Paul’s Fixation


Philippians 3:1-11

Text Comment

v.1

“In conclusion…” Paul is like those preachers you have heard who say “Finally…” – raising your hopes – only to go on and on. You know Paul and the onrush of his thoughts. One thought suggests another and before you know it, two more chapters have been written! In any case, clearly he has said what he is about to say already. The Philippians have heard this before, but it bears repeating.

v.2

In our usage, to call someone a “dog” is simply an insult. It is a demeaning slur. But in this context it is more than that. Jews used the term in a religious sense. By it they referred to Gentiles who, outside the covenant community, were ritually unclean. The habits of a dog, especially the half-wild dogs of the ancient Near East would suggest uncleanness. [Moule, 85] This may be the sense in which Jesus uses the term in his conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:27. Paul, therefore, is making the startling point, as he made it 2:15, that it is the Judaizers – those Jews who claimed to be Christians but who made so much of their Jewishness – who should be regarded as unclean. [Silva, 147]

The NIV’s “those who do evil” is literally the “bad work men,” again a reference to the Judaizers emphasis on doing the works of the Law. They were in fact doing bad works, not good works. And when circumcision is demanded in a spirit that contradicts the gospel of God’s grace it becomes no more than a pagan practice, a mutilation of the flesh.

v.3

This extraordinarily important utterance sums up much of Paul’s teaching. Whether speaking of those who believe in Jesus as the true descendants of Abraham in Gal. 3, or of the church as the Israel of God in Gal. 6, or of Israel in the wilderness as the spiritual ancestors of the Gentile Christians in Corinth in 1 Cor. 10, Paul is always teaching that believers in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, are the true inheritors of the covenant God made with Abraham and Israel. Paul never rejected the message of the Old Testament; it was the Judaism of his day that had rejected it and put another message of self-salvation in its place. Becoming a Christian one does not abandon the God of Israel; quite the contrary, Abraham’s God becomes one’s own. There are three things that are characteristic of all true Christians, Paul says: they worship in the Spirit, glory in Christ as Lord and Savior, and reject all confidence in their own achievements to obtain peace with God.

v.6

The judaizers who were troubling the church in Philippi no doubt appealed to their impressive Jewish credentials to add authority to their message. Paul had all those credentials in spades, more, indeed, than any of the Judaizers did. He was born an Israelite, from a pure family line of Israelites, a member of a strict sect, the Pharisees, zealous for the Jewish and Pharisaic viewpoint to the point of being a persecutor of the church in his earlier days; in fact, if anyone checked his record he would find that, insofar as the Pharisees judged law-keeping, Paul’s record was exemplary. [Silva, 152]

v.7

But Paul came to see that all this religious status and achievement had left him spiritually bankrupt. His confidence before had been in himself, his flesh, his religious performance. When he encountered Christ it became perfectly obvious to him that his confidence needed to be in Christ not in himself.

v.8

His previous assets as a religious man Paul says were not only a loss but positive rubbish so far as God and salvation are concerned. “Rubbish” is a polite term, over polite in fact. The KJV’s “dung” is closer to the mark. It is a strong word. Clearly Christ is being set over against the things in which he once hoped for his salvation. There is an either-or. Those former things, however impressive to a Jew, in fact blinded him to his real need. What I needed was the kind of righteousness Christ can give me, not the sort of pseudo-righteousness that was impressive only to me and others who thought as superficially as I did. Now Paul turns to the positive side: what one gains when he gains Christ. What Paul will say is that he gains justification – that is, righteousness before God; sanctification – that is the transformation of life – and glorification – that is, the resurrection from the dead.

v.9

The righteousness of my own that comes from the law is a righteousness obtained by my own efforts to live a moral and religious life. Elsewhere Paul will argue that the problem is that no sinful man can achieve real righteousness in this way. His sins are too great and far too numerous. Even what he takes to be his righteousness, is filthy rags, as Isaiah put it; dung as Paul put it here. True righteousness can be obtained only by abandoning one’s own effort and turning in faith to Jesus. Sinful as man is, true righteousness can only be a gift; it will never be an achievement.

v.10

One receives not only righteousness by faith in Christ but the transformation of life. He becomes more Christ-like – not without pain and suffering to be sure – but more and more he dies to sin. He suffers, as Christ did, and for the same reason, because it is by this means that his life is renewed and God’s will is made perfect in him.

v.11

And finally, in Christ, one obtains eternal life, the perfection of his entire self, body and soul, at the last day. Notice, however, the note of uncertainty. Even Paul is careful and not presumptuous. He too must watch and pray; even he cannot take this salvation for granted. God’s grace in Christ, the gift of salvation does not mean that we are not responsible to be careful stewards of these gifts. It may be that Paul’s striking expression, “somehow” is due to some perfectionist tendencies surfacing in the Philippian church. The next verses address these and may explain why Paul spoke in this strikingly indefinite way here. [Silva, 167]

This passage has been described as containing “the essence of Paul’s theology.” [Silva, 155] In a few deft strokes he outlines what it takes him five chapters of Romans fully to describe. The central interest of Paul’s life – personally, as a man and ministerially as an apostle – is righteousness before God, real righteousness, the genuine article, the kind God accepts and rewards. And the great discovery of his life and the burden of his message ever since was that this righteousness comes not through human effort or achievement – however religious, however moral – but through faith in Jesus Christ. He alone has a perfect righteousness to give and it is perfect righteousness that God requires.

