Beware of Your Credentials

Philippians 3:1-6

In the academic and professional world, we’re told to put our best foot forward and make a positive impression when we apply for a program or position. Sometimes we prepare a resume, a shorter document that presents personal and professional credentials and accomplishments that relate specifically to the program or position to which we are applying. Or we might prepare a C.V. (curriculum vitae), which is a longer, more extensive report of all our significant personal or professional credentials and achievements.

While preparing such documents and putting your best foot forward in interviews for programs and jobs is a responsible and wise practice, we must take a far different approach in our relationship with and service to God.

As we reach the halfway point of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we should recall Paul’s purpose for writing this letter. He is writing to a church who is experiencing a variety of trials. As they follow Christ, they are receiving outside pressure from their unbelieving community, experiencing marginalization and persecution, including possible financial strain and physical harm. As a result, they are also experiencing some internal disagreements and strife between members of the church.

Such ongoing pressures tends to dampen enthusiasm and diminish a positive outlook, breeding discouragement and frustration in following Christ. That’s why Paul wrote this letter – to teach the church how to persevere in following Christ through suffering and through emotional and spiritual duress. With this letter, he teaches them how to experience joy in any circumstance and in any trial.

What is joy? In short, joy is true happiness. It is happiness no matter what your circumstances in life may be. But if we consider all that Philippians has to say, we can put together a definition of joy like this: joy is a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life that’s centered on Christ.

Perhaps you know how it feels to wait for a reply to your school admissions application. Does “calm, confident, and contented” describe how you feel as you wait? How about as you sit in the lobby or waiting room as you wait to conduct your job interview. Does “calm, confident, and contented” describe how you’re thinking in that moment? In such moments, a good resume or CV helps since you can remind yourself that you have what it takes to get into that school or get hired. Jitters and anxiety aside, you have what it takes.

How about your relationship with God, your daily Christian life, and your future existence in eternity? As you face these things honestly inside, does “calm, confident, and contented” describe how you feel? Or do you feel some degree of anxiety or uncertainty? Frustration or fear? Reluctance or regret?

Remember to rejoice.
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe.

An older couple had trouble remembering common, day-to-day things. They both decided that they would write down requests the other had, and so try to avoid forgetting.

One evening the wife asked if the husband would like anything. He replied, “Yes. I’d like a large ice-cream sundae with chocolate ice cream, whipped cream and a cherry on top.”

The wife started off for the kitchen and the husband shouted after her, “Aren’t you going to write it down?” “Don’t be silly,” she hollered back, “I’m going to fix it right now. I won’t forget.”

She was gone for quite some time. When she finally returned, she set down in front of him a large plate of hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, and a glass of orange juice. He took a look and said “I knew you should have written it down! You forgot the toast!”

As we make our way through the Christian life, it’s easy to forget to rejoice. Following the excitement that comes with the initial stage of believing on Christ, announcing that faith through baptism, and becoming part of a loving church family, it’s easy to let our excitement wane as we experience the humanity of people around us and the challenges of everyday life.
As the treads on care tires wears thin from road wear and the colorful shine of a vehicle’s paintjob grows dull from the heat of the sun and other natural forces, so our enthusiasm for Christ can diminish over time.

Because of this tendency, we must deliberately and repeatedly remember to rejoice. To rejoice requires intentional and frequent choices on our part. Consider the effects of something as simple yet significant as weather on our spiritual mindset. As the outdoor activities and warmth of summer begins to fade, sunny days are replaced by cooler, overcast, and windy days. Colorful, green foliage turns brown as we close up our lake houses and prepare our snowblowers for winter. Without realizing what’s happening, our attitudes quietly slip from enjoyment to sadness, a sorrow or feeling of loss that comes as we say goodbye to summer.

Though we may still find some amount of excitement by looking forward to the festivities of Christmas and the holidays, an even deeper sadness and sorrow creeps into our emotions when we realize that weeks and months of the deep heart of winter remains. As the creatures of Narnia, in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describe the perpetual state of their land under the reign of the evil White Witch, it feels as though it will be “always winter but never Christmas.”

