A Question of Confidence
“we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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 and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—”
The Bible contains many descriptions of what a Christian is like and each of these descriptions is valuable and worth studying closely. For those of you with long memories you may remember that some years ago we looked at a number of these descriptions. We saw then that the Bible describes the Christian in a wide variety of different ways – for example he is a new creation, a believer, a disciple, a Son, a brother, a sheep, a stone, a saint and a pilgrim.
Last week we saw that in the opening verses of Phil.ch.3 Paul has provided us with yet another description of Christians. They are, he writes:
· The true covenant people of God
· Spiritual worshippers
· Passionate about Jesus Christ
· People who no longer put any confidence in the flesh
Now as we continue our studies today we find that Paul is going to digress for a while in order to make some significant statements about where we must and where we must not place our confidence.
He begins by exposing the folly of placing one’s confidence in the flesh.
This digression is a very important one because it is a salvation matter. Paul wants his readers to really understand just how salvation is to be attained for there is only one way in which it will ever be secured.
So this will be our subject this morning. We must consider just what Paul meant when he referred to “confidence in the flesh”. We will also take note of the fact that Paul then contrasted this “confidence in the flesh” with the only viable option that is open to us and that option is faith in Christ and the surpassing worth of knowing him as Lord.
What does Paul mean by “the flesh”?
The first thing for us to do then is to ascertain what exactly Paul was referring to when he talked about the flesh. After all he has just described the Christian as a person who does not put any confidence in the flesh and we need to know just what he meant when he said that. At the same time, Paul was very aware that there are folk, numerous folk, who do put their confidence in the flesh and he wants to explain the utter futility of such a course of action. He wants to stop them putting their trust in the wrong place and instead to relocate it so that it is placed in the only person who can meet their ultimate spiritual needs.
In order to achieve his ends Paul will have recourse to his own experience and testimony which we are going to take a brief look at this morning. As we carefully examine what he says, we will hopefully be brought to a clearer understanding of just what he meant when he wrote about the flesh and the ineffectiveness of putting our trust in it.
If we were to look up all the references in the Bible to the word “flesh” we would discover that the Bible uses the word flesh in a variety of different ways. It is vital therefore to understand how Paul is using the term here in this chapter.
1. Flesh can be morally neutral simply describing the substance a creature is made of
At the time of the flood we read, for example :
Gen.7:21 “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind.”
2. It can be used as a neutral synonym for a person:
Mt.16:17 “And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood (ie. a human being) has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
3. But flesh can be used to highlight human weakness and frailty:
Mt.26:41 “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
4. It is but a short step from there to flesh being used very negatively indeed:
Rom.7:5 “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”
Rom.7:14 “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”
Rom.7:18 “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
But when we turn to our text in Phil.ch.3 none of these usages really fits that well with what Paul has to say. In our day the mention of “flesh” in a moral or spiritual context will probably make us think of dubious and immoral behaviour. The term “flesh-pot” in common parlance refers to a place that supplies sexual entertainment along with food and drink. But if Paul had this highly negative view of flesh in mind he could hardly have continued in the way he actually did. Paul would declare that he had more reason to have confidence in the flesh than anyone else and even the most cursory of glances at what he wrote will reveal that Paul was not referring to bad and negative things but good and positive ones.
So what is Paul referring to when he uses the term flesh here?
I’ll tell you.
He is referring to anything and to everything that characterises a person’s life prior to him or her meeting with Christ and being converted.
Yes, it will include what we normally think of when we hear talk about “sins of the flesh”, all those gross sins, and all those morally dubious sins that are so visible and repugnant, but it will also include all of our “respectable” sins. And that is not all – the confidence in the flesh that Paul rejects so warmly and earnestly also includes the very highest pinnacle of our moral achievement and of our religious development.
Thus we need to understand that it is not merely our recognised sin that separates us from God but our best behaviour will keep us from him too. Here is an illustration that may help us to understand what the biblical view of the Christian actually is:
Imagine a person reviewing his life. He passes judgment on what he has done and makes two separate piles of his various deeds. In one pile he heaps up all his bad deeds and in the other his good deeds. And then what does he do? The Christian then resolutely turns his back on both of these piles and runs away from them to Christ!
