“The Goal of Gaining the Prize” – Philippians 3

It is healthy for us as believers to be introspectively evaluative. This is especially true as we evaluate if we are attuned to walking through our lives with Godly goals.

By way of illustration, we had a rough week in the stock markets last week. And every stock portfolio has issues that are producing, yet those that are languishing. And you want to regularly evaluate what is producing, in order to increase that, while also eliminating and re-depositing your assets into those issues that will bring about gains. Most often, people are managing such portfolios with the goal of retirement resources in mind. This is wisdom at work. So, if you’d do that for the temporal goal of the end of life in this material world, why would you not also apply that diligence toward spiritual disciplines toward goals that are the prize of eternity?

The Apostle Paul said, in one of our verses today, “I press toward the goal to win the prize.”  Is that true of the way you are living?  Is that your goal?  Or are you running just enough to somehow make it to the finish line without any sweat or pain?  Spiritually speaking, are you like one of the athletes we’ll see in the next winter Olympics, or are you more like an occasional snowboarder at Whitetail??

As we go to Philippians 3 today, we get a context from Paul in the first 6 verses, and from that point on the passage leads toward the big idea conclusion at the end.

PHP 3:1 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 

The Philippians were people who needed a lot of encouragement, so Paul tells them multiple times to “rejoice.”  Yes, times can be difficult; but even in the worst of circumstances – like writing a letter from prison – there is joy in knowing Christ. And Paul is reminding them over and over about perspectives to have, as well as goals to move forward toward.

3:2 – Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—

Some of the problems the Philippians were facing were related to a group of troublemakers that followed Paul everywhere he went, and three descriptors are used of these Judaizers

  • “dogs” – not talking Lassie or Benji here. Rather, these were wild animals that roamed freely and were menacing pests.
  • “evil workers” – The “workers” word is first in the Greek text – thus an emphasis on deeds. They were all about works over faith and belief.
  • “mutilators of the flesh” – Their insistence upon this singular Jewish rite – over and over – was something that had no significance, and took away from proper emphasis. The true circumcision was of the heart … of Christians, with a settled faith in the work of Jesus.

3 marks of true believers

  • “worship by the spirit of God” – A vital spiritual experience is going on within these folks, as the Holy Spirit within is informing their lives.
  • “glory in Christ Jesus” – They understand that any good stuff going on in their lives is due to the life of Christ in them. It is not really to their credit, but to the credit of the one who died for them and now lives in them.
  • “put no confidence in the flesh” – They know what they are made of – flesh, humanity; and it is not the kind of stuff that instills any confidence.

And Paul continues … 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

… If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

Paul wanted to make sure that they understood he was not criticizing the Judaizers because they possessed credentials beyond his own and that he was therefore jealous of them. To the contrary … his resume could match that of anyone else!

  • circumcised the 8th day – right on time like a good Jewish boy
  • 100% purebred all-Israeli – of Benjamin, the tribe that included Saul, first king. This was the one tribe to remain true with Judah in the southern kingdom. The Benjamites were a tough little group of people you didn’t want to mess with. And Moses, in his deathbed blessing of the tribes of Israel said of Benjamin … “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.”
  • “a Hebrew of Hebrews” – a guy with a wall full of awards!
  • “a Pharisee” – not a bad title like we way think of them, as they were highly respected by the general population in Israel.
  • “zealous” – more than anyone else – standing for the ancient faith and persecuting its enemies beyond any other’s efforts.
  • “legalistic righteousness” (perfection) – He scored an A+ and was faultless.

A summary of Paul’s background: Paul would have grown up with an early Synagogue education, topped off by Gamaliel and graduating magna cum laude. He would have known Hebrew, Greek, and the Septuagint as well (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). And he could speak the common language of Aramaic. Tarsus was in fact one of the three great “university towns” of that age, along with Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.

