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Philippians - #5

Philippians - Message #5

Our spring journey through the New Testament Book of Philippians continues today.

Over the past four Sundays, we have considered the first two chapters of the book, which is a letter from Paul to the Christians in the city of Philippi. today we will walk through much of chapter 3, which can be divided into three topics. A challenge, a warning, and an example.

First, the challenge, which is found in the first part of verse 1 of chapter 3. Paul writes, “My brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” 

A quick reminder that rejoicing is not the same as expressing happiness. Happiness is based on things around us going well. That was not the case for the Christians in Philippi, including the fact persecution against Christians was at least beginning. It is not the case now as the pandemic continues, along with other problems of life. 

Joy, on the other hand, is based on having a good, positive relationship with God. The kind of relationship that comes from acceptance of Jesus as Savior. A solid relationship that nothing can damage. Not even persecution. Not even a pandemic.

“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul writes in the first part of verse 1. He then indicates the challenge is not new for them. He refers to “writing the same things to you,” including the challenge to rejoice.

Of course, Paul used the word “rejoice” earlier in this letter. However, the feeling seems to be that the challenge was also written even earlier, which suggests there may have been other letters Paul wrote to Philippian Christians. Letters not included in the New Testament. It stands to reason there were other letters since he did feel very close to the Christians in that city.

On the topic of rejoicing, Paul does repeat himself, which is fine with him since rejoicing is so important in the Christian life. He writes that repeating himself on the topic is “not irksome.” He willingly does it for the good - for the spiritual safety - of those to whom he writes.

Paul adds more about rejoicing later in the Book of Philippians, but to start chapter 3, he presents the challenge for Christians to rejoice.

Then comes a warning For that, verse 2. Paul writes, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”

Each of those phrases describes a type of false teacher, which brings up the point that Jews followed Paul everywhere he went, their purpose being to destroy what Paul taught. 

For instance, Paul, as a Christian, taught that we are saved by grace alone, which is a free gift from God based on acceptance of Jesus as Savior. That no one can ever earn salvation in any other way. But the Jews disagreed, arguing that anyone wishing to be saved must earn credit in the sight of God, doing so by following Jewish law.

In addition, Paul, as a Christian, taughtthat salvation from sin is offered by God to all people of all nations. But the Jews argued. They taught that salvation belongs to Jews only.

“Dogs.” The word Paul uses refers to pariah dogs. Dogs on the run, roaming streets and byways, sometimes in packs, hunting for garbage, snapping and snarling at anything in their way. The word refers to anything that is shamelessly unclean, which means Paul considers everyone who perverts the Gospel of Jesus is unclean spiritually.

“Evil-workers.” In a spiritual context, anyone who drives people away from God rather than attracting people to Him. To Paul, his Jewish enemies drive people away from God, doing so by insisting on the following of Jewish laws as being necessary to be saved.

That was especially a bad thing because it was not simply the Ten Commandments that had to be followed. Over the years, the Jewish leaders had taken, not only the Ten Commandments, but all the other Old Testament laws, and made new laws trying to explain what God meant by the laws He had given His people. Then there were more laws to explain the ones the leaders had made. On and on it went, to the point it was virtually impossible to even know what all the laws were, let alone figure out how to obey them.

The result was people being driven away from believing in or even wanting to follow God, making the false teachers evil-workers.

“Mutilate the flesh.” That refers to the act of circumcision.

Way back in Genesis 17, early in the Old Testament, circumcision is decreed by God to be the special sign of the covenant between God and His people. However, the mistake of some false teachers was them thinking the act itself is what set Jews apart as God’s people.

Paul disagrees, stating that without accepting Jesus as Savior, doing so in faith and faith alone, circumcision is nothing more than mutilation. Instead of that, Paul teaches, what sets a person apart for God is accepting Jesus and having the heart circumcized to fit God’s purpose and will.

In Philippians 3, Paul gives a challenge. It is to rejoice. He gives a warning. It is to beware of false teachers, called dogs, evil-workers, mutilators who twist the word of God. 

Then, for much of the rest of the chapter, Paul describes an example of someone who does what he just wrote. The example is himself.

