Gospel glory - Philippians 3:1-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
As I was rooting though some boxes recently, I came across some old school reports from my first year at Primary School which make very interesting reading. For instance, Mathematics: "Nathan enjoys the number activities, but his written work is rather uncontrolled as yet." Art: "Nathan finds it very difficult to control his paint brush but he has some interesting ideas for his paintings." Games: "Nathan is a nimble runner and is learning how to catch a ball. He is quite agile and he manages to keep pace with bigger boys on cross country runs." Scripture: "Nathan enjoys the scripture stories and he can usually answer the questions afterwards."
Well little has changed I guess more than 25 years on, and though we leave school behind and move on in life, yet receiving reports never leaves us. We perhaps have to sit through personal evaluation assessments every few months at work or college or school. And every so often we hear on the news of how the most recent government report has declared that our hospitals are in decline, and crime is up and but unemployment is down, or whatever the report has considered. Reports and assessments are the very stuff of life today.
And if you read the NT carefully, then you will discover that spiritual assessment is a very important part of the Christian life. Throughout the NT we are called to keep watch over ourselves, to examine ourselves, to test ourselves to see if we are standing firm. And one of the underlying themes of Paul's letter to the Philippians is the call to give ourselves a spiritual health check. If you've been with us over the last few weeks, you'll know one of the verses which sum up the letter is 1 v 27. There Paul says to this young church: "Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." Why? So Paul will be assured that they are standing firm in the faith as one. In other words, they are to make sure they are pressing on the faith and standing firm in the gospel.
And in chapter 3, Paul puts himself forward as an example to follow, as a benchmark of a devotion to Christ. Just glance down to verse 17 and see what Paul says: "Join with others in following my example brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern that we gave you." So, he says, take note of what I am doing and examine yourselves. Why? Because that, he says, is what Christian maturity is about! So he can say in verse 15: "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, God will make that clear to you also. Only let us live up to what we have already attained." If you want to make progress in the Christian life, then follow my example as I follow the example of Christ, he says. And in fact, it's something that Paul has already told the Philippians about. Back in verse 1, he says that he's already made know to them some of these things. Perhaps he had written to them before, or spoken to them directly about some of these things he's about to tell them. But Paul's point is that they need to come back and take a spiritual health check. Are they still making progress? Are they still growing in spiritual maturity? Because such spiritual health assessments are vital for spiritual growth. They are safeguards says Paul to make sure you are not falling behind or in danger from false teaching.
So as we come to this passage this evening, Paul is urging us too to take a spiritual health check. Are we making progress in the Christian life? Are we growing in maturity? Or are we standing still and stagnating spiritually speaking? Because what Paul is about to say to us about his own Christian life is what a mature Christian life should look like. So let's sit humbly under Paul's spiritual assessment this evening, and consider three marks of Christian maturity from Paul's school of Christian growth. And these are qualities that every Christian should have, and that every Christian should be growing in. For Christians are marked by:
1) A New Confidence (Vv 1-9)
2) A New Desire (Vv 10-11)
3) A New Goal (Vv 12-16)
1) A New Confidence (Vv 1-9)
So the first mark of Christian maturity is a new confidence. And Paul makes it clear in verses 1-9 that there are two types of confidence, one which is false and the other which is true.
a) False Confidence- First there is false confidence. And false confidence springs from putting your trust in yourself and your own good deeds. And that was precisely the problem with some false teachers who were troubling the Philippian church. So Paul tells the Philippians in verse 2 to watch out. In fact, Paul's language is a lot more dramatic. Literally he writes: "Watch out for those dogs, watch out for those men who do evil, watch out for that mutilation!" His message is pretty clear isn't it? The Philippians are to watch out! These false teachers were probably Jews who were saying that in order to be a fully fledged Christian, these non Jewish Philippians had to be circumcised. For circumcision was a mark of being one of the people of God. So why is Paul getting all hot under the collar? He even calls them dogs in verse 2, turning round the insult that devout Jews threw at Gentiles. Why is he so incensed? Because the gospel is at stake. These Jewish false teachers were saying that belief in Jesus is not enough. You need Jesus plus something else, in this case circumcision. And whenever Jesus + is around, then it spells great danger. Because it says that Jesus only is not sufficient for our salvation. What is needed is not just the forgiveness and grace Jesus offers but something we must do too. A deed that we do in order to make us really kosher Christians. It is Jesus +. And so where does the false teachers' confidence really lie? In themselves! Their confidence is in their flesh, themselves. Because they are saying that Jesus is not enough. You need Jesus + circumcision. You must do something extra to be a really top notch Christian, to be really in the fold.
