What a great time we had last weekend at the Franklin Graham Festival. The music was great, it was marvellous to hear the testimonies of Cindy Klassen and Milt Stegall and the others who shared their stories of salvation. The message was clear and direct and many responded to the invitation. I understand that over 2000 responded and about 1200 were first time decisions. That is a lot of new people who are no longer dead, but alive. Some of those people come from our community and even our church and it is up to us now to encourage them and help them grow in faith.
A question that becomes relevant at such a time is, “what is it that we need to teach them?” When we were being trained as counsellors, we were taught that we were not to give enquirers a list of do’s and don’ts that they had to follow if they wanted to be a good Christian. Whenever there are new believers or whenever we are involved in discipling people we have an opportunity to show them how a Christian lives. What is it that we will focus on? What are the things that ought to be included in being disciples of Jesus?
The text which will help us answer this question today is Philippians 3:2-14.
II. No Confidence In The Flesh
A. Adding Something
There has been quite a brouhaha in parliament this last week or so because Peter McKay allegedly called Belinda Stronich a dog. I wonder what the press would have done in Paul’s day when he went on the attack and called a certain group of people dogs in Philippians 3:2? Paul was quite direct in his invective against this group who wanted to add circumcision and keeping laws to Christian faith. Whether these people were active in Philippi is uncertain, but Paul certainly was hounded by them all his ministry life. His use of the word “dogs” is interesting. Dogs were looked down upon by Jewish people, almost like pigs and here he turns their own derogatory term against them.
He has another play on words which adds strength to his statement. The Greek word for circumcision is “peritome.” Paul uses the word “katatome” which means mutilation. Why is Paul so angry, so passionate about what these people are doing? The problem was that there were teachers who were saying that it was necessary for Christians to become Jewish if they really wanted to be accepted by God. These teachers were saying that a person who had already been saved, who had his sins forgiven needed to also be circumcised in order to be a real Christian. We need to understand that Paul is not talking here about how a person becomes a Christian. These people were not saying that the way of salvation is through the law. They were saying that after your sins are forgiven by Christ, you need to add the Law of the Jews to your lifestyle if you really want to experience God’s acceptance.
Paul categorically rejects this way of living the Christian life. He immediately talks about what it means to live as God wants us to in verse 3. He says, “we are the circumcision.” Circumcision was a Jewish ceremony which symbolized the cutting off of sin and joining the covenant people of God. Paul’s point is that as Christians, we have already cut off sin by repentance and through Christ’s death and have joined the covenant people of God by faith. Adding the physical ceremony adds nothing to being a Christian. Rather, we are the people who are accepted by God and who live in that acceptance by serving God in the power of the Spirit, by having our glory not in the things we do but in Christ Jesus Himself and so putting no confidence in the flesh. By pointing this out, Paul is saying that there are only two ways of living, “according to the Spirit” or “according to the flesh” and those two ways are mutually incompatible.
B. Paul’s Testimony
Paul knew very well the futility of putting “confidence in the flesh.” If anyone had reason to think that they could live a life pleasing to God by the things they did, Paul was at the top of the heap. In Philippians 3:4-6, he has a list of all the things that would make him a person who would be acceptable to God. He was circumcised when he was 8 days old. He belonged to the right family. He was a member of the strictest sect of Judaism – the Pharisees. He had demonstrated his zeal for God by persecuting Christians and had kept the outward details of the law perfectly. If there was anyone who could put confidence in the flesh, that is in the ability of any individual to do all that is required to be pleasing to God, Paul was the one. He was saying, If you want to play the “Jewish” game, I can do it better than anyone.
But Paul has utterly rejected living by the law as the way to be pleasing to God – whether in the way we come to Him or in the way we live as His people. Paul clearly goes on to say that “confidence in the flesh,” hope in the ability of any individual to do it is a dead end.
C. Balance Sheet Thinking
In his strong statement against legalism as the way to live the Christian life, Paul spreads it out on a balance sheet. On one side of the balance sheet was a list of all his family, religious, ability, education, strength and spiritual credentials. On the other side was knowing Jesus. At one time, he considered knowing Jesus as loss and all his credentials as gain, but when he met Jesus, he wrote a big LOSS, on the side that he had considered gain and on the column once considered loss he wrote, GAIN.
