Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Philippians 3:1-11 : A Sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral at Summer Praise on 7th August 2005

What is the gospel? What is it at the core of our belief? Are there things that we hold over and above the gospel, that we don’t want to let go of? Tonight we will have a look at what Paul defines as the core of our belief, through re-telling part of his own story. Originally, as we shall see, he trusted in his own righteousness, based on what he was and what he did, but this changed, and he then found the true righteousness that comes by faith.

[Incidentally, preachers seem to get a hard time for using the word ‘finally’, which opens our reading tonight. And despite Paul using it, we find that there are still two chapters to go. But don’t worry; I won’t be using the ‘finally’ word tonight!]

Paul, in writing to the Philippians, takes this opportunity to ‘write the same things to you’; to recap on the basics of the faith, so that it will be ‘safe for you’. He wanted to ground the church so firmly in the foundations that it would stand, and continue to stand in the face of opposition and attack. And therefore, we also need to review the basics of the faith time and again, because we need to be sure of what we believe. We can never outgrow the gospel. We must always have it as our focus.

Yet it was even more important to review the basics, given that the Philippians were facing opposition and problems. Some people were seeking to slightly alter the faith, or alter the conditions that someone could come to faith. Paul referred to them as ‘dogs’. Now, I’m not all that fond of dogs, but when Paul used this word, he wasn’t being too complimentary. After all, a ‘dog’ was the name that good Jews gave to Gentiles. Matthew Henry writes that these men were called dogs ‘for their malice against the faithful professors of the gospel of Christ, barking at them and biting them.’

So who were these men? They were Jews who had come to faith, yet thought that Gentiles who were coming to faith first of all had to become Jews – by being circumcised. They thought that God’s promises were only for the Jews, but the gospel is for everyone. Their emphasis on circumcision, the basis of why they were wrong, is that they had a ‘gospel-plus’ attitude. That you weren’t really a Christian unless you not only came to faith, but also did something else. Now, in their day, it was circumcision. But in our own day, there are similar brands of this gospel-plus thinking around – elevating man-made rules into the command of God. Perhaps this is how some people view Confirmation in our church – that you aren’t a real Christian without it.

The reason for these extra rules is that they think that it brings acceptance with God. That somehow, by keeping these extra rules, we can be more right with God. And isn’t that the basis of all our self-righteousness? We think that if we do such and such, then we will be right with God. Now, we maybe don’t admit it in so many words, but that is the basis of our thinking. You know… ‘if I turn up at church every week, then God will like me’, or ‘If I read my Bible, or sing in the choir, or … then I’ll be right with God.’

Paul tells us of his own self-righteousness. ‘I myself have more reason in the flesh: 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, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness, under the law blameless.’ Paul had it all made, according to the Jewish understanding of righteousness. He kept all the laws, joined the strictest sect of teachers, persecuted the so-called heretics, and was blameless.

Until the moment he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He suddenly realised that whatever that had been to his credit – those laws he had kept – all meant nothing. It was all ‘rubbish’. The original word means ‘dung’ – the stuff you just want rid of as quickly as possible, with no benefit. This was how Paul viewed all those things that before contained his hope, and were valuable to him, that seemed to be a gain for him. They were rubbish, compared to the worth and joy of knowing Christ. There was nothing that Paul had before that could possibly compare with knowing Jesus, and the benefits that flow from that relationship.

To some extent, that is my own testimony. I grew up in this church, was in the choir from an early age, and knew lots from Sunday School and BB Bible class etc. And I thought I had it made. Surely, I thought to myself, God will accept me, and like me, and take me to heaven, because of all that I do. And after all, I’m so much better than my classmates at school – they don’t go to church, and swear and on and on…

But thanks be to God, that during the Mission in November 1992, I came to realise that it isn’t about what I do, but about what Christ has done for me, and that it is only by coming to faith in him that we are saved.

It is to some extent, like a balance sheet, when you’re doing your accounts. Paul had all those things on the ‘credit’ side. They were all a benefit to him. But after his encounter with Christ, all those things shifted over to the debit side – they were only a loss to him. And the only item on the credit side? Knowing Christ! For it is by knowing Christ, by coming to faith in him, that we attain this righteousness from God. We can be right with God, not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus has done for us, by accepting it by faith.

It is in the cross of Calvary that this righteousness that comes by faith is grounded. In the perfect work of Christ, in which he gave himself for us, to pay for our sin, and to make us right with God.

Paul closes this passage by giving a sort of mission statement for his own life, and one which we should also adopt as our own: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.’

The first part of that verse is wonderful – ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.’ There is nothing that is better than knowing Jesus, than being able to talk to him at any time, from knowing his presence with you. And to have the power of his resurrection? That is, the power of God, which raised him from the dead? Well, who doesn’t need that power to live life, and to serve God? We cannot do it in our own power, and need this power of God.

But there’s something uncomfortable about the next part of the verse. ‘And the fellowship of his sufferings’. Suffering is not pleasant. It is not what we would willingly choose. Yet here Paul states that he wants to know … the fellowship of his sufferings’. Christ came as the suffering servant, and while he was our Saviour, he was also our example. Jesus has called for us to follow his example, and to keep going through the hard times. Because, as Paul realised, that when we are weak, and hard pressed, then the grace of God is strongest, and carries us through.

So the question that comes to you tonight from the reading is this: What is on the balance sheet of your life? Are there things that you value higher than Christ? Do you insist on trying to work for your own righteousness, by doing so much for God? Is your religion a struggle of your own will, rather than an admission that by yourself, you can’t do anything, and that you need Christ? Are there things that you are trusting in, rather than in Christ? Because we all put our trust in something, whether it is in our religion (being Protestant), or in our upbringing, or our culture, or all that we do, or our own goodness.

Tonight, we need to come again to the cross, and to find in it the only ground for our righteousness – the only way we can be right with God. By coming, and trusting in Jesus, and knowing him, and the power of his resurrection, we can be saved. Won’t you put your trust in Jesus tonight?

[PRAYER: Lord God, I thank you that you sent Jesus into the world to die on the cross, and that we can be right with you through that. Forgive me for my sins, and cleanse me. I want to know you, Jesus. Come and live in my heart, so that I may say that everything is loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing you as my Lord. Thank you Father, that you hear my prayer, and will answer it to your glory, in Jesus’ name. Amen ]

1 comment :

  1. Thankyou for posting this service, very thought provoking

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