The Light of Salvation | Exodus 10:21-29

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the Lord; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.” But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the Lord our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” Moses said, “As you say! I will not see your face again.”

Exodus 10:21-29 ESV

 

Having witnessed the beginnings of both the biblical story and the themes of light and darkness, we now move forward in the narrative, jumping to Exodus. While the account of the Israelites’ rescue by the hand of God is well-known, we will fix our eyes upon a particular moment of that narrative: the ninth plague, darkness. Within this single moment of the battle between God and Pharaoh, we are able to further glimpse the significance of our themes of study.

THE STORY SO FAR

Before we can properly understand our present text, we need to fill in the gaps between Genesis 1:1-5 and here. After God created and ordered the cosmos, He made the first humans, Adam and Eve, making them the bearers of His own image and His stewards over the earth and its creatures. He commanded them to enjoy and cultivate the earth and to spread God’s image across the world by reproducing. A planet of pleasure was placed before them with only one prohibition: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Wishing to become gods themselves, Adam and Eve ate the fruit, gaining experiential knowledge of what it meant to rebel against God. God’s judgment upon our fore-parents was swift but gracious. In the midst of the curses, God promised a savior, a serpent-crusher who would defeat sin, evil, and death.

And so, God’s stewards multiplied, spreading the Creator’s image that was now stained by sin. Within just a few generations, sin’s conquest of human hearts was such that God annihilated humanity from the earth with a flood. We exist today only because of God granting His grace to the family of Noah, sparing the eight of them alone from the deluge of His wrath.

But sin didn’t cease. As humanity grew strong again, they clustered together for the purpose of building a mighty tower to their greatness. This blatant disobedience to their Creator’s design was a mere recycling of the first sin, so God once again came down to bring judgment. Since they refused to fill the earth, God divided their languages to cause them to scatter, giving birth to different nations (or ethnicities).

Into this new landscape, God reached out to humanity again. God calls a man named Abraham to Himself, promising to form a great nation from his lineage, to bless all nations through him, and to give him the land of Canaan. Although Abraham and his wife were barren and beyond the years of child-bearing, he trusted God.

After Abraham’s death, his son and grandson (Isaac and Jacob) continue serving God and awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Jacob’s family is eventually taken down into Egypt due to the prosperity of his son, Joseph. Although he was sold into slavery by his older brothers, Joseph rose by the providence of God to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and by the wisdom of God, he was able to rescue Egypt and his family from a severe famine.

While dwelling in Egypt, Jacob’s family grew. Generations passed by, and a new Pharaoh became threatened by these Israelites ever increasing numbers. He enslaved them, and Abraham’s descendants groaned to their God for salvation. Eventually God raised up Moses, a prophet through whom God would rescue His people. Through Moses, God challenges Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods by pouring out plagues upon their land. After enduring flies, sores, locusts, and many other horrors, God unleashes the ninth plague, a thick darkness upon the whole land. Upon the significance of this plague, we now turn our attention.

OF DARKNESS

While each plague upon the Egyptians was devastating, the latter ones are certainly the most horrific. Only the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, can rival the terror of this one. Notice first God’s initial words describing the darkness that He will bring upon the Egyptians: a darkness to be felt. God apparently intended to redefine the concept of thick darkness. We tend to think of darkness as being an absence of light. Similar to coldness (which is the absence of heat), darkness is not an entity in and of itself; it is mere what is left behind whenever light is removed. While we instinctually understand this to be the norm, we also have the capacity to fear a different kind of darkness. We think of darkness as thick whenever darkness seems to have substance. Such deep darkness feels like an envelopment or swallowing of light, rather than merely its absence.

Terror is the proper response to such primordial chaos. Within it, we glimpse the horror of having the Creator’s hand of grace removed, of a disordered and rebellious cosmos. In a sense, then, God was providing the Egyptians with a tangible representation of sin, and they were right to fear. Moses says that no one rose from his place for those three days. What else could they do? Although they were all in darkness, it separated them from one another. They were all together alone. God left the entire nation to cower in the dark.

This scene is an interesting juxtaposition with God’s commanding of light in Genesis 1. There, God brought light into existence and established the division between the two elements. The darkness was a primordial chaos, an absence of light, and God was dispelling it away as He shaped His cosmos into order. His commanding of light, therefore, seems entirely natural. But here He is commanding the darkness as well. He is actively shrouding the Egyptians in un-light.

Doesn’t that seem as bit odd?

Of course, darkness itself, while symbolic of evil, is morally neutral like the rest of the plagues. Flies are often associated with death and decay, but they are not themselves wicked. God, as Creator, certainly reserves all rights to use the less than pleasant portions of creation as instruments of His judgment. Nothing strange there.

And yet we could consider the symbolic nature of darkness and ask how God relates to evil in general. How, for instance, are we to think of God’s sovereignty over all things, particularly the malevolence that exists in the world? Does God control evil like He controls the darkness here?

Such complex questions require complex answers, and so if we are not willing to entertain difficult answers then we should stop asking difficult questions. And much of the complexity revolves around the meaning of words. Do we mean by controlling evil that God is responsible for the evil actions? If so, then God is NOT in control of (or, we might say, the orchestrator of) evil. Or do we mean that God controls evil by limiting its presence and consequences and by ultimately using its effects for good? If so, then God is absolutely in control of evil.

God is sovereign over all things, even evil, yet He is not the Author of evil. He actively limits the presence and consequences of evil in the world. Without His common grace, we humans would have annihilated ourselves long ago. The mere existence of each person’s conscious severely decreases the base desires and impulses that would wreak havoc. Even Satan himself is kept on this leash. In the book of Job, Satan must ask God for permission to strike Job, and although God grants his request, He still sets the boundaries which Satan cannot cross.

We should take comfort in this truth. There is no evil in this world that God will not ultimately use for good, especially for His people (Romans 8:28). This by no means excuses evil deeds; instead, it magnifies the supremacy of God’s goodness. Yes, He continues to permit wickedness for now, but it will never have the final word. We can trust that even evil plays a role into God’s unfolding story of redemption.

A PEOPLE FOR HIS OWN POSSESSION

Verse 23 ends with a phrase that I must have always read but overlooked: but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Throughout the plagues, God made a point of explicitly distinguishing between His people and the Egyptians, and that practice is continued here. This idea is repeated throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s people, Israel, are separated from the other nations, the Gentiles. In fact, nations and Gentiles are the same word in Hebrew. The division was so ingrained that much of the New Testament is concerned with how Jews and Gentiles are supposed to relate to one another in Christ.

But why did God make such a distinction?

The Israelites, as the descendants of Abraham, were the inheritors of the promises that God made to their ancestor. They were made God’s people by God’s pure grace. Think about it. The Creator could have called anyone from any place to be the patriarch of His people, but He chose Abraham. And in choosing Abraham, He also chose the nation of Israel. He is clear throughout the Scriptures that this choice was unilateral. The Israelites were not chosen for their greatness nor for their morality; instead, they repeatedly prove not to be those things. God chose them in an act of grace. He became their God by choosing to be their God, and even as they repeatedly reject Him, He continues to chase after them. God chose them; they did not choose God.

Yet does this unilateral act of God mean that He simply abandoned the other nations? Did He leave them to walk in the darkness of their ways, only granting salvation to the Israelites? Too many people (even Christians) believe that a disparity lies between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God seems to only care for His people, while in the New Testament, God desires that all ethnicities should become followers of Christ.

Such a thought is nothing more than a misunderstanding. It is a reasonable misunderstanding, since most of the Jews failed to grasp it, but a misunderstanding, nonetheless. God’s plan was always to make the nations His people. Recall that God’s original design for humanity was to fill the earth with His image-bearers who would worship Him through stewarding His world. The Great Commission was a recommissioning of the First Commission. God’s design has never wavered, but its mode of expression has manifested differently throughout various ages.

God’s plan for making the Israelite’s into His people was for them to be a beacon of light unto the other nations. Consider God’s words to them in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.

Israel was a holy nation, a people set apart exclusively for the glory and purposes of God. They were in all matters His people. But their status as God’s treasured possession was not so that they could develop a superiority complex over the rest of mankind. Instead, the Creator rightfully claimed the whole earth for His possession. Israel, therefore, was intended to be a kingdom of priests. Because priests acted as mediators between God and man, Israel’s responsibility was to lead the rest of the nations into loving worship of the one true God. They were to follow Israel’s example. But unfortunately, Israel repeatedly failed to offer a proper example of true worship to the nations. They constantly rejected the LORD, their God.

Through Jesus, God’s people came to be called by a new name: the church. Most in the early church also belonged to ethnic Israel, but the balance quickly shifted as the message of God’s grace spread across the globe. Today, the vast majority of the God’s people are adopted into Abraham’s family, while many of the patriarch’s biological descendants are willfully disavowing their inheritance. If the church’s fulfillment of Israel’s function was not clear enough, listen to Peter’s message to us:

1 Peter 2:9 | But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

We are a new race of people within the overall race of humanity, a new ethnicity. We are the kingdom of royal priests, ready to lead others to the living God. We are a holy nation, a nation within the nations of the world, with a common heavenly citizenship. We are God’s treasured possess, His people. And He is our God.

