Putting Our Flesh in Its Place

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 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: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:1-8)

We have been focusing together over the last couple of weeks on the importance, the necessity, of living our lives under the full belief and conviction that Jesus Christ is everything, and that we in our flesh are nothing. I hope you’re doing okay with that. I think that’s biblical truth, and something we need to hear, because we have a tendency to try elevating our flesh when Scripture tells us we need to put that down and glory in Christ. We have talked about the foolishness of trying to earn God’s favor with our works, trying to earn His love by our deeds, trying to impress God with our accomplishments. We have discussed the futility of saying, “God, look at me, look at all that I am doing for you, adding to your kingdom. Look at me, and if you’re looking carefully then you must agree that you will benefit from me, from having me on your team. Pick me to bless, because I am working for you.” And if we are doing that, thinking that way, we are turning grace into works. We are trying to earn what has been given freely. We are living a life of law instead of a life of grace.

While we may not be so bold to say such words, the reality is that most of us to some measure live in a quasi-works-related mindset of, “If I’m good enough, He will like me.” And if we live in a way in which we’re trying to earn the favor of God, try to earn His love for us, we may begin to mentally keep score of things we’re doing for Him. Something like: “I read my Bible today, so I’ll check that off. I prayed today, that’s another check on my list. I witnessed today. I really sacrificed today in serving by doing a kind deed, so I’ll check that off my list of works. I didn’t look lustfully at another person today – check. I didn’t lose my temper with the kids. I didn’t overeat today.” And on and on and on down our list of works. “With all these accomplishments, I am good with God today because of the things I’ve done, and He certainly must be good with me!”

This is dangerous living. Dangerous thinking, I believe. To see God as a scorekeeper who loves those with high scores and looks past those who come up short. I say dangerous not because any of the things I said are bad things – they aren’t. Spiritual discipline is important, doing good and abstaining from sin is good, but they’re not done so that God might like us, love us, or bless us. What makes it dangerous is the motive. If our primary motive for obedience is some effort to gain God’s affection, then we are off track. Our motive is to be love, love for him and love for others. They are not works to bribe God, they should be works out of love for God.

We can do all these things, do everything on the lists we may have, whatever your list may look like, do all these things as the Pharisees normally did, and yet our hearts can be far from God. We can have an impeccable track record of seemingly good deeds and care nothing about loving God or others. And if we can muster up enough energy to do enough outward good, then we may even get to a place where we see no real need for God anyway. All these things we can do and our hearts can be far from God, but we can at the same time entice our minds to believe we are pleasing Him when we are not. We are a people who desperately need God every moment of every day, not a people capable of impressing God by our good deeds.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:16)

For this says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him how is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)

In all three of these instances we don’t see God saying, “If you do enough good, I will dwell with you,” or, “If you perform well for me, you will be mine,” or, “If you work hard enough, heaven will be yours.” We don’t see that at all. What is true is that our coming to a place of desperate humility before God, this is when we believe for the first time, repent of our sins, and believe for salvation, and it is equally true that after we belong to Him until the day we die we continue to trust and rely upon Him. We never get to a place where we can brag about ourselves and our works before God.

The nineteenth century Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield said it this way, “There is nothing in us or done by us, at any state of our earthly development, because of which we are acceptable to God. We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all…This is not true of us only when we believe. It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in behavior may be. It is always on His ‘blood and righteousness’ alone that we can rest.” In other words, we need Christ for our salvation and we need Him ever after to be our righteousness before God. Our works simply won’t do; they never have and they never will. Our boast then must be in Christ Jesus and in Him alone.

Now, if there were any way to get to God and earn His favor in our flesh, on our own works or simply in who we are, if any way, then there is a guy who would have accomplished it. It’s not me, and I’m not saying it’s any of you, but there is a guy, and his name is the apostle Paul. If any guy could get to God by his works, by his zeal, by his passion, it would have been Paul. He had quite a religious resume. In religious circles as a Jew, Paul was the man! He was the one to look up to. And he even says so in verse 4, “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.” That’s pretty bold. He’s saying, “Bring your resume up, let’s compare, and we’ll see whose resume is more impressive in religious circles.” So if anyone could impress God with His works, then He’s the guy. Paul then goes on to list his religious qualifications all done in his flesh, in his own pride before coming to Christ.