So how does Paul reply? Well he actually goes on to tell the Philippians about himself. He goes on to say in verse 3 that he and his followers are the true people of God, the true circumcision, because they don't trust in themselves, but as we'll see in a moment, in Jesus only. But if ever anyone had the credentials to get into heaven by their own good deeds, it was Paul, he says. Just look at his credentials in verse 4. Paul was the most kosher of the lot! He fulfilled all the criteria necessary which he outlines in verses 4-6. He was born into a Jewish family in the tribe of Benjamin and circumcised on the eighth day like the law said. No doubt his father and grandpa and great grandpa and all the generations before him were good Jews. In fact they could trace their family history right back to the son of Jacob himself. He was a strict Pharisee, the sort of man to follow all the laws to the letter. He knew how much mint to tithe, and he'd never mix his wool and his cotton. He even persecuted Christians, such was his zeal and love for the truth. Nothing would hinder the practice of the Jewish religion. Paul was fanatical. He'd done everything the law required of him! He had all the badges, he could count all the stripes, he could tick all the boxes. If any human deserved a place in heaven it was Paul.
But how does Paul view all that privilege now? Well verse 7 tells us: "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ." Now Paul thinks that all those good works and privileges are total rubbish. It seemed as if his account with God was hugely in the black. He'd racked up a whole account of good deeds and amazing credentials. But he says they are loss compared to knowing Christ. And the simple reason is that he has renounced false confidence. Before, his confidence was in what he did in order to get him to heaven. But now he knows that no matter how good and privileged he is, even if he's the greatest Jew that ever lived, they help not one jot to get him into heaven, because no amount of good deeds can remove the moral debt we owe God. We will simply never be good enough for him. And Paul came to find that out for himself. In fact he describes such good deeds and all his credentials in verse 7 as rubbish. But the word is far stronger than that. The reality is that Paul says literally that all his good deeds are dung or excrement. That is what the word really means. Our translations are just too embarrassed to use it. But Paul makes no apologies. He really means it. He wants us to see how awful and deeply offensive to God false confidence is! Can you grasp the strength of Paul's feeling here? He's saying that coming before God with our deeds and saying we are good enough for him is as horrific to God as rooting through a family's wheelie bin and presenting a load of soiled nappies as a present to your mother on her birthday. How horrific that would be? Just as the stench of soiled nappies is so awful to us, so is the stench of human pride and self righteousness in the nostrils of God. And that is why gospel + is so dreadful. It reeks of pride and self centeredness. And Paul will have none of it. Instead he makes it clear that his confidence is not in himself, much though he has on his CV. Instead his confidence in is Christ alone.
b) True Confidence- And that is, secondly, what true confidence is. It's not that Paul is not thankful for his background and the many undoubted blessings he's received. You only have to look at Romans 9 to see how joyful Paul is for his Jewish heritage. But he knows that simply by following the law he can never get right with God. No his confidence is in Christ alone! He knows that knowing Jesus is the far more important thing in life. And verse 8 tells us why: "I consider them rubbish [or dung], 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 is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." Paul has discovered that the only way he can get right with God, the only way he can receive righteousness is to accept what Jesus has done for him. To be right with God, forgiven and set free, we must lay aside our stubborn attachment to our good deeds, confess we cannot meet God's standards and come to him for cleansing. For nothing else is sufficient. And compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus as Lord and Saviour, compared to knowing the assurance of sins forgiven and of being right with God, then everything else is a wheelie bin of waste.
So let me ask, where is your confidence? It's very likely that there are some here who are still trusting in their own goodness to get them to heaven. Well look at Paul. Paul was the best there was. And yet even he failed. All his good deeds were a stench in God's nostrils. So lay aside the thought that God is like an English gentleman who will let you in because you've been a good bloke or a nice girl. Look at the strength of Paul's language here. He's not kidding you. And if you persist in the thought that you're good enough for God, then you will receive a terrible shock when you meet him. Because the Bible says it is a dreadful thing to fall in the hands of the living God when in reality you're an enemy against him.
I remember hearing the true story of a vicar who had to take the funeral of a very wealthy businessman in Canada. This man had been extremely prominent in local society and had done, in many people's eyes, many good deeds. He's was chairman of this committee and that committee. Very well respected. And the vicar was asked to read out a list of the man's good deeds and special achievements. So the vicar agreed, but at the end of this impressive list, he looked at the congregation and said: "And you know what, the whole lot is rubbish. It won't help John a jot now he is before God!!" And he tore up the list in the presence of the mourners. Now I don't advocate that as a pastoral model, but it makes the point. What use are lots of good deeds when you are facing God after your death? Because they won't help a jot.
