Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Nothing But Jesus

Philippians 3:2-14

 We learn from the book of Acts and the letters of Paul that he had an ongoing conflict with a group of Jewish Christians.  Often they are referred to as the Judaizers.  These Judaizers taught that it was necessary for Gentiles to become Jews first in order to become Christians second.  They taught non-Jews that it was necessary for them to adopt certain ritualistic, dietary, and cultural traits from Judaism, most especially the rite of circumcision.  

 This isn’t a surprise when we remember that all of the first Christians were already Jews before they became Christians.  The first Christians didn’t know anything other than being Jewish Christians.  But as the church considered what God had revealed and how the Holy Spirit had opened up the Church to Gentiles, they came to understand that it was unnecessary to be a Jew to be a Christian.  The very first Church Council, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, decided this and sent word to the other churches to that effect.  

 But that did not stop the Judaizers.  They continued to travel and teach Gentile Christians to adopt Jewish customs.  This chapter is one of Paul’s rebukes of them and their teachings.

 “Watch out for those dogs.”  Not a very diplomatic beginning, but there was a reason behind it.  Many Jews of the first century spoke of Gentiles, those outside the covenant, as being “dogs,” less than fully human.  And in a way, that’s what these Judaizers were doing:  Calling Christians who did not adopt Jewish customs outside the covenant.  Now Paul returns their insult to them:  It is they who really misunderstand the covenant of faith in Christ.  

 “Those mutilators of the flesh who say you must be circumcised to be saved.  For we who worship by the spirit are the ones who are truly circumcised.”  The circumcision that God desires is not a circumcision of the flesh, but a circumcision of the heart.  Colossians 2:11 says:  “When you came to Chrsit, you were circumcised, but not by a physical procedure.  Christ performed a spiritual circumcision, the cutting away of your sinful nature.”  

 The theological term for this is regeneration; a new beginning, a new start at life.  A life ruled by the Spirit of God rather than by the flesh.  That is the circumcision God

desires; not a change of the body, but a change of our hearts from a heart ruled by sin to a heart ruled by the Spirit of God.

 “We rely on what Christ has done for us.  We put no confidence in human effort.”  The real issue with the Judaizers is that they were teaching that something other than faith in Christ is needed for salvation.  If we add anything to the Gospel, then we are putting our confidence in something other than Christ.  It doesn’t matter what that “extra thing” is; it’s still destroying the essence of salvation by grace alone, received through faith alone, in Christ alone.

 “Though I could have confidence in my own efforts if anyone could.”  Paul rejects the qualifications of these Judaizers, not because he lacks them, but rather because he had them and found them to be inadequate.  If anyone had these things, it was Paul, but he rejects them.

 “I was circumcised on the 8th day.”  In other words, Paul was born a Jew.  In Judaism of the first century, there were proselytes.  People who were not born Jewish could become Jewish.  But these proselyte Jews were always treated as “second class citizens” in the Jewish community.  Paul was not; he was born Jewish.

 “I am a pure blooded citizen of Israel.”  After 600 years of living under foreign powers and being scattered across the known world, most Jews had lost their pure bloodlines.  Those who could still show them often felt superior to other Jews.

 “A member of the tribe of Benjamin.”  The tribe of Benjamin was one of only two that remained loyal to the throne of David when most of the tribes broke away and became the nation of Samaria or Israel.  

 “A real Hebrew.”  Literally what Paul says is a “Hebrew of Hebrews.”  This may mean that Paul lived most of his life in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.  Or it may mean that Paul spoke Hebrew and/or Aramaic.  By this time, many Jews had forgotten their ancestral language and spoke others.  Paul still spoke Hebrew/Aramaic (the two languages were almost identical).

 “A member of the Pharisees.”  We remember the Pharisees for a lot of bad reasons, but they were devoted to God, even if their devotion was sometimes misplaced.  The Pharisees held to the strictest observance of the Law, and many people admired them for their devotion.  

 “I was so zealous I persecuted the Church.”  Paul was so zealous for the things he believed that he even persecuted those who taught otherwise.  Ironically, this is the very thing the Judaizers were doing: persecuting those who believed differently.  

 “I was never accused of a fault.”  As far as everyone else was concerned, he was a model citizen of the Jewish covenant.

 But Paul no longer considered these things to be so valuable.  Once they were the center of his life, but now they are nothing to him.  In fact, they are worse than “nothing.”  They weren’t just meaningless, they were harmful.  They were the things that were prevented him from recognizing the truth.  

 “Yes, everything else is worthless when compared to the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus.  I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage.”  Compared to knowing Jesus Chirst, nothing else is of value.  That’s not a reflection of how bad anything else is, but how good knowing Christ is.  Everything else becomes like garbage by comparison.  Coincidentally, “garbage” meant spoiled food that was good for nothing but throwing out into the street for the dogs to eat.  There’s another reference to the Judaizers.  They were “feasting” on everything other than Christ: birth, circumcision, diet, customs, etc.  All the while, what they were eating was “dog food” compared too knowing Christ. 

 The point Paul is making is that we should place  no confidence in any quality or achievement of our own.  Being born into a Christian family will not save us.  Being a church member will not save us. Being a regular church attender will not save us.  Even having a place of honor in the Church will not save us.    

 We must let go of these things as a reason for confidence.  There’s nothing wrong with them in and of themselves.  In fact, they could all be very good things.  But if they are the source of our confidence, we need to let go of them as that.  We can really only have faith in Christ if we are not holding on to something else. We can only come to Christ with empty hands.  Salvation is available by grace alone, received through faith alone, in Christ alone.  

 Let go of anything else as a source of hope and seek with all your heart to know Christ.  The word Paul uses here means to know personally.  It’s not enough to know “about” Christ.  We must know him personally and be so intimately acquainted with him that his will becomes our will and his mind becomes our mind.  So that through him, we

might experience the power of God that turns life into death.  We may even suffer with him, which is a privilege, not a duty for the Christian.

 But we’re not done yet.  “Press on to that perfection for which Christ first possessed you.”  We get intimidated by that word perfection.  But in Greek, the word that is often translated as “perfection” really means more “maturity or fullness.”   As Christians, we are to become all God intends us to be.  That is maturity.  

 I believed that’s important for us to remember.  There’s more to following Christ than just a momentary decision of faith.  

 Just recently, I was having a conversation with someone and they remarked that “so-and-so is saved.”  I got to thinking about that, and I thought, “Really?  They’re saved?”  I’m not.  I don’t believe I am saved.  I believe that I am being saved.  I’m not there yet.  I won’t be saved till I go home to Christ or Christ returns to take me to himself.  Until then, it’s still a work in progress.  

 The whole language of “I’m saved” is too safe, too convenient, too easy, too settled.  If it’s a matter of “I’m saved,” then where’s the challenge?  Where’s the threat?  “Go to church?  Why bother?  I’m saved.  What is God calling me to?  I don’t know.  What’s it matter?  I’m saved.  What’s for lunch?”  

 Maybe we need to change the language.  Instead of asking people, “Are you saved?”  How about asking, “Are you going on to maturity in Christ?  Are you pressing on to perfection?  How are you being saved?  What is God doing in your life right now?  I think it’s time to start challenging all those “saved” people.

 We are only saved by God’s grace, received through faith in Christ alone.  We need to let go of everything else as a source of hope and confidence.  But that’s not the end of the story.  After we have faith in Christ, we don’t have an excuse to sit on our butts and take it easy.  We are to press on to become everything God is calling us to be.  We are to run the race to claim the prize for which God is calling us onward.

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