The Lord’s Day Morning
April 6, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“Put No Confidence in the Flesh”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I love that hymn, “For All the Saints.” Every line, every stanza is designed to bring to mind a biblical truth that both comforts us in midst of the sorrows of this life by which we’re surrounded on every side, and to give us strength to persevere to the end. And in a sense this song does exactly what the Bible passage that we’re going to study today does: it brings to bear biblical truth on the living of the Christian life, and it gives us strength and comfort and courage and joy for the living of these days.
Let me invite you to take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Philippians 3. Now last Lord’s Day, we looked at just the first part of the first verse of Philippians 3. In Philippians 3:1, Paul begins by saying, “And finally…” and then two chapters later, he’s still going! And you say, “I’ve seen this pattern before. It is a pattern which is inherent in preachers. They say, ‘And in conclusion…’ and they still give you four more points and twenty more minutes!” But there’s a sense in which Paul is not doing that. Paul has perhaps purposed to end this letter at this point, but of course Paul is not simply a human author; he is an author writing under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has impressed upon him to bring home important truth. And the truth that he’s going to bring home (and you’ll see it in this doctrinal exhortation in verses 1-11 of Philippians 3) is not unrelated to the point that he was making. And of course the point in verse 1 is what? “Rejoice in the Lord.” And the doctrinal truth that he’s going to press home in verses 1-11 (although we’re only going to look at verses 1-6 today)…the doctrinal point that he’s going to make is not unrelated to that exhortation to rejoice in the Lord.
You see, the Apostle Paul is serious about joy. He’s so serious that he tells us in Philippians 1:25 that he is ready and willing to forego the immediate experience of the greatest desire he has in life. The greatest desire he has in life is to enjoy fellowship with Christ in glory, and he knows that if he dies, immediately he is going to experience that fellowship with Christ in glory. And yet he says he’s willing and ready, and even desirous, of staying to work for what? “To work for your progress in joy.” How serious must he be about your joy, that he is ready to forestall his immediate enjoyment of his greatest desire in life? Paul is pretty serious about joy.
But we also said last Lord’s Day that the kind of joy that the Apostle Paul is willing to suspend his immediate enjoyment of fellowship with Christ in glory for is not superficial, fake joy – where we pretend everything is all right when it’s not – nor is it a joy that comes through denying the very real, very hard realities that all of us face in this fallen sinful world, so filled as it is with tragedy and trauma and misery. No, the kind of joy that Paul is talking about is real joy, not fake joy. Deep joy, not shallow joy. Gospel joy, not circumstantial joy. It’s grace-wrought gladness in the heart that remains even when your eyes are clouded with tears and blood-shot with weeping, and when trouble surrounds you on every side. This joy remains and triumphs because it is not derived from us, nor is it based on our circumstances. It comes from God himself. In fact, the Lord Jesus Christ at one point could describe the whole mission of His work in this world this way to His disciples: “I came that your joy might be made full [or complete].”
How serious is God about joy, that He would send His Son to the cross to implant in your hearts a joy that cannot be erased by any circumstance? “And for the joy set before Him,” the author of Hebrews says, “He endured the cross and despised the shame.” So this is a joy which, if Jesus can hold before His eyes the joy that is to come and despise the cross…this is a joy that can endure any trial that you encounter in life. That’s the kind of joy that we ought to be interested in. It’s the kind of joy that we ought to want to show.