Paul’s advanced education and his commitment to it would lead him to become a Pharisee and member surely of the Sanhedrin. He was on track to become one of the foremost Jewish leaders of his generation.

PHP 3:7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

So here now we get to our area of interest, seeing what Paul states to the Philippians as the goals of his life. We can see three things …

  1. to gain the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith
  2. to know Christ and His power in life and sufferings
  3. to attain the eternal life of resurrection after death

These goals of the Apostle Paul deal with the past, present and future.

righteousness – Though a current possession with a future blessing, righteousness was accomplished in the past. This is probably my favorite word that I have shared in preaching the gospel over the years. This is the thing we need, but that we don’t have in ourselves. To understand imputed righteousness is to understand the gospel, to be daily blessed by its reality, and to know how to communicate this greatest truth to others.

power for positive living – There is a present, positive power in life that comes from, even now, possessing eternal life. And yes, sufferings are inevitable; we have them just as Jesus did … and Paul. But Paul even rejoiced in suffering, knowing he was connected to the greatest truth and the ultimate winning team. And he had found that even the treasures and accolades of this world – the stuff he had gained and lost – could in reality be only counted and valued as mere rubbish compared to knowing Christ.

resurrection in the future – somehow – At first glance it seems like Paul is doubting if it will happen. These words here are a bit difficult to translate easily. But the meaning is that Paul is expressing that whether he will be alive and translated at the coming of the Lord, or if his experience will be to meet the Lord at death … by one way or the other, he was looking forward ultimately to eternal life in its fullest sense.

 PHP 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul says, “I’m not there yet… not perfect yet… I’m experiencing some victories … and I’m pressing on.” And what is it that he wants to lay hold of, that Christ took hold of him?  It must be the life of a relationship with God. Be it past/present/future, it is what life is all about. Seriously? Seriously!

Paul next adds that he knows there is going to be a great prize at the end. And this has become the defining goal that he is moving toward. This is where his eyes were fixed.

It is like when my grandfather would tell me stories of what it was like when he was a boy and was out in the fields of their farm plowing with horses. He told me that you could not let yourself look down or look to the sides. Rather, it was necessary to fix you eyes on an object in the distance, or you would end up plowing a zig-zag.

We could also illustrate it by the woman who is in the Allstate Insurance commercial where “Mayhem” – the scruffy fellow who is pretending to be a 70-pound St. Bernard puppy – is licking her face and tearing apart her purse. But she refuses to take her eyes off the road!

That is the way we need to lead our lives, looking toward the final prize/goal in the distance, affecting the way we live now.

PHP 3:15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

The mature Christian will see things from the viewpoint Paul has articulated. And if he does not understand it all, God will make it clear as he goes along the way.

Following God is like having a perfect GPS that never fails. When we use these devices, we might sometimes doubt them. Our lives are often like the GPS sending us up a mountain on a twisting road through the trees. It sometimes seems like it cannot be correct, but we can trust it, and clarity will come in the end.

Paul next encourages the readers to follow his example, as many others have. But also warns, as many others have not.

PHP 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.

This is a different group of people in view here, not the Judaizers. These folks were lawless people who indulged the flesh. The Judaizers were overly bound by the Law, a law which no longer applied in the age of grace. But this second group being spoken of here had fallen off the other side of the wagon into lawlessness and the pursuit of the flesh. The one group insisted upon doing right about something that was wrong, while the latter group insisted on doing wrong about what they should have known was right.

These were alleged believers who were living in such a way as the enemies of the cross. Though they wore the Christian “uniform,” they certainly seemed to be playing for the other side.

  • destiny is destruction – This was their eternal loss of reward.
  • god is their stomach – They satisfied all their appetites that called to them without regard for what might ultimately prove destructive;
  • they glory in things about which they should be ashamed

Paul concludes by returning to the big idea, the big goal, the big prize …

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Do you see the contrast here in these final verses?  There is this one group of people who are ostensibly Christians, but of whom Paul says, “their mind is on earthly things.”  Rather, Paul says that our mind and our gaze (meaning the values of our lives) should be higher and toward another place – our citizenship is in heaven. That is our true home and native land.

