“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh”
We’ve grown used to being told to stay safe during this COVID pandemic. We’ve been told to keep our distance, to wash our hands and to wear face masks. While this advice is useful for preventing the spread of the virus it only addresses one of the problems that we all have to face. Our physical health is important and we’re glad our political leaders are doing what they can to protect us but they can do nothing about our spiritual condition which is far more important. If we want help on that front we need to turn to the Bible to find God’s answer to this far more pressing problem of our spiritual health and of how we might be made right with him.
This morning as we continue our studies in Paul’s letter to the Philippians we will consider his remedy as he warns about the dangers that exist, clarifies who it is that is right with God and identifies a pattern of behaviour that will keep us safe.
Some Reminders v.1
As we turn to ch.3 in our Bibles we might be tempted to think that Paul is about to bring his letter to a close. After all in many of our English Bibles the chapter begins with the word ‘finally’! But Paul hasn’t anywhere near finished yet and that word should really be rendered somewhat differently. Paul is about to move on to the next thing he wants to focus upon, the next phase in his argument, and there are other translations that reflect this perhaps more clearly with their “so then” or “for the rest” or “furthermore”. But before he is quite ready to do that he wants to make sure that the Christians in Philippi go on their way rejoicing:
3:1 “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.”
And immediately Paul realises that he is repeating what he has already told them but he is unabashed – his advice is something that they need to hear and he doesn’t find it tiresome to give it to them again.
“Rejoice in the Lord”
He had already written about how he himself rejoiced in the Lord:
1:18 “in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,”
Then a second time he wrote of his own rejoicing and added to that statement his conviction that they should join with him and do the same:
2:17-18 “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
And joy was very much to the fore in the verses immediately preceding our text today:
2:28-29 “I am the more eager to send (Epaphroditus), therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honour such men,”
Later on Paul will return to the whole matter of rejoicing before he finishes his letter:
4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
What a wonderful thing the Christian faith is! It is not some dreary, miserable or depressing business it is a faith that is meant to fill us with joy and we are actively encouraged to rejoice. How wrong the common understanding of Christianity is! Small wonder that singing has always been something that has characterised the Christian church! If your Christian faith isn’t making you joyful then you need to listen carefully to what God has to say to you this morning.
In addition to this, the kind of rejoicing that Paul encourages will prove to be very practical for it will protect the believer from falling into the trap posed for him by the false teachers who love to ply their trade amongst genuine Christians.
Paul doesn’t find it at all arduous to repeat himself. He has limited time and limited resources but he considers joy to be so important that he happily takes the time to press it upon his readers. Paul knows that this is a safe thing for the Christians in Philippi to read about over and over again.
3:1 “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”
As soon as Paul mentions it is safe to hear these things again we are alerted to the fact that we live in a world that is often dangerous and hostile towards our faith. Anything that will help us confront those dangers is surely something we will welcome and sometimes we simply need to be reminded of the things we already in theory know, and to be told them all over again. You see, one of our problems is that we so easily ignore the very truth that we already know – repetition can be compared to a hammer striking the head of a nail: one blow begins the job but it takes a number of subsequent strikes to ensure the job is successfully completed. Indeed without constant repetition over time that ‘nail’ may work loose.
Paul is going to go on to write about some of the dangers that the Philippians will encounter and he wants to help them stay safe. Before he addresses those dangers directly, however, he lays down a general guideline that will keep them safe if they follow his advice. And isn’t his advice simple:
“Rejoice in the Lord”
Many of our failures as Christians come about not because we fail to grasp some deep doctrinal truth but because we fail to put into practice the simple A, B, C s of the gospel. How well are you getting on with “rejoicing in the Lord”?
This is why hymns such as “Tell me the old, old story” are so helpful because they draw us back to the Saviour and his love for sinners. Do you know these words drawn from the second verse of that hymn:
Tell me the story often,
For I forget so soon;
The early dew of morning
Has passed away at noon
Of course we don’t completely forget the gospel story but rather we stop applying it to our lives. And it is even possible for us to talk about the gospel to others while failing to delight in it personally ourselves. But when we actively set ourselves to rejoice in the Lord we will be kept safe – we will be led to be happy in Jesus, to be satisfied with him, and when that is the case what the false teacher has to offer will hold no attractions for us.
False teachers may sound very plausible and they may make promises of wonderful blessings if only we will take our eyes off Jesus and follow the path they set out for us – though they won’t put it quite like that! But when we are delighting ourselves in Jesus and rejoicing in all that he has done for us we won’t be duped. Why? Because we won’t want to take our eyes off Jesus! We’ll be too busy discovering more about this wonderful man. As another hymn-writer put it:
Jesus, I am resting, resting
In the joy of what Thou art
I am finding out the greatness
Of Thy loving heart...
