is that if these false teachers were correct, surely Paul would have been teaching this as well since he would have every reason in the book to be confident in his right standing before God. If that was the way, he would be an expert on the subject.
But Paul then takes an extraordinary turn. He says:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Let’s not rush past these words. I know we’ve been a little nerdy this morning in all these things, but we need to take a breath and really look at these words.
Paul once again looks back to the Master Story in Philippians 2. If there was anything he gained in his former life under Judaism, he’s lost it all. He got his books out, and was looking at his profits and losses, and he looked at ALL of his previous work and resume and he moves it over to the “loss” category. He gave it all up. He didn’t cling to it. He shift everything over to the loss category because there was only a single thing found in his “profit” category, a single name – and that of Jesus Christ.
And he goes a step farther. Like a madman Paul starts throwing everything into the loss category. Everything! He says “not just my former Phariseeism, not just my identity as a Hebrew, not just my zealous faithfulness to Torah, no, no! EVERYTHING! Everything is counted as a loss! Because none of it has any impact on my right standing before God. Nothing! Nothing can compare to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Nothing compares. Nothing! Ladies and Gentlemen, friends, what makes you the most proud in your life? What makes you feel like you have any sort of worth, of value, of meaning in life? What lies in your “gain” category that without, you wouldn’t know what value you have as a human being? What accomplishment? What ethnicity do you have? Gender?
There is neither male nor female in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentle, slave or barbarian, there is neither black nor white nor hispanic, there is neither rich or poor, homeless or having a home, living in this neighborhood or that one, being a victim of abuse or a former addict or not – ALL of these things DO NOT define who you are. Your standing before God doesn’t depend on your church attendance, an office you hold here, what you’ve done or have not done for Jesus. It’s not dependent on how much you’ve tithed, or not tithed. We are IN Christ, and in that we are in right standing before God. In fact, if any of these things compete with knowing Jesus, they need to be tossed over to the loss category. Because ultimately they do not define who you are. Ultimately they do not make you closer with Jesus, or make him more happy with you. The next verse, Paul actually calls these things “rubbish.” Literally, it means garbage, the wonderfully smelly things you find in a dumpster, the glorious stuff that you see inside the tank of a poter-potty – that’s how you are to consider them in light of Christ and being righteous before him. It’s not dependent on any of those things.
Nothing compares to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ. We must look at our hearts and identify our greatest passions in life and say, does knowing Jesus surpass them? This is really, really hard for us Americans. I was just speaking with someone about how hard this can be for us. We don’t have a gun in our face right now with someone saying, “Do you believe in Jesus? Yes or no?” Many of our brothers and sisters do around the world. This question of value is really the only one that matters for them, for in those nations if they believe in Jesus, they immediately lose everything, and they must hold him in surpassing value above all else, because they’ve been forced to lose everything on account of him.
You and I in America have a different story. Aside from perhaps some bullying here or there, most of us do not have any sort of persecution in America for being a Christian. We have so many things competing for the affection of our hearts, and you and I are free to indulge in these borders. The allure of money, of power, of sex, drugs, experiences, materials, leisure time, the desire to be loved by all, to be wanted by all, to be happy! There are so many things that can have surpassing value in our lives.
But all things are to be counted as a loss in Christ. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be found. Where is your heart found this morning?
But more importantly, to have our hearts in the right place, we must understand how we are to be loved by God. For the eternal, glorious and all power, majestic and holy God to love us will meet all your needs, all your inner desires. He is the very key that will unleash fulfillment and meaning in our lives because all humans were created to be with him. “Eternity is in the heart of man,” says the author of Ecclesiastes. Our longings can indeed be satisfied in him. But how can we know that he loves us? For if we are to hold Jesus in an all consuming passion and worth, how are we to know that we are not rejected by him? Is not this the source of religious guilt? Is this not the reason why these false teachers were duped by the need for circumcision? How do we know we are “in” the people of God, loved and elected and chosen by him?
The answer, yet again, is Jesus. Paul continues:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
True right standing before God depends on faith, and not on your own works. The word is pistis for faith, and it is not just mere cognitive belief, but rather a confession of allegiance, of loyalty that one gives towards a King. It certainly implies belief, but it is much more. This is why in Romans 1, Romans 16 and elsewhere our english translations say something like “obedience of the faith” – an effort to capture this idea of allegiance or loyalty in the word.
The Law, or any other system that we can devise to please God or to be included in his family, or be in the right before him – for Paul, it was in the law, Torah – for us, it could be another law that requires our own efforts and work to please God and be found accepted before him, or another carefully devised law that can somehow provide meaning and justification for this skin and bones that we have, something that gives you a purpose to walk around on this earth – anything of the sort will only create insecurity within us. It will always leave us unsure at the end, unsure if we are actually loved by God. This is because none of these things are enough.
Did you know that transgenderism among teenage females is some 700% higher in some places between the ages of 14-17? You know something most of them have in common is? Broken homes. Some unique personalities that make them socially awkward without many friends. Some of the more loner types who enjoy a quiet corner in the back of the cafeteria. Young people who are looking for love, identity, purpose, meaning – and evidence shows that transgenderism provides a group of people for them that they belong to for love and meaning. I know that’s controversial to say aloud, but research shows this to be a driving force behind the desire. You and I have the same drives! We think affirmation from some group could provide meaning, if only we gain enough accolades in it. That hunger for meaning and purpose is just another hunger for God himself, for an eternal stamp of approval on your life that says “your life matters.”
No! Those works will only leave you feeling insecure, needing something else. They will fall you.
You need another righteousness, a more secure one. You need another stamp of approval that is secure and eternal, from someone who is also Eternal. From the very one who gave you life and breath.
