Sermon

God's Word Faithfully Preached from the Pulpit

The True People and Worshippers of God (Jeremiah 17:5-8 and Philippians 3:1-11 )

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 

4 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: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 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— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

(Philippians 3:1-11)

The epistle to the Philippians is Paul’s response to the church’s concern for him during his imprisonment in Rome. And aside from giving thanks, Paul encourages them to continue in their commitment to serve God and one another, and to rejoice in the Lord.

Paul will pick up the theme of joy again in chapter 4, but in this passage, Paul wants to write about the same things that he already told them in the past either in writing or by personal words.

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” (v. 1)

This reminder is for their safety, for their welfare. So if it was for the good of the Philippians, then it is also for our good that we listen to Paul’s message today.

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” (v.2)

Repetitions in Scriptures signify emphasis. So the three imperatives “look out” mean that the believers should look out and be very careful with these people, with their works and teachings.

The terms dogs and evildoers mean that these people are unclean. But something more significant is Paul’s play on words concerning circumcision. In verse 3, Paul mentions “circumcision” again, and he uses the proper Greek word for circumcision “peritome” (περιτομή); while here in verse 2, Paul uses the Greek word “katatome” (κατατομήν) which ESV renders as the “mutilation of the flesh”. Both share the same base word “tome” which is from the verb “temno” meaning “to cut.” But “katatome” (a “cut along”) signifies that it is different from “peritome” (a “cut around”) which is circumcision. That’s why instead of “mutilate the flesh,” NASB renders it as “false circumcision.”

Circumcision was very significant since the Old Testament. It was clear for the Jews that circumcision is the external sign of God’s covenant. And in Genesis 17, God instructs Abraham that whoever is not circumcised should be cut off from the people. He has broken God’s covenant, he neither trusts nor shares in the promises of God, he does not belong to the community of God.

Now in our passage, Paul is making a point that there is a “true circumcision” and a “false circumcision.” The false one only “mutilates” the flesh, it only wounds the flesh outwardly—but it’s not a valid circumcision. It doesn’t change the heart, it doesn’t change the status of the person before God. It is a false and dead faith. This is similar with his argument in Romans 2:28:

“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.”

So belonging to God’s covenant community is not a matter of external, physical work of circumcision.

“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—” (v. 3)

Paul is saying, “We are the circumcised; they’re not. We bear the mark of God’s true people; they don’t.”

And what distinguishes God’s people from those who are not, from those who only claim to be, is that their circumcision is in the spirit—not the flesh. God’s Spirit dwells in them and they worship God and glory in Christ alone rather than in themselves.

So this entire argument that Paul wants to remind and warn the believers is a crucial matter of whether we are saved or not. It’s a matter of whether we are still in the corruption of our flesh or we already belong to Christ. It’s a matter of whether you truly belong to the people of God or not.

Now how could Paul say so, that “we are the true people of God and they are not?” What does it mean to glory in Christ and have no confidence in the flesh?

To establish his argument, Paul makes himself as an example. And this will be our focus for the rest of our time. This passage gives us three characteristics of the true people and worshippers of God.

1. Paul’s example in renouncing his personal rights and qualifications (vv. 4-6)

“… 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 eight 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…” (vv. 4-6)

If natural and personal qualifications alone are necessary for salvation, to be part of the people of God—then Paul would be at the top.

