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.

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Advancing the Gospel | Philippians 1:12-18

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:12-18 (ESV)

 

So far, Paul has opened his letter by thanking God for their partnership in the gospel. As partakers with him of the grace of Christ, Paul expressed his affections for them and his confidence that Christ would continue to preserve them in the faith. Finally, Paul concluded his greeting with a prayer for their love to abound more and more.

The apostle now shifts topics by addressing the fruits of his imprisonment. Learning that Paul was imprisoned could easily have shaken the faith of the Philippians, yet Paul desires the opposite. He assures them that, by God’s providence, his confinement was actually advancing the gospel by making Christ known to the imperial guard and encouraging other Christians to be bold in speaking the Word.

THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL // VERSES 12-14

Paul now begins to describe to the Philippians his present circumstances, which of course was being in prison. Paul’s imprisonment must have been quite a trying time for the early church. After all, Paul was the most prominent missionary of the first generation of believers. His contributions to Christianity have been said to only be second to Christ; however, we must be wary of elevating Paul’s importance too high. As Paul clearly understood, he was simply a servant of Christ. He was merely a living offering and testament to the magnificent graces our Lord. Christianity was not built upon Paul, but upon the Savior that he preached! And with such a great Savior, how could the gospel ever cease its advance!  Thus, for the sake of Christ’s glory, Paul reassures the believers that the gospel continued to advance in the midst of Paul’s present circumstances.

Indeed, the advancement of the gospel is Paul’s primary desire. As we remember, although Paul once persecuted the Body of Christ, Jesus revealed Himself as the risen Lord to Paul and making him an apostle alongside the eleven remaining disciples. Thus, he who ravaged the church (Acts 8:3) was given marvelous grace in Christ. The gospel, therefore, was not an intellectual concept for Paul; instead, it was the very “power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The apostle was more than willing to live or die for this message of good news, and its advancement was his highest priority. O’ that we might also have such desires! Too often are we like one who “is driven and tossed by the wind… a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8). At times, the gospel is our most precious treasure, while at other times, we elevate our will as more important than the will of God. May God make us more like Paul so that every desire we have is secondary to our desire to see the gospel advance.

In fact, Paul’s hope in his imprisonment is rooted in its service to the gospel’s advancement. While the word “served” is not present in the Greek (the NASB’s phrasing, “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” is more literal), the idea is still doctrinally sound. God, in His providence, takes our trials, tribulations, and sufferings and uses them as servants for the advancement of the gospel.

Such providential workings of God can be seen clearly in the life of Joseph, who experienced slavery in Egypt in order that he would rise to second-in-command and save Egypt and his own family from a severe famine. He confessed God’s providence to his brothers after Jacob’s death: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Belief in God’s providence means placing our confidence in God’s promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Martin Luther believed suffering’s key role in God’s providence to be an essential truth not just for daily life but also for the studying of Scripture. John Piper quotes Luther as giving his three rules for studying theology:

“I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself… here you will find the three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm [119] and runs thus: Oratio, meditation, tentatio (prayer, meditation, tribulation)… [These rules] teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is: it is wisdom supreme.” (21 Servants, 86)

God providentially brings good out of suffering. We can rest in the comfort of that truth, so long as we remember what “good” God is doing. For Luther, God used his sufferings to give him deeper comfort in the Word of God. For Joseph, God used his sufferings to rescue many from famine, including his brother Judah from whose lineage Jesus would come. For Ruth and Esther, God also used their sufferings to preserve Jesus’ ancestry. For Paul, God used his imprisonment to advance the gospel.

God, therefore, promises to use our suffering for good, but if our idea of good does not align with God’s idea of good, then how can we hope to be comforted? If our heart is set on things other than the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), we will often be sorely disappointed as God advances His own kingdom rather than ours. Yet if our heart is in heaven with God, who is our treasure (Matthew 6:21), we can then find great comfort that God would use us as instruments for the advancing of His kingdom.

To many, this may sound petty, as if God is merely using our trials and sufferings for His own gain. However, what better use could there be of our sufferings? What higher good could be brought from our tribulations? What greater purpose might be gleaned from our hardships? If we recall that suffering comes as a result of sin’s entrance into the world via the Fall, we would behold this for the grace that it is. Our rebellion, both of Adam and Eve and us today, rightfully earns our trials within this broken world. In fact, we do not deserve how peaceful and ordered the world presently is. We deserve to feel the effects of our cosmic treason against the Creator, both directly and indirectly. The miracle, however, is that God would, first, save us from our sins at the cost of His own blood and, second, would thereafter ensure that all of our hardships and sufferings serve the greatest goal imaginable, God’s glory.