You don’t have to read very far in Paul to realize the extent of Paul’s preoccupation with this fact that men and women cannot be right with God in themselves – no matter how hard they work at it – but only by means of the righteousness that God gives them when they believe in Jesus. It dominates his letters and, as Paul’s thirteen letters form the center of the New Testament, this same fact dominates the New Testament. To be righteous in Christ; right with God in Christ and only in Christ: this is the central proclamation of the New Testament, the heart of the good news. It was, as Paul himself teaches, revealed in the Old Testament and that in a great many ways, but in the New Testament and especially in the letters of Paul it comes into its own as the heart of the Bible’s message to mankind. You can be right with God and live forever, but in one way and one way only: through your confidence in the saving work of Jesus Christ for you, which is to say through your faith in him.

This is the message of John and Peter, of course, but nowhere is it made so clear, or explained so fully or in such detail as in the letters of Paul. We may well wonder why the task of expounding this central fact of human existence – the supreme place of faith in Christ in the salvation of sinners – fell chiefly to this man, Paul of Tarsus. Why did the Spirit of God choose him and entrust to him the great work of explaining for all time the only way a sinner can be made right with God?

Well, perhaps no one can say for sure, but let me tell you what I think. I think it was because Paul’s own experience – before and after he became a Christian – gave him a uniquely deep and clear understanding of this matter and a remarkable conviction of its importance. Such a connection between personal experience and calling is found often in the history of the kingdom of God. For example, Augustine’s own experience, his sudden and dramatic conversion after years of holding God at arm’s length, was certainly one reason why he became the champion of the doctrine of grace against the do-it-yourself teaching of the English monk Pelagius. Augustine knew from his own experience that Pelagius was wrong and could speak with great conviction about the grace of God and the gift of salvation. In the same way, Martin Luther’s spiritual experience – his glorious deliverance from doubt by the discovery of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone – made him just the champion of that doctrine that the church needed at that time: someone who could speak with tremendous conviction about what salvation really was and how it was obtained. Or think of Charles Spurgeon who was raised in a devout evangelical home but did not become a real Christian until he was sixteen years of age and that in a sudden, unexpected, and dramatic experience of the grace of God. Why was he given that experience except that God was to call him to be perhaps the greatest evangelist of the 19th century. He needed to know, to understand, and to experience the conversion of sinners – its nature and its wonder – because he was going to be the man among all men to explain that spiritual reality to others. Well, so with the Apostle Paul. The way God’s grace came to him, the way he discovered salvation as the gift of God through Jesus Christ, the way he was delivered from false conceptions of salvation by the sudden, dramatic, and utterly convincing appearance of the Savior himself, fit him in a most unique and remarkable way to be the champion of this doctrine, its ablest interpreter and defender, and its most successful popularizer in that first generation of the gospel’s advance into the world. No one knew like Paul, no one could convince others like Paul that salvation was not a matter of religion, but of personal encounter with and faith in the Savior himself, Jesus Christ.

You know, of course, that Paul refers to the “before” and “after” of his life not only here in Philippians 3 but in many of his letters and often in substantial detail. He uses his own personal history to make his theology wonderfully clear. He uses his own story as representative and exemplary. What happened to him happens to everyone who is saved, whether the details of the experience are the same or not. His experience was unique for its drama and its aftermath, but as the experience of a sinner saved by grace Paul is every sinner and every Christian.

Before he encountered Jesus Christ salvation was not a “problem” for Paul. He was a Jewish rabbi. He knew what he was supposed to do and he did it. It wasn’t, frankly, that hard. He kept the commandments in the way those commandments were understood in first century Judaism and he could have said and would have said, as did the rich young ruler that Jesus once talked to, that he had kept all ten commandments from his youth. He had at the time, he would later see, a terribly superficial view of those commandments, to be sure, as did his contemporaries, and a superficial view of what made a man good and pleasing to God, but, then, everybody does who isn’t a Christian.

Paul puts it this way in Romans 7:

“Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.