Until the Spirit of God works in a person’s life people just don’t behave like that. Most look at their two heaps and try to convince themselves that their good deeds are more impressive than their bad and then they desperately hope that God agrees with them. Paul had once thought like that but he had changed and in talking about his own personal experience Paul wanted his hearers to rethink what they were doing. You see, it is very important in what and in whom we place our confidence when it comes to being right with God.
Popular Grounds for Confidence
Paul looked back to his life before he became a Christian. At that time he thought he had a lot going for him. Perhaps you are not a Christian and you too like to think that things are going pretty well for you and that you have a lot going for you too. I wonder though quite what it is that you are relying upon to be accepted by God. I wonder whether there’s any similarity between you and Paul.
Paul drew up quite a list of the positives of his life as he saw them. He thought he had good grounds for being confident and as we think about them we see that they fall into two main categories:
Natural, or inherited, advantages and the advantages secured by personal effort:
Religious advantages – From his infancy Paul had benefitted from all the covenant privileges of belonging to God’s covenant people. Paul had been circumcised on the 8th day and circumcision was valuable. Listen to how Paul wrote about this to the church in Rome:
Rom.3:1-2 “what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
Rom.9:4 “to (them) belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”
And Paul was born into all of this – he was no late-comer, no proselyte. All his life he had been an insider as it were. Those Jewish false teachers that Paul was worried about couldn’t accuse him of being outside the fold. If anyone could boast here surely Paul could.
National – Paul’s background was a pure one too. Abraham’s descendants included the pure and the impure and Paul came from the former – a child of the promise. Paul’s credentials were spot on – what a ground for boasting he had!
Ancestral – OK Paul wasn’t from the royal tribe of Judah but he did belong to the tribe of Benjamin and this was the tribe which had given Israel its first king, King Saul. The Benjaminites were the only other tribe of Israel after Judah to remain loyal to King David.
Parental – Finally, Paul had been born into a family that took all things religious seriously – he was a Hebrew of Hebrews. His family life was one headed by godly, convinced and religiously zealous parents and Paul reaped the benefits of such an upbringing.
These were the natural advantages that Paul had – he didn’t do anything to warrant them, they were, what some might call them, due to the accident of birth.
But this was not all that Paul could look to if he wanted. He had inherited those advantages but he also added to them by making his own personal contribution as he adopted certain attitudes, as he carried out certain activities and as he achieved certain successes.
Paul was a Pharisee, a member of the strictest party of his religion. This meant that Paul had chosen to adopt the most respectful and responsive attitude he could towards the law of God. He really did want to live his life in the way he thought would best please God – Paul was serious about his religion. In fact he was so serious about it that he actively militated against those he believed to be undermining it – he became a persecutor of the church. And he really did believe that he had achieved his goal – for a time at least he considered himself to be blameless as far as the law was concerned and this was by no means a small achievement.
Paul used to think that all this meant gave him serious grounds for trusting in the flesh – but then he met Christ and it was all change in the most far-reaching manner imaginable.
Today plenty of folk try to look at the same type of thing that Paul once looked at and then convince themselves that they really do have sufficient grounds for confidence. Maybe you are one of them.
Some look to a long association with Christian things and maintain that they have always been OK, nicely putting to one side what the Bible says about repentance, faith, conversion and a new life.
Others will look to the country they’re from and suggest they must be OK – they’re British after all!
Some will look at past family members and somehow assume they must be OK because their Granny used to go to church or their mother sent them to Sunday School. But while godly parents are a great blessing the faith of a parent will not save their child but only themselves. As it has often been said: “God has no grandchildren.”
I suppose the favourite plea of many people is that they’ve done what they can, they’ve done their best and they hope that that will stand them in good stead.
Paul understood such thinking after all he used to think that way too and he had done what he could and he had impressive results too - but then he met Christ.
What changed when Paul met Christ?
It seems as though one of the first things Paul did was to do some calculations. He listed all those things that he thought might give him grounds for confidence and put them on one side of the page and then he looked at Christ and his benefits and put them on the other. And as Paul took a long careful look his value system was turned upside down.
Paul once thought that his privileges and his performances had great value, they all amounted to a significant treasury in his attempt to be right with God. But now he began to look on them differently. As he looked again instead of seeing these things as adding value to his stock he came to the conclusion that every item listed was written in red, every item in which he had previously placed his confidence only served to magnify his debt, they did nothing at all to increase his standing with God.