So why not live like a citizen of your homeland, rather than like the crazed natives of a country that is doomed for destruction?  Indeed, life in a foreign land is difficult and filled with sorrows and problems, even at its best. Why wait for the weight of sorrows and foolishness to bring you to a point of raising your eyes toward the true reality of heaven? … toward the PRIZE?  Why not start early in life, or if it is not early in your life, why not start now – whatever your age – to look to heaven and look and move toward the prize?

Look to the PRIZE!  Move toward the call of Christ… of knowing Him … of walking with Him. Seriously?? It’s come to that?  Seriously, yes!

Can Anything Good Come from Tarsus? (Acts 22, Philippians 3)

Most of us have a mixed bag of stuff from our past, from our formative years. We may possess both opportunities, perhaps in education, but possibly also some challenges from family dysfunction. Or perhaps it could be just the opposite. Just as a strong background can surely prepare a person for lifetime successes, there is no guarantee it will evolve in that direction. Likewise, a less than stellar upbringing can be overcome, as many rags to riches stories attest.

The Apostle Paul could boast a very strong background, especially in Jewish circles of association. His credentials could match just about anyone else. Even so, thinking ahead in the story, we know that this strict Jewish education did not position him to naturally gravitate toward the new teachings of a crucified and resurrected Messiah with a gospel message for all mankind. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

As we consider Paul’s background, it is rather certain that Paul was born relatively close to the same time as Jesus Christ (maybe about two years older?), and that he would therefore live into his upper 60s.

From the city of Tarsus (south-central Turkey), we can infer that Paul came from what must have been a relatively affluent family. Though ethnically Jewish, they met Roman citizenship requirements as land owners and were likely among the leading people of the city. Paul’s family could trace their lineage to the tribe of Benjamin, his name “Saul” being after King Saul of that tribe, with Paulus being a Roman name given him by his Roman/Jewish father.

He possessed the finest of educations, what we might consider like a Harvard/Princeton equivalent, sitting also under the most famous of instructors. In an uproar in Jerusalem during his ministry, Paul sought and received the soldiers’ permission to address the rioting Jewish crowd …

Acts 22:1-3 … “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.

So this is about as good as it can get in terms of a background for a Jewish boy in the Roman world. Paul gave a summary of it when writing to the church in Philippi – who were dealing with Jewish legalists and their proud lineage …

Philippians 3:4-6 … If someone else thinks they have reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So Paul would have grown up with an early Synagogue education, topped off by Gamaliel and graduating magna cum laude. He would have known Hebrew, Greek, and the Septuagint as well (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). And he could speak the common language of Aramaic. Tarsus was in fact one of the three great “university towns” of that age, along with Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.

Like all responsible Jewish families, boys were taught a trade – for Paul, tent-making. The area from which he came in Cilicia boasted a particular type of high-grade fabric from the prevalence of goat herds, and this skill would prove valuable for Paul in his travel years as a missionary.

Paul’s advanced education and his commitment to it would lead him to become a Pharisee and member surely of the Sanhedrin. He was on track to become one of the foremost Jewish leaders of his generation.

We first encounter Paul on the pages of Scripture in the book of Acts, in chapters 7 and 8, upon the occasion of the stoning of Stephen after his sermon …

Acts 7:54—8:3 — 54 … When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

For Paul to be a Pharisee, he would have had to be around the age of at least 30, and this works with the presumed timeline of his life.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

8:1 – On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

So this event was a sort of “coming out” event for Saul/Paul, where his Jewish zeal and faith moved him to radical action (that would not have been endorsed actually by Gamaliel). And it is a couple of chapters later that we see Paul’s incredible conversion story, and we shall study again over these weeks all that came from the new life he found in Christ.