Before God called him, Abraham dwelt in the darkness of sin, much more insidious than the physical plague that was brought upon the Egyptians. God brought the man of faith out of darkness so that God’s marvelous light might be displayed through him. Likewise, God’s light upon the Israelites was meant to contrast the darkness upon the Egyptians. Through His people, God revealed Himself to the Egyptians as the Most High God, the God who easily dismantled their deities, but the Egyptians continued to dwell in darkness, rejecting God’s light.

The distinction between those who belong to God and those who do not is not to be made light-heartedly. It is a deathly serious matter to claim that most people in the world are children of the darkness instead of the light. But the distinction must be made. God’s people cannot attempt clothing themselves in darkness so as not to make others uncomfortable. Light stings eyes that are accustomed to the dark. In the light, deeds are exposed, but they can be hidden under the cover of darkness. Men, therefore, love the darkness rather than the light.

The light is truly marvelous, but countless image-bearers will freely choose the dark instead. Even still, we must proclaim God’s excellencies. We must shine as lights in the world. We must reach into the darkened crevices, knowing that many will wander further still away from the light. We are God’s people, saved by the grace of the Most High; let us, therefore, fulfill our commission by filling the earth with more who will joyfully walk in His light.

 

 

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Let There Be Light! | Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:1-5 ESV

 

We begin this season of Advent by going back to the very beginning, the creation of all things. In Genesis 1, we meet the Author of all existence, God the Creator. Because the miracle of the incarnation (the first advent of Jesus) is all about God becoming man, we must spend time gazing upon the holiness of God in order to grasp even a fraction of the significance of Christ’s birth.

Let’s be honest right from the start: these verses can be taught from an infinite number of angles. In fact, I’ve already preached through them once before. Our focus, therefore, will be far from exhaustive; instead, I desire to structure our study around three questions, from which we will derive points of application as well.

WHO IS GOD?

This question is easy to ignore, to bypass on our way to deeper discussions. However, God is not merely our subject; He is the very context of our discussion.

What exactly does this mean?

First, we see that God is the subject of this text. He is the only person performing actions here, and, as the rest of the Bible makes clear, He is the ultimate and primary protagonist of Scripture. People like Moses, Abraham, and David play crucial roles in the storyline of the Bible, but they remain secondary characters. God Himself is the hero of the Bible, no one else.

This, of course, should impact how we are meant to read the Bible. Scripture is not a self-help manual, a history book, nor many of the other ways people often think of it (although it does contain elements of those things). God’s Word is, rather, the revelation of Himself to us. The Bible primarily shows us God, which includes for what purpose He made us, how we rejected Him, and how He rescued us from our rebellion. Reading the Bible will certainly always apply to you, but it is not about you. It’s about God.

But God is not only the Bible’s main subject; He is also its context. Notice that in Genesis 1:1 God creates everything. The phrase the heavens and the earth is a merism (much like searching high and low for something) that means everything that exists. So if something exists, God made it. This means that God began the beginning but was never begun Himself. Side note: meditating in your bed on truths like this will probably give you that slightly dizzying sensation that kind of feels like looking out over the edge of a cliff. Existence itself is dependent upon God for its being. As people who exist, we are dependent upon God for continuing to be. The Apostle Paul rightly applies these words of a pagan poet to our relationship to the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the context for both our study and the Bible’s story because we can only read these words from Him, by Him, and through Him.

Of course, all of this is just a more complicated way of saying that God is the Creator. He is the Author, not only of the Bible, but of soft-shelled crabs, trees, the color spectrum, and everything else. He stands outside of time as the One who eternally is, without both beginning and end. Beside Him stand no equals. He alone is supreme, holy. He is God, and there are no others. As Creator, He began creation, and He will ultimately judge all His creatures.

Consider the reality of what this means. You are not a god. You are a creature created by God. You, therefore, do not know what is best for your life or how to be fulfilled; God does. He designed you, so He knows how you are meant to live and function. And particularly if you are inclined to reject the claims of the Bible, consider what even the possibility of this God existing would mean. If there were even the slightest chance that this Creator is real, would it not be advantageous to investigate these matters further?

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS?

On the first day of creation, God brings light into creation establishing day and night. Like almost everything else in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, these two concepts are a reoccurring theme throughout the Bible. The light and darkness here are literal, yet as they continue to be used, we begin to understand their symbolic significance. Allen Ross clarifies this point:

It is natural light, physical light; but its much more. The Bible shows again and again that light and darkness signify mutually exclusive realms, especially spiritual matters of good and evil. Through Scripture light is the realm of God and the righteous; darkness is the domain of the Evil One and death. Light represents that which is holy, pure, true, life-giving, and gladdening. (108)

It is no small thing that we are more at ease in the light. By light, we are able to see whatever is around us, surveying and understanding our environment. Because of this, light is also often symbolic for knowledge, while ignorance is represented by darkness.

Yet this first act of creation also provides a further glimpse at answering our first question. In 1 John 1:5, we learn that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God brings light into the creation because He is light. His very presence chases away darkness, so it is only natural for Him to begin creation by forming light. As if to emphasize that light flows from Him, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars (objects that give light) does not occur until day four.

WHY WAS THERE DARKNESS IN GENESIS 1:2?

Our final question is certainly one of the most intriguing from the creation account. If God, who is light, makes light on the first day, why was there already darkness in verse 2? The attempted answers for what exactly is happening in verse 2 are multitude.

The gap theory is particularly popular, which posits that a large gap of time exists between verses 1 and 2. Satan’s rebellion in heaven occurred during this time period, and the ensuing heavenly battle left creation in the condition of verse 2.

Although the gap theory quite possibly might be the correct answer, I lean towards the idea that verse 2 describes the raw state of the world from when God began to create in verse 1. Indeed, verse 2 has a chaotic undertone, while the remainder of the chapter centers around God bringing order from chaos.

But why would God create the cosmos in a state of disorder and chaos just to put it into order over the span of one week? Of course, we know that God could have created everything in working order in an instant, no days of creation required. But He didn’t. He chose to create through a process, which can only mean that it is significant. It is not a stretch, therefore, to view God as creating the world disordered and primordial, so that He could shape it properly. In fact, this is God’s mode of operations throughout the rest of the Bible too (even from chapter one, He is revealing to us His character). Consider God’s promise to give Abraham the Promised Land, which was only fulfilled more than four hundred years later by his descendants under the leadership of Joshua. Or think of David’s long road to being king after being anointed by Samuel as a boy. Our own salvation is quite another process, as we struggle through the already-not-yet of both wrestling with and being freed from sin. We see this in nature as well (i.e. photosynthesis and the water cycle). The examples are endless because God works through processes.

This also explains why our obsession with instant gratification, deep down, feels so wrong. Sin corrupts our desires, making our wants prone to contradict God’s perfect design. We long to escape the systems that God designed, which is just a repackaging of the first sin.

But back to the original question: why was darkness present in verse 2? I believe it is to show that God is the dispeller of darkness. Here He forms light and establishes the division between darkness and light, but in our final sermon, we will see God dispel darkness completely. Creation begins with no light but ends with no darkness. This is the Creator’s plan. This is the good news.

Unfortunately, God’s dispelling of darkness is also a problem for us since Adam and Eve plunge the world into deeper chaos in Genesis 3. That chapter tells how our ancestors rejected God’s glorious design for creation. While God made them His stewards, exercising dominion over the earth, they wanted to be like God Himself. They attempted to usurp God’s throne, and because of that sin, we and all of creation have become corrupt and broken. We now follow the same pattern. We sin. We reject God’s design, choosing instead our own wants and desires. We elevate ourselves above the God who formed us from the dust and breathed life into our bones. This is folly defined, the rejecting of light in favor of the dark.

Fortunately, God would not leave us to grope about in the dark. He would come to rescue His people. During Advent, we celebrate the glorious coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ. By becoming human (while still retaining His divinity), Jesus walked the earth as the second Adam, the perfect human who (unlike Adam) rejected each opportunity to sin. He walked the earth, drawing some into His light, while others shrank away further into the dark. Then, at the end of His life, He willing submitted Himself over to death, suffering the righteous wrath of God in our place, and after rising from the dead, He freely grants us His righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news and grand message of the Bible. This is the story that God has been telling from the beginning. Like the primordial chaos of creation’s beginning, God made us knowing that we would sin. Even before He said, “Let there be light”, the advent of Jesus was planned. This is His story, His process of creation and redemption, the revealing to His people His glory and splendor, His justice and wrath, His grace and mercy, His love and His compassion.

 

My God Will Supply Every Need of Yours | Philippians 4:14-23

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Philippians 4:14-23 ESV

 

Now Paul turns his heart once again to the gift of the Philippians, saying that it was kind of them to share in his troubles. Even though Paul wants to be clear that it was Christ that enabled him to face his various tribulations, he wants the Philippians to understand that their gift was a joy upon joy. He further describes the previous help that these brothers and sisters had been to him while he was in Macedonia and Thessalonica. Christ alone is sufficient for every concern, but he was incredibly thankful to have such a generous and loving family around the world.

