Philippians 3:1-14 (NIV) 1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh– 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. 7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
As we prepare to leave 2014 and you think back on the year you have walked through, for some of you it has been the best year of your lives. Many of you accomplished a goal you set out to accomplish. You have graduated from college, gotten engaged or married, bought a home, had a first child or grandchild, got to retire, or took a dream vacation. For some of you, this year has been filled with health challenges, relational strain or financial difficulties or lots of change. I have seen people post that they are looking forward to the year ahead because they hope that the coming year will be different and will help them forget some pain they have endured this year.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to forget bad times. There is nothing wrong with wanting to remember good ones, but one thing about the Christian life is that it is a forward, progressive kind of life. All of the OT prophets spoke messages to get God’s people to look ahead. We know the reality of heaven awaits those of us who have made Christ Savior and Lord so we no longer have to fear what happens when our life on earth is finished. God wants us to know we can always look ahead with confidence, faith, and hope. Yes, the Christian life is a life of anticipation, expectation, and ongoing revelation and transformation.
We know we can’t go with God and stay the same. We know time doesn’t stand still. We know we can’t push the pause button. Time will move forward, but will we? While time automatically moves forward, people don’t automatically make forward spiritual progress. Moving forward in your spiritual life or physical, earthly life are the result of making some decisions and making up your mind to live life with intention and focus. The Apostle Paul gives us a formula for forward progress in the third chapter of Philippians. This is good advice whether for yourself personally, your parenting, your educational pursuits or career, your marital relationship, or your spiritual life. Here we go:
Refuse to let other people control your path.
Revisit verse 2: “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” This is some strong language from Paul. He isn’t shy about how he feels about a group of people who were trying to control what is happening in the lives of new, Gentile believers. Paul was sent by God to minister especially to the non-Jewish people, to the Gentiles. Strict Jews weren’t big fans of Paul’s ministry. They didn’t like the open message. They didn’t care for the “y’all come” approach. They felt like there should be some hoops people should jump through in order to become saved, and they assigned themselves the role of gatekeepers. They were teaching that before people could become Christians they first had to become Jews. That meant they believed people had to submit to all of the rules of Judaism before they could be saved.
The whole thing boiled over into a big brouhaha of sorts in Acts chapter 15 when a big meeting was held in Jerusalem. The result of the meeting was that the grace of God was upheld, Paul was supported, and people could choose Christ without embracing the Jewish way of life. The group of Jewish leaders who didn’t win their argument at the meeting weren’t happy with the outcome. They followed Paul around wherever he went and tried to steal his converts and his churches in order to put them through a spiritual obstacle course. This group of false teachers who tried to mix Law and Grace were called Judaizers. They wanted to dictate to these new converts just how they would experience God.
Paul called them dogs here in Philippians 3. They were always nipping at his heels, barking orders and trying to deter him and those who heard the Gospel from following the way of grace. Paul called them “evil” because they wanted to burden people with works and rules and regulations as the basis for salvation. He called them mutilators of the flesh which was kind of a pun on the word “circumcision.” The word “circumcision” when literally translated means “mutilation.” The Jewish men were all circumcised which was the sign of the OT Covenant God had made with them. These Judaizers were making circumcision a requirement for salvation for the Gentiles. Paul said that now that Christ had come circumcision was basically a mutilation of flesh, and that what was important now was a spiritual circumcision of the heart (Col. 2:11 and Romans 2:25-29).
God does use people to teach us and influence us in the way we should go, but just as people are used to move us forward in the right way, there will be many who Satan wants to use to discourage us, burden us, and rob us of the joy and grace of God. Many people have told me they aren’t in church today because of some hypocrites they encountered along the way. If our eyes are only on people we will always be disappointed. Many people have given up on their earthly hopes and dreams that may have been God-ordained for them to achieve because of a critic, a naysayer, or someone Satan wanted to use to sabotage their potential. Why do we give that much power to earthly, flawed people? We must not let people control our destiny. God is the real dream-giver and dream-maker. If He has put something in your heart that would be a blessing to you, your family and those around you, don’t listen to discouragement or “can’t do” people.
When I was finishing seminary at the age of 26 I remember being told, and I quote: “You are young, you are single, and you are a woman. There will be no place for you in ministry.” Had I listened to that negativity how different would my life be today, and how far from God’s will would another path have taken me?
Refuse to be satisfied with your spiritual and earthly progress.
Let me summarize verses 4-9. Paul was an achiever. He was actually an over achiever. He was no slacker. He had risen to the top of the religious ranks before his conversion to Christ. He had come from what was considered to be a great family. He had a collection of religious awards that made him stand head and shoulders above others who were making a name for themselves in the religious world. But once he came to Christ he realized he had more to achieve, more he wanted to achieve, yes, more he could know, but so much more to experience. Nothing else he had accomplished mattered anymore. His wall of fame with his religious ribbons and his trophy cases meant nothing compared to what was yet ahead.
