The Lord’s Day Morning
March 30, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that
Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“Rejoice in the Lord, Put No Confidence in the Flesh, Count Gain as Loss to Gain Christ”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Philippians 3, and we’re going to look again at the first eleven verses. Now we have been in the book of Philippians, this little letter of Philippians, for many, many weeks and months together, and Philippians 3 is a unique section of this word.
Let me direct your attention to verse 1 in Philippians 3, because I want you to note something that New Testament scholars and others who study this book in detail have noted. They have noted that Paul begins Philippians 3:1 with the word finally…and then there are two more chapters to the book. Now you say, “I recognize that. I’ve seen that in preachers before!” And so you have. But they wonder why Paul would start this chapter off with the word finally and then do something a little bit different than he does for other books that he’s written. For instance, in the book of Romans, he gives you eleven glorious chapters of doctrine and exhortation about doctrine, followed by chapters 12, 13, and 14, where that doctrine is applied to the Christian life. And then he gets to chapter 15, and he gives you a missionary report, and then he gives you a report [in which] he commends to you certain Christians in Rome that he’s been working with, and then he follows and concludes the book with some sort of practical exhortations in the Christian life. And they look at Philippians, and they see him do all of that doctrine and all of that teaching of the Christian life based on that doctrine, and then in Philippians 2:18-30, he commends Epaphroditus and Timothy, and then he comes to this practical exhortation: Rejoice in the Lord.
And you’re expecting him at that point to do what? To conclude the letter. And then suddenly, from the second half of verse 1 down to at least verse 11, he is back into mind-bendingly, heart-filling theology. He’s back into a doctrinal exhortation again. What? What happened, Paul? We were expecting you to wrap this thing up. And I just wonder…reverently, I wonder whether that was perhaps Paul’s original plan. You know, he was perhaps dictating this to his secretary, to his amanuensis who was writing down every word. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul is giving this letter and putting it in form, and he’s thinking that he’s going to end with this exhortation on rejoicing. And then the Holy Spirit burdens him that there is yet another word that he needs to say to God’s people, and it’s a word about truth, and it’s a word about doctrine that’s directly relevant to this practical exhortation about rejoicing because Paul is concerned that those who teach false doctrine may come in and ruin the very joy that he is exhorting the people of God in Philippi to have. If those people of God aren’t on the lookout for this false teaching, if the people of God have not adequately apprehended this principle that he’s going to set forth especially in verses 1-6…and then, if they don’t adequately understand the glorious theology of verses 7-11…if they don’t understand these things, the very joy he is exhorting them to may be robbed from them. And so Paul perhaps, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was intending to end in verse 1, but continues on. Praise God that he did! Because you know, you come to these passages and some of the most glorious passages in all of the New Testament are found in chapters 3 and 4 of the book of Philippians. How impoverished we would have been without them. And so, though Paul begins with a finally, and thank God he continues on with this doctrinal exhortation. And then he comes back again to practical exhortations in chapter 4.
Well, let’s look to God’s word and see what He has for us in this great passage. But before we do, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Every single word of it is Your word. And not a single one of these words is empty and not one of these words will fall or fail. You mean this truth for our edification. You are not simply wanting to fill up our heads with facts: You are wanting to fill up our hearts with truth, so that our faith is strengthened and our lives are changed forever. For that to happen it will take the work of Your Holy Spirit, because this word – Your word – does not fall or fail. But because our hearts are fickle and our faith is weak, we need Your Spirit to open our eyes and behold wonderful truth in Your word. So, God, grant us to taste and see the goodness of the Lord as Your word is ministered to us this day. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“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—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: 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. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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 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—that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Have you ever heard preachers who say something like, “And finally…” or, “In conclusion…” and then there are three more points? And twenty more minutes? I have a preacher friend in the PCA – pretty good preacher, at that – who I once heard say to his congregation…he paused in the middle of the message, right after he had said, “In conclusion.” He just paused and he said, “Now you know what it means when I say “in conclusion.” And he paused for a moment and he said, “Not much!”
