"So you think you're pretty hot stuff? You'll be hotter yet!"
July 20, 2008 Philippians 3(4b-11,17-21)
A Fine Reputation Destroyed by Illicit Appetites
Some people take pride in their reputation, and put confidence in their accomplishments. Others don't care so much about reputation; instead, they just live for the moment, satisfying their human desires without much regard for consequences. But that approach can bring shame and dishonour, destroying whatever positive credit you had.
In this week's news, we see an example of how this life's appetites can destroy reputation. Steven Page, lead singer for the 5-man Toronto-area band known as Barenaked Ladies was arrested with one-third of an ounce of cocaine and mariuana in Fayetteville NY. Court documents show he admitted, 'Yeah, it's cocaine.' Police said they noticed Page and Stephanie Ford while inspecting a nearby car with an open driver's side door. "In investigating the suspicious vehicle, officers observed a man and woman seated at a kitchen table inside apartment 1 with an unknown white capsule in front of them." In her statement to police, Ford said she and Page had been using a rolled-up Canadian bill to snort the substance. She said Page had several capsules of the substance in a bottled bearing a label that said 'calcium.' "The Juno-winning Barenaked Ladies first achieved fame in the early 1990s with their hit song If I Had $1,000,000... [HERE'S THE PART I FOUND MOST HUMOROUS] The band recently released a children's album called Snack Time." [KITCHEN... 'CALCIUM' - WANT A SNACK?!]
So quickly a good reputation can be undone! A newswriter adds, "The criminal charge is a notable blemish on what has otherwise been a squeaky-clean run for the bespectacled Page and bandmates..." Such a shame. The father of three was scheduled to perform at a children's event in New York in August; but Friday the band announced it was cancelling its appearances at the Disney Music Block Party. How many parents want to send their kids to an event where the lead singer has been using drugs?
The apostle Paul reminds the church at Philippi that what's most essential and satisfying in life is not giving in to the god of our stomach (or other desires), nor even taking pride in a fine reputation (humanly speaking). We'll be disappointed if we trust in our record or 'live it up'. All that's like rubbish compared to knowing and living for Jesus.
Off-Track in Two Directions
This passage warns against the fate of 2 types of people: the 'fine respectables' and the 'pleasure-happy consumer-pagans'. Vv2-6 deal with the 'fine respectables who put confidence in their flesh, their human achievements and self-discipline. At the time Paul wrote, these would be the Judaizers, who advocated believing Gentiles become circumcised and adopt all the customs of the Law of Moses in order to be sure they were saved. Paul repeatedly warns to watch out for them in v2: "watch out for those dogs, watch out for those evil-doers, watch out for those cutters/mutilators". The end of v3 implies they "put...confidence in the flesh". V9 implies they 'have a righteousness of [their] own that comes from the law.' In their view, their acts of conformity to the law gave them brownie-points by which to impress God. They took pride in what religious people they were.
If that were the determining factor, Paul's got them beat hands-down by his own merits. Vv4-6 lists these: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin [source of the first king, Saul; their tribe remained faithful when the Ten Tribes seceded; they were one of the only two tribes to return to the Holy Land following the exile]. Paul describes himself as "a Hebrew of Hebrews" (like 'a Jew's Jew'); "in regard to the law, a Pharisee" - the strictest sect, unlike the Sadducees; "as for zeal, persecuting the church" - he'd had himself appointed the Party Whip to track down and prosecute followers of The Way before he met Jesus, thinking they were heretics; "as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" - what a lot of knowledge, study, painstaking obedience, and attention to detail is in that phrase! If they wanted to compare badges or merit under the law, Paul had been practically perfect - it was a matter of record.
What defines a 'religious' person today? Going to church on Sunday? Giving your offering all the time? Being the one asked to say grace at family get-togethers? Not drinking, doing drugs, swearing, or loose-living? Those things may be good and helpful, but they're not worth beans when it comes to standing before God. A person could go to church all their life and still be lost if they don't have a relationship with Christ. Just because you're in the garage doesn't make you a car! So watch out for activities that might make you 'respectable' or impress others that you're 'religious' but that are just deeds seen on the outside without corresponding repentance and prayer and devotional study in secret.
Putting confidence in the flesh direct trust to what I DO rather than what Christ has DONE. Worldly religion stresses "do"; but Christianity is based on what Jesus has DONE. So don't be fooled by the 'fine respectables': without faith, they're off-track.