But you know gospel + is still around amongst professing Christians even today. Proud confidence in our own deeds is still as much a danger for us as it was for the Philippians. Perhaps you are a little too proud of your Bible heritage, your gospel upbringing. Perhaps you think your version of the Bible is the only one that should be read. Perhaps you think your view on baptism is the only one allowed. The danger comes when we make other things law for fellow Christians, saying that this way or that way is the right way to be friends with God. And so we degrade the work of Christ. But often it is even more subtle than that. False confidence creeps into our Christian lives when we try to impress God with our good deeds. We think he'll love us more if we've done well with our quiet times this week. Well be more precious to him if we've done our bit in the church, perhaps if we have a prominent role in the church like a youth leader or Bible study group leader. The danger in all these things is that our confidence for our salvation comes not from our trusting Christ but in Jesus +. Jesus + my job in the church, Jesus + my good deeds this week, Jesus + my reputation for holiness. The danger is our confidence is actually in ourselves and not in the all sufficient work of Christ to bring us to God. But instead for the Christian keen to grow in maturity, our confidence should be in Jesus only.
By way of illustration, many years ago, when St. Paul's cathedral was being built some of those involved were not confident that the structure could support itself. Despite having the most able architect in England at the time in Sir Christopher Wren, the councillors were still not convinced by Wren's audacious design. And they insisted that beneath the huge dome in the middle of St. Paul's should be placed a supporting column. Well Wren had little choice but to follow their orders, despite his total conviction in the sufficiency of the building structure he designed, and he duly built the supporting column. But years later in the nineteenth century, when renovation work was being done on the great cathedral, a startling discovery was made concerning that supporting pillar. It was found that the pillar stopped one centimetre short of the dome it was supposed to be supporting. Wren was right. And the counsellors didn't trust him. Wren's original structure was sufficient after all.
Well in Jesus we have one who is totally sufficient and totally able to deal with our sins. No deeds of ours whether as non Christians or as Christians can alter that fact. The question is whether we have the confidence to trust him. For the mark of the mature growing Christian is the ability to see that in Christ we have everything. And everything else pales away compared to knowing him. For Paul could say "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord." Could you say the same?
2) A New Desire (Vv 10-11)
A new confidence, but secondly a new desire. Because as we see with Paul, that new confidence in Christ alone for salvation, brings him to a new desire and that is to know Jesus Christ and to know him more and more deeply. Verse 10: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." Now at this stage we may be a little confused. Surely Paul already knows Christ. But a moment's thought helps us to see what Paul means. In the Bible knowing someone is a deeply personal experience, and here when Paul says that he wishes to know Christ, it is not simply on a casual acquaintance level, rather he wants to get to know him better and better, more and more deeply. When Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians, he prays that God would give the Ephesian Christians the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that they may know God better. He prays for an ever deeper relationship with God. And that is Paul's desire here in Philippians. "I want to know Christ."
So what does this involve for Paul? Well first in verse 10 Paul says it means knowing the power of the resurrection of Jesus in his life. In other words what he means is that he longs to know that life changing power at work in his life. It takes a great power to change a person from a hardened sinner into a loving gracious man or woman made in the image of God. And the only power that can do such a work is the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead. Paul wants to become godly, not powerful. That's what he longs for. That's what wanting to know Christ involves. Knowing his power to get rid of sin and love holiness. And one day it will mean attaining the physical resurrection from the dead in verse 11. Paul's not sure exactly how the mechanics of that will happen, so he writes "somehow", but there is no doubt that future hope will take place. So knowing Christ means living the new resurrection life.
But secondly he wants to know the fellowship of sharing in Jesus' sufferings and becoming like him in his death. Now I'm not sure many of us could say the same thing. Do we really want to share in the sufferings of Christ? It's probably not one of the things on our Christmas list this year is it? And yet it is Paul's. He wants to have the privilege of sharing in his master's suffering, of walking in his master's footsteps. It's not that Paul was a masochist. Rather he loved his master so much that he longed to go his way. And that is what is expected of the Christian. He or she loves his master so much that they are willing to suffer for him.
