Circumcision does not usually make the news. But in the city
of San Francisco, beloved home of clear and reasonable thinking, a group of
"intactivists" are placing on the ballot a measure to ban
circumcision. The measure does not include a religious exception, referring to
circumcision as "male genital mutilation". Most commentators don't
think this is going to stand up in court; but it is the first time in several
hundred years that circumcision has made a splash in the news. Apparently,
messing around with male organs will get you noticed. In the time of St. Paul,
it turns out that it was quite a problem.
Philippians 3:1-6 NASB
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard
for you. (2) Beware of the dogs, beware of
the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; (3)
for we are the true circumcision, who
worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in
the flesh, (4) although I myself might have
confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in
the flesh, I far more: (5) circumcised the
eighth day, of the nation 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 the righteousness which is in the Law,
The Specific Problem
Remember that we are in the early days of the church, and it
has not lost its essentially Jewish character. Indeed, it was not until after
A.D. 70 (and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) that the church
genuinely took on a Gentile character. At this time there were many people who
held that you must become a Jew before you could be a Christian. That meant
that you had to be circumcised. Paul clearly saw that the danger of this
practice was not in its medical use. It was in the spiritual implications of
First, it would have been a great detriment to evangelism if the
Gentiles had to learn the entire Jewish law, something which was usually a
lifetime of study. It also would've run contrary to the racial prejudices of
More generally it would have established the Old Testament as
being an authority equal to or greater than Jesus Christ. Paul, of all people,
new that being a Jew was not necessary.
This also has implications for the simple question, "where
is the headquarters of the church?" This dispute stays with us today; the
Pope is officially the Bishop of Rome.
Paul clearly saw that a circumcision was practice like this
the church would soon fall into the same problem the Jews had: substituting the
physical work of this world for the spiritual which Christ had brought. We
would be back at the doctrine of works, denying that we are saved by faith
through grace. As you can see, the danger is extreme.
Paul's argument about this is rather characteristic; he
starts with himself. He points out that if anybody in the church is going to be
able to be bragging about his Jewishness, it's Paul. He lists here his
obedience to the Old Testament law in some detail. So you see he's not arguing
from the point of view of somebody who doesn't want to become a Jew, but rather
from a Jew who understands what it is to become a Christian. You would expect
the contrary; after all, his Jewishness would be a tremendous advantage.
Rather, he gives us these three instructions:
First, worship in the spirit of God. As Christ told the woman at the
well, God wants worshipers will worship him in spirit and in truth. This does
not exclude ritual, it excludes empty ritual.
Then, glory in Christ. Don't brag to the world how you are
circumcised, educated, raised correctly and wear the latest fashions. If you
have to shoot your mouth off, do it about Jesus Christ and what he's done for
Finally, place no confidence in the things of the flesh. Whatever
it is that you've done, wherever it is that you came from, however thick your
wallet is — all these things mean nothing in comparison to the grace of God
given through Jesus. No what's important, and stick with it.
The problem is not confined to Paul's day. The dilemma, of
course, is that the Old Testament is inspired by God and is Scripture. What
weight and authority should we give it then? The answer is usually found in
what is called a "type." A type is a picture in the Old Testament of
what was to come in the New Testament. We often see various individuals in the
Old Testament as a type of Jesus, for example. Greater than this, however, is
the teaching that the Old Testament gives which is reinforced by Jesus Christ.
One such teaching is given here: the spiritual is still greater than the
That has tremendous implications for the Christian. It means
that the things of this world — faster cars, younger women, older whiskey, and
more money — are as nothing to the things of God. When the Christian accepts
this the world will notice — and disapprove. It often seems that we stand alone
against the world; that is often correct.
Pearl of Great Price
Philippians 3:7-12 NASB
(7) But whatever things were gain to me, those
things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (8)
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all
things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, (9) and may be found in Him, not having a
righteousness of my own derived from the
Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, (10) that I may know Him and the power of His
resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His
death; (11) in order that I may attain to the
resurrection from the dead. (12) Not that I
have already obtained it or have already
become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I
was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
In one of those very, very short parables of the New
Testament Christ pictures the kingdom of God as being a tremendously expensive
The point he's trying to make here is somewhat foreign to Christians today. The
common method of evangelism might be said to involve ministry such as Celebrate
Recovery. The idea is that you give up your life of sin, drunkenness, drug
addiction, and who knows what else to become a Christian. It's a very powerful
preaching method and should in no way be discarded. But it is not a universal
Consider the fellow who is a good guy. He's nice to his
mother, kind to his wife, plays with his children, pays his taxes and keeps his
lawn green and trim. What's in it for him? Why should he become a Christian?
After all, he's a good person. Isn't being a good person, good enough? If I'm a
good person, why should I need Christ?