Well, why then does Paul stop talking about that and go into this eleven…or maybe even more, depending on how you break it up…this eleven-verse doctrinal exhortation? Here’s the answer. Because what Paul is talking about in the second half of verse 1 all the way down to verse 11 is not unrelated to his exhortation about joy. In fact, the doctrine that he is going to expound here is absolutely integral to and connected with, inseparably, the joy that he’s talking about in verse 1. In fact, one of the truths that we’re going to learn today is that this doctrine is for your joy. So let’s read God’s word. And before we do, let’s pray and ask for His help and blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. It’s not the word of man. It’s not even the word of Paul, though You used him to write it, and it bears all the marks of his personality and his enormous intellect, and the truth that he held so dear in his own heart and life and ministry. Ultimately this is Your word. Paul himself once told the Thessalonians that he thanked God that they didn’t receive his words as if they were the words of men, but the very words of the living God. This is Your word, too, O Lord; so help us to receive it not like the words of men, but the very word of the living God, knowing that Your word is truth and Your word is for our salvation and our godliness, and for Your glory and our good. Open our eyes, then, to behold wonderful things in it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living 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 real 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.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
So why does Paul go from talking about joy to giving a warning about false teachers (in verse 2), to giving a description of Christians (in verse 3), and to describing what he once was (in verses 4-6)? Why does he do that? Why does he go from talking about joy to entering into a doctrinal exhortation? Because the Apostle Paul knows this: false teaching kills joy. False teaching kills the kind of joy that he is seeking to engender in the hearts and lives of the Philippians. If they don’t understand the truth, they won’t be able to have joy. And specifically, the kind of false teaching that is coming to these Philippians from the false teachers that Paul describes here undermines their assurance and robs them of the joy that they ought to have in the salvation which has been given to us by Jesus Christ.
More specifically, Paul is especially concerned about any kind of false teaching that tells you to do what? To put your confidence in the flesh. In other words, any kind of false teaching that says, ‘Look, for your standing with God, for your acceptance by God, for your salvation you need to put your hope and assurance and trust not just in Jesus the Messiah, but also in certain things and rituals that you do.’ And the Apostle Paul is concerned that any kind of putting our confidence in the flesh of that nature will kill joy in the Christian life, and so there is a direct connection between his exhortation to joy and the doctrine that he is going to announce in this passage. In fact, the overarching theme of this whole passage is that doctrine – true doctrine…not false doctrine but biblical, rich, truthful, biblical doctrine – is for your joy. It is designed to foster your experience and expression of joy in the Christian life. You never thought of it that way perhaps, that doctrine is for your joy. Yes, it is! The Catechism is for your joy. Biblical truth recorded for you in The Apostles’ Creed is for your joy. The labors of the Westminster Assembly of Divines from 1642 to 1647 – a thousand sessions they met to do The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms – is for your joy.
That’s what the Apostle Paul says right here, and notice how he does it. He asks you to think about three things in this passage.
I. Be on guard against false teachers.
After he says “rejoice in the Lord,” then he says this: Think of who they are (verse 2)…the false teachers, think of who they are; then (verse 3) he says think of who you are; and then (in verses 4-6) he says think of who I was. Think of who they are, think of who you are, think of who I was. And all of this will show them that the false teachers are just that; that their false doctrine will kill joy and won’t work; and that doctrine is for your joy.
Let’s look at this passage then together, beginning in verses 1-2. Paul says,
“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.”
This is an exhortation to be on your guard for false teachers. He’s saying to the Philippians, ‘It’s important that you think carefully about the teaching that’s being given to you, and that you be on guard for teaching which is not according to my teaching, which is according to what Jesus taught…what Jesus told me to teach, what Jesus commissioned me to teach, and which is in accordance with all of the apostles’ teaching. Be on the lookout for any kind of teaching that deviates from the apostles’ teaching about salvation in the Christian life.’ Now why would he say this, and why would he say, ‘I don’t even mind writing you again about this’?
Apparently Paul had either already preached or written – or both – to them about this false teaching, but he doesn’t mind saying it again because truth bears repeating. He’s a good teacher, and good teachers do what? They repeat themselves. They say the same things lots of times, many different ways. Why? To get it through our thick skulls! We’re slow, we need some help! Good teachers repeat themselves. So Paul says ‘I don’t mind saying this again.’ And then what does he say? “Look out for the dogs, the evildoers, those who mutilate the flesh.”
