We are working our way through Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi. a Letter he wrote to thank them for their aid to him while he was in prison. A letter he wrote to encourage them to stand firm in their faith in the face of persecution from outside and disruption from within the church. This standing firm that Paul encourages the church to do, is not grim determination, teeth grinding, white knuckle holding on for dear life, rather in his letter Paul uses the word Joy sixteen times. Standing firm for Paul is safeguarding the full ness of Joy that comes from Knowing and being known by Jesus Christ. A joy we can know regardless of the circumstances we face. A joy that Paul knows even though he is in prison facing uncertainty and possible death. Paul’s encouragement was not just for his readers way back then and there, but is equally for us here and now, as we stand firm on our joyous journey following Jesus.
The passage we had read to us this morning is the start of a new section in his letter, dealing with a new topic. Last week we looked at Paul finishing writing about the joy of Christian unity by talking about the travel plans of two of his team, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Men who were prime examples of the attitudes and actions needed to stand fast in that unity. After that talk of travel plans Paul moves on.
Once again, he exhorts his brothers and sisters to rejoice. Then the tenure of his letter changes Paul uses harsh and angry language to warn the church of false teachers. “wild dogs” he calls them, “evil doers and the mutilators of the flesh”. You can imagine Paul pounding on the desk three times his fists clenched in anger as he writes of them. Then he spends the rest of the reading we had today refuting this false teaching. He shares his testimony, both before he met Christ and after to illustrate why they are wrong and what is the truth of the gospel. Then finally he talks of how he joyously lives out that gospel truth.
First what has got Paul so angry? Who are these dogs, evil doers, mutilators of the flesh?
This group is known as the Judaizers. They are a group we first meet in Acts 15:1 who go to Antioch where the first significant Gentile Church is and teach the gentile believers that to be genuine followers of Jesus they need to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses. The kosha dietary demands all of it. They are a group that we know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians who were spreading their teaching and Paul is concerned that they will come to Philippi as well.
Paul finds this so offensive because they are saying that there is a need to add something to what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. That we can contribute something to our salvation. Rather than it being what God has done for us, by grace alone in Jesus Christ.
Circumcision was a practise in the Old Testament in Genesis 17 as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham he and all his male descendants were to be circumcised. It was to show that they were God’s special people. But the story of the Old testament is that God’s people were not always faithful to that covenant, that relationship, that physical outside sign wasn’t enough, God looked for an internal response, a heart that was turned towards God. The prophets talked of it as a circumcision of the heart.
Paul tells the church at Philippi that the followers of Jesus are the true circumcision. We are god’s people because God has put his Holy Spirit within us and we worship and Glorify Jesus Christ. It is God’s doing and we do not have any confidence in our own ability to achieve this. It is evident in our heart attitudes rather than by dropping our pants, to put it bluntly.
Paul shares his own life story before he met Christ to prove his point. He says he more than anyone else had every right to be confident in his own privileged position and achievements. Like he’s writing it down in a spread sheet, he names them. He was born of Jewish parents, Hebrew speaking Jews, of the tribe of Benjamin, his whakapapa is rock solid. Benjamin was the tribe of Israel that stayed loyal to David’s sons when the kingdom split after the reign of king Solomon. He was a Pharisee, that group within the Jewish faith that was most strict at keeping the law. He was full of zeal for the Jewish faith and the law of Moses to the point that he persecuted the church. He is not saying he was not a sinner but he was blameless in terms of keeping the requirements of the law. But then he says he meet Jesus. We know from Acts that he had a vision of Jesus on the way to Damascus with a warrant to imprison the Christians there and it changed his life. On the balance sheet, he says, all these things didn’t add up says these things add up to the surpassing greatness of Knowing Jesus Christ. It was only in Jesus Christ that he found himself in a right relationship with God.
The Image for our service this morning is a great illustration of what Paul was talking about. It’s a picture of Zugspitze, which is the tallest mountain in Germany. It sits across the German Austrian border, it’s a popular destination with hikers who catch a cable car up to its plateau and hike to the top, and climbers who scale the steeper sides of this 2200 metre mastiff. I didn’t take the photo by the way, I’ve never been there, and my climbing aspirations are confined to the two step sets of stairs in our three stories town house. But on the summit, is a cross, originally put there in 1851 primarily on the instance of a priest called Christopher Ott. Paul says, you know it’s like I climbed to the very height of moral and religious achievement and there I discovered the cross. There I found that it is only Jesus Christ that can put us right with God. All this other stuff now I realise adds up to nothing. If I’m going to win God’s approval then it adds up to a big fat zero. I might as well toss it in the wheelie bin, roll it out to the curb and let it be dragged off to the land fill. His anger is that these false teachers are wanting to put all this other stuff back on the gentile believers, bring it back from the dump. Put it in the positive column, make the believers climb the mountain.