That is, once I thought I had the law of God in my hip-pocket. I could keep it well enough. I was good enough. I did what I thought it required and assumed that God must be pleased with me or, if not pleased, certainly satisfied. I was self-satisfied and self-content. I was confident that, whatever may be true of others, I was in. But then God revealed to me what his Law really requires and in a moment of shuddering recognition I realized that, so far from being righteous, all of my religious activity, all of my self-satisfied morality had made my situation worse. I was strutting before God, a religious peacock, when all the while I was an inveterate rebel, disobedient, impossibly selfish, and unbelievably uninterested in what mattered to God. God had sent his one and only son into the world, and so sure was I of my own goodness, so little did I think I needed a Savior from heaven, that I agreed with my brothers who had put Jesus to death. Yikes!

Suddenly, Paul says, I went from a self-deluded, self-confident Jewish rabbi to a trembling, convicted, terrified searcher after salvation, knowing only that the path I had been treading to this point could lead only away from God to judgment and hell. And it was then that Christ revealed himself to me as the Savior and Lord and called me to follow him. Only then, in that terrible and wonderful moment that I will never forget, did I realize that Christ and salvation in him alone had been, in fact, the message preached to Abraham, the message preached by Moses, and believed by David and the prophets. My scales fell off and the Bible suddenly opened before my eyes and all I could see was the seed of Abraham, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the prophet greater than Moses, the king who would reign on David’s throne, and the servant who would suffer for the sins of his people. In that moment and for the first time I became a biblical theologian.

Who else, besides the brilliant rabbi now transformed by his encounter with Christ, could so well explain the mistakes men make about salvation and the truth that they must embrace? Who else could describe with such sympathy the attractions of systems of self-salvation and, at the same time, their fatal flaws? Who else could recommend so winsomely and persuasively the good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ? Who better could explain the infinite distance that separates one’s own works from the work of Christ?

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die;
Another’s life, another’s death,
I stake my whole eternity.

Paul never imagined before his conversion, before he met Jesus Christ, that he would ever believe such a thing, still less that he would ever preach it to the nations. And most people today are where Paul was before he became a Christian. Most people today don’t believe that they can be right with God only by the gift of someone else’s righteousness. They are quite confident of their own goodness. They don’t imagine that they are the comprehensive failures – even in their efforts to be good and pious – that Paul says that they are. They don’t think of themselves as so impossibly needy, even desperate for someone else’s help. It would never occur to them to think that they must undergo a complete revolution in their thinking and living – that what they are and how they are presently living will never be remotely good enough to withstand the judgment of God. It would never occur to them to say, “Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.”

I mentioned last Lord’s Day morning Marc Mailloux’s book, God Still Loves the French. I forgot to mention to you last Lord’s Day morning that Marc is the sister of Andrée Seu, whose writing in World magazine is so popular with its readers. I so much enjoyed reading Marc’s second book that, as soon as Florence was finished with it, I read Marc’s first book, Discovery on the Katmandu Trail. This is the book in which he relates his early life and his coming to faith in Christ. In the 1970s, Marc Mailloux was the quintessential American hippy. He did what many others of the Woodstock generation only dreamed of doing. He went East, he traveled the world, beginning in Europe and making his way to Afghanistan, India, and Nepal and then on to the Orient looking for the meaning of life. He read all the books of the counter-culture canon: the novels of Herman Hesse, the manifestoes of Alan Watts and Timothy Leary. He sought in smoking dope the promised self-discovery and spiritual illumination. He crossed Eastern frontiers with hashish hidden in the soles of his sandals. He practiced meditation; he talked endlessly with others about religion and philosophy. He had, of course, like much of his generation, rebelled against the bourgeois values of his American Roman Catholic parents and was sure of only one thing: what he was looking for would not be found in America or in the values of modern American society. And he more than half expected to find the meaning of life in the this-world-renouncing mysticism of Hinduism and Buddhism. There were thousands of young Western pilgrims making that journey in those years. Some of you will be interested to know that Marc actually visited L’Abri twice while traveling in Europe and, while impressed by what he heard there, did not became a Christian. At that point on his pilgrimage there were too many alternatives yet to explore.

He became a Christian through an unexpected encounter with an Indian Christian young man by the name of Jacob who handed him a copy of the Gospel of John while he was sitting on the banks of the Ganges in Benares in March of 1973. Up to this time Marc was happy to think that Jesus was a god, but only in the sense of a Hindu avatar, one of the many incarnations of the ultimately impersonal cosmic force at the center of reality. [131-132] He sat there by the Ganges that afternoon and read the Gospel from beginning to end. And the challenge of the gospel [relentlessly] confronted him: Christ was claiming to be no one else than the one living and true God, the creator of heaven and earth. The center of reality was personal, not impersonal. The world was real, not illusion. And what is more, Jesus claimed to be the lamb of God who alone could take away the sin of the world. Against these claims, all of his former pretensions about the meaning of life and the path to truth and goodness seemed hollow, all the more given the fact that it had become painfully clear to him by this time that none of the other religions or philosophies made good on their promise to reveal the truth about ultimate reality. He was also becoming more and more conscious of his moral failure, his guilt.

