Standing firm in the faith
Text: Phil 3:1-4:1
Theme: Stand firm in the faith.
Image: running a race
Message: push on toward the goal
Standing Firm in Faith
New years is always a time when we make resolutions. We decide to stop eating so much chocolate. We decide to spend more time at home, to take a more active interest in our families, to make money less of a concern in our homes. In the passage we read this morning, we are reminded of what our New Years resolution should really be. Those others are good, but they are not the goal, but the product of our resolution. God is urging us through Paul to stand firm in the faith. Our New Years resolution should be, “This year I will not put any confidence in the things of this world, but I will work hard to strengthen to deepen, and to mature my faith in Christ.” Paul writes this letter to the Philippians from prison and sends it back with Epaphroditus. He is writing them to thank them for their gift and for sending Epaphroditus to serve him. He is also preparing the way for Timothy to be sent to them. We are not certain exactly from where Paul writes this letter.
In this letter Paul thanks God for the Philippians, and he prays for them. Paul has much love for this congregation, it was founded by him and they have supported him well throughout his journeys. The main purpose of this letter is to encourage the Philippians to continue growing in their faith and to stand firm against opposition. The section that we read warns the Philippians to be on their guard against Judaizers, a group of Jewish Christians who taught that the gentiles had to follow Jewish ceremonial law to become Christians, the Gentiles had to become Jews before they could be Christians. This group seemed to follow Paul around everywhere he went and they tried to get gentiles circumcised, even though the council at Jerusalem decided against this teaching.
Paul tells the Philippians to put no confidence in the flesh.
Paul is quite abrasive in this section. “Watch out for those dogs, those mutilators of the flesh,” Paul says. This might not seem like much to us, but to the Jews this would have been a horrible insult. Now, “dog” is a term of abuse which the Jews use toward the Gentiles, but here Paul is using this term against the Jews. See, dogs were the lowliest of creatures. They were wild. They were not kept as pets. They roamed the countryside in packs. They were dirty. They were mangy, and they scavenged through garbage for food to eat. Here Paul rudely calls the Judaizers, Gentiles. He does this to make a point. The Jews can no longer rely on circumcision as the sign of God's covenant people. Ever since the time of Abraham, circumcision was the sign of the covenant people of God, but that has been changed because of what Christ came to do. We are reminded by the Christmas season that God entered into the world and placed the curse of sin on his own son. The new circumcision, says Paul, are we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory or boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh. The Judaizers were placing the confidence of their salvation in what they did by following the law. They put their confidence in the fact that their foreskin had been removed. They put confidence in their flesh, quite literally.
“You can't get to heaven if you don't follow the law,” they said. You can imagine them saying, “Jesus was a Jew, Jesus came as the messiah of God's covenant people Israel, thus if you want Jesus sacrifice to have any meaning for you, you have to become a Jew, you have to do something for your salvation.” “Let's see how far following the law can get you.” Paul challenges. “If you think that you have reason to put confidence in the flesh, in what you have accomplished in the law, I have more. I was circumcised on the eighth day, I am from the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, I was a Hebrew of Hebrews because I followed the strict Pharisaical form of the Law. I was so zealous for the Law that I persecuted the church. And in the eyes of the Law, I was faultless. I was perfect. I thought I had everything I needed to get to heaven, but I was wrong. My earthly success contributed nothing to my salvation.”
Paul had everything going for him, from a earthly point of view. He was born a Jew, part of God's covenant people. He was part of the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe descended from one of the favoured sons of Jacob, a tribe which had not rebelled against David when Absalom tried to take his throne. Paul was trained by a famous Rabbi, Gameliel. He followed not only the prescriptions of the Law of Moses written in the Pentateuch, but he also followed the vast oral tradition which had been added to the Pentateuch. He was so committed to the Jewish religion that he pursued and killed followers of Jesus, whom he considered a pretender. Paul was no ordinary Hebrew, he was a Hebrew of Hebrews. “Look here,” Paul says, “if you want to compare yourselves to me on an earthly plane, I outrank you 100:1.” From a standpoint of the Law, Paul was faultless, he was blameless, he was perfect.
But Paul is not boasting here. He is not tooting his own horn. He is not trying to gain accolades for himself, or put himself on a pedestal. On the contrary, he was showing the Philippians how foolish it is to put confidence in the accomplishments of the world. If anyone had any reason to do so, surely it was Paul, yet he was adamant that Christians have no right to do so. As Paul states in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one can boast in their own works, because everyone has fallen short of what is required of the law. Those who try to earn their salvation by any part of the law are subject to the whole law (Gal 5:3), and since no one can fulfil the whole law, they are sentencing themselves to eternal punishment. Thus, Paul tells the Philippians not to put any confidence in the flesh.
