Look Up to Heaven
Explore the Bible Series
April 3, 2011
Background Passage: Philippians 3:1-21
Lesson Passage: Philippians 3:1, 7-21
Our lesson writer rightly observes that Paul’s overarching theme, in this chapter, centers on the believers’ citizenship in heaven. The chapter reaches its crescendo in the final verses:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to his glorious body, according to the working by which he is able even to subdue all things to himself. (NKJV)
Paul rejoiced that the Philippians shared his hope in glory, his anticipation of the resurrection of the body and eternal bliss, in heaven, with Christ. However, the apostle anticipated at least three challenges the Philippians would face.
1. Legalism (vv. 2-7): Apparently, false teachers threatened the church in Philippi, an insidious heresy that jeopardized the spiritual vitality of God’s people. Legalism arises from twin impulses: (1) the tendency to seek salvation through one’s own merits, (2) the inclination to embrace rule-keeping as a measure of godliness, usually rules that have no ground in the teachings of the Bible. Gentiles made up the majority of the Philippian church, and, it seems, some false teacher had influenced some of these Christians to consider circumcision as a prerequisite for salvation (vv. 2-3). Paul’s pharisaic background provided a persuasive case against the prospect of merit-based salvation and rule-keeping views of sanctification.
2. Perfectionism (vv. 12-16): These verses imply a form of perfectionism threatened the Philippians. Some, it seems, claimed that they had arrived at full conformity to the likeness of Christ. Paul, on the other hand, made no such claims. He, in contrast to the perfectionists, continued to press toward the mark of his calling in grace.
3. Divisiveness (vv. 17-19): This divisiveness, no doubt, grew from the aforementioned false doctrine. The errant teachers belittled Paul, thus dividing the church into factions. These arrogant men sought a personal following that harmed the unity of the fellowship, and Paul grieved over factionalism that imperiled the congregation.
While Paul treasured his citizenship in heaven, no one could rightly accuse him of a pie-in-the-sky theology that failed to account for the practicalities of Christian living. He began this important section with an admonition to joy. The difficulties faced by the Philippians, though grave, must reduce their experience to tedious drudgery and despair; rather, genuine joy proved a safeguard for their standing in Christ.
I. Paul’s Concern about Legalism (vv. 1-11)
A. A Three-fold entreaty to watchfulness (v. 2): This verse highlights the level of Paul’s concern about creeping legalism in Philippi. Three times, he repeats the imperative “beware”, and he minced no words in his assessment of these false teachers. He deemed these uncharitable words necessary and justified, in light of the theological dangers.
1. “beware of dogs”: The ancient world did not see dogs as we do, loyal pets and companions; rather, dogs were scavengers, dangerous pests that threatened the safety of city dwellers.
2. “beware of evil workers”: See II Corinthians 11:13
3. “beware of the mutilation”: Paul used a play on words based on the term for circumcision. His point,--the legalizers did not preach a valid circumcision; instead, they merely mutilated the flesh.
B. The true circumcision (v. 3): The apostle identified a true circumcision of the heart, a circumcision that bore three marks.
1. “who worship God in the Spirit”: The text contrasts those who worship in the Spirit and others who worship in the flesh, circumcision. True worship does not center attention on careful attention to outward rituals like circumcision.
2. “rejoice in the Christ Jesus”: Joyous worship focuses the heart on Christ, not on rule-keeping and the dead letter of the Law.
3. “and have no confidence in the flesh”: “The flesh”, in this context, must certainly refer to circumcision.
C. Paul’s testimony concerning legalism (vv. 4-6): The apostle outlined seven advantages that, in his former life as a Pharisee, he regarded as grounds for godliness, grounds he now regarded as rubbish. His former zeal was without peer or challenge—a matchless resume of legal righteousness.
1. “circumcised the eighth day”
2. “of the stock of Israel”
3. “of the tribe of Benjamin”
4. “a Hebrew of the Hebrews”
5. “concerning the Law, a Pharisee”
6. “concerning zeal, persecuting the church”
7. “concerning the righteousness which is of the Law, blameless”
D. Paul’s new life in Christ (vv. 7-11): Once, Paul greatly valued his legal merit, but his Damascus Road experience with Christ reordered his perspective. Now, the things he once treasured, he regarded as loss, rubbish, that he might gain Christ. Paul, for the sake of Christ, had suffered the loss of all things he once held precious, having his own righteousness from law-keeping. A true righteousness, through faith in the Lord Jesus, had become the new center of Paul’s life. He esteemed the knowledge of Christ and the power of the resurrection made plain in Paul’s willingness to share the fellowship of Christ’s suffering, even to death for the sake of the gospel.
II. Paul’s Concern about Perfectionism (vv. 12-16)
A. A dangerous implication: This paragraph implies another problem that may have troubled the church at Philippi. Perhaps some of the legalists also laid claim to moral perfection. Perfectionism has characterized some aspects of Methodist theology since the time of the Wesleys, and, to some degree, the teachings of some contemporary charismatic groups. Paul, for his part, made no such claim.
B. An honest testimony (vv. 12-14): By his own account, Paul had not fully attained the knowledge of Christ and moral perfection; rather, he continued to press toward the goal. The text draws an analogy from the Olympic arena where runners pressed toward the finish line. “Forgetting those things which are behind”, Paul strained every energy toward his goal, the knowledge of Christ and the resurrection of the dead.
C. An earnest appeal (vv. 15-16): Paul pled with the Philippians to maintain a humble pursuit of Christ, and, to the degree they had achieved moral excellence, they must continue to walk in that maturity. He also included an appeal to unity in the pursuit of holiness.
III. Paul’s Concern about Divisiveness (vv. 17-21)
A. “Enemies of the cross” (vv. 18b-19): Paul lists four descriptions of these people, descriptors that indicate an immoral, libertine outlook. Apparently, the church was divided by legalists, on the one hand, and libertines on the other.
1. “whose end is destruction”
2. “whose god is their belly”: denotes sensual appetites
3. “whose glory is their shame”: Like many in our day, this kind of sensuality debilitates the capacity for shame.
4. “who set their mind on earthly things”
B. The Christian hope in the resurrection (vv. 20-21): The earthly mindset of the libertines contrasts with the heavenly-mindedness of God’s people. Christians are aliens to this world, sojourners whose citizenship is in heaven. The eagerly await the return of Christ who will conform their bodies to the glory of the Savior.