You need the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. The righteousness that is dependent on faith and allegiance to Jesus. Only in Jesus can you be found in right standing before God. Only in Christ can you find yourself a part of a new family that is not identified by race, gender or accomplishments or any other identity markers of value. No, for in Christ is all the playing field leveled. In Christ you receive the Holy Spirit who gives you a new heart to worship God, to devote ALL of yourself to him. In him is the fullness of joy. In him do you receive a light burden, a soft yoke. In him do you receive all forgiveness for all sin. In him you receive back your True Humanity, from the Son of Man. In him you receive eternal life. And in him are you secure until the day he returns, to make all things new.
As we aim to bring this sermon to a close, I want to look closely at these last few verses. I was talking with Stephen this week about this, and I want to dispel what can perhaps be called a myth about the Christian life. Paul is careful to describe our righteousness as found “in Christ” through “faith.” But he immediately shows why he desires to be found in Christ, to be in the right before God in Christ.
I want to pay careful attention to this. He goes into a string of things here that he gains in Christ, and he lists them as his motivation for believing and attaching his life to Christs. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – often times we speak of belief in the Good News of Jesus Christ as something we need that we may gain heaven and eternal life at the end. This is largely due to the church’s recent culture of limiting the word “faith,” or “pistis,” to only be about cognitive belief. I am arguing that it is belief leading to allegiance to our King, Jesus Christ.
And I am arguing that our new life in Christ is not just about going to heaven, if it were, then upon belief God would swoop you up immediately and bring you there. No, upon belief in Christ, you are given a new life NOW. Today you are a new creation. Today, you are given a new heart of flesh. Today, you are in Christ, and God has graciously provided you with a new life. The motivating factor for Paul to make Jesus his all consuming passion is this:
“that I may know him and the power of the resurrection, and amy share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
To know him. TO KNOW JESUS NOW. To know him. To know his POWER. The very power that brought his dead body back to life, the very power that is freely given to us now – the Holy Spirit. And, here’s the difficult one – Paul wants to make Jesus his ALL CONSUMING DESIRE that he may share in his sufferings. Oh, this is so hard! By sharing in his sufferings, we are weakened. Paul’s sufferings were marked because he shared the Gospel, they were in his life on behalf of his devotion to Jesus.
Guys, I’ve been saying for weeks now that the Christian life is one of participating in the Master Story of Jesus Christ. His story is “V” shaped, that is, we give up allegiance to everything else and count it as a loss – like Jesus gave up his status in heaven – and travel down, like Jesus did, travel downwards in the giving of ourselves over to Jesus and to others if only others may find the fullness of redemption as we have – shown by the willingness of Jesus to even DIE for us! - only to find NEW life in him, like Jesus did, upon his resurrection and ascension and future glory.
If there is any analogy to be given, that we need to reorient ourselves to this way of thinking, it is this: if you want to more love your friend, your neighbor or your child, what do you have to do? Do you stand at a distance, never step foot in their house, never “do anything” with them, or get on the floor with your infant to see and play with him or her on their level?
To know someone is to enter into their story. To see their house, to see their life, to go through pain with them, to celebrate with them. You enter into their story, and in doing so, your love for them will grow because your life and its patterns have now been shaped in such a manner as to participate in their life. Undercover Boss, that old TV show, this was the idea. CEOs, to not lose touch with the base level employees, because one of their base level employees for a while to see the company through their eyes. There is not any other way.
This is not a message of salvation by works. It is message saying this – after our salvation the ONLY way to know Jesus, to be conformed to him is to ENTER INTO HIS OWN story and allow your life to take the shape of his. In doing so, you will empty yourself of yourself and fill it with Jesus Christ, his Spirit. And when you see people, you’ll begin seeing them as Jesus sees them. Paul says that he “SUFFERED” the loss of all things, because this call is hard and difficult. It’s not easy. But what is promised is LIFE, is joy, is rejoicing, is meaning and purpose, is your restoration NOW – and forever.
As we close, I have a few questions:
1) Have you found ultimate meaning in your life in anything outside of Jesus?
2) Have you allowed yourself to think any sort of right standing before God is in some check list of deeds, rather than being found in Christ?
3) Is your membership in any group, ethnic or gender or social, consumed your identity to where you primarily think of yourselves as belonging to them?
4) Can you identify your faith in Christ apart from your identity as an American? Or belonging to a political party, or not belonging to a political party? I know, I know, I might be in hot water for saying that. But that is OK, because Jesus was not an American, and he does not belong to one of our political parties. Our identity in Christ must trump any of those identities. In him do we find the hope of the world – the resurrection, his second coming, the making new of all things – and not in the right president being elected or the right president staying in office. This election season we all know that both political parties will talk as if a vote towards one of them will give us some sort of almost RESURRECTION hope – that the making new of all things will be found if and only if they stay in office. Please don’t buy into it. Our only resurrection hope is in Christ, and he first defines us, and he first gives us our end-times hope.
5) Are you resisting the work of the Spirit in your life right now? Have you prevent yourself from truly entering into Jesus’ story, seeing the world through his eyes, and sharing in his life in order that you may know him truly? For that is why the Spirit does ANY work within us. Yes, the hope of the world is in Christ. But Christ is found in you. So in a way, if there’s hope for this world, it’s placed on the work of the Spirit in his PEOPLE, his CHURCH, now. Far from a guilt-ridden trip of “oh I must obey Jesus and make him happy so God will accept me.” We’re talking about participating in God’s very heart for this world, and allowing him to do his work through us. And what’s in it for us? Knowing more and more the surpassing worth of Christ Jesus. Let’s pray.