This sermon is part of the sermon series "Harmony and Humility in the Church". See series.
As believers, we sometimes feel pressured to act in certain ways, fit in with certain norms, or participate in certain activities. The pressure is subtle, but it carries the idea that if you really want to please God, you must act a certain way or engage in certain activities.
For example, you may feel compelled to belong to a particular political party, or participate in certain social protests; you may feel the need to have acceptable opinions about such things as capital punishment, gun control, welfare, the legalization of marijuana, the war with Iraq, home schooling, rock concerts, which beverages you can drink, and whether it's appropriate to go to Las Vegas.
You might make sure to give 10 percent of your income to your local church. Perhaps you'll give extra sums to other missions or charitable organizations, but the 10 percent tithe itself has to go to your home church. You may believe that setting aside a time to read the Bible and pray is a necessary condition for really walking with God, so you'll budget at least 15-20 minutes for a quiet time everyday. You might regularly and actively witness to your neighbors or somebody at work, engaging them in conversations and inviting them to things at church.
Sometimes we can feel as if an evangelical lifestyle—a set of behavioral expectations—is being imposed on us. The implication is that if you follow these rules and regulations, you can be confident that your Christian life is what God wants. If you disagree about any of these things and publicly voice your disagreement, we'll probably wonder about your spirituality and distance ourselves from you a bit. If it turns out that others in the church feel the same way you do about these things, then there may be arguments and dissension. It could even lead to factions, division, and disunity in the church. This Christian subculture—this supposed evangelical lifestyle—is often encouraged in churches.
Years ago, the apostle Paul discovered that the same thing was happening in the church at Philippi. The Philippian Christians were being pressured to adopt a certain lifestyle with its particular rules and regulations. Visiting missionaries and teachers from the mother church in Jerusalem had come to Philippi. These teachers were Jewish Christians, and they taught the Gentile Christians in Philippi that in order to be the best Christians possible, they needed to live a Jewish lifestyle. In particular, they insisted the Philippians needed to be circumcised, keep the Old Testament laws, and observe Jewish holidays, fasts, and ritual washings.
These Jewish Christians were communicating to the Gentile Christians: It's wonderful that you Gentiles have believed in Jesus Christ and are saved, but if you want to fully please God, you have to also follow the ancient guidelines that God gave his people in the Old Testament. You need to keep the dietary laws, you need to observe the special days of the religious calendar, and most of all you need to have all your males circumcised as a sign they are really committed. We Christians in the mother church at Jerusalem are keeping these laws, and God wants you to do the same. If you want to be confident of your spiritual life, then these are the things you'll do.
In other words, these visiting teachers were trying to impose their Jewish lifestyle on the Gentile believers at Philippi. When Paul got wind of this, he was 800 miles away under house arrest in Rome awaiting his trial before Caesar. He immediately saw the dangers in the Jews' teachings, so he addressed the issue in his letter to them.
Dissension and discord were already threatening the church. Paul's visitors reported that there was an undercurrent of sniping, polarization, and disunity in Philippi. As a result, Paul spends quite a bit of time in his letter urging them to be like-minded, to have a mutual love, and to be one in spirit and purpose. He tries to pull them back from the danger of dissension and disunity that comes when we try to impose our spiritual lifestyle on others. But Paul also saw another danger in the new teaching that was potentially more damaging than dissension and discord. As a result, he encouraged the Philippians not to let anyone tell them what they must do to be righteous in God's eyes.
What did Paul fear? What tragedy will occur if we let someone impose his rules and regulations on us? We're going to see the answers to these questions in Paul's letter.
Paul warns against the visiting teachers.
In Philippians 3, Paul first warns his friends against the visiting teachers. Offering his own past experience as an example, Paul describes the great damage that results if we let somebody else define what makes our spiritual lives pleasing to God.
In verses 1-3, Paul tells the Philippians that the lessons of the Jewish Christians will not help them, but rather will harm them. He describes these visiting teachers in three ways in verse 2: those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.
First, Paul calls the Jewish Christians dogs. The Jews had always referred to the Gentiles as dogs. They were not referring to pets that we play with, keep in the house, and take on walks. The dogs of their day were wild, vicious, snarling beasts that roamed the streets in packs, rooting around in the garbage, ready to attack small children that stray off by themselves. If you picture an out-of-control attack dog, you'll have an idea of how the Jews felt about the Gentiles—they were dangerous, undisciplined, and outside God's favor. Paul flips the label back onto these Jewish teachers: These teachers are the dogs. They're the ones who are dangerous; they're the one who will tear you apart with their teaching; they're the ones you need to watch out for. Secondly, Paul calls them men who do evil. Far from being the message of righteousness, what they are teaching is wicked. Third, he calls them mutilators of the flesh. They think that circumcision will bring some spiritual benefit, so they are trying to get the Philippians to participate. Paul tells them all it will do is mutilate their flesh.