PARTNERING IN THE GOSPEL // VERSES 14-20

Having taken a detour in thought to describe his contentment in the Lord in verses 11-13, Paul now returns to commenting on the concern the Philippians showed him through their gift. Sent by the hands of Epaphroditus, we do not know what their gifts to the apostle were, although we can assume that they included a letter of encouragement to him. Whatever the gifts were (whether financial, literary, or something else), Paul makes it clear that the Philippians were partnering with Paul in his ministry. And since Paul’s primary ministry was to preach the gospel to those who had yet to hear of Jesus, we can look to these verses for a theological snapshot of why churches supporting missionaries is so crucial to the advancement of the gospel.

Verse 14 gives us our first principle: partnering in missions means sharing trouble. The sufferings of Paul are no secret. Few people can even fathom persevering through the trials that he faced. He lists a few of these tribulations in 2 Corinthians 11:24–28:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Most of us would cease after facing even a fraction of what Paul experienced, yet he continued onward. This letter has revealed much of the apostle’s theological grounds for joy in the midst of such suffering; however, Paul also took joy in knowing that churches like the Philippians were ready to share with him in his trials. The word for share here derives from the same root word that Paul uses for partnership in verse 15 and in 1:5. He is describing the fellowship, community, or communion that followers of Christ share. Such partnership and community are marks of true Christians. It is fitting, therefore, that we would also share each other’s sufferings.

But how can long distance partnerships, like Paul and Philippians, really mean sharing in the missionary’s troubles? First, we must remember that sending Epaphroditus with their gifts was a sacrifice in and of itself. The journey from Philippi to Rome was around 800 miles, which was an especially significant voyage in the ancient world. Indeed, as we should recall, Epaphroditus nearly died taking their gifts to Paul (2:27). So the risk of sending someone to Paul was great; however, there was also danger in openly showing their support of Paul and his ministry. Remember that Paul was imprisoned because his proclamation of the gospel was thought to stir up public outrage. The Romans considered Paul an enemy of the state, a danger to the fragile peace of the ethnically-diverse patchwork that was the Roman Empire. And for a city as Romanized as Philippi, knowledge of such support could have intensified their already present persecution.

Finally, we must also remember that there is much spiritual comfort in knowing that brothers and sisters are praying for you. Even if the Philippians could not be sitting with Paul in prison, there was comfort in knowing that they were concerned and praying for him. Simply knowing that fellow Christians around the world were petitioning the Father for him and eagerly awaiting news from him must have strengthened his resolve to persevere.

Although I don’t pretend to know anything close to Paul’s trials or even those of career missionaries, I do recall the encouragement of support while spending two months in Venezuela. As humans, it is impossible not to have days of discouragement, yet the knowledge that I was serving on behalf of others that could not go often gave me strength to keep pressing forward. May we never forget how much it means to those who are on the frontlines of missions that we care about them and are praying for them. Doing so is a form of sharing in their troubles.

In verses 15-16, Paul recalls how the Philippians repeatedly helped to meet Paul’s needs throughout his journey in Macedonia and even to Thessalonica (which was nearly one hundred miles from Philippi). Notice how carefully Paul words things here. He does not say that the Philippians met all of his needs while he was traveling in their area; instead, he says that they helped to meet his needs. The apostle is careful not to place too great of a burden upon the Philippians since they certainly did not have the ability to meet his needs entirely, not while he was still in Macedonia and especially not while he was in Rome. God alone could meet Paul’s needs, yet the Philippians were used by the Lord to meet some of his needs.

Likewise, we must understand that in our support of missionaries today we are called to meet their needs, yet we cannot meet all their needs. Only the Father can give them the support that they need, yet it is our privilege to be one instrument through which he provides that very support for them. This keeps us from two common errors: pride and discouragement. We are kept from pride because we know that regardless of how great our support is it will never be entirely sufficient. But we are also kept from discouragement because we know that God is ultimately the one who is doing the work and meeting the needs. We, therefore, have the ability to do our part with joy, knowing that God is true supplier.

In verse 17, Paul reiterates his selfless mentality by stating that he seeks the fruitful increase of the Philippians’ account rather than their gift itself. Paul’s language here is undeniably financial. The ESV footnotes suggests another possible translation as being: I seek the profit that accrues to your account. Unmistakably, Paul views the Philippians’ giving as a financial investment, one that is accruing fruitful interest on their behalf. But how are we to understand this concept of heavenly investment?

Paul’s language is similar to Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:19-20 | Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Like Paul, Jesus is describing a kind of heavenly investment, storing our treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The wisdom is found in the security of our investment. On earth, savings can be lost. In a moment, people with great wealth have been reduced to poverty (as we learned in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17). Earthly funds are never entirely safe, but what can rob us of our heavenly treasure? Investing in the kingdom of God will never prove unsecure or unprofitable. It is, therefore, foolish not to store our treasures in heaven. By their support of Paul, the Philippians were doing just that. Their partnership in Paul’s ministry was an investment in God’s kingdom, in the advancement of the gospel. One day, when the gospel has spread through all the earth and Jesus has returned as King, the Philippians’ investment will be proven fruitful indeed. We likewise make such an investment whenever we support the spreading of the good news. Generous giving toward gospel efforts is an eternal investment for us.

In verse 18, Paul now returns to the significance of their gift. First, he assures them of his satisfaction with their gift. The word Paul uses for more at the beginning of the verse is actually the same word Paul used in verse 12 for abound; thus, tying this thought with that one. Indeed, we would expect prison of all places to have put Paul in a position of need, yet he writes to the Philippians that their gift has well supplied him, giving him plenty. In other words, he understands the tremendous grace God has given him through the generosity of the Philippian church.

But once again, his emphasis turns from himself back onto the Philippians as he calls their gift a fragrant offering to God. Having used financial language, Paul now uses the language of Old Testament sacrifices to describe their partnership with him. Like a sacrifice made on the altar of the Temple, so is the giving of the Philippians to meet the needs of Paul. It is an offering back to God from what he has generously provided for us. In the Old Testament, offerings were made to God in thanksgiving and recognition that He gives all that we have. Sacrificing an animal, therefore, was certainly a financial sacrifice, but it served as a physical reminder that all things ultimately belong to God. In this way, a sacrifice is a form of recognizing God as God. Thus, Paul informs the Philippians that the same event is occurring with their gift. Their giving was a sacrifice, money that could have been used to meet other needs, yet they still gave, knowing that God Himself is the Giver of all things. Their gift to Paul was ultimately not about Paul but about God. They sacrificed to the God of all things and to the work that He is doing here on earth.

In verse 19, Paul’s attention shifts yet again back to the benefit of the Philippians in their giving. This mighty verse is essentially the apostle’s expression of confidence that God will be faithful to pay his tab. Especially in the culture of the Roman Empire, reciprocal giving among friends was commonplace. Giving to a friend was done with the understanding that they were essentially indebted to you and would need to one day return the favor. Paul takes this customary mentality and flips it on its head, assuring the Philippians that God Himself would take care of Paul’s end.

It is worth making a side note that God has always been in the business of rearranging cultural norms and practices. Because we are made in God’s image, every culture will somewhat reflect God’s character; nevertheless, each reflection is broken by sin. Whenever the gospel penetrates a society, its culture must bow to the gospel, not the other way around. As with the reciprocal giving of friendship in the ancient world, God will often use the language of our culture to reach us, but He recircuits our customs, beliefs, and values for His glory. While giving with the understanding that the other person is indebted to you could lead to non-generous, selfish giving, Paul shifts their expectations by pointing them to God as the one who would give to them in return.

Now this verse can very easily be taken as support for property theology. After all, it does sound like Paul is saying that because the Philippians supported him, God will completely provide for the Philippians. They give, and God blesses. That’s how it works, right? Not exactly. We can never forget that this verse is in the context of the Philippians’ partnership with Paul in advancing the gospel. Paul is not saying that for every dollar that the Philippians gave to his ministry God would give them ten more. Instead, he is saying that as they continue to partner in the spreading of the gospel God would continue to give them the ability to do so. In other words, as they did the work of expanding God’s kingdom, God would be faithful to supply their every need.

Seeing verse 19 as following verses 14-18 is crucial to our mentality of giving. Too often, we either give less than we should or not at all because we are waiting for God to give us a greater ability to give. However, God expects us to give sacrificially, while trusting Him to provide. Indeed, as we support the work of His kingdom, God will be faithful to support us. John G. Paton wrote these words about his home church in Scotland’s support of his missionary work:

Nor did the dear old Church thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized. And in May, 1876, the Reformed Presbyterian Church entered into an honorable and independent Union with her larger, wealthier, and more progressive sister, the Free Church of Scotland. (21 Servants, 541)

This isn’t to say that we should give in order to be blessed by God; however, it is a promise that God will provide for His work. God desires for disciples to be made of all nations, and He will be faithful to fund that mission. We should not be surprised, then, that many of the healthiest churches are also the most mission-minded churches.

