Last Sunday we met with two of Paul's friends, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Today we begin a chapter that opens a window deep into the heart of the apostle himself. This is one of the most autobiographical writings in all of scripture, and as we traverse it, it unfolds to us the glowing secret of the mighty ministry of Paul. We will take only the first seven verses of chapter three this morning, but these seven verses have great significance to those of us this morning who have gathered here for the purpose of worshipping God. If we really intend to worship, we will appreciate what Paul says here. It has very little to say to you if you have come simply to check in at church in order to demonstrate that you have done your religious duty this week. You won't get much out of it. But if you are here to worship, as I'm sure most of you are, this will be greatly helpful.
We are going to look through Paul's eyes at four movements in these seven verses. First at the mark of spirituality, then the menace of external religion, then the measure of true devotion, then a remarkable listing of the mistakes of Paul. Now the first one:
"Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me, and is safe for you."
The word "finally" usually indicates the beginning of the end of a sermon, doesn't it, and everyone waits patiently for that finally to come. Many people feel Paul is a true preacher because there are two times when he says "finally" in this letter. In chapter 4:8 he comes to a second "finally", and it takes him quite a while to come to a conclusion. Actually, this word does not mean finally in that sense. It really means as regards the rest of the matter. That is, whatever other problem you have, the answer is rejoice in the Lord. Then he explains he knows he has said this many times before, and he will say it two more times before he ends this letter. But it is so important, he says, that he doesn't mind saying it as many times as necessary, and it's safe for them to hear it. Rejoice in the Lord; that's the key. I suppose if you wanted to sum up Christianity in four words this would be the best possible phrase you could use: rejoice in the Lord. This is the mark of spiritual life, of a truly spiritual Christian. It is the distinctive sign of a victorious Christian. It is the one attitude that invariably brings peace and contentment to the heart. Therefore, it is the one thing Paul repeats over and over and over again: rejoice in the Lord.
As we saw earlier in this letter, Paul pointed out the opposite as well. The sign of unbelief in the Christian life is always grumbling and disputing. Do all things, he says, without grumbling and questioning, because that is the sign of an unbelieving believer, who doesn't believe what God is telling him. The mark of one who has learned to believe is rejoicing. Remember that definition of a Christian we have given from time to time: one who is completely fearless, continually cheerful, and constantly in trouble. It is the continual rejoicing in the midst of trouble that marks the Christian life. You find this again in the Epistle to the Romans, in chapter 5. Paul speaks of the initial reaction of the Christian life:
"Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us."
It is a remarkable commentary, therefore, on Christian unbelief that the mark the world usually associates with a Christian is not a smile but a long face. To use the vernacular of the street, we are known as the people of the pious puss. This being the case, it reveals how little we believe in the God we love. You remember that story of the little girl who first saw a mule in the countryside. She looked at it for quite a while, then she said, "I don't know what you are, but you must be a Christian. You look just like my grandfather." Unfortunately, the mark of a Christian has become a sober, solemn mien, casting gloom on every occasion. This isn't real Christianity. The mark of a true Christian is a smile of confidence, despite the circumstances. Not a screwed on smile, one that is forced, to appear something we are not, but a genuine smile, sometimes through tears, but a smile nevertheless. It comes as a result of acceptance of all events as ordered by the Lord. That's the secret. It arises from a quiet trust in his indwelling adequacy to handle whatever comes. It is living out of adequacy. Living out of inadequacy is what puts the frown on people's faces. It is trying to face the inrushing tumult of life with inadequate resource. This strain shows in the face. But if we genuinely believe what God tells us, that we have within us one who is completely competent to meet every situation through us, there is never any strain, for whatever comes we know he is adequate to meet it in and through us. We rest on that fact, and that is the quiet confidence that marks the Christian.
This is not limited to the New Testament. You find it throughout the Bible. This is David's cry: "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures." If he takes me through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for he is with me. His rod and his staff they comfort me. The Lord has set me a table in the presence of my enemies. My cup runneth over. There is nothing new about this experience. It is the experience of the believer in any age. When we learn this secret we discover there are mysterious bridges flung over every abyss to which we come. An invisible strength is imparted to meet every stress life lays on us. No matter how long you have been a Christian, if you are still grumbling and complaining, griping and grouching about what life gives you, as Paul says in First Corinthians you need to be taught again what are the first principles, the abc's, of the gospel of Christ. For the time you ought to be teaching others you need to be taught yourself the basic principles of Christian life.