Listen again to his devoted desire as a disciple of Christ from verses 10-12. “10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
He didn’t want to win a contest in the synagogue. He wasn’t looking to be admired by more people. His goal wasn’t to achieve something, but to know Someone. He wasn’t just looking to meet Jesus a few times or to get an autograph so he could put their picture on FB together or to brag to his friends about being personal friends with the guy who had risen from the dead. No, he wanted to know Jesus because he wanted to live as Jesus did.
He not only wanted to know Christ, but he also wanted to have experiences like Jesus did which included suffering, death, and rising from the dead. How many of us have put those things on our bucket list? On your list is suffering right under “take a trip to Hawaii?” Is death on your list after skydiving or visiting the Holy Land? Paul knew enough about Jesus that he knew that walking through suffering and even death, because of the power of God at work in him, would somehow produce a spiritual forward progress like he hadn’t yet known, and that somehow in the economy of God it would be something wonderful. Paul no longer settled for knowing about Christ. He wanted to know Him. Personally know Him. Passionately know Him. Intentionally know Him.
The life of Christ, repeated in his own life, that was what his new spiritual goal was!
Listen to Paul’s intention, to his focus and passion. He says in verse 12 that he was pressing on. He said in verse 13 that he was straining toward what was ahead. Anyone here strain themselves in 2014 to experience more of Christ? Who of us has spiritually strained themselves this last year in an effort to get closer to their Savior? Just for added emphasis, in case you missed it, he said again in 14 that he was pressing on toward the goal. Paul wasn’t going to settle for anything less than a full revelation of who Christ Jesus was and what He could accomplish in Paul’s life. Wouldn’t that kind of attitude make a great New Year’s resolution?
Even for those who have been saved for more than a few years, who have read the Bible extensively, who have been faithful to attend church, and have walked through a bit of hardship and trial and emerged stronger and more full of faith because of it, there is more ahead, more God wants us to experience and encounter.
A lack of passion keeps many people from growing in Christ. Paul wasn’t going to let that happen to him. He was going to take personal responsibility for his spiritual growth. And that’s how it happens. Your spiritual growth shouldn’t be dependent on whether I am an entertaining or clever communicator. It shouldn’t depend on how prepared the Sunday School teacher was for today’s lesson. It shouldn’t hinge on whether you are in love with our worship style or not. It has to be about your personal pursuit. If you want to know Christ, Sir and Madam, you can know Him. You can experience Him. You must make the investment. It isn’t Christ, but we who lack passion in our walk with Him.
Taking this to an earthly plane for a moment let me say that sometimes I think Christians can confuse wanting the most out of life and contentment. Yes, we are to be content with what we have, and we are to be content in Christ, trusting Him in all things for all things. But it doesn’t mean we have to settle for a life below our potential. Learn a new skill. Take a new class. Start a new business. Make new friends. Work at earning a promotion. It is ok to want to strive for the best things life has to offer as long as they don’t take the place of wanting to strive to know and experience Christ first.
Third, refuse to let your past negatively impact your future. In verse 13 Paul said he was choosing to forget what was behind. He was leaving the past in the past. You will trip or run into something if you are always looking behind you. Some of the things behind you are good things, but in the words of a newly famous song, “Let it go! Let it go!” celebrate, but move on. The past can prepare you for the future, but it can’t go with you into the future. You can’t pine for the gold ‘ole days and make forward progress at the same time. When people do that, they fail to change and advance. It is possible to get “stuck” in the past. Do you know anyone like that? Are you stuck in a decade long ago? Do you have the ugly Christmas sweater to prove it?
Many church leaders Pastor Thom has worked with are stuck in the past. They remember the 1970’s when their church was full of life and full of people. They long for a return to those days, but a return to those days would also be a return to flannel graph lessons, no children’s church, hot choir robes, no small groups, hymns only, no instrumentation except piano and organ, dresses for all the ladies, no jeans, and no multi-media just to name a few throw backs. There is nothing holy about holding onto the past. It might be sentimental. It may have been a special time. It may have been an unusually holy time. It might make for a great memory, but it won’t take you where God wants to lead you tomorrow. Yes, trying to maintain the status quo because it is safe or sentimental is understandable, but it is impossible to do so while moving ahead.
While the message of Christ’s sacrifice and the truth of God’s Word are unchanging, everything else is subject to change if moving forward requires it be so. In those consultations with Pastor Thom, when a church has asked for his help to try to bring some health to their dying church, he asks them if they are willing to change anything except the Gospel message in order to see people saved. When asked for an example, he suggests they may need to change the time of their service, they may need to get a website, they might need to start doing outreach, they may need to do small groups, they may have to move away from holding hymnals to putting the words on a screen in order to connect with the media-driven generation in which we live, and in several of those cases, the leaders of those churches would rather dig their heels in and hold on to tradition rather than make a change that could open the door to connect with someone’s soul.
Maybe it’s not tradition that is trapping you or sidetracking you, but it is pain. Someone in your past has hurt you so you have put up walls no one, not even Christ will penetrate. You keep relationships on the surface. You choose to ignore the idea of eternity and the need for salvation. You do everything within your power to never experience hurt, control or manipulation again, and in the process you miss the growth that takes place and the joy that results when trustworthy people trust and support one another in love. You miss what it feels like to encounter God in relationship through His Body.