If we indeed love God and His purpose, we can trust that He is working out everything for His good, and in that, we will rejoice.

Verse 12 presents the thesis of our text, that Paul’s imprisonment is advancing the gospel. Within verses 13-14, Paul provides two examples of how this is occurring: first, the whole imperial guard is now aware that his imprisonment is for Christ and second, many of the brothers have been further emboldened to preach without fear.

The Whole Praetorium

Paul’s first example of how the gospel is advancing through his imprisonment is that the whole imperial guard now knows that he is imprisoned for Christ. Who are the imperial guard, and why are they a big deal?

The word here for imperial guard is praitorion, which could refer to a ruler’s palace or to the Roman Emperor’s private soldiers, the Praetorian Guard. If Paul wrote this letter from anywhere other than Rome (such as Caesarea, which is the second most common thought), he would obviously then be referencing the local governor’s palace. However, if Paul is writing from Rome, he would then be speaking of the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorians were originally used to protect prominent Roman generals, but Augustus, the first emperor, transformed them into his personal bodyguards. Within a few decades, the Praetorians became a dominant political force in Roman, assassinating Emperor Caligula and inaugurating Claudius only fifteen or so years before Paul wrote this letter. They would continue such patterns until they were disbanded by Constantine in 312 AD. Furthermore, the prefect of the guard would often act as second-in-command to the emperor. Fee offers insight on why Paul’s message reaching these soldiers would give him such pleasure:

One should not miss Paul’s obvious delight in this mild “triumph” regarding his arrest, the same kind one senses at the end of the letter when he sends greetings from “all the saints, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (4:22). While this might be interpreted as a kind of “one-upmanship,” Paul’s concern would be to encourage the Philippians in their own current suffering, resulting in part from their lack of loyalty to the emperor. To the world—and especially to the citizens of a Roman colony—Caesar may be “lord”; but to Paul and to the believers in Philippi, only Jesus is Lord (2:11), and his lordship over Caesar is already making itself felt through the penetration of the gospel into the heart of Roman political life. (114)

Greater Boldness

The second effect of Paul’s imprisonment is that it emboldened other Christians to speak the Word without fear. Obviously, the Roman officials and Jewish authorities were hoping for the exact opposite results, that Paul’s imprisonment would discourage other Christians from spreading the gospel. Unfortunately for Christianity’s opponents, history reveals time and time again the truth of Tertullian’s words: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology, L). Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, warned the Sanhedrin of this very problem in Acts 5. He recalls two examples of leaders whose revolutionary movements dissipated after their deaths, and he advised that if Jesus was merely a man, His followers would disband as well. Yet Jesus’ disciples only became bolder after His death (because of His resurrection), and the church continued to spread even as the apostles were each imprisoned and martyred. Just as Gamaliel feared, Christianity was not formed around a cult of personality but around the divinity of Christ. The church continued to survive the sufferings and deaths of its leaders because Jesus ultimately is the builder of His church, which He guides by His Word and empowers by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the imprisonment of Paul only emboldened the Christians in Rome. His life displayed what Jesus promised would happen: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17-18). Yet throughout his sufferings, Paul repeatedly modeled the power of God in enabling him to bear through such torments. In other words, Paul’s joy throughout his trials was evidence to the believers watching him that eternal life in Christ is worth facing the greatest horrors of this world.

In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the church of Smyrna notes that this is the blessed witness of all the martyrs:

…when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. (II)

God’s grace in preserving our brothers and sisters through suffering also serves as a reminder to us that His grace will also preserve us when our time comes. May we, therefore, become emboldened to speak the Word without fear whenever we see the Lord standing beside and communing with those who are suffering.

PREACHING CHRIST // VERSES 15-18

These three verses expound upon the effect of Paul’s imprisonment in verse 14. Unfortunately, even though Paul’s sufferings did embolden the other believers to proclaim Christ, not everyone did so from pure motives. Paul explains that some were preaching Christ from love and good will, knowing that Paul’s trial is really all about defending the gospel. Yet there were others who proclaimed Christ from envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition.