Paul begins his description of himself by stating he, along with fellow Christians, have been “truly circumcized.” As just mentioned, that refers to having the heart circumcized to fit God’s purpose and will. That is how Paul glorified Christ Jesus. Paul’s intent is to have others have spiritual circumcision.

Paul then lists his credentials. Interestingly, they are Jewish credentials, which Paul is about to address, but here are the credentials Paul lists.

First, Paul had been “circumcized.” Yes, his body had been circumcized. That happened when he was eight days old. That means he was born a Jew and thereby knew the privileges of the Jewish faith.

Second, he was “of the people of Israel.” The people of Israel were known as being the people of God. What a privilege that was. What a claim by Paul of a close relationship with God.

Paul was “of the tribe of Benjamin.” It was members of that tribe who, over the generations, had been the most loyal to God, thus causing them to be highly respected.

Paul was a Jew, he had been born a Jew, and he was from the elite tribe of Jews. Next, he describes himself as “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” That refers to a pure Jew. Pure in the Jewish faith, including speaking the Hebrew language.

That made Paul special because, over the years, some Jews in times of exile had chosen to give up their Hebrew language, instead choosing to fit into whatever foreign authority they were under. But not Paul and his ancestors. They had fought to maintain the language used by the people of God.

Paul had also been “a Pharisee.” 

See what Paul is doing? Step by step he is describing all the good things he had been born into and that he had achieved over the years, all of which had made him a very successful person.

Being a Pharisee is evidence of his training in the Jewish faith. It is also evidence of his  dedication and discipline. Pharisees not only studied Jewish law. As much of it as they could. They pledged themselves to follow every part of it. That is how sincere Paul had been in the Jewish faith.

Paul then claims this on his resume. He had been “a persecutor” of Christians. A persecutor who had displayed zeal. He had been excited about his efforts to eliminate followers of Jesus.

Paul then added he was “blameless.” Not the kind of blameless mentioned twice earlier in the letter to the Philippians, but, in verse 6, blameless according to Jewish righteousness. There was no demand of the Jewish faith Paul had not fulfilled.

All those descriptions are proof Paul had been a very important, influential, respected Jewish leader. At one time he had the expectation of remaining important, influential, and respected. But then, as described earlier in our journey through the Book of Philippians, he met Jesus. The resurrected Jesus, who wanted to change him into a minister for Jesus.

As we know, Paul accepted the change. But consider all he left behind. His ancestry, his dedication to the Jewish faith, his standing in the Jewish community. He gave all that up.

He did that willingly, and he did not regret doing so. Verses 7 and 8. “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Wow. To him - may it be that way for all of us - Christ is more important than anything this world has to offer.

He continues. “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things [again, his ancestry, his dedication to the Jewish faith, his standing in Jewish society]. I have lost all things and even now count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”

Verses 9 and 10. 

Paul rejoices that now he is “found” in Christ.

He then makes it clear that being found in Christ is not a result of anything he had done or was doing - instead, it is a reward for having faith in Jesus.

He then states some other rewards. The privilege of “knowing Jesus, and knowing the power of Jesus’ resurrection, which is the power of being above sin and sharing in Jesus’ sufferings.”

Isn’t that interesting? It is to me because I am not a fan of suffering. Fortunately, I have had very little suffering in my life. That is just fine with me. I will be perfectly content if it stays that way.

But Paul was willing - almost looking forward - to sharing in Jesus’ sufferings, which I pray I will be able to endure if such suffering does come my way.

Paul’s hope is that as he suffers for Christ, he will have happen to him what Jesus had happen to Him, which is “resurrection from the dead.”

In the first part of Philippians 3, Paul gives his very impressive credentials. He states all he was and all he had accomplished was worth nothing. It occurs to me he did that in a way that could be interpreted as a claim he was just about as perfect as he could be in a spiritual way. However, he puts that suggestion away in verse 12.

Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect.” Isn’t that refreshing and encouraging? If Paul, as great as he was, had not yet fully grown spiritually, then there is hope for me, and for you.

However, Paul is not satisfied to stay imperfect, which he expresses by giving some more challenges. Verses 13 through 15.

Paul writes, “I forget what lies behind.” Have we not all heard of people who say they cannot come to believe in Jesus because they have done too many terrible things. I can understand that thought, but, Paul writes, it is not true.