Maybe it is personal failure that keeps you from unlocking your personal potential. I don’t know why we think we should succeed every time we try something. Why in the world do we put so much pressure on ourselves? If you didn’t make the team last year, go out again next year. Work even harder between now and then. If you failed the test the last time you took it, spend more time in preparation, and take it again. Too many people give up too easily on their dreams. Anyone who has succeeded at anything great hasn’t given up because of a personal failure. They have worked through personal disappointment and feelings of failure to find another way to move forward. Too many people have believed that “not now” means “not ever.” How you choose to handle failure will determine what your future will include.
Some of you set goals for yourself when 2014 began. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I am thinking we all didn’t accomplish those goals. That’s not a reason to give up on them. Remember, while we are working towards our future, God is working in us. There is a harvest in the lives of people who refuse to quit. Paul tells us in Galatians 6:9, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” 2015 could be your break out year! Whatever you were hoping to achieve in 2014 that didn’t happen, hear me this morning, it’s too soon to quit.
Finally, refuse to be controlled by anything but Christ.
Let’s read on in chapter three starting in verse 17: Philippians 3:17-20 17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,
Paul says there is a pattern for the way Christians are to live. There is an example to follow. There is a certain kind of mold that defines what it means to be Christian. The main characteristic of the Christian mold is that Christians aren’t led by their impulses and desires, but they are led by the Spirit of God. Aside from the glorious fact that our sins have been forgiven that is the biggest difference between Christians and non-Christians. We aren’t led by our desires, but by the Spirit of God. We don’t live for the moment, but we live in the light of eternity. Now don’t mishear me. I didn’t say we can’t live in the moment and enjoy the moment, but we don’t live for the moment. We live for what is yet ahead. We live for the day when we will see Jesus face to face whether it is when we reach heaven’s shore or when He returns to take us home to be with Him forever. Our destiny is perfection in heaven. Our destiny is an unbroken face to face experience with Jesus forever. Our destiny is a glorious existence in a place free from anything that could cause pain or unrest. For a brilliant treatise on the pattern for Christian life read Galatians 5.
The world also has a mold. Self, not Christ, is at the center of the mold or pattern. Paul described people who live according to that mold as (vs 18) enemies of the cross of Christ. Look at 19 again: Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.
Let me break down what Paul is saying. He isn’t talking primarily about food but about an attitude, a mindset that drives the life of a non-Christian. It’s the “Eat, drink, and be merry” attitude. It’s the do whatever feels good attitude. So if their choices, if their carefree life, if their careless way of living produces negative consequences, they take the attitude that at least they lived the way they wanted to live. They find a warped reason to celebrate that they were masters of their own destiny without acknowledging they have also destroyed their future. Their minds have led them to a one-dimensional existence. They live a physical life, but not a spiritual one. For them, it is a dead end street.
If you want to move forward you have a choice to make. You can live for your desires or you can live for your destiny. One provides momentary satisfaction. The other provides eternal, unbroken satisfaction.
One last verse from this chapter sounds like the a parent giving final instructions to a child. It is found in Philippians 3:16. Paul says, “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” Paul tells the Philippians to be who they have become, to live up to the understanding they already possess, to remember what they have been taught and to act accordingly in order so that they won’t go backwards because backwards isn’t an option for the Christian.
Hannah checked her math grade on Engrade this week and said, “I’m back up to a 98%. Now I’ve got room to fail something.” We got a laugh out of that. She wasn’t looking for a loophole or a way to just slack off, but the margin gave her a level of comfort. She has always been a straight A student, so an F wouldn’t be the standard I would see her as achieving. She has already demonstrated a high level of academic excellence, a pattern we expect her to continue to pursue, of course. Paul was telling the Philippians that he knew what they were capable of when it came to their spiritual pursuits, and he wanted their lives to demonstrate they had had a genuine encounter with Christ. There are times our forward progress might feel slower than others, but Paul was saying, “Whatever you do, don’t go backwards. Live up to what you have already shown you understand and have embraced.”
If this has been a backwards year for you, if you have lived beneath your knowledge and experience with Jesus Christ, you can make a decision this morning to move forward and to take the steps God wants you to make towards being Spirit-led, future focused, and passionate about your spiritual pursuits.
If you were to look at a continuum where the word “religion” is on the left-hand side and the word “relationship” is on the right-hand side, how would you characterize your relationship with Christ? How close is it to religious knowledge and practice versus how close it is to a forward-moving passionate relationship with Christ? And what would it take to move your “X” on the continuum closer to the relationship side? Which one or ones of Paul’s suggestions can you commit to in order to help you move forward?
1. Refuse to let other people control your path.
2. Refuse to be satisfied with your spiritual and earthly progress.
3. Refuse to let your past negatively impact your future.
4. Refuse to be controlled by anything but Christ.
Let’s go forward, and let’s start right now!