Paul exhorts the Philippians to watch out for these men. They are not to let these teachers talk them into these behaviors, which will do nothing to secure God's favor; they already have God's full approval. In fact, according to verse 3, they already have everything circumcision once stood for. Paul assures them that what identifies them as belonging to God is not some external behavior, but rather the internal presence of the Spirit of God. They are pleasing to God, not because they follow certain rules and regulations, but because they have committed their hearts to him.
In the same way, you're pleasing to him, not because you belong to a particular party, but because you act justly and fairly and mercifully toward all those around us. Perhaps your way of pleasing him is not through loud social protests, but instead by working quietly through legislation to bring his truth to our society. You're not bound by anybody's rule to give a certain amount to any particular person or organization. Instead, let the Spirit of God prompt you to be generous in many directions. Similarly, having a time of Bible study and prayer every day can be good, and some people will be led to do that. But the real issue is whether you love his Word and long to spend time with him. If you do, then maybe an hour or two one day a week is as pleasing to God as 15 minutes a day every day of the week.
We already have in our hearts the identifying characteristic God looks for: the Spirit of God. Any behavior that the Spirit leads us to offer God is good. There's no set of rules and regulations that we have to observe to have confidence before God. There are no behaviors that are necessary to be approved by him.
We have the Spirit of God to lead us. Paul says in verse 3 that Christ is all we need to be pleasing to God and righteous in his eyes. We glory in Christ. We rejoice in him. We define ourselves in him. He's all we need. Because our identity is bound up in Christ, we have no confidence in the flesh or in external activities. Nothing else is needed for God's approval.
Paul warns the Philippians: don't let these teachers tell you that you have to adopt their lifestyle to be spiritual; don't let them tell you that there are particular behaviors that will make you pleasing to God; don't let them tell you that you have to belong to their subculture to be righteous in his eyes.
Paul argues from his experience.
Secondly, Paul moves to his own experience. He says: I've been there; I've lived in their subculture. I've spent a long time depending on those behaviors to make me pleasing to God. If they want to talk externals, rules and regulations, and having confidence in the Jewish lifestyle, I've got them all beat hands down. Nobody did it better than I did.
In verses 4-6, Paul relates his history of depending on externals to earn him credit with God. He lists his Jewish credentials. He was circumcised on the eighth day. That means he was born into the faith. He wasn't circumcised as an adult convert; he was on the inside from birth. Not only that, but he was a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the most respected tribes in all Israel. Benjamin was special, because he was the only one of Jacob's 12 children to be born in the Promised Land. Benjamin's warriors were famous for their bravery. Israel's first king came from the tribe of Benjamin. Jerusalem, the holy city, was located in Benjamin's territory. When the country split into the Northern and Southern kingdoms, only Benjamin remained loyal to David's tribe of Judah.
Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was born into the faith and was descended from the tribe of Benjamin. Then he added to his impressive heritage: He spoke the language and kept the customs. He didn't let the secular culture corrupt him. He adhered to a set of behaviors few could match: he was a Pharisee. He studied the Old Testament as carefully as anyone could. He knew everything it said and did everything it required. Not only that, but among the Pharisees, nobody was more committed. Nobody was more passionate or active to preserve the Jewish heritage than Paul. In his early days, when he thought Christianity was a threat to his ancient faith, he did everything he could to rid the world of those heretics. He persecuted them and even went to other cities to arrest them and bring them back for trial.
When all was said and done, Paul was faultless. If you could earn righteousness through rules and regulations, Paul would have. But as he looked back at that way of living, Paul said: You may think you're gaining, but you're losing. Instead of these behaviors making you righteous, they fill you with rubbish.
This brings him finally to the overwhelming tragedy that comes if you let someone else define what you need to do in order to please God and be righteous in his eyes. If you let others impose their rules and regulations on you, you miss out on what life with Christ can really be like. You end up with a righteousness that comes from the rules, but you miss out on the real righteousness that comes from walking in faith with Christ. In verses 7-9, Paul argues that his former life turned out to be a loss because it took his eyes off of the real life that Christ wanted to give him.
What you discover when you try to earn righteousness by someone else's standard is that rather than benefiting from all that effort, it instead becomes a drain on you. It saps you of spiritual vitality. Some of the activities others want you to do are not natural to you. When you aren't good at them, you struggle with failure, defeat, and frustration. If you decide to try harder, even if you succeed, you end up miserable. You may measure up, but you'll have no joy. You may satisfy their expectations, but you'll be empty inside. You may have a righteousness that comes from keeping the rules, but you won't be in love with Christ. There's no gain, only garbage. No real righteousness, only rubbish.
Don't let others define your spiritual life, for you'll miss out on the life Christ wants to give you. Don't let others pressure you into their spiritual lifestyle, or you'll miss out on what life with Christ can really be like. The goal is to know Christ and be led by him; not to follow a legalistic code, but a living Christ. He is the source, and he alone guides you. Make every effort to know him, and he will lead you in the true righteousness that comes from a living faith.
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.