So Paul was uniquely qualified to serve God as he did – combining the great Jewish background of theology, the education of the Greek culture, and the opportunities that Roman citizenship could open for him. But his ultimate success was not because of these things, not primarily. It is not as if God chose Paul because he was the candidate with the best resume to miraculously redeem from the other side. No, Paul ultimately was the great leader of the early church because, by God’s grace, he was empowered to accomplish all that he did. His fleshly credentials were not his best asset, and his liabilities (such as apparently not being the healthiest guy around nor the best orator) did not diminish his success or limit what God could do through him.

So education is grand! A wonderful and godly family is an asset. Having great natural skills of personal and professional interaction are resume builders for sure. But none of it matters for eternity without the empowering blessing of God working through you. And no lack of these natural skills and blessings can thwart what God can do through the life of a yielded Christian. When we are weak, He is strong… as Paul knew and wrote!

Walking in Your Hero’s Footsteps (Philippians 3)

When I was a little boy, I had a hero – my brother-in-law – who had just married one of my much older sisters.  He was, and still is, a real gem of a guy. My grandmother was aware of my veneration for this new addition to our family, and like the great matriarch that she was, she took him aside one day and said, “That little boy idolizes you, so you’d better watch everything you say and do in front of him.”  I know my brother-in-law is a sinner theologically speaking, but I can’t quite picture it actually happening! I wanted to grow up to be like him. I didn’t quite make it… I could never be that nice of a person.

Did you have a hero when you were growing up? It is rather quite common to look up to someone and wish to be like him or her.

Paul said to the readers of the first letter to the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (11:1). He told the Ephesians, Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2).  The word for “imitators” is the same word from which we derive “mimic” in English. Look to God and mimic what you see. But, you can’t see God! True! But you can gain a picture of Jesus Christ that is quite detailed. He is the exact representation of God (Colossians 1:15).  He is the visible explanation of God (“explanation / made known” is the word from which we derive “exegesis”… which is a detailed examination and explanation of the meaning of something)… John 1:18 – “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”

How well do you follow the example of Jesus Christ and walk in His footsteps? Do you do it well enough that someone else may see it in you and make you a part of the pattern for their walk? You do have influence. Others do look at you. There will be people, probably in younger generations than you, who will look to you and walk as you do.  Will they look like Christ?

PHP 3:7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead… PHP 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

Between Two Thieves (Part 2) (Philippians 3:12-21)

What you worship you become.

About a year ago my nephew became enamored—as three-year-olds do—with an app on his mom’s iPhone.  The app functioned as something of a moving storybook, complete with narration.  It even taught him some new words.  But there was one word in particular that seemed a bit out-of-place in his vocabulary: stawk.  Stawk?  Yes; stawk.  It’s a bird, silly.  It’s usually the bird that brings new babies to their home.  Oh…stork.  See, the app my nephew had been enjoying was manufactured across the pond, and the British accent had rubbed off on him.

If that can happen with something as simple as an accent, think of what happens with the things we worship?  And let’s also be clear: everybody worships something.  This was even the point made by David Foster Wallace—a mathematician and author who spoke at Kenyon College’s graduation in 2005:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. …Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

Keep in mind, Wallace is hardly a Christian.  But you understand his point, don’t you?  It’s actually not that different from Augustine’s notion of sin: that sin is loving something else higher than God.  The problem—both for my nephew and for us—is that what we worship actually shapes us, whether we want it to or not.


In yesterday’s post, we looked at Tertullian’s idea of there being “two thieves” of the gospel.  We looked at the way the religious thief replaces the gospel with self-righteousness; today we’ll look at how the un-religious thief replaces the gospel with self-absorption.