The second group we can call the "pleasure-happy consumer-pagans": how many of them we have in the western world today! One of the enemy's cleverest ploys may be to give us 'stuff' - material wealth that caters to our human desires, so we never have reason to stop and call out to our Creator. These are described in vv18-19: "...many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things." While Judaizers were enemies of Christ's cross, this better describes another group of Paul's time, the Epicurean antinomians: Epicureans taught people to "seek as their highest aim a pleasant and smooth life". Isn't that what we want as Canadians today - to be 'comfortably well off'? Antinomians held that Christians are by grace set free from the need to observe any moral law. 'Party on, no holds barred!' Sounds like Hollywood - who's hopping into bed now?
"Their glory is in their shame..." (What about our so-called Pride Parades?) "Their god is their stomach..." (Aren't we called the 'consumer' society?) But note this sobering first phrase - "Their destiny is destruction..." The materialist supposes that we eat and spend our way through life and then it's over. End of story. But the Bible sees us as spiritual beings who must give account and be responsible for what we do in life. Hell is the destiny of the disobedient. And it's not just a place where you get to hang out with your friends. Jesus portrays the sufferings of hell as very real: He said in Matthew 13(41f), "The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." And in Mark 9(47f), "And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'" In other passages Jesus describes hell as "the outer darkness" (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Not a place you want to end up!
So both the 'fine respectables' and the 'pleasure-happy consumer-pagans' are off track with regard to the cross of Christ - enemies of it, bound to pay for their ignorance and rejection of the truth. But Paul shows us a better approach to life.
The Pearl and the Peel
While Paul had a long list of 'bragging rights' due to his religious zeal and background, his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 caused him to 'wake up' to the foolishness of trusting in his own self-made righteousness. Listen as he repeatedly labels it 'loss': vv7-8, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 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..." The word 'rubbish' in the King James was translated 'dung'; the lexicon defines it as "any refuse, as the excrement of animals, offscourings, rubbish, dregs." Offscourings - perhaps you've been cooking and burned things onto the bottom of the pot, or what you were baking in the oven made a big mess when it overflowed onto the rack. All that black stuff you scrape off - what good is it but to throw out? That's what Paul says our human efforts are worth in terms of obtaining right standing with God. "Any refuse / rubbish" - when you eat a banana, are you going to keep the peel around? No, you put the peel in the compost - it's a throw-away.
Our human works are the peel, but Jesus is the pearl. One time he taught, "...the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it." (Mt 13:45f) It was a keeper, that pearl was such a treasure it was worth giving up everything else he had of value.
In this passage we see Paul treasuring and appreciating Jesus like a most valuable pearl. All else just doesn't compare. V1, 'rejoice in the Lord!' V3, "It is we who...glory in Christ Jesus..." V8, he considers everything a loss compared to 'the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord..." He want to "gain Christ and be found in Him..." In Him - Paul's great Christocentric mystery: remember from 2:1, "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ" - literally IN Christ? If Jesus has Paul, if Paul's 'in Him', he figures he's got it all!
Vv9-10 list at least 4 things Paul appreciates about knowing Jesus. First, he receives "a righteousness...which is through faith in Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." The only righteousness that really cuts it in terms of becoming acceptable to an absolutely holy God. Our own self-tinkered merit is to God as 'filthy rags': "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away." (Isa 64:6)
We are put right with God by trusting in Jesus, not by anything else. I once counseled a failing elderly woman in a hospital bed who kept repeating how she was worried; she was worried God wouldn't accept her. She was worried He might reject her because she was wearing earrings! I tried to reassure her the Bibles says we're made acceptable to God by faith in Saviour Jesus; He looks on the heart, not the outside. If we confess our sins, His Words says He'll forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:9). It's 'the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith' - don't complicate it!
Second, what Paul treasures about Christ the pearl - v10, "I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection..." In v21 this is described as "the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control..." Now, that's power! Released in us, here and now, to help us fight temptation and live a godly life. Remember 2:13 from last week, "It is God who works in you to will and to act [lit.energize] according to His good purpose." Righteousness; power.
Third (I'm skipping one here for a moment), end of v10, "to attain to the resurrection from the dead." Our actual resurrection from the grave to eternal life with our Lord and our heavenly Father in a non-decomposing glorified state, which the disciples already got a glimpse of at the Transfiguration and Ascension. V21 the Lord Jesus Christ we wait for will use His power to "transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body". No more cancer, no more amputated limbs, not even a need for eyeglasses: our heavenly bodies will be able to appreciated all the beauty and goodness and flavours and sounds God's got planned for us in that never-ending existence. We'll be resurrected, transformed gloriously. (Hence our title today - if saved, we'll be 'hot' to look at on account of the glory; if lost, we'll be 'hot' in a different sense!)