The next verse is a warning about the menace of external religion. "Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh," he says. This seems a rather abrupt change of subject, but there is a very vital connection with the previous verse. What is it that destroys rejoicing in the Lord? It's dwelling on external circumstances as being the important thing. It's looking away from the indwelling Lord to the outward events or ritual with which you are concerned, and counting that the important thing. That will inevitably destroy a spirit of rejoicing. So he warns against certain false teachers who were posing as Christians, who went about trying to get peoples' faith centered on outward things.
The terms he uses to describe these men are bold and blunt, because in matters of this importance the apostle never minces words. He calls them three things: dogs, evil-workers, mutilators. The reference to dogs is not to the pampered, shampooed, manicured pets we have today. These were not cultured canines. These were the snarling, half-wild curs found on the streets of every oriental city. They can still be found there today. The term "dogs" is a term of reproach used by both Jew and Gentile. Because of what the dogs fed on, they were regarded as unclean animals. They fed on the refuse of the streets, the garbage, decayed meat, rotten vegetables that had been disposed of.
What Paul is referring to is a group of men who continually hounded him wherever he went, following his footsteps, trying to upset the Christians. We usually call them "Judaizers." They were men who taught it necessary to observe the law of Moses and the food restrictions of the Mosaic Covenant, and especially to be circumcised in order to be a real Christian, that these things were not done away in Christ. Unfortunately, these people are still with us. Paul says, like dogs they were feeding on the garbage of carnal ordinances. They were holding up as of great value rituals which once were of value, but now they've decayed; they've become over-ripe. They are fit to be thrown out. They once were good, but no longer. He therefore calls them dogs. They were evil-workers because of their zeal. They were tirelessly seeking to convert young believers to their views, to bring them back under the bondage of legalistic restrictions. They gloried in this activity as a mark of their claim on the blessing of God. As they thought of it, God had to bless them because they were so zealous, so devoted to their work. You can easily see that these people are still with us, the tireless, zealous workers who go about from door to door with books under their arms, ready to convert anyone to a legalistic, Judaistic system. These are exactly the kind of people to whom Paul is referring.
The ground of their competence before God lay especially in the mark of circumcision. They had picked this up from the law, which required every male Israelite to be circumcised. They taught that whoever had this mark was bound to be acceptable to God. The mark made them acceptable in God's presence. Paul doesn't refer to them as teachers of circumcision; he uses a word that in the King James Version is called "concision". It's a play on words. What he means is they are mere flesh-cutters, making marks in the flesh that have no meaning at all.
Now all of this kind of teaching has a strong appeal to our human thinking because of its apparent show of devotion. I think all of us at one time or another has sensed this kind of appeal, the appeal of some ornate, solemn ritual done in a religious manner, as being worthy of some merit before God. The earnest, sincere endeavor of a tireless worker is appealing. It is so gratifying to the religious ego to perform some solemn ritual, and to be constantly busy at religious work, or even to mock the flesh in some way perhaps with a distinctive garb or an identifying posture. All of this, Paul says, is the enemy of true spirituality. It destroys the spirit of rejoicing, and it makes religion an empty, barren mockery. It puts the emphasis on the external, and removes it from the vital, the interior genuine aspects of faith.
He contrasts this immediately with what we may call the measure of true devotion, in verse 3: ""For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh." This is a marvelous setting forth of genuine Christian attitude. There are three marks here, set in direct contrast to the three marks of evil. What did he call them? Dogs, because of what they fed on. In contrast to this he says we are the true circumcision who feed on God, who worship him by the Spirit. Have you ever thought of worship as eating? Or that eating is a picture of worship? You remember Jesus himself said, "Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." That is worship; it's partaking of the life of God. It's taking in what he is and using it in your own experience, all through the day, all day long-that is worship!