Paul gives us the answer here. He points out what he has
given up — the righteousness of the Jewish law which without question was the
most spiritually advanced form of religion of the time. He was indeed a good
guy amongst the good guys. He gave it up because Christ gives him something
much, much better. What was that?
We need to see what Paul traded for:
Righteousness through faith
- As Paul points out righteousness through
faith is a cardinal principle in the way God deals with men, and has been
ever since the time of Abraham. So this is not something new and
different, but rather a completion of what went before.
- This righteousness is not only complete, but
unlimited – for it comes from the infinite God.
- This righteousness has one basis: the
Atonement. Without the atonement of Christ, righteousness in man cannot be
made complete and final. Therefore, it is something received, not earned.
The power of the resurrection
What does Paul mean by this? I
submit these three things:
- First, this is the power that God used to
declare Jesus to be the Son of God Therefore, it is the power behind
the central evidence of the faith.
- As such, it changes our view of death. Without
the resurrection, death is final. With the resurrection, death is but a
- And it changes our view of life, too! If death
is not the end, then our life here must be viewed as a “preliminary round”
– qualification for the title.
Fellowship of his suffering
How does Paul (and how do we)
join in the fellowship of his suffering? And why would we want to do so?
- We do so when we are entitled to something but
are not receiving it – and we accept that for Christ’s sake. Christ as
King was entitled to a royal reception and received the Cross. Let us
- We do so when receive suffering and return
blessing for cursing. This is in imitation of the one who said, “Father,
forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
- We do so because it is a mark of glory, a
badge of honor. Satan does not assault the nobodies.
- As we do, we must consider that our sufferings
are, by and large, light. Most of us are not to die for the faith. It’s
worth asking: are our sufferings really all that great?
- Even if they are, as suffering flows, comfort
Attain to the Resurrection
The translation here is somewhat difficult. The word
"attain" in this context means something more like "arrive at."
What he's talking about here is not earning the power of the resurrection or
his salvation, but of finishing the course and making it all the way through
without failing. He wants to be made perfect — which is to say, perfect for a
particular purpose – and he knows that's going to take God some time. This is
about persistence; he wants to press on to the common objective that he and
Christ have for him. If you see it that way, it makes perfect sense.
Making the Trip
Philippians 3:13-16 NASB
(13) Brethren, I do not regard myself as
having laid hold of it yet; but one
thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching 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 us therefore, as many as are
perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude,
God will reveal that also to you; (16)
however, let us keep living by that same standard
to which we have attained.
Remembering Your Own Good Deeds
It may come as a surprise to you, but remembering your own
good deed sometimes has a series of problems associated with:
First, it has a tendency to inflate your ego. Satan is completely
unscrupulous about temptation; if he can make you proud of all the good things
you've done, he'll do it.
It also has a tendency to focus your thoughts on the past. The
past may be a good or bad example, depending on your life, but it is past. You
can't change it. The question is, what are you going to do now?
Therefore, forget the trophies on the wall, learn the lessons of
your experiences and press on in the faith.
The Problems of Pressing On
Let's suppose you decide to do just that: press on. What
kind of difficulties are you going to face?
First, it's hard to keep on doing the right thing. It may be easy
to do it once, but it's the keeping on that is the hard part. Discouragement is
But notice what Paul tells you here: that's an attitude problem.
And if you give God the chance, he will reveal to you what the correct attitude
should be. Parents are often frustrated by children who will not listen.
If you give God a chance, he will perfect you for his purposes.
Note please: he does not say he will tell you what those purposes are, or why
his particular experiences for you are necessary. It just says he will perfect
Imagine yourself at a baseball game. The home team has a
runner on second base, and the batter hits one into the outfield. The runner
comes around third, heading for home, and then slows down. Think of your
frustration; why is this man slowing down? You can see that the ball is not hit
out of the park; hasn't he picked that up? It's frustrating.
I think how God must feel about it if you go through 80
years of life, the last 10 of which you ignore him. Don't lose it in the home
Sometimes, however, the matter is not so much that you slow
down and stop but that you start fitting things out. Have you ever gone to the
grocery store and realized you forgotten your grocery list? You try to remember
everything on it, but the chances are excellent that you're going the missing
the cornflakes or something. The same thing is true with your Christian life;
the Scriptures are there to tell you the things you need to do (note the
plural.) Don't start to pick and choose; get the whole list.
This may seem tough. Remember, though, the Holy Spirit is your guide. Ask for
help, and he will give generously. Most of our old age figures come from the
idea that we have lived long enough and learned enough to figure out everything
for ourselves. Rather than think that we have solved the small problems of life,
let us look and see the great problems around us and in humility ask for God's