God tells us not to put any confidence in the flesh.
Through Paul, God tells us not to put any confidence in the flesh. The world tells us that success is measured by its terms. If we want to live on, we have to do something memorable, or we have to build a dynasty that can be passed on to the next generation. This is how the world measures success. But we live by a different measuring stick. We live by the grace of God, and are not to place our trust in wealth or riches, fame or glory, recognition or prestige, or anything else the world holds dear. We are not to place our trust in the outward manifestation of our religion; in following the ten commandments, in being kind to our neighbour, or our family, or other church members. We are not to place our trust in providing monetary support for our church, for missions, or for other Christian endeavours. We have no reason to boast in our success. All that we have is a gift of God, including our faith. He has called us and made us his own. Our salvation rests not in our hands, but in God's.
A lady was talking with her pastor about this matter of faith and works. “I think that getting to heaven is like rowing a boat,” she said. “One oar is faith, and the other is works. If you use both, you get there. If you use only one, you go around in circles.” “There is only one thing wrong with your illustration,” replied the pastor. “Nobody is going to heaven in a row boat!” No one rows their way to heaven, by faith or by works. We are brought to God by his work, not ours. God brings us to himself on eagle's wings, just as he carried the Israelites out of Egypt. Nothing the Israelites did got them out from under the rule of Pharaoh, it was all God's doing. Nothing we do gets us out from under the rule of Satan, it is all God's work. Our only hope of salvation is through faith in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, just as Paul's was. Our good works are done out of response to this grace God has given us.
This morning we have ordained new office bearers to serve the church. Those of you who are leaving office may be proud of the job you have accomplished. You may think that you did a good thing serving the church, and now you can rest a bit. That is not how things work. We are glad that you were able to serve God in this way. We rejoice with you that God worked through you to benefit this church, but your work is not done. We cannot put our trust in the little bit of work we have done for his kingdom. If we do anything that is truly good, it was God who did it. Nor can the rest of us praise ourselves in the little service we are able to accomplish. We are Christ's servants, he is our Lord and master, we are not our own, but belong body and soul, in life and in death to him. We are not employees who work part time. We are not casual labourers who come in whenever we feel like it. We are slaves. Christ has purchased us, and we live everyday under his authority. But this is the greatest news of all. Even though we are worthless apart from Christ, and everything we do is crap apart from the help of the Spirit, we have been given the opportunity to know, love, and be with Jesus Christ our Saviour. Everything we have, or have done apart from Christ is junk, it is rubbish, it is garbage, when it is compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
None of Paul's Successes compare to Christ's love.
Paul, the Hebrew or Hebrews, the man who was spotless before the law, considered everything he had ever gained to be a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. He considers everything else rubbish, garbage, trash, dung, manure, whatever you want to call it. That big list of qualifications which he had so proudly displayed on his resume before his conversion is now not worth the parchment it was written on. He was shown the true path to salvation when Jesus himself met him on the road to Damascus. Jesus was the only way to salvation, and Paul did not want others dirtying up the waters.
Why did he consider everything a loss? He did it so that he could gain Christ, be found in him with a righteousness that comes from faith and not the law. He realised that the righteousness which he had gained through the law would get him nowhere. He cast aside all his pretence and show, he humbled himself before Christ and was given the righteousness of faith. He also considered everything loss so that he can know Christ and the power of his resurrection. He did it to have a personal relationship with his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He knew that he would not be able to submit to Christ fully if he was still proud of his own accomplishments. He surrendered all his pride by becoming like Jesus in his death, to, somehow, attain the resurrection from the dead. Now, don't take this the wrong way. Paul is not saying that he is uncertain if he will be raised from the dead, nor is he talking about the physical resurrection at the end of time. Paul is discussing the powerful mystery of baptism into Christ's death and resurrection. In Romans 6:4 he explains, “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may have new life.” Paul is reminding the Philippians that they died to their sinful nature and have been raised to new life by participating in the power of Jesus death and resurrection through baptism.
Paul urges the Philippians to strive toward further maturity.