And those of us who would profess to be Christians need to ask ourselves this question: Can we honestly say that knowing Christ is our top desire? Is that really at the top of our agenda? Or is it something else? You see we may say: "Oh yes, of course knowing Christ and knowing him better is my heart's desire!" But is it? Because the way we live our lives reflects where our hearts truly lie. Perhaps when push comes to shove there are really more important things in our lives. Our work or getting that coursework in. That's got to have priority before everything else. Maybe our financial security or our family's health. Now of course none of those things are wrong, but if they take priority in your life then to put it bluntly you're an idolater. So next time someone asks you what you want out of life what are you going to say? Will you mumble something about being happy and getting the most out of life? Or are you going to say boldly that you want to know Jesus Christ better and better. Because if that is true why don't you say it? Knowing Christ through thick and thin, becoming more like him growing in love and knowledge of him? Because that is the mark of a truly mature Christian. Someone who can say in all seriousness: "I want to know Christ- I want him to change my life by his resurrection power. I want to suffer with and for him. I want to know Christ." A new desire.
3) A New Goal (Vv 12-16)
A new confidence, a new desire and finally a new goal. What does a mature Christian whose confidence is in Christ alone and whose desire is to know Christ better, what does that Christian aim for? Well according to Paul, he or she aims for heaven, for the prize that God will give us when we meet him face to face. Notice what Paul says in verse 12: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me. Brothers I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining on to what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus." You see we might be tempted to think that Paul had made it as a Christian, but Paul categorically denies that. He says that he has not obtained perfection. Rather in the light that there is more to do, he presses on. And notice just how single minded and focused he is. But one thing I do. Paul's consuming passion was knowing Christ and making him known. He was always pressing on in godliness and love and knowledge of his Saviour.
The point is a Christian should never stop growing. They should never ever fall into the trap of proudly sitting back and resting on their laurels, whether you've been a Christian a week, a year, or even a lifetime. A number of us from St. John's went this week to a conference in Sheffield. And one of the speakers was the Australian evangelist John Chapman who is coming here next week. Now John Chapman is not a young Christian. He's been a Christian for well over fifty years. He's a minister with a vast experience and huge wisdom, and he is a godly man to boot. But is there any hint of John sitting back and saying I've made it? Not a bit of it. In fact what struck me most about John as I saw him this time were two things he said in casual conversation. More than once when he answered a question, he would preface it by saying: "You know that is something I am still working on." Or: "I've got a lot more work to do on that," as he answered questions on how to do evangelism or what it means to live the Christian life. He's a man whose been a Christian for almost 60 years. And yet he humbly says there's plenty still to learn. That's a man who understands what Paul means when he says I want to know Christ and I'm pressing no to heaven. And if you are thinking you've made it in the Christian life, then think again. We'll be learning for the rest of our days on earth, and we'll be growing for the rest of our days in eternity. For God is eternal. And you can never fully fathom the unfathomable.
So what is it that keeps Chappo going on? What was it that kept Paul pressing on? Verse 14 tells us: "I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus." In his mind's eye he saw the prize for which Christ had called him. It was his hope of heaven that kept him going. He knew that one day he would stand before his maker and receive the prize and be welcomed into heaven. That is what kept him going. And that is to be the hope of every Christian. We're not there yet. Rather we are to press on towards that final goal, longing to be with our Saviour and King forever. That is the hope which gave Paul such single minded devotion. And it is absolutely vital that we keep that end goal in sight, because without it we will give up and throw in the towel. And if you've no goal to press on to, then you will not run the race. So keep your eyes focussed on heaven, that new goal that the Christian has.
As we finish, I want tell you about a couple who went sailing off the coast of Florida. It was a hot day and the wife decided to go for a swim, but soon found that the current had taken her far from the boat. She shouted to her husband, who thought she was telling him to come in. So he dived in and he too discovered that he was being carried away. He was a strong swimmer but not she. So they worked out a plan. He would swim against the tide and try and stay as close to the boat as possible until the tide turned and he could swim to the boat. She would just let herself be carried by the current and then he would come and get her. Well six hours passed before the tide turned and the husband could get back to the boat, now on the distant horizon. But the sun had almost set and he could not search for his wife. Well the following day a search party was called and just as they were about to give up they found her, twenty miles out to sea and still alive.
In the Christian life, if you stand still, the reality is you are moving backwards. Like that woman who came very close to losing her life by just going with the flow, so is the Christian in danger of forfeiting their spiritual life if they go with the flow and do not grow in their spiritual lives. Decay has already set in. You don't stand still, you grow stagnant and stale and slowly but surely drift away. The antidote? Press on to maturity. Desire to know Christ, and aim for heaven. For maturity is what we should be aiming for, not mediocre half heartedness. And the mark of a mature man or woman of God is someone is marked by a new confidence in Christ alone, a new desire for Christ alone, and a new goal of meeting Christ himself.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.