If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Philippians 3, we’ll start with verse 5 and go through 14. Some of you will recognize the last few verses; that’s because we took a look at them on New Year’s Day. But I’m going to focus more on what’s ahead of those verses, then segue into the last couple of verses.
The thing with The Bible is that you can go ahead a couple of months later, look at the same verses and end up with a different point or a different sermon altogether. I remember that when I was in my preaching and teaching class. We’d have the same set of verses to preach from, but there would be different points brought out of that scripture.
Like I’ve done recently, as well, today’s scripture is taken from the New Living Translation, a translation that I don’t use often. I usually use the New International Version, but I’m finding that when it comes to some of Paul’s writings, I like the way the NLT is worded. It kind of makes a little more sense out of Paul’s way of speaking.
Scripture: 5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.
7 I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ 9 and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ.[c] For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!
12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. 13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
There is a lot to digest here. What is Paul really saying in all this? It’s pointed out pretty clearly in verse 9: “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.” In other words, we wonder what things, what multiple things, we have to do in order to be right with God. What’s the list? We want an ordered to-do list. But there is only one thing we can do to be right with God. And that is placing our faith in what Jesus did to make us right, what He accomplished on the cross.
Going back to verse 9, Paul uses a phrase that is often said but is not often defined. I think it’s worth discussing. The word: law. What does that mean? When I was a kid, and before I understood what it meant to be saved, I thought that the more you obeyed the law, and did not get in trouble with the police, then the greater your chances of going to Heaven. Makes sense, right? That’s not necessarily true, since this book and many other books in the Bible were written from jail.
And we know our laws are there for a good reason. Mankind’s laws were given to us for basically the same reasons why God’s laws were given to us so that we know the standard by which to live. We have God’s laws to know God’s standard for holiness.
Now imagine all the laws that exist in our society today. There are countless laws out there. When Diana ran a licensed daycare, we couldn’t believe how many hundreds of laws there were on running our own daycare in our own home—literally hundreds. Go to your local government entities like your school board or your town board, or your county board. They’ll be happy to tell you about all of the laws and regulations passed down from New York State that they have to rubber stamp into their own local jurisdictions or figure out how to comply with. Your own state representatives, I’m sure, are trying their best to curb all of the proposed laws from Albany trying to come our way. Our state and federal governments seem to never run out of laws to pass. They just keep piling them on and on. And what happens is the only laws left are ones that micromanage our way of life.
Not much has changed in the past 2,000 years. In this set of verses, Paul begins in verse 5 with a list of things about him from birth. He says: “5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.”
Paul said he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a group of Jewish leaders who took their faith very seriously. They believed that the way they would please God and make it to Heaven was by meticulously following a long list of religious rules and regulations.
Remember when I said there were literally hundreds of laws in our daycare? Imagine living in a time when you had to obey over 600 religious laws. Remember when I read to you a passage from the Bible that read like a recipe out of a cookbook? Those were the laws that God gave Moses, called the Mosaic Law. I’m not going to get carried away with explaining all of that, but very briefly, it was made up of three parts: the Ten Commandments, the ordinances; and the worship system which included how the priesthood was established, how the tabernacle was to be built in great detail, what kinds of offerings there should be and how they were to be given, and likewise what festivals there should be and how they were to be held (Exodus 20—40; Leviticus 1—7; 23).
But by the time Paul wrote Philippians, there were more.
This is from pursuegod.org. It says:
While following 613 commandments would be hard enough, over time Jewish leaders began to slowly add to these laws in the Midrash. This additional teaching is basically an ongoing compilation of sermons and sayings by Jewish Rabbis meant to interpret the original Mosaic Law. The original intent of these additions was to clarify the law, but it ended up adding many layers of complicated regulations. This Midrash was already lengthy in Jesus’ day and continues to grow to this day. So for the Pharisees, they not only tried to follow the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law, but the literally thousands of new commandments that were created to clarify the original 613 commandments.
For example, in the Mosaic Law, one of the commandments is to keep the Sabbath holy, which means that Jews were not supposed to work on Saturdays. But to clarify this, the Jewish scholars created 39 separate categories of what “work” means, and within those 39 categories there are many sub-categories. So to follow the rule of not working on the Sabbath, there are literally thousands of sub-rules to follow, including how many steps you can take, and how many letters you can write on the Sabbath.
(Remember, the Pharisees plotted to kill Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath)
While most average Jews in Jesus’ day, and still today, didn’t even attempt to follow all of these additions to the original Law, the Pharisees did. They prided themselves on following not just the letter of the Mosaic Law, but even the letter of the man-made rules designed to clarify the Law. Most notably, the Pharisees sought to abide by the external laws that distinguished the Jewish people from all of the other nations – the laws that made them outwardly distinct. These included laws about what to eat, what to wear, circumcision, how to pray out loud, etc. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was that they were legalistic – only concerned with the external appearance of keeping the Law rather than the inward spirit of the Law (meaning the inward spirit of God’s original laws).