Well, I think that’s actually what Paul is doing here. He’s getting ready to conclude this letter, and then, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, God burdens him to give yet another word of truth to the people of God so that precisely they will understand more fully and live out more really the exhortation that he was about to end this letter with. If you’ll remember from Philippians 1:27 all the way to chapter 2:18, the Apostle Paul has been exhorting the Philippians to live out the Christian life in a manner worthy of the gospel, to have this mind in themselves which was also in Christ Jesus. It’s been an exhortation for them to grow in grace and to truly live out the Christian life for all it’s worth.
But throughout that whole section, you remember he has been deeply concerned not only for their holiness, but for their happiness. He has been concerned not only for their godliness, but for their joy. That shouldn’t surprise us because, remember, all the way back to Philippians 1 where the Apostle Paul is wrestling with this dilemma: ‘Would I rather be in glory with Jesus, or would I rather be here with the Philippians?’ Now, that’s a no-brainer! You know, to be there in glory with Jesus or to be here…even with all the glories of friendship and kinship and marriage…in the best that this life can give, it is a fallen world filled with sorrows and heartaches and heartbreaks. For the Apostle Paul, there is no contest. And he tells you there in Philippians 1 it would be far better to be with Christ. Yet what does he say? ‘I am not only willing, but desirous to stay here. Why? Because you need my ministry. I’m willing to stay here on planet Earth rather than to go to glory to be with Jesus for your well-being as a congregation.’ But Paul doesn’t quite put it that way. He tells them that he’s willing to stay here to work for their – what? To work for their joy.
Now, you better believe that joy is serious business to the Apostle Paul when he says that he is willing to forego the immediate enjoyment of fellowship with Christ in the heavenly glories, so that he can stay here and work for the Philippians and “for your joy.” So it is really no surprise that when he begins to give a practical exhortation at the end of this book, that it’s going to be “Rejoice in the Lord,” because the Apostle Paul is serious about joy!
But even as he’s about to end the letter, he thinks, ‘You know, there are false teachers out there who, if they come to Philippi and teach their false teaching, it will rob the Philippians of joy. Because their hope will be placed in the wrong place, and thus their joy will be diminished. And so I’m going to bring to bear this glorious truth about salvation in Christ and about putting no confidence in the flesh, and about seeking more than anything else to gain Christ, and finding greater satisfaction than anything in fellowship with Christ, precisely so that I can inoculate these Philippians against a teaching that will kill their joy.’ And so he says – look at the second half of verse 1 – “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and safe for you.”
In other words, Paul’s saying, ‘I’ve talked to you about this before. This is nothing new that I’m about to say to you.’ Does it mean that he’s written another letter to them that we don’t have? Maybe. Does it mean that he’s talked to them, he’s preached to them, about this subject before? Surely. But the Apostle Paul says, ‘I don’t mind repeating myself. Why? Because what I’m about to say is essential for your joy. And my final exhortation to you is going to be to rejoice in the Lord.’
Now I want to camp on that today. And I’ll point, towards the end of the message, to one of the reasons why he’s going to give this glorious doctrinal exhortation in relation to this exhortation to rejoice in the Lord. But I want you to fully appreciate and understand what he is saying in verse 1. Paul says here that he wants us as believers to rejoice in the Lord. He is preparing to conclude his letter with a final exhortation to these hard-pressed, impoverished, persecuted Philippian Christians. Now what would you say to a group of Christians who are hard-pressed, impoverished, persecuted? Here’s what Paul says to them: “Rejoice!” But that’s not all he says, is it? He says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Paul is calling the Philippians, and he is calling you and me, to the delightful duty of joy in the Christian life. But you understand that he is calling us to a very, very realistic thing.