As followers of Christ, we don’t have to let this somber sadness, this melancholy madness overtake us. We can walk through the bright, warm rays of summer’s sunshine and the dark, chill of winter’s freeze alike with a “calm, confident, contented enthusiasm that comes from a life that’s centered on Christ.”

To do so, we must remember to rejoice, for rejoicing doesn’t happen automatically. We must regularly, intentionally decide to look past any discouraging circumstances to the encouraging truth about Christ and the blessing that comes from being in a permanent relationship with him.

In this verse, Paul reminds his suffering friends and fellow followers of Christ to rejoice – to be glad, then he defends himself for being repetitive, for he has already told them to rejoice earlier in this letter and he will do so again later on. He says, “For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe.” In other words, Paul admits that he knew he was repeating himself and that doing so was not lazy writing on his part. He was deliberately repeating this command because the security of their confidence, enthusiasm, and peace depended upon their remembering to rejoice – something which is so easy and natural to forget to do.

Watch out for joy stealers.
Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!

Paul continues his guidance for how to maintain joy through trials by providing not just a reminder but a warning. In this case, he warns the believers in the church to be on the lookout for joy stealers.

Throughout NYC, where our family spent seven years of our lives and my wife grew up as well, people are repeatedly warned – through signs, placards, and loudspeaker announcements – “if you see something, say something.” This is a reminder to be on the lookout for suspicious activity, anything which might give evidence of a threat to public safety, whether that be criminal activity or terrorism.

That’s what Paul is doing here. He is reminding followers of Christ to be on the lookout for a certain kind of people because these are people who will steal your joy. Through their attitude, teaching, and lifestyle, they promise to improve the quality of your relationship with God when in fact they will further damage your confidence in Christ and diminish your joy even further.

Who are these people that we should beware of? Most specifically, they are Judaizers. These were people who taught that a joyful, confident relationship with God required more than faith in Christ. It required the technical observance not only of all 613 Old Testament, Mosaic laws but also careful observance of the many additional rules and traditions which people like themselves had created. Today, we call this legalism, and it manifests itself as an insistence on obeying strict and meticulous manmade rules and traditions in the name of following Christ, insisting that doing so exhibits a more genuine faith, spirituality, maturity, and relationship with God.

Besides Orthodox Judaism, the legalistic beliefs of Seventh Day Adventism represent this kind of teaching, and so does the sacramental approach and teaching of Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and many forms of Lutheranism. These religious systems teach that to enjoy a confident, saving relationship with God through Christ requires certain actions and behaviors on our part, through which God’s grace and blessing flows, as though we somehow contribute to our standing before God. Such teaching is not the gospel of Jesus Christ but alters the gospel of Jesus Christ by insisting that our own personal behavior somehow contributes to our salvation.

But there is another sort of legalism that we must also be warned against, a kind which genuine followers of Christ who have believed on Christ alone for salvation may still experience. This sort of legalism is the kind which teaches us that as we follow Christ, we must follow strict sets of rules which are not taught in Scripture. Chuck Swindoll, of Insights for Living Ministries, says this about Christian legalism:

Legalism is an attitude, a mentality based on pride. It is an obsessive conformity to an artificial standard for the purpose of exalting oneself. A legalist assumes the place of authority and pushes it to unwarranted extremes.

In so many words, legalism says, "I do this or I don't do that, and therefore I am pleasing God." Or, "If only I could do this or not do that, I would be pleasing to God." Or perhaps, "These things that I'm doing or not doing are the things I perform to win God's favor." They aren't spelled out in Scripture, you understand. They've been passed down or they have been dictated to the legalist and have become an obsession to him or her. Legalism is rigid, grim, exacting, and lawlike in nature. Pride, which is at the heart of legalism, works in sync with other motivating factors. Like guilt. And fear. And shame. It leads to an emphasis on what one should not be and what one should not do. It flourishes in a drab context of negativism.

Paul describes teachers and influencers of legalism in three dramatic and sarcastic ways, which to most of us may seem impolite or perhaps even improper.