Can you see how that plays out today?
Let’s rephrase the beginning of Paul’s set of verses in Philippians with our lives today. If you were to go back to verse 5, it might sound something like this:
“I am a pure-blooded citizen of The United States of America and a member of the American Baptist Association—a real Christian if there ever was one! I was a member of the board of deacons, who demanded the strictest obedience to what our deacon forefathers had to say. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly looked down on everyone in the church and every other denomination. And as for righteousness, I obeyed both Biblically written and man-made unwritten religious expectations without fault.”
Now, that’s not how this church’s board is, but as an illustration, you can see what it’s like in our modern day. And we’ve all been there. It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be, but it’s still there whether we like it or not. Legalism, or harshly adding laws on top of laws, clarifying God’s laws to fit our Christianity—a list of thou shall nots—hasn’t changed in thousands of years. We think we’re doing the right thing. Paul thought he was doing the right thing. But Paul realized he was missing the whole point.
So what was the point? Let’s go back to verse 7 and look:
I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. 8 Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ 9 and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ.[c] For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, 11 so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!
You see, it’s not that we shouldn’t be living holy lives as God instructs us; it’s that we miss the bigger picture. If we strive to live holy and do everything right but do not know Christ, then all of that effort is worthless. Once again, verse 9: I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.
Can you feel the breath of fresh air that Paul must have felt? Can you feel the enormous weight that lifted off his chest as the spiritual bonds broke free when he finally discovered this? Even though Paul spent the rest of his life in physical chains, he was freer than ever. Paul lived for years walking on eggshells, living in slavery for man’s approval when he thought it was God’s approval, not knowing that God’s approval is truly freeing.
Just look at how Jesus accepted people who did not live up to the Pharisee’s standards of holiness.
When my cousin’s father remarried back in the 80s, his father had to denounce his divorce, which meant he had to denounce his marriage, which meant he had to denounce his children, which meant my cousin couldn’t attend his own father’s wedding because according to the church, he didn’t exist. Try and figure that out. Now that his girlfriend is in the same type of church, my cousin attended her son’s first communion, but my cousin couldn’t partake in communion because he’s not part of that church, which meant that the whole church glared at him as he stood there with his arms in a cross formation because he wasn’t one of their own. And by the way, there’s a list in that church’s newsletter that announces—by name—who’s late on their tithe payment and how much they owe the church. Can you imagine?
I can’t imagine pastoring a church like that. I can’t imagine consciously attending a church that does that to people. That’s an example of modern-day religion that heaps laws upon laws so that people are guilted into obeying. Legalism is control. It’s about seeking the approval of man masked as the approval of God. It isn’t Godly. That kind of church needs our prayers. May the light of God shine into that church.
Our focus should not be on man’s approval. It should not even be on God’s approval, technically. It should be on knowing God. Verse 10: 10 I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead.
Now, let’s admit it, when we were in school, we all used to fool around in the hallways, right? You could pick on each other a bit. Make a little bit of noise so long as you weren’t disturbing too much. But what happened when you saw the principal walking down the hall?
Boy, you straightened up right away. I don’t know if it’s still this way, but back then, the principal was intimidating, wasn’t he? He didn’t let you get away with anything. You looked straight ahead, you walked in a line, you kept your head down and you didn’t say a word. People who live legalistically live like God is the principal of the universe. That’s not the kind of life God wants us to live. That’s not the kind of relationship God created us to have with him. It’s not like God is the principal, and our relationship with him is strictly as our authority figure and we must be on our best behavior when he’s walking the halls.
God wants to be our father. Here’s another oddity of how churches conduct things. Nowadays, with all this politically correct wokeness stuff, some churches are now addressing God as non-gender. God is God, but not a he or him. God apparently, according to some churches, does not have a preferred pronoun. Jesus taught us to address God as ‘Our Father.’ God created us to be his children. We were created to have a relationship with him, to know him and to experience, as Paul said, ‘the mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead.’
What does that last part mean? That means that the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is within us. It’s implied in verse 10 that even though Paul is looking forward to the resurrection into our new bodies when Christ returns, he’s also eagerly desiring to experience a resurrection of his dead, dry, parched soul in the here and now.
There’s a song that we sang at Elim called “Resurrecting.” And it’s a beautiful song. The lyrics to this song have a few lines that simply say:
By Your spirit I will rise
From the ashes of defeat
The resurrected king
Is resurrecting me
In your name I come alive
To declare Your victory
The resurrected king
Is resurrecting me
How much do we need that in our own lives? Day after day, living in this cursed earth? We need God’s resurrecting power in our souls to lift us up. And that’s what Paul experienced. You cannot experience that through legalism. Legalism is man’s effort. It is strictly just religious authoritarianism. It’s cold. It’s the opposite of resurrection power. It adds to our spiritual death. It’s fear controlling your behavior. There’s nothing alive about it. But God wants to perform the miracle of resurrection within us. He wants to resurrect our spirits. Our relationship with Him does that. We simply cannot do that based on our own efforts to obey strict rules and heartless regulations. It can only be done, as Paul said, through knowing Christ.