But notice, first, what Paul says about his own life.  After pointing out the superiority of knowing Christ,  he observes that this doesn’t actually mean that he himself is superior:

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.  (Philippians 3:12-16)

Much of Christianity is about goal-setting; it’s about hope.  Very often I meet people who say things like, “I tried Christianity; it didn’t work for me,” or perhaps: “I went to church for a while, but it didn’t meet my needs.”  Maybe you’ve said similar things yourself.  But notice the words “work” and “needs” are paired with words like “for me” and “my.”  It’s just another form of self-absorption.

Paul’s attitude is radically different.  For Paul, Christianity isn’t about having it all together.  Christianity is a lifestyle of transformation.  Want to be mature?  says Paul, Then persevere.  If faith is a journey, then nothing will derail our progress like stopping along the freeway.  It’d be like stopping at a roadside diner and calling it a family vacation.  Better things lie ahead—it just takes patience in getting there.


We now turn to the non-religious thief.  Paul starts by inviting his readers to learn from his own life—a life that stands in contrast to those who oppose the gospel through self-interest:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.  18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.  19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.  20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,  21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:17-21)

Do you hear the list of descriptors Paul uses?  We can even list them:

  • Enemies of the cross (v. 18)
  • Their end is their destruction (v. 19)
  • Their god is their belly (v. 19)
  • Their glory is their shame (v. 19)
  • Minds set on earthly things (v. 19)

These verses frame the portrait of someone who worships self instead of God.  As we saw through Wallace’s graduation speech, you don’t even have to believe in God to believe that this kind of attitude is caustic—to yourself and to other relationships.

But wait.  Aren’t some decisions personal?  Society makes progress, after all.  We don’t need to regress to a list of rigid, religiously-motivated restrictions.  What I do in the privacy of my own home—or bedroom—is my own business.  As long as I’m not hurting anyone, what does it matter?

The answer, of course, is found in verse 21: “our citizenship is in heaven.”  For Christians, identity isn’t found in behavior but through relationship.  And yet, this relationship provokes us to alter our behavior.  Why?  Because Christianity teaches us that this world is not all there is.  Therefore there is a higher goal than merely promoting freedom.  There is a higher goal than merely not offending or hurting anyone. So to be an “enemy of the cross” might be little more than a dogged insistence on living life on your own terms.  That’s not citizenship in heaven—that’s being tied to the city of man.


G.K. Chesterton once wrote that there are many ways for Christianity to fall—but only one way for it to remain upright.  If I can blend metaphors here, there are many variations of these two “thieves” of the gospel.  It may be tempting to see the gospel as some sort of “middle ground,” a balance struck between extremes.  But that’s not the case at all.  No; the gospel is a different road altogether—a road that leads God’s people on a new exodus away from the tyranny of self.  It’s about abandoning self-absorption and self-righteousness—nay, all self-interest and pursuing a radical life of self-sacrifice.  It’s why C.S. Lewis writes that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” (Mere Christianity, p. 134).

The more we live as citizens of heaven, the more our “accents”—our lifestyles, our stories—will come to be shaped by God’s kingdom rather than our own empires.  Follow self-interest and you’ll never find happiness.  Follow Christ and you’ll find everything you never knew you wanted.

Between Two Thieves (Part 1) (Philippians 3:7-11)

If you take even a casual glance at church history, you’ll see the name Tertullian crop up quite a bit.  Living in the second century, Tertullian gave us much our Christian vocabulary (words like Trinity, for example).  But Tertullian also wrote that there are two “thieves” of the gospel.  Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so too can we find the gospel wedged between two equal and opposite extremes.  We might call the first thief the “religious thief,” because it replaces the gospel with an idol of self-righteousness.  We might call the second thief the “non-religious thief,” because it replaces the gospel with an idol of self-absorption.

We’ll unpack these further as we go, but for now you almost certainly notice what both hold in common: they both focus on self, albeit in different ways.  Do you remember how Augustine defined sin?  The human heart, he said, is a pyramid.  Joy will never be found unless God is at its apex.  Sin is loving anything more than God—and few things are more caustic than self-interest.