And the conclusion Paul came to was the only reasonable one he could draw - he didn’t want to rely upon any of this fleshly confidence a moment longer. Indeed so dramatic was his re-evaluation that he now wanted nothing more to do with any of it – it was only dung and manure, how could he think about it otherwise now that he had come to know Christ?
Nobody in their right minds would ever want to have last week’s rubbish back again would they? You put your bins out each week and you don’t want to wheel those bins back again if they’re still filled with the waste you wanted to throw out. So don’t act that way when it comes to spiritual matters!
There had been a time when Paul had been proud of the righteousness he had built up for himself as he tried his hardest to follow the law. And he had done so much, there was a time when he didn’t think there was any more for him to do either! But he came to realise that this self-constructed righteousness might please himself but it could never, and would never, satisfy God. It would never cause God to award him the status of a person who is right with God.
But in Christ how different things were! In Christ there was a righteousness that would move God to grant that desired status. How so? Because the righteousness in Christ was from God and God cannot fail but to be pleased by his own righteousness. And this righteousness was to be had not by self-effort, not by working up some fleshly confidence; it was to be had by faith.
The Saviour had met with Paul on the Damascus Road when Paul was bent on yet more persecution of the Christian church. He realised then that he didn’t deserve anything from God and he realised he had in fact been zealously opposing him rather than serving him; he certainly hadn’t been making himself acceptable to God!
Was there any hope for this man?
Yes, there was and there is hope for you and me too. We can be right with God in the blink of an eye when we exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And that simply means we take God at his word and believe the promises of God that are bound up in Jesus.
Do you realise that when a person puts his/her faith in Christ God looks at him/her and says I find everything I want in this one; nothing is missing; this one belongs to me; this one is righteous.
Paul knew what it was to have much going for him, to have a good track record, but he gave it all up, he turned his back upon it all. Why? Because he came to realise that everything he had ever considered valuable paled into utter insignificance compared to what Christ has done for him, compared to what Christ had become to him. Paul had come to realise that Jesus was of surpassing worth – and there was no way that Paul could cling onto to the garbage of his fleshly confidences when he could have Christ instead.
And what about you?
If Paul with all his privileges came to understand that his profit column was really deeply in the red as to be worse than worthless what makes you sure that your profit column will be any different?
The same Christ who saved and transformed Paul’s life is offered to you. Will you have him? You can call upon him today and be saved. You can receive Christ as Lord and Saviour and so with him be declared to be right with God. If you haven’t already done so, then what is holding you back? Front up and be big enough to admit you’ve been wrong about Christ up to now and ask for forgiveness but stop putting your confidence in the flesh.
Maybe the way some other translations translate v.3 will help you to understand where you must be careful not to put your trust. Remember v.3 describes the Christian and Christians can say:
“We do not put confidence in human qualifications” CJB
“We don’t brag about what we have done” CEV
“We do not trust ourselves or anything we can do” ICB
“We are helpless to save ourselves “TLB
“We do not rely on human credentials” NET
I urge you to take a long hard look at yourself in the presence of God to find out whether you are still in some way trusting in something or someone other than Christ. You will only ever find the righteousness you need to be justified before God by trusting in Christ. Don’t let anything or anyone keep you from such trust.
If you’re still finding it hard to see in what you’re placing your confidence imagine yourself being questioned by God and the most important question he asks you is:
“Why should I let you into my heaven to spend eternity with me?”
If your answer focuses on church attendance, on good works, on family connections then you can be sure that your confidence is in the flesh and it is a confidence that will utterly fail you. Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will then have another more appropriate answer to that question – it will go along the lines of “Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus” So cry out to him now:
“Jesus, only Jesus
Help me trust
You more and more
Jesus, only Jesus
May my heart be ever Yours”
Paul will go on and talk about how to live the new life that begins when you exercise faith in Christ because believing in Christ is not the end of the journey but the start of a new one. Paul will explain what is involved and what the goals are. But for now this morning we have finished.
May the Lord open your eyes to see the truth about yourself and may he then open your eyes to see the worth and the value of the Saviour the Lord Jesus.
And to God alone be the glory