Paul concludes by saying this. Verse 13: 13 but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Those last verses might sound familiar because I talked about them for our New Year’s sermon. Those verses are still out on our sign and they probably will be for a little while.
We can’t dwell on our past, though our minds sometimes force us to. I can’t tell you how easy it is for me to remember the bad stuff that happened years ago as if it was yesterday. But all the blessings? Why do they have to be the things that are so hard to remember? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
What we’ve read in the beginning gives us the impression that Paul’s past is filled with regrets. Can you imagine someone who has worked so hard for God and has done everything he was supposed to do, to only come to a point in his life in his early 30s to realize that his whole upbringing was all in vain? That his persecution of the Church was actually persecution against the very God he was trying to serve?
He must have been filled with regret. But he says that he must forget what is in his past and press on to what lies ahead.
How many of us think to ourselves, “If I knew then what I know now?” I think we can all say that. There are those whose past still haunts them for whatever reason. If there was anyone who had a past to haunt them, it was Paul. Think of how it must have eaten at his conscience. But here he is, making a stand to forget his past and press on. Why? Because he knows, like a runner, that there is a prize at the end of the race. And as I mentioned in that New Year’s sermon, like a runner, you can’t focus on what’s ahead by looking backward. You’re only going to slow yourself down and trip over that obstacle rather than being prepared to jump over it.
I was reading some commentary on this, and, as I said, Paul was about 30 when he was converted on the Road to Damascus. Here, Philippians is written about another 30 years later. So here he is, at about 60, saying that he’s forgetting the past and pressing on.
Here’s what one commentary had to say:
Paul’s point…is that he refuses to rest on his past successes but presses on toward that day when he will present the Philippians and his other congregations blameless to Christ
Even with our successes during the times of our Christian walk, we can’t look back but continually move forward, pressing on. Why? Because it only slows us down. We might even stop altogether to dwell on our successes, or as the old saying goes, “rest on our laurels.”
Dad tells me that even though Rev. Mason retired from the pulpit, he worked for the Lord doing hospital ministry until he just physically couldn’t anymore. He kept pressing forward. He didn’t quit until he finished the race.
What does this have to do with legalism and righteousness? How does this tie in together? The idea is that we cannot work toward our own salvation, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ignore the work of Christ altogether and what He has called us to do. It’s a matter of having the right focus. Are we obeying man or God? Are we working for man or by the Spirit of God? That’s a whole other sermon altogether for another day. But for now…
Last week, we shared communion together because it is a reminder of what Christ has done for us. It is a reminder to us. It isn’t something magical that does something for us the more times we partake. It’s just a reminder. It forces our attention on the finished work of what Jesus did for us.
I tend to use that phrase quite often—the finished work of the cross. We know that Christ’s last words were, “It is finished.” But how often do we see what Christ has done on the cross as finished? Legalism does not see the work of the cross as finished. People who believe in purgatory do not see the work of the cross as finished. They do not see what God sent His son to do as good enough. They have to help God out.
Do you do that? Do you, maybe unconsciously, not see the work that Jesus did as good enough? There’s another song that we sang at another church we went to for a while. It’s called “Your Grace is Enough.” Maybe you’ve heard that one on the radio. God’s grace is enough.
If we go to Ephesians, chapter 2, Paul says this: “8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Salvation is paid for. Salvation is a free gift. We don’t have to work for a gift. God loved you so much that He did everything He could do within His power to make sure you had the opportunity to know Christ and experience the power that raised Jesus from the dead.
We cannot do anything to earn the gift of salvation. However, there is one thing we must do to receive salvation. And that is to simply receive it—by faith. If you still need to receive that salvation, if maybe you are like Paul, trying so hard to do the right thing, all you need to do is say this simple prayer. With every eye closed, with every head bowed, if you’ve been trying hard to obey all the rules because that’s what you thought you needed to do to receive salvation, and you wish to receive Christ by faith, then say these words silently with me.
Prayer: Dear Lord, I recognize that you have paid for my salvation on the cross. That the work of your son was full and complete. And by faith, I ask for the forgiveness of my sins, and today I choose to turn away from my sins and commit to knowing you in the joy and freedom of Christ. No longer bound by the weight of working for salvation. In Jesus’ name, amen.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on First Baptist Church of Watkins Glen
Featured Image by Kohji Asakawa from Pixabay
[…] Open the full article on the kingdomwinds.com site […]