He list some of his qualifications:

  1. “Circumcised on the eight day” — That’s consistent with the covenant of God with Abraham
  2. “Of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” — Belonging to Israel is in his blood. Biologically, legally, it’s inherent to him
  3. “Hebrew of Hebrews” — Not simply referring to his race as a Hebrew-speaking Jew. During those times, when the Roman empire was widely influenced by Greek culture (Hellenization), and many Jews were scattered across the regions, there were those who kept themselves as much as possible from Greek lifestyle, entertainment, business, etc. and resolved to stick only to the traditions of their fathers and associated only with Jews. They tried to keep their cultural identity. In this respect, Paul is uncorrupted by the Gentile pagan world. He claims to be pure and genuine Hebrew. 
  4. “As to the law, a Pharisee” — They are the society’s standard for righteousness. They conform not only to the Law of Moses, but also to the traditions of their fathers. Paul is ceremonially clean. And he’s not just a common Pharisee. He is a scholar, being a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), and has a great reputation (Acts 7:58 – stoning of Stephen)
  5. “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church” — He was chasing, hunting down Christians even as far as Damascus because of his great conviction against Christ and the church. That’s how zealous and diligent he was.

So if we’ll only talk about following the law and tradition of men, Paul says, “I’m blameless.” Biologically, ethnically, legally, culturally, intellectually, and vocationally—he’s the real deal.

But what does he say about these things?

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (v. 7)

Paul thought that these things are “gain,” that they were “profitable” for him. But now, when God finally reveals Christ to him, Paul considers them as “loss.” In business terms, what he thought was “gain” proved to be a bad deal in the end. 

What is Paul’s point here?

You dare not hope in yourself. You cannot put your trust and hope in yourself or any of your works for salvation. If you would “bet” on yourself, and your good works, and hope that God will consider you righteous on the judgment day—you will only be disappointed. You cannot!

If we would become children of God and belong to his kingdom, not one of our works, not one of our efforts, not one of our family background, not one of our social or religious achievements, not one of anything in us can ever make us right with God.

As Paul himself writes elsewhere, “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight” (Romans 3:20)… “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), including Paul. We may be a good person for other people, but in the sight of God… if we will be judged by the standard of God’s perfect justice and holiness—we are all sinners. Everything good we do is tainted with sin and imperfection. And it is in our nature to love ourselves and hate God, to think highly of ourselves and disregard God.

So if you desire eternal salvation, but you haven’t put your faith and hope in Christ alon, listen to this: There is no righteousness in you that can satisfy God’s perfect justice. No matter how hard you try, you’re totally unable to lift yourself from the depth of sin and possess eternal life. You might say, “Alright, I’ll try to get better. I’ll do this, I’ll do that…” No. Come as you are, as a sinner, empty in yourself, acknowledging your hopelessness, and trusting God’s promise of salvation in Jesus Christ alone and His righteousness.

And if we are now believers, we cannot boast in ourselves. If you say you’re saved because you grew up in a Christian family, or because you’ve read a lot of Reformed books, or because you’re a good parent, spouse, child, or friend—then you’re still trusting in yourself. There’s nothing that we can boast of, except Christ and his righteousness graciously given to us.

As a Christian, one thing that will mark your life is humility. You know that you are a child of God and that God now looks at you with favor, not because you have better than your friends, not because you’re smarter than your siblings, not because you’re more worthy to be saved than your neighbors—but all because God in his mercy chose you among the entire sinful mankind and by His Spirit gives you spiritual life and righteousness according to the perfect work of Jesus Christ.

We are reconciled with God because of Christ, not by our own.

That’s the first characteristic we see in this passage: The true people and worshippers of God put no trust or confidence in themselves.

2. Paul’s example of faith in Christ and his righteousness (vv. 8-9)

“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—” (vv. 8-9)

Whereas in the previous statement, he was renouncing the qualifications he once considered as gain, here Paul counts “everything” as loss because of Christ.

But who is this Christ?

