Summary: Whether you’ve been walking with Jesus for a short or a long time, it’s good to take stock of your goals and priorities.
Many of the New Testament letters were written to address problems in the churches. A good illustration is 1 Corinthians when Paul offers counsel on issues like division in the church, immorality, lawsuits among believers, spiritual gifts and the resurrection. 1 Corinthians deals with one problem after another. In contrast, Philippians is one of the few New Testament letters that isn’t focused on problems. For the most part, Philippians is a personal letter from its founding pastor, the Apostle Paul, simply to encourage the believers in Philippi.
But if there is one concern addressed in the letter, it’s found in today’s passage. Chapter 3 opens with Paul expressing his great concern about false teachers. When I first sat down to study the passage I was taken aback by his strong language. Paul calls the false teachers dogs, men who do evil and mutilators of the flesh. Those descriptions seemed very harsh to me. Especially given how graciously Paul refers to those who stirred up trouble by preaching with impure motives. Do you remember what Paul wrote in 1:18? “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached.” Paul is so gracious in chapter 1. Why is he so agitated in chapter 3?
Well, this is he reason: Paul’s opponents in chapter 1 were preaching the true Gospel of salvation by Christ alone through faith alone. But they were doing it with improper motives to create problems. We don’t really know who they were, but they were trying to cause trouble. The difference in chapter 3 is a false gospel is being preached. It’s not true. The false teachers in chapter 3 are not preaching Christ alone through faith alone. They’re preaching heresy; they’re preaching a salvation based on works.
I think it’s important for us to know that the content of what we believe really does matter. The Bible makes it clear that God has been concerned about the purity of the Gospel from the beginning. Jesus offers a sobering warning in Matthew 7. It’s what I call one of the Lord’s hard sayings.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23) This passage raises a number of questions. But one thing that’s clear is not everyone who claims to know Jesus really does. Some people look like Christ followers, but they’re not authentic. One day, Jesus will say “Away from me, I never knew you.”
This should cause us to be cautious. We need wisdom. The Bible says, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5) Friend, what we believe makes a difference—that’s why Paul gets so worked up in today’s passage. Doctrinal error can be a matter of spiritual life and death. Sometimes we think of doctrine as trivial. But it’s not; it’s huge.
I recently read a quote from Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopal priest in Olympia, Washington. She said, “I am both a Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100% both.” Does it shock you that a clergy claims to be both a Muslim and a Christian? Is that even possible, according to the Bible? One of the buzz words in today’s society is tolerance. Many suggest all roads lead to heaven, it doesn’t really matter what we believe. So, they say, we need to be tolerant, not create waves; in the words of the Beatles’ song, “just let it be.” But let’s see if this is the approach taken by the Apostle Paul. (Read 3:1) This is the half-way point in the letter. Paul reminds us to rejoice in the Lord. This is one of a dozen times the words joy or joyful are used in the four short chapters of the letter. It still blows me away to think about Paul telling us to keep rejoicing while he’s chained to a Roman soldier!
Then he says he wants to write “the same things” again. He wants to bring something back up for a second time. He’s referring back to 1:27&28. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ...contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” Paul alludes to certain opponents in this passage. But now he brings them back up again as a safeguard so the Philippians don’t get sidetracked.