Unsurprisingly, all this talk about partnerships, giving, and being supplied causes Paul to erupt into a doxology of praise. Just as our supply from God only comes through His riches in Christ Jesus, so the apostle emphasizes again that God alone receives the glory for all things. Yes, we are called to do our part in accomplishing the Great Commission, but we are not entitled to any praise for our work because it is the Father who enables us to do it in the first place. In the spreading of the gospel, as in the gospel itself, the glory is to God alone.

FINAL GREETINGS // VERSES 21-23

Paul concludes his letter by exchanging greetings. He wishes for greetings to be sent from him and “all the saints” to each believer that is with them. While this is a common element for Christians to express toward one another, the real surprise is Paul’s inclusion of the saints in Caesar’s household. Our minds should recall Paul’s assurance in 1:13 that through his imprisonment even the Praetorian Guard had heard the gospel. Now, as if to comfort the Philippians even more, Paul subtly lets them know that even members of the Roman Emperor’s household believe in Christ. This is a powerful foretelling of the far-reaching pervasiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although Paul would be beheaded by the order of the Emperor only a few years after writing this letter, Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire in about three centuries. Regardless of the present circumstances, both history and the Scriptures remind us that the Jesus’ kingdom always triumphs and will permanently triumph in the end.

In a letter as Christocentric as Philippians, it is only fitting for it to end by turning toward Jesus once again. Paul’s final prayer is for the grace of Jesus to be with them. This was the greatest prayer that Paul could give them because only by the unmerited grace of Christ, could they take hold of the joy presented in this letter. And two thousand years later, the same is still true for us.

By grace alone, we have hope of being completed at the day of Jesus Christ.

By grace alone, our love will continue to abound more and more.

By grace alone, our life is Christ.

By grace alone, our death is gain.

By grace alone, we behave as citizens worthy of the gospel.

By grace alone, we are unified in our minds and hearts toward each other.

By grace alone, we clothe ourselves with the humility of Christ, treating others as better than ourselves.

By grace alone, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

By grace alone, we know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

By grace alone, we are citizens of heaven, awaiting the Savior who will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.

By grace alone, we are content in every situation, being strengthened by Jesus Himself.

By grace alone, we partner in the advancing of the gospel into all nations.

By grace alone, we rejoice in the Lord always, no matter the circumstance or tribulation.

By grace alone, we count everything as vanity for the sake of Christ.

May we fall constantly and continuously upon the grace of Christ.

I Can Do All Things Through Him Who Strengthens Me | Philippians 4:10-13

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

 

Here in chapter four, Paul is giving his final comments to the Philippians and wrapping up the themes of the letter. He has urged the Philippians once again to fight for unity, to rejoice in the Lord always, and to practice what they have learned from him. The apostle now writes about the Philippians revived concern for him, while also emphasizing that even while in prison he has learned to be content in the Lord.

CHRISTIAN CONCERN // VERSE 10

As Paul’s letter nears its end, he now turns his mind toward the love that the Philippians have shown him. This is an interesting verse because at first it could appear that Paul was suggesting that the Philippians did not have concern for him at some point. In order for them to revive their concern, they must have lost some of that concern previously, correct? Certainly not. The apostle even explains that their concern never diminished but their ability did. We do not know why exactly the church of Philippi did not have an opportunity to support Paul, but he expresses his gratitude that they were now able to send him such a gift when they previously could not. Paul’s receiving of their gift likely meant that the situation was improving for the Philippians.

We will focus on a point to be made from this verse more next week, but it should also be noted here: local churches must have a vision for fulfilling the Great Commission beyond themselves. While it is true that the importance of the local congregations of believers is difficult to over-emphasize, we must never forget that the gospel can only be made known to every nation and ethnicity via the collective effort of all believers worldwide. Practically, if most of the unreached people groups live in the 10/40 Window, then most churches around the world are not in a position to interact on a daily basis with those people. In fact, many of those areas are hostile to the very idea of an established Christian church existing within their homelands. Thus, we send and support missionaries who take the gospel especially to unreached lands. It is crucial for churches that are not on the frontline of taking the gospel to unreached peoples to partner in the word of these missionaries. Paul’s mission, after all, was just that; he aimed to preach Jesus Christ where He had not yet been named (Romans 15:20). The majority of Christians will not find themselves doing this work for Christ, yet those who do the work of Paul must have the support of we who seek to imitate the Philippians. While there are many ways to express our support and partnership with them, the two primary means are through financial giving and prayer.

THE ART OF CONTENTMENT // VERSES 11-12

Just in case his brothers and sisters have mistaken Paul’s gratitude over their gift for him being in great need, he is quick to note that he is content. Notice his wording. He does not claim that he is not in need because he definitely did have needs. However, so that he would not place extra pressure upon a struggling church, Paul quickly emphasizes that despite his needs he found true contentment. In fact, Paul’s rejoicing in their gift was more because of the love that it showed for him, not primarily because of the needs that it met.

There is a supernatural beauty to the contentment that is found in Paul. Though he has not mentioned his contentment until now, its calm and confident effects are felt throughout the entire book and throughout his life. The apostle was sitting in prison, his fate uncertain at the time of writing this letter, yet his heart is not troubled or anxious. Paul’s life was a living expression of the peace of God that verse seven describes. The supreme joy that Paul found in Christ displayed itself in an overarching satisfaction that was not contingent upon his circumstances. He had learned to rely upon and need only Jesus in both times of abundance and times of need. Even in the presence of hunger, Paul was able to acknowledge Jesus as the Bread of Life and find his contentment in Christ.

This is the true peace that God offers. God does not promise to magically meet every need, as though He were a cosmic genie. God gives us Himself, which is the greatest gift, so that regardless of what befalls us we will be able to rejoice in Him because He is sufficient.

This biblical understanding of contentment emphasizes the crucial role of being satisfied in the Christian life. Our contentment is an outflow of God’s goodness toward us, while discontentment reveals a struggling faith in God’s providence. To be dissatisfied as a Christian is to proclaim God Himself and His provisions as insufficient.

Of course, most of us would immediately reject such a thought. We would reason that we may be discontent on occasion, but we are not distrusting God Himself through our discontentment. Unfortunately, even sporadic discontentment is just that. A lack of contentment with your spouse reflects a dissatisfaction with God as well as your spouse because God is the giver of every good gift. In fact, coveting can only form in the absence of contentment. Looking longingly at the lives of those around us, therefore, is an indicator of our soul’s present danger. Coveting, envy, and materialism are the fruit of discontentment. Because of this, we might possess a greater fear of being brought low and facing hunger and need, yet times of abundance and plenty are just as dangerous, if not more so, to our souls. Agur is wise to write the following prayer:

Proverbs 30:7-9 | Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal band profane the name of my God.

Yet Paul’s words are distinct from Agur’s words. Agur knew his own inability to process both riches and poverty; therefore, he prayed for the LORD to keep him from both. Likewise for us, this is still a very wise prayer to pray. Paul, however, speaks to the reality that we will almost always experience times of riches and times of need, yet he has learned to be satisfied even during those highs and lows. He was able to recognize his fulfillment during times of hunger, while also still recognizing his need in times of plenty.

What does this look like in your life?

Are you forgetting God in the midst of living in abundance?

Are you feeling the pain of need and feeling discontentment with your life?

Has your discontent ever spiraled into other sins, such as coveting, envy, or greed?

But how exactly do we fight for contentment, regardless of our circumstances?

Paul answers that very question in our final verse.

A MISUNDERSTOOD VERSE // VERSE 13

Yes, the high school football verse! There is nothing that is impossible for a Christian because at just the right moment, Jesus will give them all the strength that they need. If you fail to study for a test, don’t worry. Trust in Jesus, and through Him you will be able to do all things. That is what this verse means, right? Jesus gives us strength, so we can do anything that we set our minds to.

Nothing could be farther away from the depth behind this incredibly popular verse. Paul penned this verse in the face of death and imprisonment with his body already failing because of the hardships that he had received. Paul was not looking toward Jesus as an extra boost of strength or a fix-all in the midst of arbitrary circumstances; he was looking to Christ as the only necessary element for strength through imprisonment and even into death. Paul knew that he was able to face any circumstance with joy and contentment because Jesus was everything to him! Jesus was the treasure of Paul’s life. Thus, if he had already found the Source of supreme joy, how could any trial damper his satisfaction? No situation was too great for Paul because Christ gave life to his joints. Even in death, Christ would be all-sufficient. Jesus is the secret to contentment in all circumstances.

Unfortunately, this is an easy teaching to claim, but it is quite difficult to actually live. We are so prone to do things in our own strength. Trusting self is for us like water to a fish; we rarely even recognize just how thoroughly we are swimming in it. We move along through our daily lives without blinking at the how frequently take things into our own hands. For instance, since we live in culture of abundance, we rarely pause to give thanks to God for the vast supply of food within our reach, but it is even less common for us to actually pray for Him to continue providing it. Or how often do we approach God’s Word without first begging His Spirit to grant us both understanding and obedience? We do things ourselves. We are, after all, red-blooded Americans who can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps whenever the going gets tough, right? Such an attitude is the opposite of Paul’s confidence in Jesus Christ. The apostle knew that Jesus alone was his strength. His own efforts were hopelessly futile without the Lord’s powerful supply in his life.