The Apostle Paul is not calling us to fake joy, where we smile our plastic smiles and pretend like our lives are not falling apart. Paul is not calling on us to rejoice because we’re living in denial. Paul is not saying, ‘Look, Philippians, you can rejoice because you’ve got no problems.’ Oh, my friends, they had problems aplenty! And Paul’s not calling you to rejoice because you’ve got no problems. Paul’s not calling you to rejoice by pretending that you don’t have problems. That is a favorite Southern way of doing things: “How are you?” “Fine!” Which one of my Scottish friends says is the acronym for “Frustrated, Insecure, Neurotic, and Exhausted” - FINE! Paul’s not saying ‘I want you to rejoice because everything’s fine,’ because it’s not! He knows it’s not. He knows the poverty of the Philippians. He knows the persecution that they’re facing and are about to face. He knows the marginalization and the loneliness and, very frankly, the deep, deep anxiety that they have because their missionary – the one who preached to them the gospel – is in jail and in danger of execution. They are deeply insecure. They are filled with anxiety. Neurotic is their home address! He is not saying ‘Rejoice, because none of that is real.’ That’s not what he’s saying. He’s not saying that to you.
You know, there are a lot of people who want to give you the message “Rejoice,” by doing one of two things. Either they want you to pretend like your problems aren’t there, or they want you to rejoice because your problems aren’t that big. And God never asks us to have that kind of unrealistic joy, because He knows personally what this world is like and He doesn’t want His people to have a fake joy that is based upon pretending like their problems are not there. (You know – that 900 pound gorilla in the room isn’t really there.) That’s not what he’s asking us to do. That’s not what Paul is asking the Philippians to do. It’s not what he’s asking you to do. He’s saying rejoice – not because you don’t have problems. He’s not saying rejoice because your problems really aren’t that bad after all. He’s saying rejoice even in the midst of your problems. Even in the midst of your really big problems. Because there is a bigger reason for joy than the size of y our problems.
You know, as I looked out (and it especially hit me in the early service) as we came to the third stanza of Jesus,What a Friend for Sinners, and we sang, “Even when my heart is breaking…” and my eyes caught two or three people in the congregation that are going through things in their family life that boggle my mind, that I’ve never gone through, that I don’t have the faintest idea of what their hearts must feel like. And that was it. I couldn’t sing the rest of the song. And I’m so glad that the Apostle Paul is not looking out at this congregation of Philippians and saying, ‘Be happy! Nothing’s wrong. Rejoice! Everything’s fine.’ It’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying, ‘As real as your problems are, as deep as your heartbreaks are, as justified as your fears are, rejoice in the Lord because you are the recipient of a bigger truth than the truth of your problems, and you are the recipients of promises that are greater than the sum total of all your fears and all of your heartaches, and all of your heartbreaks. His message is “Rejoice in the Lord.”
And do you notice how Jesus and Paul just do this continually? They do not ask believers to have comfort in this world because things are hunky-dory and fine and dandy. They ask us to rejoice because there is bigger truth in God’s promises to us in the gospel than there are in the sufferings and sorrows and anxieties of this world.
I love what John Calvin says about this passage. He pauses to meditate on this little verse. It’s interesting. Many commentators just skip right over the first part of verse 1, and they move right on into the doctrinal section. Not John Calvin! He knows there’s something there for us. He says this: “Satan never ceases to try to dishearten us by daily rumors.” In other words, Calvin is drawing to our attention the fact that these problems that we face in the world that are real and are big. What happens? First of all, those problems tempt us to think that either God is not real or He is not good, because those problems are real, and they hurt. And they make us doubt whether God is real, and if He cares about our hurts. And do you know what Satan does with t those problems? He takes them and he comes to us and he says, ‘Either God is not there for you, or He doesn’t care about you. Either He’s not real, or He doesn’t love you.’ And Calvin’s drawing attention precisely to that. Satan never ceases to dishearten us with his daily rumors, and so Calvin says Paul exhorts the Philippians to constancy in the exercise of holy joy. And he says,
“It is a rare virtue [this holy joy]…it is a rare virtue that when Satan endeavors to irritate us by the bitterness of the cross so as to make God’s name unpleasant to us. We rest in the taste of God’s grace alone so that all annoyances, sorrows, anxieties and griefs are sweetened.”
You see what he’s telling you: how you go about fighting for joy in the Christian life.
