The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in April 2022*
Sermon Audio: Nothing in my Hands I Bring (Phil 3:1-9)
Are you a good person? If you have ever asked someone that question you will almost always hear a “yes.” But, that depends on what definition of “good” we are using. We always answer that question with a “yes” because we can always find someone else worse than us that makes us feel like we are basically good people, we aren’t murderers after all. Dr. Samenow, a psychologists who specializes in criminology discovered, however, that actual murderers do the exact same thing. Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Samenow writes:
“Perhaps the most surprising discovery in my early years of trying to understand the criminal mind was that, without exception, offenders regard themselves as good human beings. No matter how long their trail of carnage, no matter what suffering they caused others, every one of them retained the view that he is a good person…”If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live,” said one murderer. “Just because I killed someone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person,” asserted another.”
That is certainly alarming. Through his research, Dr. Samenow demonstrates that nearly all criminals provide justification for themselves by pointing to other criminals who do things they deem to be worse. Perhaps we are not murderers, but if our moral justification can be employed by actual murderers to defend themselves, then perhaps we need a more objective standard. Dr. Samenow concludes with advice to those counseling violent criminals, reminding them that their problem is not low self-esteem, but the exact opposite: “We should not seek to raise their already lofty opinions of themselves but, instead, must endeavor to help them look in the mirror and see themselves as the predators they are.”
The more serious question we need to ask ourselves is are we prepared to look in the mirror and see ourselves for what we really are? Here we are, gathered at church, and what are we here to do? Are we here to put our lips on the helium tank of self-esteem and inflate our own sense of our moral superiority? To reaffirm the general positive disposition that we already had about ourselves? Perhaps that is why you came here today. To be told what you hope to be true: I’m a good person. What if, instead, today we let God speak to us? What if we let Him tell us about what He considers to be right, to be good. Can we be honest about ourselves today?
We have been studying the book of Philippians as a church and today we get to a point where Paul opens up about his personal story of what he was like before he was a Christian, what happened to him when he became a Christian, and what he gained after becoming a Christian. In that recounting, he shares what he once relied upon to consider himself a good, righteous person, and then what he turned to in meeting Christ.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. – Phil 3:1-9
If you are not a Christian here today, or if you aren’t sure whether you are a Christian or not, this passage presents a unique gift to you. Here we see Paul recount what his life looked like before Christ, what it meant for him to receive Christ, and what he gained from Christ. If you are contemplating how one becomes a Christian, this passage represents a sort of blueprint.
I want to draw your attention to three things in this text—Just three things today: Paul’s passion, Paul’s warning, Paul’s confidence
Paul opens with, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you,” (Phil 3:1). Philippians 3:1 is a preacher-verse. Paul says, “Finally,” but is really only halfway through his letter. I’m sure you are all familiar with a preacher who tells you, “Lastly…” and then proceeds with a full head of steam for some time. He actually says that repetition is “safe” for them. Why? Because our hearts and minds are like leaky buckets, we forget quickly. Like the nation of Israel at Sinai who one minute are saying they will not worship other gods or make idols, and the other minute are making a golden calf and bowing down to it. We need to be reminded of truth. The thing Paul wants them to remember is the command to “rejoice in the Lord” a command that he will repeat five different times in this one short letter.
Perhaps it is a sudden awareness of what can choke the Philippians’ joy that leads Paul to turn suddenly with a sharp warning. “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh,” (Phil 3:2). Look out…look out…look out! There is something really serious Paul wants us to watch out for—what is it? Well, apparently it is a group of people who have in some way believed the gospel, but are going around teaching the Gentile converts that for them to be really saved they must become circumcised and must submit to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. They were a Jesus+ group: Jesus plus circumcision, Jesus plus food laws, etc. This is the same group of people referred to in the book of Galatians. And Paul reserves his strongest and sharpest language for these people (see Gal 5:12).
Here in verse 2 we have a bit of divinely inspired sarcasm. Paul calls these individuals who thought they were following God’s ceremonial laws and therefore clean, “dogs”, a ceremonially unclean animal; those who thought they were doing God’s works “workers of evil”; and lastly those insisted on circumcision as those who “mutilate the flesh.” This last phrase (katatomē) is a play on words with the Greek word for circumcision (peritomē). In the Old Testament, “mutilating the flesh” was something that pagan sorcerers did and was thus strictly forbidden (Lev 21:5; 1 Kings 18:28). So here is a group of people who think they are fastidiously following God’s law, heaping up holiness, and Paul ruthlessly rips into them as unclean, evil, pagans.