Brothers and sisters, the greatness of Paul is found only in the apostle’s continuous acknowledging of his own weakness and Christ’s infinite strength. Likewise, the mightiest figures in the history of the church were those who depended upon Jesus the most. Spurgeon, when asked how he was able to do everything that he did, responded by reminding the person that he and the Holy Spirit counted as two people working. Augustine’s profound insights into the ways of God came from how the gospel triumphed over his deep longings for the lusts of the flesh. Martin Luther proclaimed the glories of grace so boldly because he first felt the brutal weight of not being able to obey God’s commands. In God’s kingdom, the least truly are the greatest and the last are first. The weakest often prove to be the strongest because in their weakness, Christ’s strength is upon greater display.

Similarly, we will never conquer our own discontented hearts without Christ’s supernatural aid. We cannot face both need and plenty in righteousness unless Jesus is giving us the strength to do so. In fact, we see this very thought in the very first line of Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” The great value of sheep can only be achieved through the meticulous and gentle care of a shepherd. He is their defended and provider, their strength and their support. In the hands of a good shepherd, sheep are content.

Likewise, because Jesus is our Good Shepherd, we have no reason to want, to be discontent. If we are hungry, He Himself will be our daily bread. When He commands us to obey, He provides His Spirit to enable us to do it. When we are faithless to Him, He remains faithful. When we are lonely, He is beside us, even if we made our bed in the grave (Psalm 139:7). When our own strength and even our heart fails, He is the strength of our heart and our portion forever (Psalm 73:26).

Is Jesus, therefore, your strength, or do you desire something or someone else?

Are you living according to our own abilities, or is Christ working through you in everything?

Are you satisfied and content in Christ, or is your heart searching vainly for something greater?

Knowing Christ & His Resurrection | Philippians 3:10-11

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.

Philippians 3:10-11 ESV

 

Having expressed his dependency upon the grace of God for righteousness, Paul now proceeds to detail the benefits of knowing and being found in Christ. We can roughly break these benefits into three sections: knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection, sharing His sufferings, and attaining the resurrection of the dead.

KNOWING CHRIST & THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION // VERSE 10

The first benefit of being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection. In verse 8, we described briefly the importance of knowing Christ, which Paul considered surpassing more valuable than his own religious works. Here the apostle emphasizes that knowing Christ is a fruit of the gospel itself. Too many envision the good news as a kind of Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. By saving us from our sins, Jesus grants us access to heaven. Period. End of story. The gospel, however, promises us so much more than a pleasant place to spend eternity; it promises us Jesus Christ. Failing to understand the majesty of such a promise can only mean that the gospel itself is not understood. Jesus is the both the means and the goal of the gospel. He rescued us, and He is our great reward.

Of course, a new Christian who first believes the gospel knows something of Christ but will be hungry to know more of Him. How does he or she do this? We grow in knowledge of Christ through reading and understanding the written Word of God. The Bible is the special revelation of God to humanity; therefore, we come to know Him through the Scriptures. But the need to grow in our knowledge of Christ is not just for new Christians. Because Jesus is the eternal God, we will never know Him fully. Finite minds simply cannot understand entirely that which is infinite. Thus, to suggest that we already sufficiently know Christ is, first, a statement of supreme arrogance and, second, actually reveals that we do not comprehend even the basic divinity of Christ. We shall spend all of eternity coming to understand more and more of our Savior, yet we will never reach the end. Tozer captures what must be the heart of each Christian with these words:

To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart. St. Bernard stated this holy paradox in a musical quatrain that will be instantly understood by every worshiping soul:

We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill. 

Does this describe you?

Are you pursuing God?

In Christ, the Father is revealed to us; therefore, our pursuit will not be in vain. God has commanded this of us: “You have said, ‘Seek my face’” (Psalm 27:8). May we answer with the psalmist: “My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:8).

But the apostle does not stop at simply knowing Christ; instead, he also adds another phrase: and the power of his resurrection. Thus, being transformed by the gospel means knowing Christ and the power that raised Him from the dead. What then is the power of Christ’s resurrection? We should begin with the reminder that it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:17, Paul bluntly states: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Without the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity comes undone. There is no hope for the life to come, for us to be saved from our sins, if Christ remained in the grave. The gospel itself depends upon the resurrection. What can be more powerful than that? What knowledge on earth can compare to knowing that God Himself died for the sins of His rebellious creatures and rose from the dead to display His power for all to see? No truth is greater than this.

But how can we know the power of Christ’s resurrection? Romans 8:11 provides us with a clue: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each and every believer, granting to us spiritual life in Christ here and eternal life with Christ in the age to come. Each Christian knows the power of Christ’s resurrection because it is the very power which saved us from being dead in sin. To believe the gospel is to experience the power of the resurrection.

Finally, notice that knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection are entwined with one another. This is no accident on Paul’s part. Rather, Christ cannot be known apart from also knowing the power of His resurrection. To deny the reality of His rising is to deny Christ Himself. We are only able to know Him because of His victory of the grave on our behalf.

SHARING THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST // VERSE 10

The second benefit of salvation is sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Like verse 29 of chapter one, we might be tempted to slide past this verse without giving it too much thought; however, it is crucial for understanding Paul’s joy in the midst of suffering. To understand this, we must first understand Christ’s sufferings. The afflictions of Christ were so essential to His life that Isaiah gave Him this description: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). As the hymn declares, “Man of sorrows, what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim”! And although Christ’s life was one of rejection and sorrow, the very pinnacle is the cross. In fact, Paul made such a claim already by placing the crucifixion of Christ at the very depth of His humiliation for us (2:8). The sufferings of Christ upon the cross are so central to the life of Christ that we can rightly declare that Jesus came to earth to die. His atoning death was the reason behind the glorious miracle of the incarnation. As with the resurrection, we cannot overstate the vast importance of the sufferings of Christ via the cross.

But what then does Paul mean about sharing in Christ’s sufferings? After all, wasn’t the whole point of the cross for Jesus to suffer in our place? Paul is certainly not implying that we must somehow add to the sufferings of Christ with our own. The blood of Christ is entirely sufficient to save. Instead, he is describing how we must become imitators of Christ, especially in suffering. If Jesus was the Man of Sorrows and we are His disciples, will we not also be marked by suffering? Jesus warns us of this very thing: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Mark 10:24-25). As followers of Christ, we can only expect to suffer like our Lord suffered. The writers of the New Testament remind us often of this fact.

1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 | And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.

1 Peter 4:12-13 | Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something stranger were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

Christians are destined to suffer for Christ, and that should not be strange news to us. The disciple must be like his teacher. Christians must be like Christ.

Yet also pay attention to the particular wording here: and may share his sufferings. I cannot recall whether it was a book or a podcast where I was first introduced to this idea, but it is a crucial distinction to make: Paul, along with the early Christians, considered themselves to be suffering alongside Christ during their afflictions. Today, however, a strong tendency exists to take comfort that Christ suffers alongside us in our sorrows. Instead of being comforted that we are with Christ, we are comforted that Christ is with us. The difference is subtle, but this is not a splitting of hairs. One view gives us the honor of suffering alongside Christ, while the other essentially gives Christ the honor of suffering alongside us. Christ is the focus of the first, while we are the focus of the second. We are each called to suffer with Christ. And yes, Jesus promises to be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), but our joy in the midst of suffering is that we (like the apostles) are “counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

The final phrase of verse 10 is an interesting one. As we suffer with Christ, we become like Him in His death. The NASB’s translation is more preferable: being conformed to His death. Just as form and conform are related words in English, so is the Greek word here related to the word used for form in verses 6-7 of chapter two. Just as Jesus took the form of a servant when dying for us upon the cross, so we are conformed to Him through our sufferings for the gospel. In this way, the life of the Christian is cruciform. We live in the shadow and shape of the cross, and it impacts every aspect and facets of our lives.

By the way, in case it has not become obvious yet, the letter of Philippians increasingly becomes the bane of Nominal Christianity. Cultural (or Nominal) Christianity has also been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and it is nothing like what Paul has been describing here. These “Christians” give no concern to knowing Christ, only to escaping hell. They do not desire to be conformed to the death of Christ, only to live as comfortably as possible in this life and in the one to come. They are not driven by a love of God but by selfish motives. Cultural Christianity goes against everything that Paul is presenting before us.

ATTAINING THE RESURRECTION AT ALL COSTS // VERSE 11

The third and final benefit of being saved by the gospel is attaining the resurrection of the dead. First of all, we should remind ourselves what resurrection Paul is referring to here. Within the Christian faith, two resurrections must be believed in order to remain orthodox: the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Having already discussed Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection of the dead is the future resurrection of all mankind either to everlasting life or everlasting death. Thus, the common conception of us spending an eternity in heaven floating on clouds with harps and angel wings is not presented by the Bible. Instead, followers of Christ will be raised back to life in glorified bodies that are no longer capable of sin, and we will live forever with the Lord upon the New Earth. Heaven, therefore, is not a mystical dreamworld. It is the reality, and this life is the dream. We will live forever in the physical presence of Jesus Christ our Lord. Because being with Christ will be our great reward, we must understand that even our resurrection is about knowing Christ. And this, again, is why the resurrection of Jesus is so crucial. His raising from the dead is the pledge of our resurrection with Him to come.