The word used for LOSS is actually a word which means damage. Not only is “confidence in the flesh” useless as the way to come to Christ and the way to live the Christian life. It actually causes damage to that way. It can destroy that which really is the way to live for God. In verse 8, NIV also uses the word rubbish. I won’t use the word which one can actually use to translate this word. It is a “well attested vulgarity referring to excrement.” Figure that one out and you will know what I mean. It can also refer to the garbage that is thrown out to the dogs. What Paul is so vehemently asserting is that we can put no confidence in the flesh, that is in our own ability. And remember, he is speaking to Christians, not to people who are coming to faith. He is telling us in no uncertain terms that adding laws to our salvation in Christ will do absolutely nothing to make us people who are pleasing to God. Fee says that for Paul, “grace plus anything cancels out grace.”
In spite of this strong statement rejecting the way of legalism, Christians continue to want to add something to grace. We continue to build systems of rules by which we think that God is looking down on us with favour. We continue to judge each other when we see others fail to live up to our system of obedience. Paul clearly states that those who belong to Christ “put no confidence in the flesh.” Fee says, “it has the effect of adding a plus factor to grace, and thus of eliminating grace altogether by exchanging it for boasting in ‘one’s flesh.’” There is no such thing as a good Christian.
III. I Want To Know Christ
So how do we live the Christian life? What do we tell these new believers about what it means to follow Jesus?
A. It Is About Jesus
If it isn’t about adding anything, what is it about? The theme which is repeated over and over in this passage is Jesus. Just look at the repetition and the power of this theme.
Vs. 3 - “we glory in Christ Jesus.”
Vs. 7 – “for the sake of Christ.”
Vs. 8 – “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and “I may gain Christ.”
Vs. 9 – “through faith in Christ.”
Vs. 10 – “I want to know Christ.”
Fee says, “the Judaizers have trivialized righteousness by making one’s relationship with God rest ultimately on observance, on the performance of religious trivia…” But Paul points out that it isn’t about perfection, it’s about a relationship.
Paul says, “I want to know Christ.” He uses the word “know” and that word in the Bible is always about an intimate relationship such as that between a child and a parent or between husband and wife.
In verse 8 Paul uses the unusual phrase “Christ Jesus my Lord” by which he once again reveals the intimacy of relationship with Christ which defines our walk as Christians. It isn’t about head knowledge by which we understand the truths of the gospel. It isn’t hand knowledge by which we can do all the right things to make us good Christians. It is heart knowledge by which Jesus is our best friend. He is the one we always go to, the one who is always nearby, the example for our life, the one who defines our existence because we know Him so well.
B. Knowing Christ
As we read Philippians 3:10,11, we learn a little more about what it means to know Christ. Using that familiar literary device of a chiasm, which we have talked about before, Paul speaks about knowing Christ as knowing the power of His resurrection and participating in His suffering. The pattern is as follows.
A – the power of his resurrection
B – participation in his sufferings
B – conformed to his death
A – that I might attain to the resurrection
Knowing Christ means that we now already experience in our life the power of His resurrection. I understand this to mean that we know what it means to gain victory in our life, that we know that the source of power for living our life of faith is found in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. As we live in relationship to Him, we serve with the power of the Spirit, we become people like Jesus, not by our deeds, but by the power of the His resurrection.
Yet everyone who will be so closely related to Jesus will also discover something else and that is that we will experience suffering. When we have intimacy with Christ, we will learn the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Just as Jesus suffered, we will suffer because we live in a hostile environment dedicated to destruction. But suffering of this kind has a powerful benefit. It will result in a renewal by which that which is destructive and meaningless in life will be removed in the suffering and a new kind of living which is an “in Christ” kind of living will take its place.
When Jerry Bridges was 14 years old, he heard his mother call out in the next room, totally unexpectedly, and arrived to see her take her last breath. He also has physical conditions that keep him from normal sports. And a number of years ago his wife died of cancer. Serving God with the Navigators has not spared him pain. His book, Trusting God, Even When Life Hurts, is a deep and helpful book about suffering and going deep with God through affliction.
Over a hundred years ago Horatius Bonar, the Scottish pastor and hymn-writer wrote a little book called Night of Weeping, or, "When God's Children Suffer." It is a tender and deep and wise book. So it's not surprising to hear him say, “It is written by one who is seeking himself to profit by trial, and trembles lest it should pass by as the wind over the rock, leaving it as hard as ever; by one who would in every sorrow draw near to God that he may know Him more, and who is not unwilling to confess that as yet he knows but little."