Paul is countering the claims of the false teachers. These are Judaisers. That is, they are Jewish followers of Jesus the Messiah who think that all Christians – especially Gentile Christians – are required, in addition to believing in Jesus as the Messiah, to keep the Mosaic ceremonial ritual. They need to be circumcised, they need to follow the food laws, they need to follow the ritual practices of the ceremonial law that Moses set down at Mount Sinai. In other words, they need to believe in Jesus plus all of these ceremonial requirements if they are truly going to live as the people of God in this world. And Paul turns the tables on these teachers.
Notice first of all, he calls them dogs. [Now that doesn’t refer to any particular mascot for state colleges, OK?] This is a derogatory term that was used by Jews to describe Gentiles. Dogs is a term not uncommon in first century Palestine for Jewish believers to use about Gentiles. You remember it from a story in the Gospels, where the SyroPhoenician woman (or the Canaanite woman) comes to the Lord Jesus Christ in desperate need and asks for His help. And you remember Jesus has a point to make to His disciples, because His disciples don’t think that Jesus needs to be fooling with Gentiles. And so, to make a point, Jesus says to her in response to her importunate pleading, He says, ‘You know, ma’am, it’s not appropriate to give the food that belongs to the children to dogs.’ And it doesn’t faze her. It doesn’t faze her. She just comes right back, and she says, ‘But You know, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps from their master’s table.’ And then you remember what Jesus does. Jesus turns to His disciples, who are Israelites, and He says to them – what? “I tell you, I have not found faith like this in Israel.” What’s His point? Whereas Israel has all these claims (according to the flesh) to be the people of God, what is Israel by and large doing? Rejecting Him. And yet this woman – why, not even using a derogatory name – can stake her faith in Jesus the Messiah. And He answers her prayer gloriously. And it’s a rebuke to the Israelites and it’s a compliment to the work of grace that has been done in this woman’s heart by the Holy Spirit. This Gentile….
Well, Paul here calls these circumcised Jewish followers of the Messiah who want to require of all Christians that they follow the ceremonial code, including circumcision, He calls them dogs. You’re the dogs! You’re not part of the true circumcision. You’re the dogs. Then Paul – notice what he says – he calls them evildoers. In other words, he says, ‘These works of the law that you want all Christians to do – well, let Me tell you something: your works are evil, because you are asking Christians to add to the work of Christ as if the work of Christ were not sufficient. You don’t understand that those Old Testament ceremonial laws….’ What’s the whole book of Hebrews about? The final, perfect, finished work of Christ! That work has been done. To go back to the Old Testament ceremonial law is to suggest that Jesus’ finished work is not enough, so the works that you’re asking these Christians to do are in fact evil, because they purport to add to something that’s already perfect. And to add to Jesus’ perfect work is to call into question its perfection, and anything that calls into question the perfection of Jesus’ work is sin. And so in fact while you encourage these Christians to obey these rituals because you think they’re good and right and commanded in the Old Testament – actually it’s evil, because those things have been completed and fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
And then look at what he calls them. He calls them “those who mutilate the flesh.” Of course, one of the things that they wanted is for all male followers of Jesus the Messiah to be circumcised according to the law of Moses. And Paul says, ‘You know what? You have turned circumcision into a pagan ritual. You’re just like the nations around you who practice circumcision. They’re mutilators of the flesh. You’re superstitious, pagan, ritual worshipers.’ And so the Apostle Paul in the first place is directing his focus on these Judaisers.
But you need to understand more broadly that what Paul says here applies to anyone who suggests that you do one of two things: either that you put your confidence anywhere else but Christ. If you put your confidence anywhere else but Christ, and if you teach others to put their confidence anywhere else but Christ, Paul’s saying ‘That’s the false teaching that I’m talking about. Reject it.’