  • Colossians 1:16 – Christ is the very image of the invisible God, in whom the fullness of God dwells
  • Philippians 2:5-8 – Christ is the Eternal Son who humbly became man like us, lived like us, and died a cruel death for us
  • Romans 3:25 – Christ is the one God put forward as a payment for our sins and satisfy God’s justice
  • Galatians 3:13-14 – Christ became curse for us in order that we will be freed from the curse of our sins
  • Romans 5:1 – Christ reconciles sinners with God and makes them have peace with him
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 – Christ is not only uncorrupted by a Gentile pagan world, but uncorrupted by any sin. Yet he became like a sinner for our sake so that we become righteous and no longer be condemned (Romans 8:1)
  • 1 Corinthians 15:12-56 – Christ resurrected from the dead for the assurance of our faith, our freedom from sin, and our hope of a glorious resurrection like him in the end.
  • 1 Timothy 2:5 – Christ is the only mediator and continuous to intercede for us before the Father in heaven (Romans 8:34)
  • Ephesians 1:20-21 – Christ is now seated in heaven, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above all things.
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – Christ will come back again to gather His people, so that we will be with him forever and ever.

There are many more that we can say about Christ, not only from Paul, but also from others.

But consider for a moment, my friends, compared with everything Christ is and has done and continues to do—what is Paul?

This is the Christ that Paul talks about, and it is only wise for Paul to say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

He even considers all things as “rubbish.” Dung/refuse/waste. Paul did not simply abandon and renounce everything, but also treated them as offensive in comparison with Christ.

Truly, when the Holy Spirit regenerated us, we do not only see our hopelessness in ourselves and the true hope in Christ. God also opens our hearts and minds so that we see the beauty of Christ and the ugliness of ourselves and anything else compared with him. Anything that draws our minds away from the “excellence of the knowledge of Christ” becomes disgusting to us. It could be the promises of this world, riches, fame, relationships, etc.

What becomes important for us is the perfect “righteousness of Christ.” And this righteousness is not something we produce in ourselves, it is “from God.” 

*John 1:12-13

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

It is not something we can labor, it is only “by faith.”

Now faith itself does not make us righteous before God. It doesn’t have any meritorious value before God. Only by a perfect sacrifice can God’s justice be satisfied so that forgiveness, justification and eternal life will be granted. Faith is only the instrument for us to personally and consciously receive Christ and his benefits.  That’s why even if your faith may seem weak, because Christ is perfect, you are no less saved than other believers. And since it is God who regenerates our hearts and minds so we can repent and have faith in him—all of this is a gift from God, and he alone deserves the glory.

Friends, is this what you possess now? Not your vain qualifications and your pride, but Christ and his perfect righteousness?

While you gain nothing in yourself and anything from this world, you gain everything in Christ. Christ himself says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).

1 John 5:11

“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Nothing else will satisfy you, comfort you, and give you real joy and hope than to have Christ as your Savior, knowing that even though you are a sinner, you are already forgiven, you are already righteous, you have peace with God and have the guarantee of eternal life with him. 

Who else can love you more than the Son of God who suffered and died for you? Where else will you look for salvation than the perfect one God provided? God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is our all in all.

That’s the second characteristic we see in this passage: The true people and worshippers of God put their faith only in Christ and his righteousness.

3. Paul’s example in the desire to know Christ, live for him, and be like him (v. 10-11)

“—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (vv. 10-11)

Paul keeps on repeating, “the knowledge of Christ,” “knowing Christ.” And he doesn’t speak about a mere intellectual understanding of Christ. “To know” (γινώσκω – ginóskó) also means to have a personal experience with someone. Something also used for sexual intimacy with someone. Paul wants to have an intimate union with Christ, to have a true and first-hand experience of what it means to possess Christ and his benefits. 

And that includes experiencing the power of Christ’s resurrection. Paul isn’t talking about his own resurrection (v. 11), but rather the effects of Christ’s resurrection in his life as a believer. And what is that? Paul says in Romans 6:8-11

“Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

In short, Paul wants to experience the NEW LIFE… the demonstration of the power of Christ’s resurrection.

By the example of Paul, we see here that true faith doesn’t end with humility and faith in Christ and righteousness. It results in a life of holiness and sanctification. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). God does not merely impute Christ’s righteousness to us and declares us righteous. He also sanctifies us and enables us to follow him, live for his glory and become like Christ. The gospel of Christ changes us—our hearts, minds, and will—so that there is no true believer who is not being sanctified and growing in righteousness.