Later in that same hymn the writer went on
Simply trusting Thee, Lord Jesus,
I behold Thee as Thou art
And Thy love, so pure, so changeless,
Satisfies my heart;
Satisfies its deepest longings,
Meets, supplies its every need,
Compasseth me round with blessings;
Thine is love indeed.
If you and I are so caught up with Jesus, so enraptured by him, we will be in a spiritually safe place. And if we’re going to stay there we need to keep on being enamoured with him – so we need to keep on rejoicing in the Lord. Were we to hear Paul’s exhortation but fail to heed it, to simply tick the box saying “yes, I know all that” but not actually do anything tangible about it we will inevitably slip and slide and find ourselves exposed to the lying temptation that promises satisfaction outside of Christ. And those temptations can take many different forms – they can even be couched in spiritual terms offering us blessings but in a way that will prove destructive of genuine spiritual life and maturity.
I don’t want to go that way and I hope you don’t either – so keep Christ in the centre of your vision and rejoice in the Lord!
A Change of Language to Describe False Teachers v.2
Chapter 2 was largely taken up with encouraging words about Timothy and Epaphroditus and ch.3 began with a warm exhortation to rejoice in the Lord but then comes a sharp change in language in v.2 and we may well be a little surprised by the vehement language that Paul employs as he moves on.
It wasn’t that Paul was just one of those people who deal with those who disagreed with him by calling them names; there are plenty of folk like that but Paul wasn’t one of them. After all back in chapter 1 he rejoiced when Christ was preached by those who had it in for him! But here the situation is different. From the way in which Paul responds the people he is now referring to are no friends of the gospel and quite simply Paul calls them out. He describes them in three ways and we should perhaps understand Paul to be describing one major group of people here rather than three distinct groups. To Paul they are:
· Mutilators of the flesh
Now let me tell you why he did and what he meant by what he said.
The situation is serious and Paul doesn’t mince his words – he has no desire to compliment these frauds and he wants to do his utmost to ensure that the Philippians are put on their guard. These are people to “look out” for; not so that they might be warmly welcomed and listened to them but that they might be recognised for what they really are. Paul’s call to “look out” for such people is a stark and solemn warning against a dangerous foe; he certainly does not want the Philippians to imbibe any of their teaching.
In the Bible dogs are not portrayed as pleasant companions for lonely people. They were not tame household pets but unclean and hostile opponents. See for example these verses from the Psalms:
Ps.22:16, 20 “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet... Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!”
To call someone a dog was an insult – far more so then than it is today – it was a name used to express contempt. And this is how the Jew generally viewed the unclean Gentiles who were outside the covenant of God. But as Paul uses the term he is not referring to Gentiles instead he is turning the tables and applying it to these false Jewish teachers! Now why does he do that? Is it just to be rude? Not a bit of it. What he wants the Philippians to beware of is the teaching of these false teachers which, if they follow it will make them as unclean as any excluded Gentile could ever be. And for a Jew to issue such teaching was to be no better than an unclean, excluded, Gentile dog himself. Such teachers placed themselves firmly on the outside God’s covenant people.
The second term Paul employs is that of evil-doer and it stands in stark contrast to the description Paul applied to his exemplary colleagues Timothy and Epaphroditus in ch.2 where we read concerning Epaphroditus that he was not an evil-doer or an evil worker but a fellow worker of the apostle (Phil.2:25).
But why was Paul so severe in his criticism? Well, it was because these false teachers were working evil by insisting that it was absolutely necessary, if a person was to be saved, that he perform certain works of the law himself. In other words these teachers were teaching that faith in Christ was not enough, everyone would have to add his own works of righteousness too if he was to be saved.
Now that is what many people think that Christianity is all about but it couldn’t be much further from the truth. The gospel tells men and women what Jesus has done for them and calls upon them to believe in that completed work. Those who believe are quite simply declared by God to be in a right standing with him because of what Christ has done for them. To suggest that our tawdry efforts to keep the law of God will somehow add to the perfection of Christ’s work is dishonouring in the highest degree to our Lord Jesus – such teaching cuts out the very heart of the gospel message. And Paul called them out for it and in this he was simply following the example of Jesus himself:
Mt.23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
The gospel message is a message of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Good works do indeed have their place in the Christian’s life but as fruit of the salvation he is so freely and generously given, but they are never to be considered the ground of that salvation.
The third way in which Paul describes these false teachers is to call them “mutilators of the flesh” and this time he is deliberately using a play on words. These false teachers were people who laid an enormous and unwarranted stress upon the externals of religion and among the religious practices they insisted upon was circumcision.
Now in the OT circumcision was the sign that testified to a person’s membership of God’s covenant people. That membership was brought about by God’s grace but now in the NT these false teachers were treating circumcision as though it were the way to enter into the covenant and consequently focused their attention wrongly on external religious rites. They have got things so wrong that Paul won’t honour them here by using the good word circumcision as he describes them choosing instead to speak of them as “mutilators of the flesh”. He does this because the way they insisted upon their religious rites had more in common with pagan practices than anything else. Do you remember Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal? We read about it in 1Kings 18 – listen to how those prophets of Baal conducted themselves as they tried desperately and hopelessly to influence their god:
1Kings 18:28 “And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.”