And I want to say two things. This is one reason why part of this sermon series is called “Fighting for Joy”, because you just don’t fall over on your sofa and have joy in the Christian life. It’s a fight for joy in the Christian life. And so the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘I am so serious about your joy that I want to give you weapons whereby to fight for joy, so that when those losses and crosses and real anxieties and sorrows and griefs and trials come into your life, here’s how you fight them. You don’t fight them by saying, ‘Oh, they’re not so bad,’ or, ‘Oh, that’s not happening to me. I won’t think about it.’ You don’t sing Que sera, sera and think about it tomorrow like Scarlett. That’s not how you fight for joy. What do you do? You stack all your troubles up right at the foot of the cross, and you see a bigger truth that is a cause for joy than the greatest of your problems are cause for discouragement. It is not joy through denial, it is a joy through a greater truth, and that’s going to be Paul’s big argument in this whole section. He wants us to behold that big truth and not just see it with our eyes, but believe it with our hearts. Or otherwise we are unarmed in this combat fight for joy.
Now you see why I said we were going to get through one point today! Now, look. Here’s how the rest of this relates to this.
Paul is going to describe, in the next verses, teachers that are going to come to the Philippians and tell them, ‘Here’s how you live life with God. Here’s how you get joy. Do stuff and trust in what you do.’ And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘If you fight for joy that way, let me tell you what’s going to happen. You’re going to have no joy!’ And so what’s his big motto? Put no confidence in the flesh! If a teacher comes along to you and says, ‘You want to have joy in this life? Here’s how you have joy. Become a better you. That’s how you’re going to have joy,’ what is he telling you to do? He’s saying, ‘Put your confidence in the flesh. Here’s how you have joy: become a better you.’ ‘No!’ Paul says. ‘Put no confidence in the flesh!’ Put all your confidence in Jesus Christ. That’s the way you fight for joy, because confidence in the flesh will let you down, because your flesh cannot hold up the burdens of this world. Only the atlas shoulders of Jesus Christ and His free justification can hold you up under the burdens of this world filled with sin and misery.
And so, my friends, if you are here looking for joy today by putting your confidence in yourself, I’ve got some really bad news for you: (a) You’re not going to find that joy that way; (b) On the Judgment Day, you’re going to be in the line of people who are lining up to tell God that Jesus didn’t need to die for you, that you can handle this on your own. And I don’t want to be in that line on Judgment Day because, you see, to say that your joy in this life is gained by you doing things and working to be a good person, and that that will get you accepted with God…you’re saying that you don’t need the shed blood of Jesus Christ for you, that you can handle this on your own. I don’t want to be in that line on Judgment Day.
But, my friends, this morning there are even perhaps more of you who are trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation and you’re not putting confidence in the flesh for your salvation, but…but…you have not yet experienced and expressed in your life the joy that the Apostle Paul knows Jesus shed His blood for you to experience here just as much as He did shed His blood that your sins would be forgiven. What did the Lord Jesus say to His disciples? “I came so that your joy would be complete.” And the Apostle Paul is saying to the Philippians and he’s saying to you that I am not going to let off of pursuing you until by God’s grace you are experiencing in some measure that joy. And by God’s grace, this preacher is not going to let off of pursuing you until you, Presbyterian [known around the world for our joy]…until you, Presbyterian, in the midst of all your very real heartaches and heartbreaks and sins and griefs in this fallen world, know something of this joy which was so important to Jesus that you have, and which the Apostle Paul said ‘I am ready to stay on planet Earth to work for your joy, rather than to go to be in glory with Jesus.’
Do you see how serious Paul is about your joy? By God’s grace, we’ll pursue it in the gospel.
Heavenly Father, we have found a friend in Christ who not only saves us by grace and forgives us our sins – not for anything we do, but for what He has done – and accepts us only for His righteousness, not for any of our own. We’ve found a friend who wants us to know joy. And I want to confess, Lord God, that I’ve lived so much of my Christian life knowing of salvation by grace and not living out the joy that ought to be there. And I wonder…I just wonder if there are some believers here today that are in the same situation. And I wonder…I just wonder if there are others here today who are trying to find joy in all the wrong places, and they’re putting their confidence in the flesh. And consequently they’re not only not finding joy, they’re storing up eternal condemnation for themselves. Lord God, teach us what it is to put no confidence in the flesh but to rejoice in the Lord, and to count everything as loss for the privilege of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, and the power of His resurrection. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 517, I’ve Found a Friend, O Such a Friend.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.