Why is Paul so cutting here? These opponents disagree with Paul, but still are certainly close to what Paul believes. They are not radical libertines, or atheists, or actual pagans living perversely. They are not out to redefine marriage or threaten family values. They are religious people who believe in God and think that following Him is obviously very important. Why would Paul be so sharp?
Shakespeare wrote, “The heresies that men do leave are hated most of those they did deceive.” Perhaps it is because that in this teaching Paul catches whiffs of what he once was deceived by.
Jesus reserved His sharpest and harshest words not for the sinners whose lives were the messiest, but for the orderly religious whose clean lives mimicked God’s laws, but whose hearts were dead as a stone. Here is a short excerpt from a much longer denunciation of Jesus: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” (Matt 23:27-28).
Those who use God as a platform to showcase their own brilliance, sophistication, and righteousness, God is repulsed by. And so is Paul. And, as we will see in just a minute, we must remember that Paul was once one of these Pharisees. The passion and intensity of Paul’s language comes out of a deep well of his own history, of what he was once deceived by, and leads him to use some of the sharpest, most biting language he ever uses. “The heresies that men do leave are hated most of those they did deceive.” Down in verse 8 he refers to his previous life and anything that vies for position with Christ as “rubbish”, which is just a politically correct way to refer to human excrement.
As we think about voices to listen to today, we should be cautious of individuals who build a platform on using inflammatory language, whose entire shtick is to be as derogatory or polemical as possible. The internet, in particular, rewards individuals for being as divisive and contentious as possible, so we should be slow to listen to individuals who always use verbal napalm to build an audience. But, on the other hand, Paul here shows us that there is a time and place to use strong language to describe what God hates. A good test for ourselves as we consider who we listen to is this: does this person’s language match the seriousness of what it describes? Or is it attacking an unfair representation, relying on exaggeration, or using shock-jock tactics to earn attention?
Paul makes it clear in verse 3 what is the difference between real Christianity and this false imitation: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,” (Phil 3:3). Circumcision was one of the key ways that God marked off and identified who His people were in the Old Testament, but even in the Old Testament circumcision was intended to be a picture of a greater spiritual reality that would one day take place (cf. Deut 30:6; Rom 2:25-29). Paul is saying that this is happening here and now through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who directs us to glory in and worship Christ. So, Paul warns us: we must be people who put “no confidence in the flesh.”
What Paul means by “confidence in the flesh” is going to be made clear in the next three verses.
Paul now decides to meet the opponents on their own playing field, “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,” (Phil 4:4). Paul says, you know what, if you want to play the game of whose resume is more impressive, fine, let’s do it. Paul is confident that when it comes to putting confidence in the flesh, he has everyone beat in both his pedigree and his performance, “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,” (Phil 3:5-6).
The first four represent Paul’s pedigree: benefits he received just by virtue of his upbringing. He has circumcised on the prescribed day in God’s Law; he was a biological descendant of Israel (not a Gentile convert); he was of the illustrious tribe of Benjamin; and he was a full-fledged Hebrew (he was raised in Hebrew culture, spoke and read Hebrew, not Greek). The last three show Paul’s performance: he joined the most strict and rigid sect of Judaism (Pharisees); was so zealous that he was willing to snuff out the church through persecution; and were anyone to look at his life and weigh it, they would be stumped trying to find a way he wasn’t keeping all the rules.
We know from Paul’s own testimony in the book of Acts that he was a rising star in the Pharisee ranks. He was trained under the prestigious teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), and was so zealous and ardent for the faith that the council of elders and the high priest himself had entrusted Paul with authority to travel to Damascus to imprison Christians there and bring them back in chains to Jerusalem (Acts 22:5). While committing violence is (rightfully) atrocious to us, from within the moral framework Paul was inhabiting at the time, it was a sign of his sincere and pure devotion. In other words, Paul went to bed every night telling himself: I’m a good person. That is, until he met Jesus.
When I was a young child I played flag-football for a season. I don’t remember much about, but I do remember not being very good. One time, however, I had a moment of glory. I (somehow) caught an interception and began running like a madman for the endzone. I could hear everyone cheering and could see them waving their arms in excitement out of my peripheral vision. But, had I turned to look at what they were actually doing and listened more carefully I would have seen them motioning me to turn around and heard them say: You’re going the wrong way! I was running towards the wrong endzone. When Paul meets Jesus, he realizes that his entire life he had been running for the wrong goal.