The resurrection is, therefore, an essential doctrine of the faith, which helps to explain Paul’s language for attaining the resurrection by any means possible. But what exactly does that phrase mean? Should we be desperately looking for a means of attaining the resurrection? Was Paul not confident in the sacrifice of Christ to give him eternal life? No, and no. The apostle has just finished ranting against attempts to earn salvation through human effort, meaning that the resurrection is also a gift from God through faith in Christ. Instead, Paul is pointing to the intimate connection between attaining the resurrection and being conformed to the death of Christ. He is looking to the resurrection as His final goal, the finish line, and against such a magnificent promise, the present sufferings are a light momentary affliction. Once again, this isn’t saying that we are justified by our cruciform life, but the evidence of the gospel is the daily death of self as we come to know Christ more and more.

In short, those who will not die with Christ here will not live with Christ in the resurrection. But of course, I’m not talking about martyrs exclusively. Each day we are given the choice of living for our own glory or the glory of Christ, to yield to our desires or to die to self. If we have no willingness to pour out our lives for the sake of Christ, then we cannot hope in the being with Him for eternity. If we do not treasure Him above all things now, how can we expect to treasure Him in the life to come?

Brothers and sisters, attaining the resurrection of the dead must be our goal. Our eyes must be fixed upon spending our eternity in the presence of Christ. By doing so, we will live differently in this life. The sufferings of this world will be nothing but transient pains leading to our future glory. The temptations of this world will become mere trifles in comparison to our enjoyment in Christ. How often, therefore, do you think of our eternal rest with the Lord? John Owen gives this warning:

Why are men so stupid? They all want to go to heaven. Nobody wants to go to hell. Most, like Balaam, would ‘die the death of the righteous’ and have their ‘latter end like his’. Yet few make any effort to get right ideas of heaven, to see if the true heaven really would satisfy them and make them eternally happy. They are stupidly content with vague ideas of heaven or deceive themselves with their own ideas of heaven. But those who have been taught heavenly truths and who profess that their chief desires lie in these truths, yet who neglect to meditate on them, show that, whatever they claim to be, they are still earthly and carnal. (Spiritual-mindedness, 70)

Does that describe you?

Do you enjoy Christ here on earth? If not, you will find no enjoyment of Him in heaven.

Does your life here revolve around the crucified and risen Savior? If not, heaven will be entirely unpleasant for you since heaven is all about Christ.

But if knowing Christ is your greatest joy now, you will know Him by sight in the resurrection, which indeed is joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Counting Everything as Vanity for the Sake of Christ | Philippians 3:4-9

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—

Philippians 3:4-9 ESV

 

Thus far, Paul has expressed his affection and thanksgiving for the Philippians’ partnership in his ministry. He then addressed concerns regarding his imprisonment by reassuring them that God was actually using it to advance the gospel and that He would keep doing so. Paul also urged the Philippians to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by being of the same mind and love, following Christ’s perfect example of humility.

In our last study, Paul began to address the danger of legalism, warning particularly against those who required Gentile Christians to be circumcised. Within our present text, Paul challenges anyone to produce a religious résumé greater than his own, while then emphasizing that he, like everyone else, is dependent upon grace alone through faith.

THE CREDENTIALS OF PAUL // VERSES 4-6

After soundly arguing against the principle of placing confidence in one’s flesh, Paul pulls out a plot twist by saying that he has more reason than anyone for putting confidence in his flesh. With the credentials that follow, we may be tempted to think of the apostle as boasting in his accomplishments; however, the exact opposite is true. He is merely sayings that if anyone could be confident in their good works it would have been him. But they were meaningless. Nothing but vanity. That’s the point. If Paul wasn’t qualified to earn his own salvation, no one is.

Verses 5-6 then act as Paul’s religious credentials of sorts. Studying it, we must admit that it is quite impressive.

Circumcised on the eighth day – It is important to note that Paul did not refute the Judaizers’ emphasis on circumcision because he did not want to go through the painful process. No, Paul was circumcised when he was only eight days old, as Jewish law commands. Thus, if circumcision was the means of justification, Paul already did it. He would only argue against something that he has already accomplished if he truly understood that it was not sufficient.

Of the people of Israel – It is clear throughout the Old Testament that the Jewish people were special. Yet they were special not because of anything that they had to offer but because God Himself chose them to be His chosen people. The Israelites were the people of God, set apart and made holy for divine purposes. Paul, therefore, was not an “unclean” Gentile, but a member of this holy nation.

Of the tribe of Benjamin – Aside from simply belonging to the Israelite people, Paul knew exactly from which tribe he came. The tribe of Benjamin was certainly one of the more prestigious of the twelve tribes.

Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who was born in the Promised Land. The tribe of Benjamin provided many noble warriors throughout Israel’s history (cf. Hos. 5:8). Israel’s first lawful king came from the tribe of Benjamin. Jerusalem and the temple stood within Benjamin’s territory. This tribe alone, beside Judah, remained loyal to David’s house when the monarchy divided in 931 B.C. The feast of Purim celebrated the salvation of the Jews by a Benjamite, Mordecai. After the Exile, Benjamin and Judah formed the core of the restoration community. Of course, this tribe’s history was not without its shame as well (e.g., Saul’s failures, the Gibeans’ atrocity that led to the civil war that almost wiped this tribe out, etc.). Nevertheless Paul could legitimately take pride in his Benjamite heritage. He came from one of the leading families in Israel. (Constable, 49)

A Hebrew of Hebrews – Though Paul was raised in a Hellenistic city, this did not prevent him from learning the fullness of his Jewish heritage. Yes, he knew and mastered the Greek language, which allowed him to scribe the letters that we have presently, but he was also a devout student of Hebrew, which even in their day was a less than popular language.

As to the law, a Pharisee – The Pharisaic sect was the all-star team of Judaism. They were the most educated men in Israel. Their theology was solid. Their commitment to keeping God’s Word was unparalleled. They had such a deep commitment to upholding the Law that they actually created their own laws (that were stricter) just so that they could avoid breaking God’s Law at all costs. Their numbers were always small and elusive. Paul had not only made the cut to be a Pharisee, but he was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the greatest Pharisees ever to live.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Zeal, or passionate fervor, for God and His Word was one of the most valued qualities of a devout Jewish person of God. Paul claims that his zeal for Judaism was so fierce that he killed those who ascribed to the “heretical” Christian sect. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine a greater form of passion than the willingness to kill for one’s beliefs.

As to righteousness under the law, blameless – I see this as Paul challenging his readers to find fault in him. He is certainly not claiming to be without sin; rather, according to all of the works and ideals of Judaism, Paul says he was blameless. He did everything required of him and more. Only a handful of people throughout history could match Paul’s religious dedication and practice.

Merida and Chan use these seven items as seven kinds of works that we often attempt to place our confidence in. Circumcision relates to our confidence in rituals. Being an Israelite and Benjamite correlate to our security in ethnicity and rank. A Hebrew of Hebrews and Pharisee can be seen as tradition and rule-keeping. Finally, a persecutor and blameless are linked to zeal and obedience to the law. Of course, none of these are bad things, but they are not sufficient to justify us before God. Which of these do you most associate with? What form does legalism take in your life?

Now with this religious résumé, Paul is using himself as an example to say that if anyone could be justified by their works, it would be him. If there was anyone that could find fulfillment in the works of their flesh, it would be Paul. In practice, a large portion of us will spend our entire lives attempting to do a fraction of what Paul did. However, verse 7 will show us his true opinion of all his efforts.

COUNTING ALL AS LOSS FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST // VERSES 7-9

Ah! What a sweet but painfully difficult verse to read! Paul’s true heart about his works is made known: that he counts it all as loss in comparison to Christ. This man, who claimed to have been blameless in his religiousness, considers everything on that list in verses five and six to be nothing when placed in the light of Christ.

Notice what is portrayed here. Paul does not say that he failed to find fulfillment in his works. All of his moral accomplishments surely gave him a form of happiness and contentment, an assurance that he was living his life for the greater good.

And that is all true. Legalism does offer a form of satisfaction, a form of gratification that comes from living for a higher purpose. Yet in this sense, religion can become little more than altruistic hedonism. It is hedonistic because the ultimate goal is pleasure. It is altruistic because it derives that pleasure from doing good. Yet even though pleasure can be found in religious works, it is not lasting. It is not eternal. It cannot lead to a permanently satisfied life. It cannot result in joy.

Thus, it is this common thread of joy that comes back into play. The joy that Paul is not afraid to repeat over and over again to the Philippians can only be found via this verse. It is not a matter of what we do, but rather it is a matter of who Christ is. The joy of this letter is not found in work or religiousness. It is only found in the glory and the supremacy of Christ. Just as we saw in the previous chapter, one day everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is supreme, that He is Lord. Being supreme and being one with God puts Jesus as the Creator and Sustainer of the all that exists. This makes Jesus the supreme source of good. Thus, when God wants to give us the greatest good, He gives to us Himself. The glory of the resplendent Christ far outshines all else so that our greatest hopes and works become mere vanities by comparison.