Why did you come here this morning? You say, "to worship". What is worship? You see in light of this it means feeding on God together. We can worship God anywhere. We can feed on his life anywhere, but there is a wonderful advantage and joy in doing it together because we all feed on the same life. We take his life, and act on his strength. That is worship. I think you will agree this is true, so what part does saying the Gloria Patri or singing the Doxology, or any performance of ritual have in this? What does it add to it? You can worship anywhere. You ought to be all day long worshipping by feeding on his life. That's what Jesus meant when he said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." Reckoning on what he has said, counting it true, standing on it, moving forward on it, acting on it: that's worship. These other things are mere props, and like any prop they only have value as you have first been struck with the reality. That is, using rituals, forms, ceremonies can be valuable if you have first discovered what real worship is. Then it can be expressed through these channels. But if these are the means by which you think you worship, then as Paul brings out here, you are destroying the joy of worship and removing it to external things. They then become an enemy of the truth. This is a very graphic setting forth of the weakness of external religion.
I ran across this quotation from Alan Redpath the other day. He says, "Some people say that in certain churches there is no sense of worship. Maybe they are right. But what do you think can make a sense of worship in a congregation? It is not esthetic beauty. It is not a building. It is not a psychological atmosphere. It is a congregation who have given themselves to God, and in whose lives there is love and sacrifice to the limit. Then that church is just lit up with the glory of the indwelling Christ. That is a worshipping congregation."
Now the Judaizers of any age glory in their activity and their zeal. But what is it that true Christians glory in? Paul says we glory in Christ Jesus. Not, you see, in what we do, but in what we are in him. That is where our glory is to be centered. I think we make a grave mistake when we parade figures about the number of dollars gathered for the mission field, numbers of converts made for the year, numbers of admissions to the congregation. We are reveling then in outside, external things, in what we have done rather than what he is in us. True worship just has one source and one center of glory: Christ Jesus, that is all. Not what we are; we can make very grave mistakes. But he does not, and what he is — is our glory.
The continuous pressure of this age is to get us to glory in something else. In our denomination, for instance, in our ritual, our proper mode of doing, our ministry, our orthodoxy, our fidelity to truth. If we glory in something that is distinctively ours and gives us some mark of privileged status over others, this is a desperate thrust at the very vitality of the spirit of worship. We are to glory in Christ Jesus; that is all.
The last measure of true spirituality is in contrast to those who put confidence in some self-effort. Paul says, "we put no confidence in the flesh." We are living in an age that continually strives to get us to put confidence in the flesh. As we saw last week, we are taught from babyhood that the way to become proficient and competent and accomplish our aims and desires is to develop our self-confidence. This is what destroys human life. Self-confidence is not intended to be our strength. It's confidence in God. We were intended to face life feeling weak, ineffectual, and unable, that it might drive us back upon the one who is totally adequate, and can be our total strength. This is the way God intended us to live. Therefore, the spirit of self-confidence is the most deadly lie that has ever been perpetrated upon the human race.
Now there is self-confidence that is based on God in us, but when it comes from something in ourselves, something we have learned or achieved, it is deadly. Paul says we have learned at last to put no confidence in the flesh. Even in religion there is strong emphasis on putting confidence in the flesh, or perhaps I should say, especially in religious areas we find this pressure. Just this week I received a letter from a friend in which he quoted from a pamphlet that is widely distributed monthly through the nation, which purports to be a guide to developing the Christian life. From it he quoted this paragraph:
"There comes a point of crisis in your life when you are painfully aware that you simply cannot go on alone. If you accept this and ask for help, this is the turning point. It can come as a sudden inner light or slow dawning." Up to this point that is true. But now this is the conclusion: She says, "What I didn't know and had to discover the hard way is that if you don't have faith in yourself you hardly can have faith in people in the world, or in God. I had to see that God created us in his image, and we must have faith in the image. If we achieve that then we have his spirit within us and we can accomplish anything, even ridding ones self of sin."