When we are so closely related to Jesus, we will also “become like him in his death.” It will be the power of God that will lead us to the place Jesus told us to be when he said in Matthew 16:25, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” That is the place where we are willing to suffer the loss of all things in order to gain Him, where we will be willing to give up our life because we are intuitively aware that we are gaining Christ and sharing in His life. Gordon Fee says, “all of Christian life is stamped with the divine imprint of the cross as we live out the gospel in the present age, while we await the hope of resurrection.”
When we know Christ in this way and we suffer the loss of all that is meaningless, we will attain to the resurrection from the dead. Have you ever thought that the only way to experience resurrection is if you have experienced death. Resurrection assumes death. If we are unwilling to experience death “in Christ,” we will miss resurrection as well. If we know Christ in his resurrection power now and if we share in His suffering, then the hope we have is that we will also experience eternal resurrection. That is Paul’s hope and ours as well.
Resurrection power and suffering are not mutually exclusive, they go together hand-in-glove.
IV.I Press On
A. I Have Not Arrived
Do you know Christ in that way? I don’t! Neither did Paul. He says in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect.” The NIV translation is poor when it says, “or have already been made perfect.” It isn’t about perfection. The word actually means “complete.” What is it that Paul has not completed? Well we know for certain that he is not talking about keeping all the laws by his strength. He has already categorically said that he puts “no confidence in the flesh.” So this is not about finding out all the things we need to do in order to be a good Christian.
What he means is that he is not yet in heaven and that he does not yet know Christ in the way that he wishes. I like this way of putting it, “the ‘goal’ is not ‘perfection’ but the eschatological conclusion of present life.” The ‘prize’ is none other than the final realization of his lifelong passion – the full ‘knowing’ of Christ.”
Not that he was lost. Christ had already taken hold of him. Yet he knows that he does not know Christ as Christ knows him and has made himself known to him. He has a holy dissatisfaction, knowing that he does not know Christ as he wishes.
B. Pressing On
Recognizing that he is not yet in heaven and does not yet know Christ as he wishes, he indicates that his life is a pursuit. Not a pursuit of perfection. Not a pursuit of doing it all right. It is a pursuit of knowing and being in relationship to the one who has first pursued him.
Using the imagery of a runner, he indicates that he is not going to be distracted. In fact, he picks up once again the language he has used before. “Forgetting what lies behind” is meant to once again refer to what he has so violently discarded, his self righteousness, his “confidence in the flesh.”
Instead he is straining forward, pressing on in the race looking toward one thing and one thing only and that is Jesus Christ. There is nothing more important to him than to know Jesus. This is his immediate goal. He wants to know Jesus and be in an intimate relationship with him today. This is his ultimate goal. On the day when Christ comes again there is nothing more exciting for him than to be able to see Jesus. If the best thing we are looking forward to in heaven is eternal comfort, we have missed the great glory of knowing Christ. If the best thing we are looking forward to in heaven is seeing loved ones, we have missed the wonder of knowing Christ. The way to come to this eternal hope is not by anything we do, no law, no rules, but rather through a relationship of knowing Christ.
John Piper says, “We must go hard after Christ, because not to means that we don't want to know him. And not to want to know Christ is an insult to his value and a sign of spiritual stupor or deadness in us. But when you go hard after Christ, to know him, the reward is your joy and his honour.”
He also says, “A failing student should pursue a special tutor. Nearsighted people should pursue an optometrist. People with strep throat should take antibiotics. Alcoholics should pursue a support group. Young apprentices should follow their master at his work. Not to go hard after Christ means that either you don't trust his power and willingness to change your imperfections, or that you want to cling to your imperfections. In either case, Christ is scorned and we are lost.”
One morning you wake up and walk to the end of the driveway to retrieve your morning paper. You bring it back into the house and sit down with a cup of coffee. As you page through the personals, you notice that your obituary is written up in that days paper. You pinch yourself and look in the mirror to make sure that you are really still alive and then you begin to read what defines your life. As you do you discover what it is that you are known for.
Will you be proud if it says, “he was a good Christian?” Will you be happy if there is a long list of all the service projects and ministries you were involved in? When the final summary of your life is made, what do you wish you will have obtained? I know what Paul would wish was in his life summary. He would wish that it would say, “he knew Jesus.”
I know what I have wished would be on my obituary. I have often wished that it would say, “he knew the Bible” or “he was a faithful servant.” For some time now my thinking has begun to change. I am deeply challenged by the word in this passage. I agree with Paul that more than anything else, I want to know Jesus. What about you?
St. Bernard sang this theme:
We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.