There’s another thing going on here. It’s not just those who put their confidence anywhere else but Christ, it’s those who put their confidence plus anything else. You know, it’s entirely possible that if you ask these Judaisers, ‘Is salvation by God’s grace?’ it’s entirely possible that they would have said yes. And then they would have turned right around and said, ‘But to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, you must obey the Mosaic ceremonial law.’ And the Apostle Paul is rejecting a theology of Jesus plus anything. It is Jesus and Jesus only. Salvation is in Christ alone, not Christ plus anything else! Because when you add anything else to Christ, you are actually subtracting from Christ. You’re saying that Christ is not enough.
And, my friends, this kind of teaching is all around us in the world. Have any of you seen the online videos of “the church of Oprah”? It’s in big bold letters, exactly what Paul is talking about here. But my friends, you can even hear this teaching in churches – Jesus plus. And Paul is saying, ‘No, no, no, no! That false teaching will rob your joy! It will kill you, because God’s truth nourishes faith and humbles pride, and brings joy and exalts Christ and promotes assurance, and establishes grace. But false teaching kills!’ Do you see the connection? This is why he goes into the doctrinal exhortation, because if you put your confidence in the flesh, it will kill joy. But if your confidence is not in the flesh – that is, if your confidence is according to true biblical doctrine – it sets the stage for your experience of the joy and assurance and hope and confidence that God intends for His people to have. So look out for anyone who tells you “Believe in yourself,” or “Believe in something other than Jesus, because there are many ways to God,” or “Believe in Jesus plus something, and you can have hope and confidence and assurance.”
No, the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘Anyone who tells you to put your confidence anywhere else but Jesus is not preaching my gospel.’ And of course Paul’s gospel didn’t come from Paul. You remember Paul was given his gospel by the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
Well, there’s the first thing: Look at them. Who are they? They’re false teachers, because they don’t teach salvation in Jesus alone.
II. Remember who you are.
Secondly, he says realize who you are. And I wish that I had an hour to go over this four-part description, this definition of who Christians are. Look at it; it’s just glorious! Verse 3:
“For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh….”
Paul is basically giving you a four-part description /definition of Christian there. What is a Christian? A Christian is the true circumcision. See, these Judaisers were saying to the Philippians, ‘If you want to really be the people of God, it’s Jesus plus circumcision; Jesus plus the Mosaic ritual law.’ And Paul is saying, ‘You are the true circumcision! Don’t you understand that? You are the recipients of God’s promises to Abraham. How? In Christ alone! You’re already the recipients of those promises. You’re the people of God, you’re the true Israel as you trust in Christ alone.’
And you do what? You worship by the Spirit. What does that phrase remind you of, when you hear Paul talk about worshiping by the Spirit? Where else does that phrase occur in the New Testament? John 4. Do you remember where it happens? Jesus is talking to the woman at the well on the subject of ‘Are we supposed to worship in Samaria where the Northern Kingdom worshiped ever since the time of Jeroboam, when he set up those golden calves? Or are we to worship in the temple in Jerusalem?’ Now the Old Testament answer to that question was emphatically the temple. But Paul says here we worship by the Spirit. What’s he talking about? Do you remember what Jesus said to that woman?
“I tell you, woman, a time is coming when we will neither worship in Samaria nor in the temple in Jerusalem, because God is seeking worshipers. And God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
In other words, a time is coming when the temple will no longer be the place where God manifests His presence amongst His people, but wherever people gather in Jesus’ name they will worship God through Jesus in spirit and in truth. And the Apostle Paul is saying that. We worship by the Spirit. We’re not under the old temple ritual any more. We worship by the spirit. Again, it’s the whole point of the book of Hebrews.