  • “Dogs”: in the first century, people didn’t keep domesticated dogs as pets or view them as man’s best friend. To them, dogs were nothing more than large rats and scavengers of the street. They were considered dirty, filthy animals who rolled in the trash and ate scraps and the corpses of dead animals. Though legalistic influencers wish to be heard and treated with respect, they should be viewed as harmful pests instead.
  • “Evil Workers”: legalistic influencers desire to be viewed as especially good and righteous people whose spirituality and religious lifestyle is exemplary and worth emulating. Instead, Paul calls them the very opposite. Evil means “wrong, bad, harmful, and destructive.”
  • “The Mutilation”: with this awkward label, Paul refers to the customary Jewish practice of circumcision in which Jewish parents circumcised their sons at eight days old, a practice which God had commanded to distinguish the Jewish people, before they had a choice, from the pagan people around them. The Jewish legalistic teachers believed that to genuinely please God, non-Jewish Christians had to be circumcised, a teaching which Paul rejects not only here but also in the NT book called Galatians. By calling this teaching “mutilation,” Paul would certainly have offended people who taught such. Such an expression reveals just how greatly God hates legalism and how damaging it is to a joyful Christian life.

While circumcision was commanded by God for the Jewish people, it was never intended to have a saving effect and was never something that would inherently improve a person’s personal or spiritual standing before God. This is true not only in the New Testament after the coming of Christ but was true long before that in the Old Testament as well.

Notice what Moses himself said in the second giving of the OT Law:

Therefore, circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deut 10:16)

Then also notice what the prophet Jeremiah said centuries later:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your hearts, you men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest My fury come forth like fire, and burn so that no one can quench it, because of the evil of your doings. (Jer 4:4)

From this OT teaching, we see that it not only is but always has been God’s intent that we should believe on him and trust in him inwardly from our hearts. Outward rituals and rules, like circumcision, did not and never will assist with or provide our salvation or strengthen our relationship with God. When we accept the teachings of legalism, our joy will diminish, not grow. Our confidence, enthusiasm, and peace will diminish, not flourish.

Moving on from this strong warning against and criticism of legalistic influencers, Paul reminds us to place our daily confidence in Christ.

Place your daily confidence in Christ.
For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so:

With these next words, Paul acknowledges or alludes to what I have already pointed out from the Old Testament, that from God’s point of view, circumcision was nothing more than an external action which accomplished certain practical benefits in the OT cultural context. From a spiritual standpoint, it only illustrated – and nothing more – what God desired and required inwardly within our hearts. He requires that we turn away from anything else we might rely upon to place our complete and total trust in him.

When we trust completely in Christ, he not only removes the record of our sins before God, but he places us into God’s everlasting family and places himself, the Holy Spirit of God, within us. This is an internal and invisible change, not an external, visible one. Knowing this enables us to experience deep and genuine joy in any circumstance, not because we have obeyed some particular rule or performed some particular action which somehow approves us before God but because we know that God permanently dwells within us by his own choice. He will never leave us and will always ensure that our relationship with God is secure.

Paul goes on to describe the need for us to rely upon Christ rather than on our own performance. He contrasts “rejoicing in Christ” with “having no confidence in the flesh.”

To “have confidence in the flesh” means to believe that your good, religious, or legalistic behavior earns you favor and confidence before God and therefore makes you morally and spiritually superior to others.

But “to rejoice in Christ Jesus” repeats what Paul already said before, “Rejoice in the Lord” (Phil 3:1). The emphasis here is place upon the cause or source of our joy, our confidence, our peace, and our enthusiasm. It is not what we’ve done or who we are that causes our joy – it is who Christ is and what he has done.

And notice that it is not partially what Christ has done and partially what I have done, or mostly what Christ has done and a little what I have done. Joy comes by placing our confidence completely in who Christ is and what he has done. Notice how Paul explains this in his letter to the church at Ephesus:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-9)

Here, we see that our relationship with God is based entirely upon what God does for us through Jesus Christ. That’s why we must turn to and trust entirely on Jesus Christ for salvation from sin and a relationship with God. We also see that even once we have believed on Christ, we should not do “good works” to somehow earn more favor with God but simply because it is our purpose to do so.

