They say that you should be cautious about saving a drowning man. When a person is drowning, their survival instincts take over. If you don’t hand them a flotation device, they’ll attempt to climb on top of you, pushing you under to give themselves a breath of oxygen.
Such behavior is excusable at the local pool.
Such behavior is inexcusable at the local church.
It’s human nature to want to be on top. The whole of life becomes a giant quest for superiority—even in church. In “Choruses from the Rock,” the poet T.S. Eliot asks:
“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?…They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within, by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
In a very real sense, that’s what “religion” boils down to: a “system so perfect no one will need to be good.” I grew up in the land of evangelical subculture. Christianity—at least to my mind—became reduced to a list of things to avoid, like R-rated movies, heavy metal music, and the science teacher. Most of us can probably create a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that defined our faith at one time or another.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there are some for whom such lists are wise.
But there is no one for whom such lists are necessary.
The problem comes when we begin to think of our wise habits as necessary—and impose them on other people. Can you believe that the Johnsons send their kids to “that” school? I heard that the Millers like to watch “that” TV show—with their kids! Someone told me that some of our pastors don’t listen to Christian radio. And the list goes on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. And, you’ll notice, gossip becomes the currency of the comparison game. We can judge one another’s religious habits and—like the drowning man—push one another down in a way that builds ourselves up.
And you know what? That’s selfish. That’s stupid. And, Paul says, it’s the opposite of the gospel.
JOY REPLACES FEAR
In Philippians 3, Paul’s letter changes course:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. (Philippians 3:1)
The word “finally” sounds strange—as if Paul’s winding down to his conclusion. But if you glance at the text, you’ll notice we’re only about halfway through. What’s Paul saying? If chapter 2 laid out the theological framework—that is, Christ’s example—then now Paul turns to further explain how that framework operates in the gritty reality of the Church.
“Rejoice,” he says. Joy, once again, takes center stage in Paul’s letter. And notice that he says that such a command “is safe for you.” What’s going on, exactly? It’s simple. Paul knows full well that there will always be false teachers lurking in the shadows, waiting to insist on some form of religious ritual as the way to God. And if you live your life in the shackles of duty, then you live your life in fear. Am I doing enough for God? Did I remember to pray for forgiveness for what I said yesterday? If I live in this frame of mind, my natural tendency is to feel disqualified—as if I’ve let God down in some way.
Paul says No, no, no. You can’t live your life in fear. Pursue Christ. Pursue Godly character. But never assume that such pursuits earn God’s favor. Instead, they are a response to God’s already lavish goodness—which is also our source of great joy.
ENEMIES OF THE GOSPEL
Now Paul can turn his attention to the actual false teachers:
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. (Philippians 3:2-4a)
One of the problems of Paul’s letters is we don’t always know the full story. It’s very much like listening to someone else’s phone conversation: we hear the things they say, but since we can’t hear the person on the other line, we’re often lost for context. The same thing seems to be happening here. Who were these “dogs,” these “evildoers?” It’s really not that clear. The context seems to indicate that Paul is dealing with people who insist that only way to really worship God is through strict obedience to the Law—of which circumcision was a key symbol. If you’ve been in church for a while, you might know that something similar happened to the Galatian church.
In other words, these were the religious moralists of Paul’s day. And Paul would never allow such false teachings to supersede the overflowing joy of the gospel. That’s why “dogs” is such an insult. Dogs weren’t housepets in Paul’s day; they were unclean, wild animals. So what is Paul saying? Maybe you guys aren’t as squeaky-clean as you thought you were…
THE PAST DOES NOT DEFINE THE FUTURE
Paul plays their game—at least temporarily. He says Wanna play the “religious” card? I call:
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. (Philippians 3:4b-6)
This is basically Paul’s resume. Let’s pull it apart a little:
- “Circumcised on the eighth day:” The “eighth day” refers to Paul’s strict conformity to the law (cf. Ge 17:12; Lev 12:3; see also Lk 1:59; 2:21). But in context, it also means that Paul received circumcision before any of the false teachers did.
- “Of the people of Israel:” Circumcision might lead to religious inclusion (at least in the mind of Paul’s opponents), but Paul was biologically Jewish – shouldn’t this be an even greater reason for superiority?
- “Of the tribe of Benjamin:” Benjamin was the favored tribe: “beloved of the Lord” (Dt. 33:12).
- “A Hebrew of Hebrews:” This term might easily be seen as a summation of all the other titles. A friend of mine paraphrases it (a bit crassly) as “the Jewiest of the Jews.” The term is simply meant to exaggerate his qualifications.
- “In regard to the Law, a Pharisee:” Paul uses similar descriptions in Acts 23:6-9; Acts 26:5 and Gal 1:14. The description means that Paul had devoted himself to the teachings of the law.
- “As for zeal, persecuting the church:” No one had persecuted the church as much as Paul—certainly not these two-bit false teachers in Philippi.
- “As to the righteousness in the Law, blameless:” Paul is saying is that he has an unblemished record of keeping the traditions such as circumcision, Sabbath, etc. Basically Paul is saying that he got the perfect attendance award in Vacation Bible School growing up and he memorized more verses than anyone else in youth group.
In other words, no one can really measure up to Paul’s impressive resume. Which is good, because Paul says That’s not the point. Instead he says that there is “no confidence in the flesh.”
Our past does not define our future—not even our religious past. Instead, Christ’s past accomplishment–an act none of us deserved or could even ask for–defines who we are at present, and through whose Spirit leads us to a greater future.
The gospel destroys our tendency to feel superior over our accomplishments—or inferior over our failures and struggles. We are sinners, through and through—but we are also redeemed sinners, who live a life of gradual transformation. Take your eyes off of God’s grace, and you have only your small pile of accomplishments to rule and reign over. Place your eyes on God’s grace, and you find a source of overflowing joy.