And what is part of this sanctification? “Sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

***There is no true Christian who is one only during things of prosperity and peace

Now I want us to have a proper understanding of suffering Paul talks about. Because there’s a tendency for us to view any form of hardship “suffering like Christ or for Christ.” Not because we got sick, lost our job, or lost our loved ones means we are suffering for Christ. Not necessarily. I’m not saying that these are not valid trials and suffering for Christians. They are, as in the case of Job, and we take them sincerely. But these things happen to unbelievers too.

So what kind of suffering is “Christian suffering?” What makes it different?

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” (Philippians 1:29-30)

There’s that conflict. There’s a battle, an opposition going. It is putting your complete allegiance and obedience to Jesus Christ and God’s will at all costs, even if it is against your fleshly desires and conveniences, even if it is against your family and the culture, even if it goes against the opinions and rules of this world. Yes, suffering for Christ is abiding in Him and living for him—at all costs!

Of course, suffering for Christ isn’t limited to martyrdom like Paul. Some Christians will suffer to a greater degree than others. But we all experience this suffering in two ways. 

First, we suffer when we struggle with sin. When you’re tempted to gratify yourself and look at that lustful photo or video, when you’re tempted to get angry and take revenge, when you’re tempted to get lazy at work and seek convenience—but you nevertheless choose Christ believing that His ways are perfect and better, even if its seems hard, you are suffering for him. When you get sick and you’re losing your savings, or you lose your job and still can’t find another for years, and you’re tempted in your heart and by others to doubt God and even curse him—but you nevertheless believe that God is faithful and you humbly submit to him, even if you still don’t understand, you are suffering for him. When God disciplines you because of your sin, and you’re tempted to complain or harden your heart or be disappointed—but you nevertheless humble yourself and submit to God’s corrective work, still you suffer for him.

Second, we also suffer physically when we want to obey Christ and do his will. When there’s a risk of losing your job because of your integrity as a Christian, or when your friends and family oppose your Christian views and lifestyle—we are suffering for Christ. And if it is in God’s plan that people will not only criticize us but also put us to death because we identify with Christ, yet we keep our confession and submit our souls to God—we will be suffering for Christ.

Such is the desire of Paul, to suffer like Christ and for Christ, with the expectation of “attaining the resurrection of the dead.” He knew that our participation in the sufferings of Christ prepares us for sharing in His glory at the resurrection, on that day when we shall be with Christ for eternity.

Now we can pause and wonder, “how could Paul have such a zeal for Christ?” (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

“Five times I received forty lashes-less-one from the Jews. Three times beaten with rods. Once stoned.Three times shipwrecked; a night and a day in the sea; in danger from rivers, robbers, Jews, Gentiles, false brothers, etc; in toil and hardship, sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, cold and exposure.”

We’re not called to be like Paul in all of these. But what makes Paul have such a zeal?

“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing value of Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

He’s convinced of the greatness of his salvation in Jesus Christ, that he’s so willing to live for Christ at all costs. And our experience compels us to ask, “Why do we lack the conviction and hope in the midst of suffering or persecution like Paul?”

IT IS BECAUSE WE LOSE SIGHT OF THE SURPASSING VALUE OF CHRIST.

That’s the truth. We become cold in the faith, we become insensitive to sin, we become so weak in our convictions, we become so fearful of suffering and persecution… whenever we fail to behold Christ for who He truly is and what He has done for us. Us… who are wretched sinners, hostile enemies of God, worthy of hell, but now made righteous before God, children and heirs of eternal reward all because of Christ.

How could we ever forget!? How could we ever turn our eyes away from Christ who died for us, our Savior!? How could we ever misplace our values that we tend to treasure other earthly things more than Christ and his cause?!

Oh, that we would repent of caring so much about ourselves and our sufferings and our earthly concerns, but thinking lightly of the heavenly riches we have in Jesus Christ.