That is the kind of perverted philosophy that is being widely purveyed today, that is literally holding millions of people in continual bondage to the flesh. It's no wonder that the spirit of the apostle flamed with indignation against this thing. Knowing the liberty that is in Christ Jesus, he puts the matter truly. It begins with faith in God, and eliminates faith in self. When we have no confidence in the flesh, then we discover we can have full confidence in him who is able to do anything through us. Do you see how any confidence at all in the flesh is over confidence? We fear we are going to get over confident. We don't mind a little, but we don't want to become over confident. But Paul says any confidence at all is over confident. He has no confidence in himself to do anything. None in his background, training, talents, accomplishments, no confidence in the time he spends in prayer, the number of chapters of scripture he reads, the number of verses he memorizes. No confidence in the power of his eloquence to persuade people or his devotion to move them. Furthermore, he has no confidence in anyone else who trusts in these things. The only one in whom he has confidence is Jesus Christ.
Now he explains how he came to learn this. In this last passage, which we can only call "the mistakes of Paul", we have a marvelous biographical section:
"Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:
circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ."
Here is the ground of Paul's confidence that he could achieve his mission. To sum it all up you can see he was confident in four things: his ancestry, his orthodoxy, his activity and his morality. By and large these are the areas in which we have confidence today.
It's important to see he doesn't say this in the past tense. He says, I have yet confidence in these things. In other words, it is important to see how and when he changed his mind about these matters. Most commentators I have read suggest the change came in the dust of the road on the way to Damascus, when he was converted in that remarkable encounter with Jesus Christ, and that when he saw Christ all these values were reversed and he changed his mind. I don't think that is true. In fact only one of these values was changed at that time.
When Paul of Tarsus, the persecutor, blinded by the light, was led captive into Damascus, the only area of pride mentioned here he had given up was his persecution of the church-his activity. And he immediately got busy in another direction and substituted another form of activity in which he took great pride. I think it safe to say that for at least five to ten years after his conversion, the apostle Paul was just as confident in the flesh as before his conversion. His life was therefore as barren and ineffective as when he was Saul of Tarsus and persecuted the church, with one exception: he was born again, and he did know Jesus Christ, and the indwelling Holy Spirit was teaching him what he needed to become an effective minister for Jesus Christ.
He tells us himself when he began to learn the lesson. In II Corinthians 11, in response to the demands of these carnal Corinthians, were he boasts something like they were boasting. He boasts in his activity, just as they were. He says, v. 30, "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness." Then he takes a solemn oath that the thing he is about to say is the truth, because it doesn't sound very believable. He says,
"The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I do not lie." These are the things I boast in:
"At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands."
That's what I glory in. Of all the things Paul could recount, all the triumphs and crises, the one time he remembered above everything else, the one for which he gave the most fervent thanks every time he knelt in prayer, the one he looked back to with the warmest feelings in his heart and with thanksgiving to God bubbling out of his soul, was the time he was let down a wall in a basket. Why? Well, trace the circumstances recounted in Luke's account in the book of Acts. It sounds as though when Paul was converted he stayed in Damascus and began to preach in the synagogues immediately. But Paul himself in his letter to the Galatians tells us something else came in between, that immediately after his conversion, without a word to anyone, without conferring with flesh and blood, or talking these matters over with the apostles or anyone else, he went into Arabia. For three years he was there, and then came back to Damascus.
You can see why he went there. All his theology was suddenly reversed by the appearance of Christ on that Damascus road. He had regarded him as an enemy of God, and he was breathing out threatening and slaughter against every Christian who named the name of Christ. Suddenly in the dust of that road he learned that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. "Who art thou, Lord?" "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Then he submitted himself, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do." The message was sent to him in the city that he was to go and minister to the uttermost parts of the earth.
He went into Arabia, taking the Scriptures with him. Doubtless there he went back over all those Old Testament passages he had previously read with blinded eyes, and the pages came alive, and he saw Jesus Christ on every page of the Old Testament, that here indeed was the predicted Messiah of the Jews. There must have come into his heart a deep-seated longing, realizing he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, born of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, trained at the feet of the great teacher of Israel, Gamaliel. He had standing in the Sanhedrin, was accepted by the leaders of the people, and with all this tremendous insight into the Old Testament, he began to think he was God's chosen vessel to reach Israel for God, and that God would reach this nation through him. All this background made him prepared by God to be the vessel through whom God would restore that nation to himself. In that confidence, he returned to the city of Damascus, and we read he went back into the synagogues proving from the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.
