In the third chapter of his letter to the Christians in the town of Philippi, the Apostle Paul talks about a number of topics that are just as important today as they were when he first wrote this letter. Those topics include the dangers of false teachers, the pointlessness of trying to be “good enough” to earn salvation, the importance of leaving the past behind, and what it means to live as citizens of heaven.
“Watch out for those wicked men– dangerous dogs, I call them– who say you must be circumcised to be saved. For it isn’t the cutting of our bodies that makes us children of God; it is worshiping him with our spirits. That is the only true ‘circumcision.’ We Christians glory in what Christ Jesus has done for us and realize that we are helpless to save ourselves” (Philippians 3:2-3).
Back in those days, there were people (1) who taught that the acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as the payment for our sins was not enough to go to heaven. These teachers claimed that people also had to follow the Old Testament laws and customs (like circumcision) in order to really be made right with God.
Of course, this situation is not very different today when you think about it. After all, many religions teach that people can achieve salvation by following such rules as…
- Praying at specified times
- Not eating certain things
- Spending great amounts of time in meditation
- Chanting mantras, participating in ceremonies or doing other things to assure themselves of salvation
In Paul’s day, this attitude took the form of those people who taught that faith in Jesus was not enough for someone to get right with God; you also had to follow the ritual of circumcision to be saved. This was a serious false teaching- so serious that when Paul says, “Watch out…” in the Scripture quoted above, he uses a word that literally means, “beware.”
The harmfulness of this false teaching helps explain why Paul referred to these teachers as dangerous dogs in verse two. You see, people generally didn’t keep dogs as pets in those days as we often do today. Dogs were dangerous scavengers in those days and were thought of in the same way that we might view rats or mice today. This is the kind of word picture that Paul uses describe what these false teachers were doing spiritually.
By saying that people had to follow some outward observance in order to be made right with God, these false teachers were saying that Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf was not enough and that something else was needed. And if that was true, then it meant that Jesus made a mistake when He said on the cross, “It is finished” in John 19:30.
Romans 2:29 also talks about this issue while focusing in on what God really desires…
“… For God is not looking for those who cut their bodies in actual body circumcision, but he is looking for those with changed hearts and minds.”
God is not looking for people to follow some rite or ceremony- He’s looking for a new inward attitude produced by a real relationship with His Son.
“But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile– now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
I have put aside all else, counting it worth less than nothing, in order that I can have Christ and become one with him, no longer counting on being saved by being good enough or by obeying God’s laws, but by trusting Christ to save me; for God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith– counting on Christ alone” (Philippians 3:7-9).
In the Scripture above, Paul tells us that all his previous efforts to get right with God apart from faith in Jesus were worth less than nothing. “Less than nothing” literally means “excrement; that which is cast out from the body.” (2) In other words, the only way God will accept us is through total faith in Jesus Christ. Any activity on our part to get God to accept us other than by faith in Jesus is as worthless as something that gets flushed down the toilet after we’ve used it.
“Now I have given up everything else– I have found it to be the only way to really know Christ and to experience the mighty power that brought him back to life again, and to find out what it means to suffer and to die with him” (Philippians 3:10).
Lots of people know about Jesus but how many people really know Jesus -or care to? You see, Paul was not simply interested in knowing about Jesus- he wanted to really know Him personally and identify with Him to the extent that he could. Paul wanted to see the same power that raised Jesus from the dead at work in his daily life and if Jesus suffered pain, harm, and grief, then Paul was willing to endure the same treatment, even at the cost of his life.
“No, dear brothers, I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Don’t rush past these verses because when Paul speaks of forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, he’s identifying an important truth that every youth should definitely keep in mind. You see, The Doctor has known people who have been hurt by some mistake or bad experience in their past and have then carried that pain with them into the present. Some examples could include a bad relationship, a personal mistake, or some other painful circumstance or event that continues to have a negative effect, sometimes even years later.
Now it’s true that you can often avoid a lot of mistakes and pain simply by living a God-honoring life but let’s face it: everyone makes mistakes, maybe even some really bad ones. If the time comes when you make a bad choice, you will have a decision to make- will you press forward and leave it behind as the Scripture says above or will you carry it forward with you into your future as many others have chosen to do?
This is a subject that Paul knew about from firsthand experience because he clearly made some very bad choices early in his life. For example, in one incident where a man named Stephen was killed for his belief in Jesus, Paul (also known as Saul) held the coats of the men who were putting him to death (see Acts 7:55-8:1 for the story). If we were to look at this in today’s legal terms, we could say that this made Paul an accessory to murder. And before he became a Christian, the Bible also tells us that Paul tried to destroy the church and went looking for Christians from house to house so he could put them in jail (see Acts 8:3).
So there’s no question that Paul was responsible for doing some really bad things and he could have easily allowed the events of his past to prevent him from enjoying the future that God had planned for him. But he didn’t, because Paul knew something that God inspired Him to share with the Christians from the town of Corinth…
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJ).
How does this apply today? Well, while it would definitely be wrong to deny any mistakes that we may have made, we can consider those things to be “passed away” (as it says above) if we do what we’re told in 1 John 1:9…
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (NIV).
Again, this does not mean that you should ignore the bad things that may have happened in your life or pretend that they never existed. The point is that God has provided a way to deal with the mistakes and bad choices of our past through Jesus’ death on the cross. Because of this, we should be looking forward to the future that God has prepared and not backward at the things that may have happened in the past. Or, as the author of Hebrews tells us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV).
“For I have told you often before, and I say it again now with tears in my eyes, there are many who walk along the Christian road who are really enemies of the cross of Christ. Their future is eternal loss, for their god is their appetite: they are proud of what they should be ashamed of; and all they think about is this life here on earth. But our homeland is in heaven, where our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, is; and we are looking forward to his return from there” (Philippians 3:18-20).
At the time that this was written, the town of Philippi was a “protectorate” (3) of the Roman government. In a sense, living in Philippi was a lot like living in Rome. The Philippians lived under Roman laws, they wore Roman style clothing, and they spoke the same language. So the people in Philippi lived as citizens of Rome, despite the fact that Philippi was a long way from Italy. So even though they weren’t actually in Rome, the Philippians were still expected to act like Roman citizens. In a similar way, Paul is saying that heaven is the real home of everyone who follows Jesus and Christians should act that way even though they aren’t actually there right now.
So rather than being totally consumed with the “here and now” let’s listen to some advice that Paul wrote in another letter that can help us live as “citizens of heaven” while here on Earth…
“Let heaven fill your thoughts; don’t spend your time worrying about things down here. You should have as little desire for this world as a dead person does. Your real life is in heaven with Christ and God. And when Christ who is our real life comes back again, you will shine with him and share in all his glories” (Colossians 3:2-4).
(1) This group was known as the Judiazers
(2) Vine’s Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words © 1985 Thomas Nelson Publishers
(3) A protectorate is “a country which is nominally independent, but surrenders part of its sovereignty such as control over foreign policy, in return for protection by a stronger state. The degree of control and dependency may vary. Many states in the European colonial empires were governed as protectorates.” The New American Desk Encyclopedia by Concord Reference Books © 1993 Concord Reference Books