My friends, don’t be fooled by all this. There are religious people around today who still put all the emphasis upon fulfilling external religious rites as though this is the way forward – it is not and if you follow them you will cut yourself off from God’s saving grace.
Having finished his brief description of these false religious teachers Paul now proceeds to make a number of declarations concerning the Christian and the contrast is enormous.
· The circumcision
· Those who worship by the Spirit of God
· Those who glory in Christ and who put no confidence in the flesh
And we must look more closely at these criteria so that we understand what Paul meant.
We’ve already said that circumcision was a sign, it was a physical sign that pointed to a person’s membership of God’s covenant people. But OT teaching makes it clear that circumcision was never meant to be limited to an external religious rite; properly understood physical circumcision was always to be accompanied by an important spiritual reality. Moses spoke about this way back in the Book of Deuteronomy:
Deut.10:16 “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.”
Deut.30:6 “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Jeremiah picked up this idea of a spiritual circumcision:
Jer.4:4 “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”
Jer.9:25-26 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh... and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”
It was just this understanding of circumcision that the apostle Paul developed further in the NT:
Rom.2:28-29 “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”
In calling Christians “the circumcision” in Philippians 3:3 Paul is declaring that believers in the Lord Jesus are the true covenant people of God!
Consequently if you have put your faith and trust in Christ, you belong to God’s covenant people and all the promises are yours. In Christ, and in Christ alone, you have all you need!
The second way in which Paul describes the believer in Christ is as Spirit-enabled worshipper of God. The Christian has been given a new birth and been quickened with a new spiritual life that now issues forth in genuine and acceptable worship. Once again Paul’s teaching follows that of the Saviour. Do you remember what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman when their conversation turned to address spiritual matters?
Jn.4:23-24 “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
It is the Spirit of God who enables us to offer such worship as he leads us into the truth and not to the completion of formal rituals. And the truth into which the Spirit leads us concerns Jesus himself which leads us on to Paul’s third description of the Christian.
The Christian is so taken up with Jesus that he boasts about him, he takes delight in him and longs to see him glorified. In fact the Christian is so gripped by the Saviour, so engrossed by his Lord, so satisfied with Jesus that he refuses to put any of his trust and confidence anywhere else certainly not in his own feeble efforts, the flesh.
If someone were to ask: “Why this refusal to trust in your own efforts?” the answer would be twofold:
a) I don’t need to because Christ is more than sufficient for all my need
b) I don’t want to because to do so would suggest Christ was insufficient and I don’t want to dishonour him but glorify him!
Now it is time for some more personal questions and we should think carefully about the answers we give:
Does Paul’s description of what a Christian is describe me? What do I know personally of God’s grace in forgiving me my sins and making me one of his children, a member of his covenant people?
Am I a true worshipper? Does worship characterise my life?
Do I really and actively delight myself with Christ? Have I given up all other hope and am I trusting Jesus and only Jesus for my salvation?
How important these questions are and how penetrating too! It is not good enough to know these things in your head, to nod in agreement, and then carry on unmoved. You must be believingly engaged with Jesus Christ and bear the natural spiritual fruit of such a relationship.
If you have never received God’s grace into your life then pray for God to have mercy upon you, to forgive you your sins, and to take you, as undeserving as you are, into his family.
If you are not a worshipper then plead with God to transform you by his Spirit so that you become one who does worship in spirit and in truth.
If you don’t glory and boast in Christ then plead with God to show you his true worth and value and help you to appreciate his beauty and splendour.
If you’re still trying to hedge your bets as it were by looking to something other than Christ then pray to God to show you what your condition really is like in his eyes. And may he show you that even the very best of your deeds are sullied and imperfect serving not to enhance Christ’s work but diminishing and destroying its effectiveness for you.
I hope you can see yourself in Paul’s description of a Christian but if you can’t then do something about it now before it is too late – now is the day of salvation and maybe now is the day for you!
And if you do see yourself, albeit imperfectly, in Paul’s description of a Christian then rejoice and go on rejoicing in the Lord. Such rejoicing won’t turn you into a sentimental, emotional fanatic but it will keep you safe in Christ when threatening and tempting dangers come your way.
Let me close by quoting an old chorus that I was reminded of this week when some of us were thinking together about Jesus as the Living Bread. I imagine some of you will know it:
I'm feeding on the living bread,
I'm drinking at the fountain head;
And who so drinketh, Jesus said,
Shall never, never thirst again.
What, never thirst again?
No! never thirst again.
What, never thirst again?
No! never thirst again.
And whoso drinketh, Jesus said,
Shall never, never thirst again.
What a salvation we have in Jesus! – All Glory to his name!