After Paul's conversion he had now achieved much for the kingdom of God. He had turned away from his former lifestyle. He had come to know Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour. He had planted numerous thriving churches. He had helped spread the good news of the gospel all over the known world; from Rome to Philippi, and from Corinth to Thessalonica. Even after all this, Paul did not rest on his laurels. He did not think that he had achieved what he was sent out to do. He did not think that he was now able to take a break and enjoy his retirement. He had been called by Christ for a reason. He had been given a job to do. Paul does not consider this job completed, he had not taken hold of that for which Christ had taken hold of him. The only thing Paul knew was that he had to forget what was behind him and push on toward the goal. He had to ignore all his past success and think only about the goal of his life.
When I was in high school I was placed on the track and field team as a sprinter. I was actually pretty good. One thing the coach tried to teach me was to lift my head up and focus on the goal line. For some reason I always wanted to look at my feet. I had to learn to focus on the end and push as hard as a could, ignoring the pain in my chest and legs. As a sprinter strains every muscle and works with all their might toward the finish line, so Paul was pushing forward in faith, toward further maturity.
He urges the Philippians to do likewise. They should not count anything that they do as credit to themselves, but they should continue to pursue further growth. This focus on the goal line should make the runner continue to move forward. Paul expects the Philippians to continue to grow in the faith, not to move backward. That is why they should be careful not to allow anything which they had achieved to slip away.
Paul does this because there are many who live as enemies to the cross of Christ. Even though this is a common theme of Paul's, he has said it to the Philippians many times, he is now telling them with tears streaming down his face. He is weeping because the world opposes the good news of Jesus Christ. He is weeping because there are people who are still destined for destruction. He is weeping because there are people who are still following their earthly desires rather than God. He is weeping because he sees these people threatening the church at Philippi.
God urges us to strive toward further maturity.
I can imagine God weeping too, because there are still people in this world who live apart from Christ. There are still people who try to make a name for themselves rather than living for God. There are still people who would rather die and go to hell than humble themselves before their creator and accept his forgiveness. God is weeping because he sees these people still threatening his church.
A Gallup Poll released some years ago shows that about 12 percent of American adults are engaged in non-traditional religious movements. Transcendental Meditation (TM) was found to be the most popular, supported by 4 percent of those surveyed or roughly six million of the nation’s population. Yoga was listed by 3 percent, the charismatic movement and mysticism by 2 percent each (or an estimated three million people each), and eastern religion by 1 percent. The followers of TM and yoga tend to be young adults under age 25, said the Gallup report. It also stated that most of the new religions tend to place value on the inner self and the attainment of mental, psychic, or spiritual states of peace. These types of movements are gaining in popularity. Cults like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are trying to make themselves sound Christian. Their theological pronouncements hide the dark underbelly of the cult and deceive millions.
God wants us to continue to grow in our faith so that we can be examples to others. The whole church has been called to be an example to everyone else, to be a light to the world. The world is a dangerous place. Everyone is out to see what they can get from everyone else. Greed has been sanctioned by our capitalistic society. The physical form is displayed before our eyes on billboards, television ads, and films, degrading our view of each other and ourselves. Our culture is doing everything it can to fill the emptiness people feel apart from God. But the church alone has the answer. God alone can fill the emptiness left in their hearts, and we alone have the message of Christ's forgiveness, and of reconciliation with God. The new office bearers ordained this morning have been given an important task and I pray that God will use you to minister well to his church. You have been given a big responsibility here. Let God lead you, let him guide you, let him work through you to provide support and direction to this congregation. You are called to be examples to this congregation, just as we are called to be examples to the world.
Our work will never be finished on this earth. We are challenged daily to be better lights of God's love. God has brought us into his kingdom, and we are all given the power to do the task God sets before us. God enables us to continue striving toward the goal, toward perfection. At pentecost God sent the Holy Spirit to assist believers in their walk. When we come to faith in Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts. The Spirit works in our hearts and lives to help us grow in our faith.
This Christmas season may have you a bogged down and tired out. The New Year is seen as a time of new beginnings, new starts, new opportunities. I urge you to remember God's resolution for your life. Remember the gift of the Spirit who enables us to stand firm in the lord by not putting any confidence in the flesh, by forgetting what is behind and straining toward the future, and by following those who live according to the example laid down in the scriptures. This year, live out Christ's life in you.
Let us Pray
Heavenly father, we come before you in this time of reflection and joy. We praise you for all that you have done through us. We recognise that our lives are yours alone. We pray that you would forgive our half hearted efforts in the past, and help us to push on toward the promised goal, eternal life with you. Amen.