That last group can be quite puzzling, especially since proclaiming Christ meant placing a target on one’s back for persecution. We may, therefore, be tempted to wonder what made them envious of Paul’s imprisonment and how they were preaching Christ from selfish ambition. The answer, unfortunately, provides us a further glimpse of the human heart’s depravity.

These verses are the only details we have of why Christ was being preached insincerely. Paul is obviously not placing these people in the same grouping as the Philippians’ opponents (1:28). Since we are left to our own deductions, I would assume that these people had a pharisaical mindset. Just as religious hypocrites would look gloomy and disfigure their faces to get attention while fasting (Matthew 6:16), so this group is probably attempting to appear bolder and more spiritual than Paul. In other words, they may have been jealous of the attention Paul was getting in prison. In essence, this group seems willing to embrace the suffering that might arise from proclaiming Christ, not for God’s glory, but for the elevation of their own name.

If this sounds a bit difficult to believe, simply consider those who sought martyrdom in the early church. While many Christians in the Roman Empire lived in near constant fear of the next wave of persecution, some Christians actually looked to be martyred. Some desired martyrdom because they viewed it as a guaranteed way of entering heaven, which more resembles the Islamic doctrine of jihad than the assurance of salvation in Christ. Others faced martyrdom with the hope of being remembered for their bravery and holiness. Such a mentality is probably why the Polycarp (the martyr mentioned above) was praised by his church for not seeking martyrdom but also not fleeing either.

But does such selfish ambition make these people false teachers?

Technically yes, but certainly not in the ordinary sense. Typically, false teachers are thought of proclaiming false doctrine. Since Paul rejoices that Christ is still proclaimed, their teaching must be orthodox. The problem lies in their hearts, not their words. They are declaring biblical truth, yet they are still false teachers in the sense that their teaching comes from false motives. They may be proclaiming the supremacy of Christ, but they are seeking their own glory in doing so.

We must carefully guard against such a subtle and secret sin.

As a preacher of the Word, this reminds me that I can preach truth for others and still lose my own soul. I can get the technical details of the gospel correct while citing beautiful quotes from godly men throughout history, but if I do so out of selfish ambition, then I don’t truly understand the gospel nor the glory of God. As Thomas Boston laments, “There are many that know the doctrine of the gospel, the history of the gospel, that are mere strangers to the secrets of the gospel.”

But we who labor in preaching and teaching are not the only ones warned. The people to whom Paul refers were likely ordinary Christians, who were proclaiming Christ to whomever they encountered. Acts 8:4 shows us that following the martyrdom of Stephen, many Christians fled Jerusalem and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Justo Gonzalez writes that these everyday Christians were also responsible for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire:

The missionary task itself was undertaken, not by Paul and others whose names are known—Barnabas, Mark, et al.—but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. But mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message. (35)

Most Christians will never proclaim Christ in a sermon from a pulpit, but each of us is called to preach Christ to the dying world around us, to our friends, family, and neighbors. Evangelism, therefore, like the preaching of a sermon, can be done technically correct, while arising from impure motives. This sharing may even yield fruit, but such fruit comes from the grace of God and is not necessarily indicative of our motivations. We certainly can do good works from a sinful heart. Let us regularly examine ourselves then, that we will repent of doing anything for God out of pretense.

And yet another great indictment lies upon many of us today. Such a warning to preach Christ from truth rather than pretense may ring hollow for us because we fail to proclaim Christ at all. The primary cause of this failure is lack of understanding of and/or meditation upon the gospel. If we truly believe that eternal life is only found in Christ and apart from Him is only eternal death, then the good news that Jesus rescues sinners from the eternal consequences of sin is the greatest message imaginable. The gospel proclaims that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), but no one can call without first believing. And no one can believe without first hearing. And no one can hear unless someone first preaches the gospel to them (Romans 10:14). To understand the gospel means also understanding that others need the gospel. We should all, therefore, cry out with Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)! Repent of silence and proclaim Christ with all boldness.

In spite of some preaching Christ from selfish ambition and because of his passion for the gospel, Paul still rejoices in the proclamation of Christ. This returns us to Paul’s original hope and desire for the advancement of the gospel. The gospel advances wherever Christ is preached. In fact, the gospel cannot progress without the proclamation of Christ. The gospel is good news, and news must be delivered in words, whether spoken or written. Paul, therefore, rejoices in the proclamation of Christ (even when done in pretense) because the gospel is advancing. And if the gospel advances, so too does the glory of God.