Instead of overwhelming them, instead of his message being accepted, instead of convincing the leaders and being the instrument by which they would be brought back, he found a steel-hearted resistance developing against him until it turned into actual hatred. Finally he learned that a plot was set for his life and the only thing left to him was to be taken by the disciples, like a common criminal in the dead of the night, lowered over the wall in a basket to go wherever he could and seek safety for himself. You can imagine what must have been in his heart. Defeated, discouraged, with all his dreams collapsed around his head he left the city of Damascus.
Where did he go? He tells us he went up to Jerusalem to the other disciples. Where would a Christian go in the hour of his defeat and rejection? To find other Christians like himself. He went up to the city of Jerusalem to find the apostles, and they would have nothing to do with him because they didn't believe he was a disciple. Barnabas finally brought him in, but even then they wouldn't accept his message. He went into the temple, the only place left to a religious man and there he prayed. While he prayed he said the Lord Jesus appeared to him and said, "I want you to leave this city." The apostle said, Lord, I'm the very one who can reach this city. I'm the very one who breathed out threatening and slaughter against these people, and I was hot in my persecution against them, and when Stephen, the martyr died, they laid his garments down at my feet. I'm the one who knows how the Sanhedrin feels. I'm the one who can talk with them in their own language. I'm the one who has the background above everyone else. Jesus said, "I will send you far hence to the Gentiles."
And we read the church gathered together and invited Paul to leave, to go home. He went back to the city of Tarsus, and there in his hometown, the hardest place for a Christian to live, he stayed for five to seven years during which you never heard another word from the apostle Paul. He did nothing. He didn't preach. He was learning that whatsoever things he counted gain he now counted loss for Christ. There came a time in those dark days of despair when at last he learned that all his background, training and education, his ancestry and morality and activities, added not one thing to God's purpose in him. He came to the place that he could write, "whatever gain I have, I count it loss for Christ." When that place was reached, Barnabas was sent by the Spirit of God to Tarsus and found him. He led him by the hand to Antioch, and then began a ministry of Christ-in-him that was destined to shake and shape the entire world.
You see this is the great secret of a Christian's life. "No man can serve two masters", the Lord Jesus said. You cannot have confidence in the flesh and in Christ. It's one or the other. If you believe that more education or more prayer, or more effort or more zeal, or more Bible study, or more anything will make you a better servant of God, you are putting confidence in the flesh. No, Christ alone is all you need. Jesus Christ himself alone is all you need. He can supply every need. He can cope with every lack and every situation. Now believe that! Reckon on that! Count it true! He will probably begin to lead you to study more, to pray more, to work hard, to learn more, but you will know that these are only instruments through which the power of his life can flow. They are nothing more than that. When Paul stepped out of himself, he stepped into the fullness of Christ. Have you learned that?
Out of disaster, ruin complete.
Out of the struggle and dreary defeat
Out of my sorrow, burden and shame.
Out of the terror, the dread and the gloom
Into the sense of forgiveness and rest.
Into inheritance with all the blest.
Into the grandest and fullest relief.
Into a righteous and permanent peace.
Into a comfort without an alloy.
Into a perfect, constant joy.
Wonderful holiness bringing delight.
Wonderful grace, putting all out of sight.
Wonderful wisdom devising the way.
Wonderful power that nothing can stay.
Out of the horror of being alone.
Out, and forever, of being my own.
Out of the hardness of heart and of will.
Out of the loneliness nothing could fill.
Out of the bitterness, madness and strife.
Out of myself, and all I called life.
Into communion with Father and Son.
Into the sharing of all that Christ won.
Into the ecstasies full to the brim.
Into the having of all things in Him.
Into Christ Jesus, there ever to dwell.
Into more blessing than words can e'er tell.
Wonderful Lord, brimming my cup
Wonderful purpose that never gave up.
Wonderful patience that waited so long.
Wonderful glory to which I belong.
Our Father, may these words we have looked at this morning be more than mere words to us, that we will catch this glowing secret from the heart of this apostle, that we may indeed see that Thou hast provided another way by which life may be lived. Not in our own strength, not in any confidence whatsoever in what we do but in who Thou art. We thank you for this, and pray we learn it and experience it as well as hear it. In Jesus' name. Amen.