So when we examine Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see him turn his attention to the two “thieves,” the two things that distract us from the gospel.   Today, we turn our attention to the first of these: the religious thief.


Paul had already given his readers a glimpse of his impressive resume (3:1-6).  No one could claim to be more religious than Paul.  But what does Paul think of all this?

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–  10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

Compared to Christ, what else is there?  I actually hate English Bibles here, because they sugar-coat the force of what Paul is saying.  Verse 8 says “rubbish,” or if you have an older translation, they might go as far as to say “dung.”  But if you read it in Paul’s original Greek, the word is skubala.  Skubala?  According to Daniel Wallace—arguably the world’s leading expert on Greek grammar—the word is (in his words) “roughly equivalent to the English ‘crap, s**t.’”

This is one of those that’s in the Bible?!?!? kinds of moments.  And yes; it is.

Why so harsh?  Why so coarse and vulgar?  It’s simple, really.  Paul is saying that focusing on religious performance is little more than (ahem) “holy crap.”  It’s worthless.  No one ever made it to heaven on “Christian values.”  Again, we have to distinguish between things that are wise, from things that are necessary.  Christian values aren’t bad—in fact, because they reflect God’s character, they can shape our lives in radical ways.  But Christian values never saved anyone.

When Matt Chandler—a pastor in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex—was diagnosed with cancer, it gave him a new perspective on the Law.  The Law, he said, is like the MRI machine.  An MRI machine can help diagnose you, can help expose your innermost flaws.  But the MRI machine will never cure you.  And that’s what the Law does, Chandler explains.  When we read the Law—God’s standards revealed to His people—we recognize that we are deeply flawed people.  But the Law can never cure us, and the more we try to cure through obedience, the deeper we sink into our own flaws.  It’s hopeless—unless someone could fulfill the Law for us.


In the sixteenth century, a young monk lay awake tormented by a singular thought: What if I’m not good enough for God?  What if I die without having confessed all my sins?  Maybe you’ve been haunted by a similar question.  The young monk was awakened by the book of Romans—another of Paul’s letters.  In those pages this young monk found the answer he’d been looking for.  Grace wasn’t a reward for religious service, he discovered.  Grace was a free gift of God based solely on God’s love poured out through Jesus.

The young monk’s name was Martin Luther, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Luther would later make a distinction between what he called “active” and “passive” righteousness.  Active righteousness is what comes through the religious thief.  Active righteousness is trying to earn it on my own.  Active righteousness means convincing myself that the (ahem) skubala of my self-righteousness is a fine perfume (hint: it’s not).  Active righteousness will always produce profound psychological, social, and spiritual damage.

I love sushi.  So one night on Netflix I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which focuses on the career of a world-renowned sushi chef—a man so famous people wait for months for a reservation at his restaurant.  Jiro was deeply dedicated to his craft, so much so that film critic Roger Ebert looked at him with a sense of pity:

“… I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?…Half an hour of [preparation] was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.”

Active righteousness produces this same level of perfectionism—and this same level of regret.  Am I good enough?  Am I at least better than that person?   And the list goes on.

That’s why we need to focus on Christ’s passive righteousness.  Luther also called this an “alien” righteousness.  Why?  Because Christ’s righteousness is not unique to me; it comes from outside myself.  Let’s read what Paul said about this again:

“…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–  10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:9b-11)

The gospel isn’t about self-righteousness.  It’s not about “self” at all.  If anything, it’s about the transformed self—a new identity in Christ, and the hope of resurrection from the dead.

“Religion says ‘do this,’ and it is never done,” writes Luther.  “The gospel says ‘believe in this’ and it is already done.”

“Lay your deadly doing down,

Down at Jesus’ feet.

Stand in him and him alone,

Gloriously complete.

It is finished; it is finished.

What more can I ever do?”

(James Proctor, “It is Finished,” 19th Century)


The enemies of the gospel (Philippians 3:1-6)

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.


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. 


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…


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.