May we rejoice as well in the glory of God through the progress of the gospel and the proclamation of Christ.

The Vanity of Jonathan Edwards

I read from Stephen Nichols (in Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between) that Jonathan Edwards was voted out of his church after moving the church to closed communion. The change backfired in part because Edwards failed to cultivate deep friendships within his congregation that would support him through such a major change. He certainly has such friendships, but they tended to be with other ministers via correspondence.

This struck me profoundly.

I’ve heard it said that some ministers are great preachers, while others are great pastors. The adage contains plenty of truth. While I would never call myself a “great” preacher, I certainly know that I am a better preacher than a pastor. Like Edwards, I am more comfortable around books than people. And while this was an area of failure for Edwards and an area of targeted growth for me, I can’t help lamenting the vanity of it all.

Edwards was a certainly a great writer and preacher. Indeed, he could be called one of the greatest American minds, and the benefit and blessing of his studies continue to endure. In fact, although I have yet to read anything by Edwards, I am a secondhand product of his legacy. Piper’s concept of Christian Hedonism played a significant role in reawakening my faith, and Edwards was a prime influence upon Piper’s development of that idea. Thus, in some ways, the Father used Edwards mightily through Piper to mold my faith.

But Edwards also succeeded in another realm: as husband and father. With eleven children, the Edwards’ home was busy to say the least, yet he made time to lead them in the Word and to open his home in hospitality. Nichols states:

All accounts concur: this was a home where love reigned (p. 42).

In short, Edwards succeeded as a preacher, writer, husband, and father, yet in part, he failed as a pastor. Of course, it is easy to write this off as being simply the will of God. Or we could call it yet another example of the scourge of humanity in a post-Genesis 3 world. After all, even the godliest of men had their failings. We’re broken people in a broken world. What’s new?

But have you ever really let that truth sink in?

Despite his best efforts and successes, Edwards will always be remembered as a flawed man with failures to his name (the owning of slaves being among the most glaring). Life is a balancing of many spinning plates, and some will break. We will never fully practice all of the doctrines that we believe. That inevitability is easy to understand but difficult to make peace with. Our greatest works are never enough to offset our failures because the failures don’t magically cease to exist. We will fail. Our efforts will never be sufficient. We cannot be good enough. We will never be enough. Attempting otherwise is a striving after wind. This is the vanity of life, and it is a grievous evil.

Of course, we say that is why grace is so wonderful. We are failures who cannot hope to truly succeed, but Christ’s death has paid the penalty of our sins while granting us His own righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news.

Yet how often do we really let that bad news sink in first?

The gospel shines brightly against the backdrop of sin, brokenness, and despair, but I rarely take the time to truly despair of myself apart from Christ. This often leads to an underappreciated gospel.

But why did Edwards’ failure strike me so deeply?

I think it’s the combination of studying through the book of Ecclesiastes and feeling a similarity to Edwards. Like him, I am a husband, father, and pastor. I also feel the pull in my soul to write about the glories that I find in Scripture. And I understand the comfort of a richly composed page juxtaposed against the anxiety of being around others. I feel the same pull for time as him. How can I maximize my efforts as a husband without neglecting my children? How can I be a great preacher without neglecting the necessity of pastoring? How can I prioritize writing without compromising every other arena of life? When my body is laid in the ground, what areas of my life will be remembered as triumphs? Which will be my greatest failures? What actions of mine will stand as an eternal testament to my sinfulness? If Ecclesiastes teaches anything, it’s that this is all vanity, futile and a grievous evil.

As briefly mentioned, stewing in this vanity helps my perception of grace. All too often, I claim that I live for the glory, worship, and exaltation of God, but my motives are all too self-aggrandizing. Cognitively, I know my sin and my need of a savior, but there must be a hole in my heart because that truth continues to leak out.

The glories and exaltation of self are a mirage, careful compositions that are littered with clashing chords. I think of myself as Mozart when I am little more than a toddler slapping the keys. God, however, has been playing greatest masterpiece ever designed, and by His grace, I am given the honor of being used as a single note within that magisterial symphony of history.

In Christ, we become instruments, failures and all, for magnifying His greatness.

O then for grace to see the vanity of self clearly that I might behold more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

 

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God.  – John Calvin

The Vanity of Injustice Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 8

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 8:2 | I say: Keep the king’s command, because of God’s oath to him.