Expounding upon his thought in verse seven, Paul then specifies that there is a surpassing worth in knowing Christ. This knowledge is so valuable that everything is counted as loss (no longer just his religious works) in comparison to it. Jesus is of greater value to Paul than all things put together. The apostle, therefore, joyfully counted everything as lost to him because Christ is far greater and more than enough for him. Especially with the “gain” and “loss” language, it is almost as though Paul is presenting this with the logic of mathematics. If Jesus is greater than everything, I can then have Jesus plus nothing else and still be better off than if I had everything except Jesus. This explains the joyfulness of the apostle in the midst of his numerous sufferings. His persecutors had absolutely zero ability to diminish his love of the gospel because he knew Christ.

Paul further draws a line of distinction between the knowing of Christ and everything else by saying that he counts them as “rubbish.” Unfortunately, rubbish does not capture the weight of Paul’s thought here. Consider Dr. Constable’s thoughts on the word:

The Greek word translated “rubbish” (skybalon) occurs only here in the New Testament. Its derivation is uncertain, but it appears to have referred to excrement, food gone bad, scraps left over after a meal, and refuse. In extrabiblical Greek it describes a half-eaten corpse and lumps of manure. Thus Paul meant that his former advantages (his standing, wealth, and position in the Jewish community) were not only worthless but strongly offensive and potentially dangerous. He put his most prized possessions in the garbage can. (Constable, 51)

Some have gone so far as to argue that Paul was using mild profanity here, and while I don’t think that is the case, it seems to be more impolite than we would often care to admit. Perhaps the best translation in present-day English is “crap” or “dog crap.” While crap is certainly not considered profanity, it is still quite crass. The apostle’s point, of course, is that everything in life is as valuable as a steaming pile of dog crap when compared to Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that things don’t have value. They do. But when placed beside Christ, there is absolutely no comparison.

The final phrase in verse eight leads into one long thought that runs through verse eleven. Built upon the surpassing worthy of knowing Christ, Paul claims that he suffered the loss of all things and counted them as rubbish “in order that” he may gain Christ and be found in Him. This is the glory of losing everything for the sake of Christ: we get Jesus! Christ, Himself, is the reward that makes losing everything completely worth it. Jesus is the great gain that the author of Ecclesiastes searched for under the sun. He is the answer to the vanity of life and placing our hope within our own righteousness under the law is like striving after wind.

Notice also Paul’s emphatic source of righteousness: from God, through faith, and in Christ. Obtaining righteousness through obedience to the law is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done. But this doesn’t diminish the purpose of God’s law because without each of God’s commandments, we would be blind to the depth of our error. Gazing into the God’s law exposes our depravity and helplessness, which, of course, makes the good news even more beautiful. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our righteousness now comes from God Himself through faith in Christ. God is the source. Jesus is the means. And faith is the mode. Our righteousness, therefore, a pure gift of God, leaving us with nothing to boast of before God.

Since Paul’s righteousness was only found by faith in Christ, the Author of life, his counting everything as loss makes complete sense, as does his joy in the midst of suffering. Can you also make such a claim? Has the great gain of knowing and being found in Christ eclipsed everything else in your life? Could you truly rejoice in Christ even if everything else was taken from you?

We Are the Circumcision | Philippians 3:1-3

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 circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

Philippians 3:1-3 ESV

 

Now having commended the work of Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians, Paul begins his next major discussion: the danger of legalism. One of the most influential heresies of the early church was the teaching of the Judaizers, who taught that Gentile Christians must conform to the Mosaic Law, particularly by being circumcised, in order to become a disciple of Christ. The Apostles rightfully condemned this teaching as adding human effort to the gospel of grace. Although the Judaizers’ insistence on circumcision may not be widespread today, the spirit of such legalism continues to stalk followers of Christ.

REJOICE // VERSE 1

Just as the previous chapter concluded with Paul urging the Philippians to find joy in how God was using Timothy and Epaphroditus, so chapter three begins with another call for joy in the Lord. The word finally here does not signify the conclusion of the letter (we are, after all, only beginning the second half); instead, it reveals that Paul is approaching the final matters of discussion within the letter. A few things must be noted of verse 1.

First, the second sentence of the verse appears (in the ESV, at least) to connect it directly to the previous one. However, Fee notes “that seems nearly impossible, since (1) ‘the same things’ is plural, not singular, which would be the natural expression if he intended to point to the preceding imperative, (2) this view disregards the asyndeton [referencing the lack of conjunctions in verse 2 which is unusual for Paul and therefore is likely a matter of emphasis], which is especially unusual if this were Paul’s intent, and (3) one can imagine any number of adjectives that might serve as reasons for him to repeat the imperative to rejoice, but ‘for your security’ is not one of them, whereas it fits perfectly with the warning and exhortation that follows. The view suggested here seems confirmed by the repetition of this idea in v. 18 (‘about whom I have told you many times before’)” (292-293).

Second, the command to rejoice in the Lord might, at first, seem disconnected from Paul’s assault on legalism within the following verses, yet the superior joy found only in Christ is a central foundation for the apostle’s argument here. The gain of Christ (v. 8) in the midst of losing all things is a reason for joy. Glorying only in Christ and placing no confidence in our flesh (v. 3) is a reason for joy. Knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection is a reason for joy (v. 10). Looking toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (v. 14) is a reason for joy. Our heavenly citizenship (v. 20) is a reason for joy. Our hope of having our lowly bodies gloriously transformed (v. 21) is a reason for joy. Thus, the entirety of this chapter presents the joyful truth of the gospel against the destruction, shame, and worldliness of legalism (v. 19). To rejoice in the Lord, therefore, is to understand and submit to the truths that follow.

MUTILATORS OF THE FLESH // VERSE 2

In verse 2, Paul begins his attack on legalism. Paul warns the Philippians to beware of a certain group of Jewish Christians called the Judaizers. This group stepped into the limelight whenever Gentiles began to profess faith in Christ by claiming that Gentiles must first become Jews (via circumcision) in order to become Christians. In fact, the main motivation behind the letter to the Galatians was combatting this very heresy. The argument that Paul gave in Galatians to show this movement as heretical was that by claiming circumcision is needed for salvation, they were saying that Jesus was not all-sufficient. Their formula was essentially Jesus + circumcision = salvation, but Paul said that salvation comes from Christ alone. Furthermore, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was formed to definitively answer the question of whether circumcision was necessary for Gentile Christians. Thus, having dealt with this issue on numerous occasions before, it is as if Paul sought to waste as little time dealing with it as possible. The result is three critical jabs at this heretical ideology that leave the Judaizers in a theological knockout.

First, Paul calls them dogs. The concept of dog did not bring such pleasant emotions in the ancient world as it does today. Yes, some people did keep dogs for pets, but for the most part, dogs were dangerous, disease carrying scavengers that ate whatever they could find on the streets. Thus, dogs were seen as one of the most unclean animals to the Jews, and to parallel such uncleanness, there was a rabbinical saying that called the Gentiles dogs. They compared the religious impurity of the Gentiles to the physical impurity of a dog. Paul, thus, reverses this notion and claims that their legalistic insistence on circumcision actually makes them unclean like a dog.

Second, he calls them evildoers. Devout Jews considered it the highest priority to uphold God’s Law. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that took this to the next level by literally devoting their entire lives to studying and obeying the Torah. Thus, they would have considered themselves to be righteous keepers of the Law, but instead their mentality produced evil, law-breaking behavior. Instead of workers of righteousness, they became workers of iniquity.

The third statement on Paul’s list is actually a specific example of the second. Paul calls them mutilators of the flesh. This was another of Paul’s play on words because the words for mutilation and circumcision are near-rhymes in Greek (peritome, meaning “to cut around” versus katatome meaning “to cut to pieces”). Thus, he was saying that although they thought that circumcision would seal their favor with God, in reality they were only mutilating their flesh (which in the Torah would disqualify priests from service in the temple).

These severe warnings are especially interesting when we remember that the church of Philippi was predominately, if not entirely, composed of Gentiles. In fact, a faction of Judaizers may have yet to exist in Philippi itself. But even if this was the case, Paul was obviously still wary of this heresy’s influence. The lure of this teaching was probably twofold. First, the act of circumcision gave a physical work to place one’s confidence in. Second, being identified with the Judaism meant obtaining religious protection. Not long after conquering Judea, the Romans realized that the Jews could never be made to adopt the religious pluralism of the Empire. Prudence then led to the Jewish people receiving a religious exemption from worshiping the Roman gods and emperor. The followers of Jesus were not so fortunate. While Jesus Himself may have been a Jew, the two religions quickly parted ways. Plus, worshiping someone crucified for treason didn’t present Christians in the best light either. Thus, physically identifying with Judaism likely held a strong allure to the early Gentile believers.

Of Harsh Words

Obviously, the severity of Paul’s language reveals the seriousness of the threat of the Judaizers to Christianity. Perhaps it is worth considering for a moment the worth and danger of using harsh language to describe theological realities.