This COVID-19 has been challenging and frustrating people in many ways. But surprisingly, despite health risks and inconveniences of lockdowns, people still thrive and go out. They find ways just to survive, to keep their jobs, to feed themselves and their families. And to be honest, if there should be a group of people who have the greatest reason to remain standing and thriving and fighting in the midst of this suffering and at all costs—IT’S US!

We don’t have the same situations now, and I don’t intend to judge absolutely everyone. But it’s really sad to know that there are many Christians who can go to the market, the malls, the park… but they don’t want to go to church. Why? Because it’s safer outside than in the household of God? Are money and physical food worth the risk more than your spiritual nourishment? Is your body more precious than your soul? May it never be! 

Many Christians would make reunions with family and friends who also come from different places and may pose risks, but they would not strive hard to find ways to fellowship with fellow believers from the church and obey God’s will that we should gather together. Why? Is your time with other people more precious and encouraging than with God’s people who share the same salvation, same joys and same hopes you have? God forbid!

Your soul is far more precious than your bodies. To grow cold in your faith, to miss the means of grace through which God graciously and abundantly provides the heavenly benefits of his salvation is more fearful than getting a virus.

Again, we have different situations and I cannot cover all the observations and implications we can get regarding the trials we face today. But we need to continually examine ourselves. And if there’s any concern, suggestions or thoughts concerning this, talk to your elders, talk to the brethren, and even other people for insights, and let’s keep encouraging one another and pray  and do something so that this trial will not hinder us from being the church and Christians we ought to be.

I speak to myself and to all of us, to the elders, to the members, to those at home, and even to all Christians from other churches. In this COVID-19 crisis or pandemic, however you want to call or believe it, EVERYONE is suffering. But may we suffer as Christians who understand the great value of Christ’s suffering for us, and as those who suffer like Christ and for Christ—at any cost. And to live and suffer for him is never in vain.

So that’s the third characteristic we see in this passage: The true people and worshippers of God desire to be like Christ and will suffer anything for his sake. 

In the end, lest we leave thinking that it is by our efforts and strength of convictions that we can suffer for Christ—Paul says that “it has been granted to [us] that we should not only believe in Christ but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). If God is the One who appointed our trials and sufferings, then he is also the One who will carry us through it. 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV)

For he is the One who works in us by his Spirit, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). 

“A believer may be in the saddest and darkest condition imaginable. Even so, the Holy Spirit is able to break through all this and bring to mind the promises of Christ. By this work, the Holy Spirit enables Christians to sit in dungeons, rejoice in flames, and glory in troubles.” 

~ John Owen

For he who began a good work in us “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Just as we cannot trust and depend on ourselves for salvation, we cannot be confident in ourselves for persevering in it. Our almighty God who called us to faith and perseverance will surely strengthen us. He promises to always be with us, help us and keep us ‘til the end. 

We can suffer and persevere come what may, because God is all-powerful and faithful and his promises are secured.

Conclusion

My brothers and sisters, the true people of God are those who put no confidence in themselves or anything else for eternal gain and salvation. Rather, they trust Christ alone and his righteousness, and being sanctified by the Spirit, they demonstrate the new life in Christ even in the midst of suffering.

Are these true of you?” Are you praying for it? That God will give you humility before God and others? That God will grant you a growing knowledge of him and his salvation? That you will comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ and be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:18-19)? Are you praying that God will strengthen your convictions, and to sustain you in your suffering for Christ? Will you count Christ most dear to you, more than your life, more than your physical bodies, more than this world?

Oh, may we turn our eyes away from ourselves and this world, away from our pride and our comforts and temporary concerns… and may our hearts and minds be fixed upon God’s salvation in Christ, who lived, and died, rose again, and now interceding in heaven on our behalf.

And may the Spirit work in us, together with all the saints, saying: “His love is so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Amen.

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