Ecclesiastes 8:12 | Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. (ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

The Preacher, who is most likely Solomon, wrote Ecclesiastes in an attempt to describe life under the sun. By wisdom, he searched out everything that he could find on earth and tried every avenue that he could find that might lead to lasting meaning, purpose, and contentment in life. His search led him to give himself wholly over to ever pleasure that came into his line of sight. It caused him to search everything that could be done with having an unprecedented amount of wealth and power. It turned his heart to study how humans are meant for community, even though we constantly attempt to break that community apart with our own selfishness. Ultimately, his conclusion is that everything under the sun is vanity, a striving after wind. Fortunately, not everything in Ecclesiastes is vanity however. The Preacher repeatedly seeks to turn our attention above the sun to the God who alone can give enjoyment and contentment in life.

In chapter eight, Solomon continues to build upon a theme that he has already mentioned before: injustice. Previously, he discussed injustice in terms of how those with authority oppress those who are under them. This chapter is in many ways a continuation of that thought since the Preacher begins by discussing how we should conduct ourselves in the presence of the king. In the end, however, it is God, not the king, who wields final authority, and Solomon expresses his confidence that God will enact complete and total justice one day.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 8 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 8 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. What do verses 1-9 teach universally about governments and authority on earth? How can their principles be applied to us within a democratic government today?
  3. What do verses 10-13 teach about justice under the sun? How does justice relate to both love and wrath? How is justice an essential aspect of the gospel?
  4. With injustice present in this life but the hope of justice still to come, how does Solomon commend us to live?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

Introduction to Nahum

Are you familiar with the book of Nahum?

Forgive me for assuming, but I imagine not.

The minor prophets are a rather neglected section of our Bible to begin with, but Nahum seems to be spectacularly unmemorable. I’ve read through God’s Word in its entirety multiple times, so I know that I’ve read Nahum. But for the life of me, I still didn’t know anything about it. A lack of knowledge, I think, is as a good of a reason as any for studying a book of the Bible.

It turns out that Nahum is essentially the spiritual sequel to Jonah (the prophet most famous for being swallowed by a fish). God sent Jonah to the Nineveh, a chief city of the Assyrian Empire, at the time when they were the greatest threat to Israel, and though God sent a message of judgment, the people repented and God showed them mercy.

Unfortunately, their repentance did not last long, and within a few decades, the Assyrians had thoroughly destroyed Israel. About a century after Jonah, Nahum writes his message against the Assyrians (probably at the height of their power), proclaiming again that God’s judgment is coming for them.

A quick reading of Nahum will reveal that the book is undeniably filled with the message of God impending wrath. God’s wrath is not a popular topic with people today, but we must also remember that the wrath of God has never been a pleasant topic. People have always preferred to dwell on God’s friendlier attributes (i.e. love and grace), but a sober study of His wrath is both necessary and beneficial.

As we read Nahum, it is important, therefore, to remember that God’s wrath is good. In fact, Nahum says as much: “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him (1:7).” And in the very next verse, the prophet declares that God will not spare any of His enemies.

How can these things coexist?

God’s wrath is an outpouring of justice; therefore, it is good. The wrath of God is the criminal receiving due punishment. It would be unloving and unjust of God not to avenge those who have been sinned against. We only need to read stories of the Holocaust, of the African slave trade, or of any terrorist organization to understand the beauty found in God’s wrath.

Of course, the problem of God’s wrath is that we have committed sins that put us on the receiving end of God’s vengeance. The promise that “the LORD will by no means clear the guilty (1:3)” is a great promise to those offended by the sins of others, but we have also been the offenders. No one is innocent of committing sin, and no one is exempt from God’s wrath. As Christians, we know that our sin did not go unpunished, but Jesus absorbed the wrath of God upon Himself in our place. Only in Christ, therefore, do we have hope to be spared from God’s fiery and just judgment.

This knowledge should impact our reading of Nahum. Although we may have not committed the level of violence of which the Assyrians were guilty, we are no less deserving of God’s wrath than them.

May Nahum’s vision of Nineveh’s doom remind us, therefore, of the great salvation we have received in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Joseph Tests His Brothers | Genesis 44

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” (Genesis 44:16 ESV)

Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. (Genesis 44:33 ESV)

OPENING THOUGHT

As the first book of the Bible, Genesis sets up the story and themes for the rest of God’s Word. It opens with the account of God creating the world good, but humanity quickly ruins paradise by rebelling against the LORD. In order to save humanity, God narrowed His focus upon one man’s family, Abraham. Though Abraham is called the man of faith, he was not humanity’s savior, nor was his son Isaac or grandson Jacob.