That is a good point to turn and look at what is Paul’s Joy? what is the joy that he wants the Church at Philippi to know that will safeguard them against these false teachers?
In this passage for the first time Paul says that the church should rejoice in the Lord. He told them to rejoice and have joy, but now he ties the source of that Joy to the Lord. It’s a phrase that comes from the Old Testament from the psalms and the prophets. That God’s people were not to find their ultimate joy in circumstances or prosperity or privilege and their own pious achievement, but in God, his faithful love for them. That’s what Paul is saying to his readers and to us. The source of our joy our happiness is ultimately in Jesus Christ.
It is in what Jesus Christ has done for us that we are justified and put right with God. if all our moral victory and religious observances and good deeds and doing what’s right were put into that spread sheet, including circumcision to say we had deserved God’s love and had earned being right with God. Well it would come to zero. Rather it is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ that bridges that gap. It is a righteousness that Comes from God based on faith.
More than that Paul finds joy in his life, meaning and purpose in knowing and being known by Jesus. It’s not just a one-off encounter but Paul’s very life is shaped by the life of Christ. He wants to know the resurrection power of Jesus in his life. As a follower of Christ, we have the Holy Spirit in our lives, the power that raised Jesus from the dead is in us, bringing new life enabling and empowering us to live for Jesus. He wants to participate in his suffering. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul lists the hardships he’d been through for the sake of the gospel very much like he listed his previous religious privileges and attainments, shipwrecks beatings, being stoned (hit with stones not using mind altering substances), in Philippi he was whipped, he is imprisoned when he writes chained between to guards. But he sees these things as aligning his life with Christ’s redemptive suffering. Being prepared to suffer so that people might know the good news of reconciliation with God. he even hopes in hi death that he might be like Christ. That means being prepared to lay down his life for others out of love, but also in his mind he is aware of the possibility of death when his appeal to the emperor is heard he will be killed, his hope is that will enable to him to witness to the forgiveness and new life he has found in Christ. In all these things Paul’s joy comes from Jesus Christ and his great love for us. It’s a bit of a spoiler alert perhaps but towards the end of this letter Paul will talk of facing good times and grim times and he will say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. His joy and hope is also that he will share in the resurrection of the dead, that he will have eternal life with Jesus Christ.
How does Paul live that joy Out? Paul, having looked at his own life as an example of the joy of knowing Christ and the fruitless way of trusting in our own religiousness turns to the future and tells the church at Philippi how their Joy in the Lord, in focusing on Christ’s death and resurrection can safeguard them.
In the western church, we’ve kind of got this idea that salvation by grace and faith is something we can simply bank and put in the vault till we need it at the judgement. Like it’s a get out of jail free card we can slip under the board till we need. Yes, I said the sinner prayer, I’m Ok. But Paul does not treat it like that. He sees knowing Christ as a prize, as a goal which takes central place in his life.
He tells the church that he hasn’t yet arrived at his goal of knowing Christ totally but that he is prepared to move forward to keep going with his eyes fixed firmly on the prize. The prize here is nothing else than Jesus Christ. He’s very honest that he still has a long way to go in his spiritual growth but his focus is Jesus Christ. That is the way in which Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord, will be a safeguard for the church at Philippi and for us against things that would try and add things to our faith that take the focus from what God has done to what we can do. He puts off those former things that were the centre of his hope and purpose and meaning because he has found something far superior. It is Christ alone.
Paul’s words and his exhortation to find our joy and purpose in Jesus Christ are as important for us today as it was for his first listeners. It’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. Luther had become disillusioned with the Church, where the focus and practise seemed to focus on our being able to earn favour and grace and forgiveness from God. Even buy them like with indulgences. The catch cry of the reformation was a rediscovery and reemphasis of salvation by grace alone through faith.
It’s easy for us to get caught up in extra things which we think make up a Christian. I had a youth group member respond to a crusade in Tauranga run by another organisation, and I got a phone call from one of the people running it. Who told me that this young guy needed to be baptised by immersion right away. Because salvation wasn’t complete until you were baptised. Know I believe baptism is important but it is an outward sign of the inward reality that you have come to know Christ and been made new by his death and resurrection. It’s a public declaration that you identify with that. We do it as an act of obedience. But you are not made right with God because of baptism. There are other more mundane things as well. I go to Church, I’m a good person, I don’t do this or that. I was born into a Christian family. But in the end our Joy is to be found in knowing Christ and being made right with God through him. The thing that gives us joy in life is in fixing our eye on the prize, which is the call heavenward in Jesus Christ.