He has seven entries in his spiritual resume. Seven significant qualifications that he shares with the church at Philippi and with us. The first three are things he really had nothing to do with personally, they weren’t his own works. They are hereditary. Paul’s life begins with great advantage. Not only will he mention things he did, but he begins with examples of just being born and raised under the right conditions. He was advantaged from the beginning of his life. Born on the right side of the tacks, from a good line. What are these first three things?

  • He was circumcised the eight day
  • Of the people of Israel
  • Of the tribe of Benjamin.

Paul had, in his flesh, he had things for which he could be proud, even before he was old enough to know what pride was. He’s like, “Yep, I was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin.” We may not get the significance of these three things since we live in a different day and culture, so let me briefly explain why these would be points of significance for Paul and how they could be bragging points for him.

Paul by mentioning his circumcision on the eighth day was pointing out that he was a true Jew. He was not a Gentile proselyte. He was the real thing. Circumcision was an essential rite into Judaism, and Paul had that going for him. He was not a transplant Jew, they were sometimes looked down upon. He wasn’t late in obedience as a Jew. He was a real Jew right from the beginning. And from the beginning of his life there was this initial act of obedience, not done by him but done to him, that would lead to future acts of obedience for which Paul was proud.

Secondly he was of the people of Israel. Again, not a convert, but an original person of Israel. So by birth he was of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people. This is significant because many would say, “Look at me, God has chosen me as part of this nation. God put His favor on me from the beginning.” This could and often did become a point of pride in people’s lives. He was directly from the line of Abraham.

Third, not only was he of the people of Israel, but he was also from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin was one of the most prominent tribes of Israel. By Paul’s day most of the Jews had no idea what tribe they were from. This was due to all the inter-marrying that had taken place. But apparently Paul’s line had remained pure, so he knew what tribe he was from even. You may remember that Benjamin was born to Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, and was their last son. He was a favored son, and they remained a faithful tribe. Any Jew would have liked to say, “I am of the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul could say he was, and he had taken great pride in doing so.

So before Paul ever did anything religious himself he already had great advantages in life. He had the right heritage. I’m not sure if we in America can appreciate this as much as others might. In the US we are taught that it doesn’t really matter to whom you are born, because you can achieve anything. It doesn’t matter whether you’re born rich or poor, or what your line is, you can succeed here. You can go from a humble background to riches and power anyway, and many have proven that so we know it’s true. But in other places that is just not so. You grow up and do what your dad did. You marry who you are told to marry. You are privileged by birth into a royal line or you remain a pauper. Our experience is unique compared to many other countries where heritage is everything.

Paul had the right heritage, and he at one time believed that alone meant that in his flesh he was deserving of God’s favor. And so for a long time Paul thought, “Of course God favors me, why wouldn’t He? Circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew, of the tribe of Benjamin. Why wouldn’t God put His favor on me with all of that going for me? Look who I am! I am Paul, or Saul, with all of these things to make me one of God’s prized children.” Some of us may be tempted to believe something similar. We may be tempted to think, “Of course God favors me, I grew up in the church, born to Christian parents, baptized as a child, I’m on the Sunday school roster and always have been. Oh, and I’m an American so of course God favors me.” Paul will later be very blunt in declaring, “None of that matters!” Our heritage is not what makes a relationship with God, in fact it may be a hindrance at times. This may be of particular importance for those of us who grew up, who were raised surrounded by religion. That’s not what gets us to God.

After speaking of his heritage Paul goes on to discuss his accomplishments. It doesn’t stop with his heritage, he played the part and played it well. As for his accomplishments he gives four things.

  • 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

Here is where Paul really begins to flex his personal strength. He first described himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews. I think this is best understood that Paul considered himself to be a pure Jew. An unadulterated Jew. He was not like those who called themselves Jews and yet had assimilated into the Greek or Roman culture. He held to the traditions of Jews and outwardly stood proud of his heritage. He wasn’t a closet Jew who might say, “Yes I’m a Jew” when its popular to say so, and in a place where it’s not popular to sort of hide from his heritage. We use the phrase sometimes, “He’s a man’s man.” That means he’s a real man, a manly man. He hasn’t taken on feminine traits or cultural trends that might bring into question his manhood. Paul was a Jew’s Jew. He stood tall and confident in being a Jew, whether anyone liked it or not. He was not ashamed of who he was no matter the circumstance he was in. You’ve got to like, or at least respect a guy like this who would stand up for what he believes in. This is who he was and he was proud of it. I recently asked someone, “What advice would you give to a young man about to go out into the world?” This person said, “Remember that as a Christian in this world you walk around with a big target on your back.” You ever feel that way as a Christian? In other words, if you choose to live like a Christian in this world, you will be different, so wear that target, don’t take it off, be a Christian, act as a Christian no matter what, no matter whose presence you’re in. We may often want to hide that target to fit in. Paul stood for who he was, a Hebrew of Hebrews. He stood up for what he believed. And was, by the way, very proud of it. This was done in his flesh, not by the Spirit of God, he was able to do this in the flesh, in his own strength, even without God. Impressive; not honoring to God, but nonetheless impressive, maybe to us.