The story now focuses upon Jacob’s twelve sons, particularly Joseph. Being his father’s favorite, Joseph’s ten older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. As a slave, Joseph displayed the favor of the LORD… until he was wrongfully accused and thrown into prison. But God’s providence worked to move Joseph from prison to Pharaoh’s right hand man. As second-in-command of Egypt and with a severe famine ravaging the world, God ordained that Joseph’s brothers would travel to Egypt for food, meeting their lost brother.

For two chapters, Joseph has tested the hearts of his brothers to see whether they have changed for the better. With Jacob’s beloved son, Benjamin, in Egypt, Joseph is now ready to orchestrate the final test. By framing Benjamin for stealing from him, Joseph gives his brothers a chance to betray one of their brothers again. Most notably, we are able to see the change God has worked in Judah’s heart, when he passionately pleas to be a slave in Benjamin’s place.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read chapter 44 and discuss the following.

  1. When Joseph’s servant finds the cup in Benjamin’s sack, all of the brothers tear their clothes in anguish. This quite a change from when they torn off Joseph’s coat and felt no remorse. Likewise, a softened conscience is a distinctive mark of being saved by God. What examples have you seen in your life of God’s work in softening your heart?
  2. When the brothers stand before Joseph for stealing the cup, Judah admits guilt even though they did not steal it. What guilt is weighing on Judah? Why is guilt a blessing from the LORD?
  3. How does Judah’s offer to take the place of Benjamin reflect the gospel? Why is Judah’s speech such an important development in the story of Joseph and his brothers?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What has God taught you through this text (about Himself, sin, humanity, etc.)?
  • What sin has God convicted or reproved you of through this text?
  • How has God corrected you (i.e. your theology, thinking, lifestyle, etc.) through this text?
  • Pray through the text, asking God to train you toward righteousness by conforming you in obedience to His Word.

Books Read in January

I’ve decided to take the 2017 Christian Reading Challenge… kind of.

My aim is for the 52 books of the Committed Reader path, but I’m not fully implementing the various categories this year, just reading a book a week.

So in an effort to give greater accountability, I plan to provide a list of the books I’ve read at the end of each month.

Here goes nothing.

incarnationOn the Incarnation by Athanasius

To be fair, I started this one at the end of December and finished it the first week of January. I’m still counting it though. It was great to finally read this classic book that has been sitting on sitting on my shelf for two-plus years.

Also, C. S. Lewis’ introduction about the reading of old books is a great read in and of itself.

grootGroot by Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger

Okay, I’ll admit it. Reading comics is kind of my guilty-pleasure pastime. I won’t be regularly listing them here, but this six-issue miniseries is so good that I needed to write something about it. The art is cartoony and fun. Groot is a fully-realized character, even while he only says three words. Surprising, hilarious, and heart-warming twists happen throughout, making it easily the most enjoyable comic book I’ve ever read.

witgcWhat Is the Great Commission? / Can I Trust the Bible? / What Is the Church? by R. C. Sproul

These short (and free!) ebooks have been helpful reads during my current sermon series. There are twenty-five books in the series, and my hope is to read most, if not all, of them this year.

 

gw

The Gospel’s Power and Message by Paul Washer

This is the first book in Washer’s Reclaiming the Gospel Series, and I have owned it for some years now, without having ever read it. Washer effectively presents the message, meaning, and necessity of the gospel. My heart certainly needed this thorough and passionate study of the good news of Jesus Christ.

lfLiving Forward (audiobook) by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy

I love audiobooks. I typically listen to audiobooks or podcasts whenever I’m in the car or doing a task that does not require much mental focus. This book is all about developing a life plan, an idea that I already agree with. I very much enjoyed their thought of beginning your life plan by considering your own eulogy. We are not likely to seize the day without first understanding that we have a limited number of days to seize.

youandme

You and Me Forever (audiobook) by Francis & Lisa Chan

I listened to this on audiobook as well. While I certainly enjoyed Crazy Love, Forgotten God, and Erasing Hell, I’ve never been deeply impacted by any of them, but this book was different. Francis and Lisa Chan have brilliantly written a marriage book that is not about marriage; rather, it is about something far, far more important. You can read or listen to the book for free via the You and Me Forever smart phone app, but it’s worth buying.