The prophet Jeremiah explains this well when he said:

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me... (Jer 9:23-24)

God is not impressed by your skills, your strength, or your wealth. Nothing that you are or do can every impress him, earn his respect, or improve your standing before him. The only thing that matters is whether or not you know who he is and what he has done. Have you believed on Jesus Christ as your God and Savior? And if you have, are you regularly and seriously focusing your heart and mind on knowing and understanding him better?

As the psalmist wrote, “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” (Psa 32:11). We should daily, regularly rejoice in the Lord – both in who he is and what he has done for us. If we would focus, meditate, and think more frequently and deeply about who Christ is and what he has done for us and less about so many other things, how much more calm, confident, contented, and enthusiastic we would be!

Do not rely on your credentials.
circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

Paul closes this section of the letter by pointing to his own personal resume, thing which he had once believed would give him confidence and joy before God. He highlights two categories of credentials – things which he inherited or received from others and things which he achieved himself.

First, here are some personal qualities which he had inherited:

  • “Circumcised the eight day” – his parents had taken him to the synagogue or Temple to be circumcised as an eight-year-old baby.
  • “Of the stock of Israel” – he was a naturally-born Israelite by blood, born into the nation to which God had given special promises.
  • “Of the tribe of Benjamin” – this was a prestigious and popular branch in Jewish ancestry.

Each of these three descriptions demonstrate with increasing specificity and specialness that Paul was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” meaning that he was not just a Jew but a very special, ideal, and privileged Jew as well. He had been circumcised from infancy (not later in life or never at all). He had been born an Israelite and was not an Israelite through naturalization or some other means (which was viewed as inferior). And even among Israelites, he had been born into an especially favorable branch of the family tree.

Second, here are some personal qualities and actions which Paul himself did in his life in addition to his naturally inherited qualities:

  • “Concerning the law, a Pharisee”: through life – though not perfect – Paul had not only carefully followed the Mosaic Law, but he had carefully followed the additional laws and rules of the Pharisees as well, which were intended to preserve Jewish culture and achieve a special, elevated standing before God.
  • “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church”: Paul, as a Jewish person, had not only distanced himself from the church or taught against the church, but he had taken one step further than others by actively persecuting the church, imprisoning Christians and ordering their deaths. He had demonstrated his fervor or Orthodox Judaism to the most extreme degree.
  • “Concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless”: though we know Paul was not perfect, what he claims here is not perfection but a clean record. In other words, no one could produce evidence or publicly accuse him of breaking an OT law. So, even if he had broken that law internally or privately, from an external, public standpoint, he had followed the Mosaic Law. No one could prove otherwise.

Can anyone here claim such credentials or point to such an admirable spiritual resume? None of us are such a spiritual superman as Paul was, yet even Paul had come to realize that even his outstanding spiritual resume was worthless in his relationship with God. In a certain way, if Paul was a spiritual superman, then his special qualities and incredible achievements were not the source of his strength – they were his Kryptonite. And in our next sermon, we’ll take a closer look at how Paul turned away from those things to follow Christ with all of his heart.

But for now, let me share with you this excellent and insightful challenge from D.A. Carson, a Christian pastor and professor who offers these comments in response to what Paul teaches here in Philippians 3:

Most who read these pages, I suspect, will not be greatly tempted to boast about their Jewish ancestry and ancient rights of race and religious heritage. But we may be tempted to brag about still less important things: our wealth, our status, our education, our emotional stability, our families, our political or business successes, our denominational alignments, or even about which version of the Bible we use. Be careful of people like that. They tend to regard everyone who is outside their little group as somehow inferior. Somewhere along the way they inadvertently—or even intentionally and maliciously—imagine that faith in Christ Jesus and delight in him is a little less important than their personal accomplishments.

Instead, look around for those whose constant confidence is Jesus Christ, whose constant boast is Jesus Christ, whose constant delight is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the center of their worship, the center of their gratitude, the center of their love, the center of their hope. After that, doubtless we shall sometimes need to argue about relatively peripheral matters. But in the first instance, emulate those whose constant confidence and boast is in Christ Jesus and in nothing else.

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