Next he says, “as to the Law a Pharisee.” Paul was an extreme guy, a very intense man, type A, a real high achiever. Every practicing Jew would have wanted him on their team. To become a Pharisee was to reach the highest level of legalistic Judaism. I mean you would have to be a hard worker to get there. He would have to be an extreme follower of the Law and traditions. I mean who could keep all the ridiculous laws that the rabbis had come up with? You would have had to put your whole self into it, and Paul had done that. The Pharisees were elite religious leaders and highly respected and very powerful. Paul had achieved this in his own strength under the guise of religion, under the false assumption that this would please God.

Next Paul says, “as to zeal a persecutor of the church.” Paul was zealous in his activities as a Pharisee. It wasn’t easy getting there, and once he got there he was going to be zealous in all he did. John MacArthur describes zeal as a two-sided coin. One side is love and the other is hate, to love God and to hate what he hates. It was under this heading of zeal that Paul persecuted the church. With zeal and in his own strength and pride, Paul set out to extinguish the church. That’s what his zeal drove him to do. 

Lastly Paul says he was righteous as to the Law, blameless, he says. Anyone observing Paul’s life as a religious Jew would have found him blameless. Of course he was a sinner, but an outward observation would have found that he was righteous. He was a model for others. If we had lived back then and were religious Jews, we may have said to our children, “Look, there is the Pharisee Saul, maybe you can grow up to be like him! Watch him, he is your model!” Others may have avoided him, not wanting to get too close because he seemed perfect, making themselves feel really inadequate. In his religion, he looked perfect.

And so here is Saul, the man of perfect heritage followed by perfect religious forms. He was circumcised 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. Though we may not totally grasp all of what this means, we need to understand that if we had lived in his day as a Jew, we would have wanted this to be our resume too. In his flesh confident in his own strength; “reason for confidence,” he says

I’m not sure where each of us may fit into this passage. What is your heritage? What have you accomplished in the name of religion? In what have you placed your confidence? What makes you right with God? How have you tried to convince God of your worth? Here is a man who had gone that route, done it all, achieved great things for God, he thought, highly respected and recognized by others and yet what does he say about his place and his works? It was all for nothing, it counted for nothing, it got him nothing. It didn’t matter, his strength didn’t matter, his flesh was as weak as the other guys, he had gained nothing. While humanly speaking he had gained much, in the heavenly realm it was nothing. Paul was no closer to God through all of this than anyone else who had not trusted in Christ. In these works alone Paul would have spent eternity in hell just as any hardened murderer or thief. He hadn’t accomplished anything that would give him favor with God. The one thing he wanted, the one thing he was trying to accomplish, it didn’t deliver.

Be careful with your works, and how you view them. Your works aren’t getting you to heaven. They didn’t save you, and they aren’t keeping you saved. And if you are already a believer by faith in Christ, then your works will not earn God’s continued love or favor. All that comes through Christ and through Him alone. It’s such a relief, isn’t it? We are simply free to love Him, follow Him, and do the works He gives us to do out of love for Him, not from a cowering fear that He’s going to reject us. Just to love Him. I love that!

After Paul gives us this impressive religious resume he says, “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.” Can’t you see him just reading that resume, then crumbling it up and tossing it? What we may think as gain, what we may see as great and important, what Paul had accomplished in the name of God, he now knows it is all loss, counted as loss compared with knowing Jesus Christ. Are we ready to do the same? 

Next week, Lord willing, we will spend our time on verses 7 and 8, exploring together what it means to put off our working toward righteousness, and instead to count all our cravings for works-based righteousness as simply nothing, for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. Think about that. All as loss, counting all as loss, for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. I’m looking forward to going there with you!

4 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: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:4-8)