Paul’s conversion was a train-wreck conversion, not because he was living such a seedy, perverse life that needed repair—he was not strung out on drugs, he was not in the grip of some debilitating addiction or gambling his life away. What made Paul’s conversion so painfully difficult for him was that he was so moral.
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ,” (Phil 3:7).
What Paul once considered “gain”, what was once a reckoned as moral income in the bank account of his righteousness, after meeting Jesus he now counts that as a “loss” a debt, a liability. Like a man who suddenly discovers that it is the person with the lowest stroke count, not the highest, who wins the golf game or a man who thought his long arduous hike would be taking him to the summit peak, only to discover that it had actually taken him into the caverns below, Paul discovers that all of his religiosity and moral efforts had actually taken him further from God.
Maybe our greatest danger isn’t our sin, but our goodness. Maybe it isn’t when our life is falling apart that we are farthest from God, but when everything is going swimmingly. When you are succeeding at your career, have a healthy family, are getting good sleep, good exercise, have excellent mental health, maybe then we are most prone to say: I don’t really need anything God, I think I got this. That is the heart behind Paul’s statement: “confidence in the flesh.” Confidence in the flesh for Paul is the confidence in what we can do to establish or prove our own righteousness; it is the man-made activities, interests, desires, or convictions that generate inside of us the certainty: I am a good person. So, take any hot-button cultural issue that really revs people up, (abortion, LGBT issues, race, etc.) and you will find that the most ardent activists on each side of the issue likely believe that what they are doing makes them a good person, even though they are diametrically opposed to each other.
Let’s be clear: God is not pleased with sin. I am not saying that the more we indulge in sin and break commandments, the more we will know God. God hates sin—hates it so much that He came down and took on flesh to break its power, died on the cross so that we may be delivered from it. Paul in no ways thinks we should take sin lightly. But the sin under all our other sins is the belief that we don’t need God, or if we do we only need a little help from Him. And Paul’s testimony and warning to you is: don’t buy it! Paul’s testimony deserves our hearing precisely because he was on top of the heap. If a person of modest income tells you: don’t bother with making money, it doesn’t satisfy. You can be left thinking: Maybe their just bitter because they never made it in life. But if a millionaire comes to you and says: don’t bother with wealth, I’m miserable. That is much more persuasive. Paul was a moral millionaire and his warning to us today: it didn’t work, it actually made me worse.
How do you know if you are putting your confidence in the flesh? Three tests:
1. Do you tend to look down on other people?
2. Do you tend to ground your sense of identity and security in your achievements?
3. When you fail, do you feel utterly hopeless?
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith,” (Phil 3:8-9).
Here Paul makes a dramatic statement: there lay before us two choices, (1) retain control, stay in the driver’s seat of your life and try to earn your own right-standing with God, or (2) abandon everything, relinquish control, and rely entirely and completely on Christ to give you His righteousness. That’s it. There is no other choice. We rely on Jesus completely to save us, or we don’t at all. Any attempt to really on Jesus plus something else, as the opponents Paul described earlier have done, is to abandon Jesus. As the great hymn Rock of Ages reminds us:
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone
Thou must save, and Thou alone
Paul makes two statements here, one is about the beauty of Jesus, and the other is about the work of Jesus.
Notice the value statements Paul makes here. He counts “everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In verse 7, Paul said that he counted his moral accomplishments as a loss, but here he says that he now counts everything as a loss. When Paul stacks up everything that life has to offer and places it next to knowing Jesus, he considers it all so small and so pitiful in comparison that it is worth leaving behind. Not only that, but he actually considers at as “rubbish”, dung, garbage. If a Christian is anything, he or she is someone who sees Jesus as infinitely more beautiful and valuable than anything or anyone else in the world.
“…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,” (Phil 3:9). There are two ways you can be righteous: by yourself, or through Jesus. To be saved is to turn from ourselves and turn towards Jesus. So we all have a choice to make. Do we think we can cut it on our own? Do we think we have what it takes? Paul’s warning to us all is that he tried, and found out that even his best efforts did nothing but increase the distance between Him and God.
Here is what we can do instead: we can turn from ourselves and turn towards Christ. If we will open up the empty hands of faith, we will receive from Him His own righteousness. We don’t need to bother with our own cheap, broke-down righteousness when we have been given access to God’s very own right-standing. And all we need to do is open up in faith, just let our hearts crack open to His divine mercy and offer. His grace has postured God on the edge of His seat, ready to pour out a waterfall of righteousness upon sinners like us. But we must come, so come!
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.
Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all