Fourth (the one I skipped), Paul in v10 wants to know Christ and His power and [surprisingly] "the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death..." Hmmm - you sure, Paul? The koinonia / sharing / partnership of suffering with Jesus. Those who suffer an ordeal together are bonded in an intimate way, at the soul-level, that's closer than any other. The fellowship of shared painful experience. The sentence structure here suggests suffering is instrumental in conforming us to be like Jesus in His death, 'sym-morh' / to 'morph with'; Latin Vulgate 'configuro' - suffering re-arranges our lives so we re-configured similar to Jesus.
Romans 8:28 is a favourite verse Christians use to remind ourselves God can take even the bad stuff that happens and turn it around for the good of those who love Him. The next verse links this to our becoming like Jesus: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." (Ro 8:29) Suffering is an essential part of coming to maturity; James (1:2-4) said, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." So we can embrace even the fellowship of suffering with Jesus.
Jesus is the pearl; what this world offers is but peel. Pearls are formed when an oyster coats a sharp grain of sand, or some other irritant, with its own special substance. It's an overcoming of suffering. Jesus overcame evil by suffering at the cross for us. Revelation 21:12-21 describes the gloriousness of the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven from God. It has a great high wall with 12 gates. John goes on describing it all for several verses but ends with an interesting detail in v21: "The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl." Even the gates of heaven are reminiscent of suffering - no other way to enter the Kingdom!
Pressing On for the Prize
Paul doesn't simply rest in his mystical experience or prayer life with Jesus: his version of Christianity is very applied, practical, muscular. While we don't earn salvation by works, once we ARE saved by believing in Jesus, He works mightily within us. Ephesians 2:8-9 is followed immediately by v10, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." So Paul can say in Php 3:12, "I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." And 14, "[straining toward what is ahead] I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." Literally, pressing on to the mark to win the prize 'of God's upward call' in Christ - a very athletic image.
Athletes discipline themselves, or they don't get very far in training. V16, "Let us live up to what we have already attained" - keep in step, in the same path. V17 "Join with others in following my example...take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you." The image is that of an impression left by a mold or stamp. Paul has developed a 'routine' or pattern of training that others would do well to imitate.
For athletes, mental discipline can be as important in winning as the physical training. Paul suggests our pressing on to live out the Christian life has a lot to do with our minds, our thinking. V13 "forgetting what is behind": Paul didn't dwell on the fact he used to be a persecutor of the church, didn't let the Accuser use that to drag him down. V15 "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things": the word 'view' is phroneo, mindset, outlook, like back in 2:2 (be like-minded), 2:5 (your attitude /mindset should be the same as that of Christ Jesus). Contrast the pagan mindset in v19, "Their mind is on earthly things." The world tries desperately to capture your attention, get you thinking about your next purchase, your next vacation. Contrast the Christian's focus, what's on their mind: v20, "But our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Saviour from there..." That's what we're 'eagerly awaiting', not anything in this life. Heaven is where we're citizens, where we're going to be most 'at home'.
Counsellor John Regier's prayers for clients may begin with words like, "I am a dearly-loved child of God by faith in Christ, and I want all my thoughts, words, and desires to be pleasing to Him." Consciously reminding ourselves that we belong to Jesus puts whatever comes at us in a different framework, and helps us keep oriented to press on for the best prize of all - God's invitation to "Come up here" (Rev 4:1). Or as the Psalmist put it, "My heart has heard you say, 'Come and talk with me;' and my heart responds, 'Lord, I am coming.'" (Ps 27:8 NLT)
Daily Discipline Helps "Go Da Distance"
Rocky, the motion picture that won three Academy Awards, is a story of a small-time boxer given the opportunity of a lifetime--the chance to fight the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champ. After weeks of punishing, gruelling training, on the evening of the fight Rocky Balboa finally admits the futility of his effort. "Who am I trying to kid?" he ponders, "I'm not even in the same class with da guy. But I gotta go da distance. I gotta go da distance." Rocky Balboa set as his goal to go all fifteen rounds. He wanted to hang in there when he knew every muscle in his body would scream to quit. He wanted to endure under pressure. As a fighter, he wanted to go the full distance.
And he did. He was able to go the distance because, during training, his body had been subjected to tough preparation. Daily he had driven himself to the point of exhaustion. One-arm push-ups, back-bending sit-ups, sprinting, sparring--this had all been part of his schedule of training. You may remember him practising punching the frozen meat carcasses in the packing plant where he worked (Sylvester Stallone's knuckles actually became permanently flattened as a result of the so much punching during the takes).
The demanding training schedule enabled Rocky to endure. Perseverance in any great test comes as a result of disciplined preparation in the ordinary days. So 'press on' by living according to the pattern, your Christian training 'routine' - even in the little tests. It's a moment-by-moment choice to know and glory in Christ rather than yield to either self-cobbled righteousness OR the satisfaction of destructive desires. Let's pray.