Given that our current society tends to value kindness over truth (likely an overcorrection of the anything-goes nature of Internet conversations that are cloaked by anonymity), the willingness of Scripture to speak strong and even offensive language in defense of truth is somewhat jarring. Indeed, many today view Jesus as the paragon of gentleness and soft-spoken words, overlooking (either through sheer ignorance or blatant rejection) Jesus’ rather frequent declaration of hypocrisy upon the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Likewise, Paul wrote to the Galatians concerning the issue of circumcision, calling the Galatians foolish for believing the Judaizers (3:1) and wishing for the emasculation of the deceivers (5:15). For the sake of brevity, we must pass over the language of the Old Testament, such as Amos calling wealthy women who oppressed the poor “cows” (Amos 4:1). Just as with its frank discussion of violence and sexual sin, the Bible is not ashamed to speak harshly in the midst of a sinful world. We must, therefore, meet the Bible as it is, refusing to pretend as though we have a moral superiority to the very Word of God.

Nevertheless, does the Bible endorse our usage of harsh language as well? Is it right for us to call heretical teachers dogs or similar descriptions? Since the Scriptures occasionally use harsh language, we can conclude that it is applicable during some situations. For instance, Paul will use a slightly uncouth word in verse 8 to describe his good works when compared to Christ. Similarly, Isaiah compares the value of our righteous deeds to a used menstrual rag. The usage of such words serves to emphasize our lack of value when compared to the Most High God. Sin and the depravity that it creates should not be sugarcoated.

Confrontations with false teachers who are leading brothers and sisters astray also seem to justify harsh words in some circumstances, as we see within this verse. As nearly each New Testament author warns against false teachers at some point, the danger of yielding to false doctrine is an ever-present threat upon Christ’s church, leading many of the narrow path. As such, the biblical authors’ words against false teachers are particularly brutal. Jesus said being drowned with a stone tied around your neck is a better option than leading others into sin (Matthew 18:6). Both Peter and Jude state that the gloom of utter darkness is reserved for them (2 Peter 2:17; Jude 13). John calls them antichrists (1 John 4:3). Purposeful deception of God’s people deserves strong and even harsh rebuke. Although since such language is so strong, we must remember that it is reserved for false teachers, not misguided teachers. Apollos was not sternly rebuked for not failing to understand the full message of the gospel; instead, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and taught him further.

While there are, therefore, appropriate uses of harsh language, let us also consider the severity of such words. In fact, the very impact of such speech relies upon it being rarely invoked. By becoming commonplace, its legitimate use is stripped away. Let Christians who regularly use cuss words consider the wisdom of this thought. After all, many words of profanity have become vulgar (especially in the original meaning of both words: common or ordinary) by removing them from their genuine place of use. Habitually shouting “damn it” when injured or frustrated robs the word of its terrifying meaning: to eternally condemn to hell. Or flippantly saying “to hell with it all” both ignores and diminishes the reality to which the word hell points: never-ending torment under the wrath of God.

Perhaps we could attribute much of this to the postmodernism that flows so silently through our veins. We fail to grasp the reality which words represent, so words gradually lose their meaning and significance. Only as we find ourselves flailing through an abstract world of gelatin do we begin to reach out for something concrete, struggling to formulate new words to capture the weightiness of existence. But these too shall pass, leaving us to escalate our verbiage ever further.

The desensitization of the word may, in fact, be a doom of the Fall, especially since God’s words are the exact opposite. As God spoke, His words formed reality itself. Even at their best, our words can only represent the objects that God’s words brought into existence. His Word, therefore, is reality. As people who worship the embodied Word of God as revealed through the written Word of God, we are (literally) eternally bound to words and the realities they represent. As children of the God who speaks life into being, let us shudder at the thought of frivolous and careless words! As disciples of the One who upholds all things by the word of His power, let us strive to use our speech to accurately display His reality!

Although we could continue to dive into the implications of words and their meanings, allow me to attempt a conclusion to our discussion of Paul’s usage of harsh language here and its lessons for us. Two reactions to Paul’s language in verse 2 are likely (although with a variety of degrees). One will smile proudly at the boldness of the apostle, while the other will silently question whether such talk was really necessary. Both lean toward dangerous extremes. A failure to acknowledge the necessity of a harsh word is harmful but so is delighting in it. The wisdom of the Holy Spirit matured through saturation in the Word is the only solution. For example, may we rightfully feel the shame of German Christians who refused to appropriately condemn Nazism, while also recalling that the often unwisely harsh language of Martin Luther, the lion of the Reformation, was able to be used 400 years later to validate the Nazis’ anti-Semitic regime.

TRUE CIRCUMCISION // VERSE 3

Notice Paul’s shifted wording in this verse: for we are the circumcision. The inclusive and exclusive implications of we cast aside any remaining doubt as to Paul’s view of the Judaizers. Their teaching was blatantly heretical, and, as such, they were not among the people of God. Also note that he is not saying that we have the proper circumcision but that we are the circumcision. This is the fundamental change that God promised to His people in Deuteronomy 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.”

Why is this so significant?

To begin, we must understand that circumcision was always meant to be an outward sign of an inner work of God. In Romans 4, Paul specifically notes that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness before his circumcision, not after. Thus, circumcision was the outward symbol of Abraham’s circumcised heart before God by grace through faith.

Yet circumcision not only signified the inward working of God in the heart of the believer, it also represented becoming a member of God’s collective people. In the Old Testament, Israelite boys were circumcised on the eighth day to symbolize their incorporation into the holy nation of God. This rite is changed in the New Testament. The sign of circumcision that physically marked the Israelites is passed away. Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus are now collectively the true circumcision. Gentiles are grafted into Israel by the cutting away of sin from their heart rather than the removal of their foreskin. The church, God’s world-wide Israel, is now marked by another rite of incorporation: baptism. Presbyterians would argue that the symbol of baptism is a nearly identical replacement of circumcision, hence their insistence on baptizing infants. We, however, believe that the transfer is not one-to-one. Baptism, instead, is the New Testament fulfillment of circumcision’s Old Testament role, extended now to both male and female confessors of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Like circumcision, baptism is not a salvific work. Our sins are not cleansed by the waters of baptism; rather, they symbolize the sin-cleansing blood of Jesus upon us.

But if circumcision is no longer the mark of belonging to the people of God, how can we know that we are God’s children, that we are the circumcision? Paul provides us with three descriptions, which are a fitting antidote to the threefold condemnation in verse 2.

First, we who are the circumcision worship by the Spirit of God. Paul’s concept of worship here is likely different from the images that first spring into our minds. For many of us, we associate worship with singing praises to God together during corporate worship. Interestingly, that idea is probably more accurately linked to verse 1’s command to rejoice in the LORD, since that phrase is repeated through the Psalms (for example, Psalm 35:9, 64:10, 97:12, 104:34). Instead, Paul’s idea of worship here is linked to the sacrifices performed by the Levitical priesthood, which seems odd given his insistence against putting our confidence in rites and rituals. What then does he mean by worshiping by the Spirit of God? Is there something specific that we must do to worship by the Spirit? The answer, in short, is no. And I believe that this is precisely Paul’s point. Those who worship by the Spirit of God are not relying upon rites and ceremonies to worship but upon the Holy Spirit. Their reliance is upon God Himself to initiate worship. This idea is found in Galatians, where Paul claims that it is the Spirit that enables us to cry out Abba Father (Gal. 4:6). As children of God, we claim that God is our Father and that He is our Father at all times. Thus, if He is our Father and if we can only call Him such via the Spirit, then all worship that comes from a Christian is done by means of the Spirit. For the believer, worship that is done outside of the Spirit is not worship at all, just as prayer done outside the Spirit is not prayer at all. Worshiping by the Spirit, therefore, is a life of worship. It is a presentation of our very lives as living sacrifices for God. We do not merely sacrifice a tenth of our income as sacrifice; we surrender ourselves to be used in whatever way He sees fit.

Second, the truly circumcised will glory in Christ Jesus. The deepest cry of a heart that has been saved and changed by Christ is to see Him glorified. The Judaizers, by relying upon their circumcision to justify them before God, glorified themselves. When we believe that by our actions we receive salvation, we rob Christ of the glory due Him. Salvation by grace through faith gives complete and total glory to Christ and Christ alone. Thus, the true believer’s life will be one of constant glorification in Christ Jesus. Paul says as much himself in Romans 4:1-5:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.

Finally, we put no confidence in the flesh. Humanly speaking, salvation is impossible. We, finite beings, have infinitely offended an infinite God and thereby deserved infinite punishment. When the finite has made an infinite error, how could the finite ever hope to repair the infinite? To do so is beyond the ability of the finite. Thus, it is a preposterous lunacy to place confidence in our flesh (finite) to accomplish the process of salvation (an infinite task).

Such is the failure of legalism.

We may be able, from time to time, to assuage our own guilt via our good works, but they will never suffice to clear our account before God. Our plight is hopeless. We are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. It is as certain and unavoidable as our eventual death. Our confidence, therefore, can only be placed in that which is also infinite. This is the glory of Jesus’ sacrifice! Being infinite, Christ was able to pay the infinite price for us. Being very God of very God, the death of Christ upon the cross works the impossible for us by cleansing the infinite debt of our sin.

The heart cry of every Christian, therefore, is the same as Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.