Third, he says we glory in Jesus Christ. The implication is if you say you need Jesus plus something, you’re not glorying in Jesus Christ. You’re not glorying in the sole sovereign sufficiency of Jesus the Savior. But Paul says that here’s one thing that all Christians do: they glory in the fact that Jesus has paid it all. It’s not that Jesus…you know, how horrible it would be if we had to sing, “Jesus has paid most of it”! Jesus has paid it all, so to add to that is to say what? ‘Well, I guess You didn’t pay it all, Jesus.’ So Christians glory in the fact that Jesus has paid it all. He is sole and sovereign and sufficient in His salvation, and therefore Christians – what? Live by this phrase, friends: “Put no confidence in the flesh.” In other words, don’t look to the flesh for your hope. Don’t look to these rituals for your hope, for your assurance, for your certainty of belonging in the people of God and being right with Him.
And in those four phrases, Paul just describes what a Christian is. A Christian is the true Israel, who worships by the spirit, glories in Christ, and puts no confidence in the flesh. And Paul just says, ‘Philippians, just think about that for a little bit. That’s what you are. It’s not just what you do, it’s what you are. Now what are these guys selling to you? They’re selling something to you that you’re not. You put no confidence in the flesh. What are they selling to you? Confidence in the flesh!’
III. Remember who I was.
And then he says, ‘OK, if that’s not enough, do one more thing. Remember what I was. If this stuff worked that they’re trying to sell you…if this stuff worked, who, among all human beings on planet Earth would it have worked for? Me,’ he says. ‘Take a look at me. Take a look at the life that I lived.’ Look at verses 4-6. Paul says, ‘Consider that if anyone could have been confident in the flesh, it’s me.’ And he tells you seven things about himself in that passage:
‘I was circumcised as an infant, according to the law of Moses.
‘I was a Hebrew by birth. I’m not a convert to Israel. I’m not a former Gentile who’s now a worshiper of the God of Israel. I was born into Israel.
‘Furthermore, I’m a Benjamite. [He’s saying.] A lot of Jews in my day don’t even know what tribe they’re a part of, because they got sent off to the exile and the records got lost. They don’t even know where their heritage leads back. They know they’re Jewish, they know they’re descended from Abraham, but they don’t even know their tribe. I know my tribe. I’m from Benjamin. I can tell you about the Benjamites. I can tell you about my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers.
[And he says] ‘Furthermore, I have a distinguished pedigree amongst Israel. I’m a Hebrew of Hebrews.
[And he says] ‘You think I’m kind of loosie-goosie about the law? Well, let me tell you about it: I was in the party of the Pharisees. We were the law guys. We loved the law more than anybody else.
‘And you question my zeal? Well, let me tell you how zealous I was: I killed Christians.
‘How about my commitment to the law of Moses? Maybe my reaction to the law of Moses here is because I fell short? No, no! In fact [he says], with regard to the outward observance of the Mosaic law, I was flawless.’
And then, what’s the next thing he’s going to say, in verse 7? “I count it all as loss.”
What’s Paul saying? He’s saying, ‘Look, if this could work for anybody, it would have worked for me. But it didn’t. Because believers glory in Christ, and they put no confidence in the flesh.’
My friend, if you are here this morning and you’re trusting in anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ, or if you are trusting in Jesus Christ plus anything else for your standing with God, for your acceptance by God, for your eternal salvation, then you are saying that Jesus is not enough, or that Jesus is not necessary.
And the Apostle Paul says Christians glory in Jesus Christ. The name of Jesus never occurs in the sentence “is not necessary” or “is not enough” in the Christian vocabulary, because Christians glory in Jesus. So you may believe that and not be a Christian, or you may be a Christian and not believe that, but you can’t be a Christian and think that Jesus is not enough or that He’s unnecessary.
But if you’re here today and you really believe that nothing in your hand you bring, simply to His cross you cling, then Jesus is more than enough. He’s sovereignly sufficient. And that, my friends, is the foundation for a life of joy. Because they can take everything else from you, but they cannot take that from you, because He will not let them.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, it’s easy for us to say that we trust in Jesus and yet to trust in ourselves, or trust in something else, or trust in Jesus plus something else. Lord God, by Your mercy, don’t let us do that. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Take your hymnals and turn with me to No. 461, as we close with Not What My Hands Have Done.