Well, Jacob came to visit him at his hostel the next day and immediately asked him what he thought of what he had read.

“Though his question was inevitable, it had the effect of a cold shower after which I sat there trembling in my spiritual [nakedness]. For I had finally understood the personal implications of the words of him who claims to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ without whom no man comes to the Father (John 14:6). If this was really true, and I doubted that it might be, then I had to start acting on what Jesus said. There was no more place for hiding in the cloudy obscurity of drug-induced euphoria which, as I already mentioned, had become less and less euphoric.

“Sensitive to my semi-desperate and bewildered state of mind, Jacob suggested that we kneel and pray together. I gulped. ‘Oh no, not that!’ I thought. ‘Anything but that!’ For somehow the idea of kneeling down and praying seemed worse than death itself. What if someone saw me!? What humiliation! Certainly I was not the type to kneel and pray!

“Consequently, it was through a superhuman effort (not mine!) that I slunk down to my knees on the side of the bed – a simple gesture to some, but by far the most difficult thing that I’d ever done. It involved swallowing my diabolical spiritual pride and admitting implicitly that, between myself and God there was no spiritual ‘unity’ as my oriental mysticism taught, but only the deepest ontological abyss between the infinite Creator and the woefully finite creature. The second difficulty was asking forgiveness for my sins against the Holy, Personal God whose very nature abhorred sin.

“It was this double humiliation, ontological and moral, which made the ‘simple’ act of kneeling the supreme effort for the proud rebellious sinner that I was. Yet, my hour had come. With trembling knees, my heart in my throat, and a half skeptical mind, I knelt down with Jacob and thus lowered myself enough to pass through the waist high door of Paradise.” [134-135]

Do you hear the Pauline echo there? What he had been so enamored of before, what had made him so confident of his righteousness – even his moral superiority – he now realized was useless, worse than useless. Marc could say in the very words of the Apostle Paul, “whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss.” He had met Jesus Christ and discovered in a flash of surpassing illumination that what he needed only Christ could give him. His own righteousness was suddenly and perfectly obviously inadequate, but the righteousness of Christ would make up for everything he lacked. Experiences like that make missionaries. It made Paul a missionary and it made Marc Mailloux one as well. And whether that discovery came to us of a sudden, turning our lives upside down, or whether it came to us with our mother’s milk, it ought to make missionaries of us as well.

Most of the people around us are spending their lives dreaming of manure! They don’t think so, of course, but they still imagine that their efforts – however half-hearted, however indifferent, however pathetic, however much, spiritually speaking, dung – will still be enough for God and for heaven. But it is not so and anyone who has met Jesus Christ knows it as surely as he knows anything at all. The encounter with the genuine makes the fake altogether clear!

I read the other day of Thomas Connellan, who was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1882 in Ireland. His study of the Bible led him to doubt many of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church and this produced such a crisis of conscience for him that he pretended to have drowned in the River Shannon, near Athlone, where he worked on the staff of the cathedral. He traveled to London, and found his way to an Anglican church pastored by a faithful minister who led him into the full light of the gospel – the very gospel Paul describes here in Philippians 3, the gospel of Christ’s righteousness received by faith. I don’t say that all Roman Catholics don’t know that gospel, but a great many of them, just like a great many Protestants, just like a great many Jews of Paul’s day, did not know it and had replaced it with all manner of superficial religious performances coupled with a superficial morality.

Meanwhile Connellan’s boat and priest’s clothes had been found along the banks of the river. The townspeople were convinced that he had drowned. The newspapers were filled with warm tributes to his piety and other virtues. Some time later, Connellan became convinced that he should return to Ireland to declare his faith and his reasons for leaving his former church. He was attacked by the crowd and excommunicated by the Roman Church, just as Paul was by his former Jewish comrades. However, when Connellan’s character was vilified, to silence his critics his friends only needed to produce the glowing newspaper accounts of his life as a priest written when they thought he had died. In 1890 he became a clergyman of the Church of Ireland. He set up a mission and began a monthly evangelical newspaper which he edited until his death. You may never have heard of Connellan, but his successor in his work in largely Roman Catholic Ireland was the well-known evangelical preacher, theologian, and churchman of both Ireland and Australia, T.C. Hammond. [Nelson, T.C. Hammond, 16-17]

Once again, discovery of true righteousness made a missionary. The things the man once boasted in and took confidence in he came to realize were of no use to him in finding peace with God or a place in heaven. Christ and Christ alone could give that to him. And when he discovered that, his life and the whole world changed. It is, he realized, as Paul before him, and as Marc Mailloux after him, the one thing, the only thing, that everyone must know:

“…the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…”