As mentioned, Paul himself is an example. Remember? He had violently fought against followers of Christ. He had been directly involved in arresting Christians and at least indirectly involved in the murders of some Christians. How horrible Paul’s past was. How easy it would have been for him to think he was too far gone to have Jesus in his life.

The challenge is that we do what Paul did. Forget the past, knowing that what happens from now on is what is important, especially if from now on you accept Jesus and obey Him.

Speaking of from now on, Paul writes that he is “straining forward to what lies ahead.” What lies ahead are blessings now and Heaven later. 

When thinking of straining forward, a comparison can be made to what happens when a runner keeps his or her eyes on the finish line. That helps him or her stay focused during the race. Then when the finish line draws near, he or she gives a push, reaching out - straining forward - to break the tape. That is the spiritual attitude we are to have as Christians.

In another way of explaining it, Paul adds he is “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Then comes the challenge to work together with fellow Christians in forgetting what is behind and being dedicated to what is ahead in our Christian experience. Verse 15. “Let those of us who are mature be thus minded.” Let those of us who are Christians work and walk together, encouraging one another in our Christian faith.

*       *       *       *       *

In the first part of Philippians 3, we have a challenge, a warning, an example, and some more challenges. Which brings up the question we are asking each week of the Philippians journey. The question, “So what?” Meaning how can the things we have thought about today live in us and affect us as Christians?

Let me suggest two applications.

Concerning forgetting what lies behind, the thought usually goes to the bad things that have been done in the past. Remember for Paul that included him spending time and energy on fighting against Christians, him doing that before he himself became a Christian. For Paul, forgetting the bad of his past was important. Otherwise he might not have been able to forgive himself, which could have interfered with his ministry. The same is true for us. We, too, are to not allow past mistakes to interfere with Jesus’ offer to save us and use us.

However, I think Paul also teaches the need to forget the personal successes of the past. 

Now listen to the meaning of “forget” in this context. It means to not allow something to affect how we do things now and in the future.

So yes, we can remember past failures, but we are to use those memories only as indications of how we do not want to fail again. And yes, we can and should celebrate all the good things of the past. However, remembering the good must never lead us to rest on our laurels. We must never allow the good of the past to make us think we are done with our faith and our service and our spiritual growth.

There is always more to learn. In fact, that is for what we are to strain to accomplish. What we are to press on to do, thereby matching Paul’s zeal for the Christian faith.

Let’s do that, knowing the bad to avoid and celebrating the good of the past, but always looking forward to how we will grow and serve and worship in the future, knowing that as positive as things can be, they will get better and better, hopefully now but definitely in Heaven.

Concerning the challenge to rejoice, let’s do that, whether or not there is happiness. Again, happiness is based on things around us going well, which we know is not always the case. But joy is based on having a good relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Let’s work on that, doing so daily. That, too, we are to strain forward and press on to do.

In fact, let’s practice expressing our rejoicing with the closing hymn. There Is Joy in the Lord.

I will sing hallelujah, for there’s joy in the Lord,

And He fills my heart with rapture as I rest on His world;

I will trust in His promise, I will shout I am free,

In my blessed loving Savior I have sweet victory.

There is joy in the Lord, there is joy in the Lord;

Hallelujah, glory, glory! There is joy the Lord,

There is joy in the Lord, there is joy in the Lord;

Hallelujah, glory, glory! There is joy in the Lord.

I will live for the Savior, I am His evermore,

I am resting in His favor, I am safe and secure;

For the light shining brighter on my path every day

Cheers my happy soul with rapture as I walk in the way.

There is joy in the Lord, there is joy in the Lord;

Hallelujah, glory, glory! There is joy the Lord,

There is joy in the Lord, there is joy in the Lord;

Hallelujah, glory, glory! There is joy in the Lord.

Lord, help us to keep taking our faith in You seriously, ever striving to continue to grow spiritually. Growth that will be rewarded with continued blessings now and eventually being with You in Heaven.

Please keep us safe from false teachers. There are all sorts of people in our world who try to steal or at least dilute Your teachings. Protect us from them. Please give us the discernment to reject any religious thought other than what You proclaim is truth.

And yes, help us to rejoice, this day and always. Amen. 

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