Dressed in His Righteousness Alone1
Put aside your political affiliation for just a moment and don’t let it interfere with my opening illustration. Continue reading . . .
“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else 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 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. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Put aside your political affiliation for just a moment and don’t let it interfere with my opening illustration.
Now, imagine that you just received a personal telephone call from President Barack Obama inviting you to appear in his presence at the White House. Air Force One will be sent to your home town to bring you and your spouse directly to Washington, D.C.
My suspicion is that the wife in your family will immediately respond by saying: “Oh, no, I don’t have a thing to wear!” If not the man then certainly the woman in such a household will be greatly concerned about physical appearance: everything from shoes to outer garments to hairstyle. After all, the White House maintains very high standards and you don’t want to appear in the presence of our President looking like a slob! Now, of course, all this is purely hypothetical. It’s only an illustration.
But a day is coming, perhaps sooner than you think, when another personal invitation will come your way. This one isn’t hypothetical or illustrative. It is all too real, all too literal. It won’t come from the President of the United States but from the King of kings, our Lord Jesus Christ. And it really isn’t an invitation that one might choose to decline. It is a demand that all must obey. And it isn’t to the White House that you will be escorted but into the very throne room of Almighty God himself.
On that day also, what you wear will be far more than a matter of fashion. It will be of eternal importance. God’s standard of dress is absolute perfection. Many on that day will stupidly and self-righteously adorn themselves in their best and most beautiful good works and earthly accomplishments. They will sew together for themselves what they are persuaded is a glorious garment, comprised of the cloth of virtue, the fabric of good intentions, and the threads of religious sincerity. Undoubtedly such a person will be impressive in the sight of other human beings, but to God all will be little more than filthy and repulsive rags.
With what will you be clothed, spiritually speaking, when that day comes? When God dispatches, not Air Force One, but the heavenly host of angels to bring you into his presence, what will you wear? What will God see?
The primary focus of Philippians 3:1-11, is that there is only one garment that will avail in the presence of a holy God: it is the garment of the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself received by you and me through faith alone. I aim to be found in Christ, says Paul in v. 9, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
But let’s back up a moment and see how Paul finally arrives at this momentous conclusion. We need to start in v. 2.
Maybe I’m getting soft and sentimental in my old age, but if you asked me for my opinion of false teachers in Oklahoma City who are leading people astray when it comes to the gospel, I would probably say something like: “Be alert to the presence of these sincere but misguided people. They probably mean well but they are leading you down a dangerous path.”
Paul, on the other hand, comes straight to the point: “They are dogs! They are evildoers! They are the sort who mutilate the flesh! Watch out for them!” Why does Paul speak this way? What does he mean by these labels?
The word translated “dogs” is designed less to describe and more to insult. The Jews in the ancient world typically referred to pagan Gentiles as “dogs.” In a powerful twist of irony, Paul, himself a Jew, here turns the tables and hurls this derogatory slander back on the heads of those who corrupted the gospel of grace. Evidently these were Jews who had embraced Jesus as Messiah but insisted that if Gentiles wanted to be included among God’s people they must submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses.
So let’s get this straight. People who combine good works with faith as necessary for salvation, people who insist on certain religious rituals as necessary for acceptance with God, are dogs? Well, yes, in fact they are.
More than that, they are “evildoers.” Again, in a masterful use of irony, those who prided themselves on their doing of good are here denounced for their doing of evil! Paul doesn’t deny that they are active doers of religious deeds. But it is for evil that they labor, not in the sense of blatant sin or public scandal. Rather, in their self-righteous, legalistic reliance on works for salvation they threaten the free grace of the gospel of justification by faith alone. Their “doing,” therefore, is “evil”!
If that weren’t enough, they “mutilate the flesh.” Paul is referring here not merely to their practice of circumcision but to their confidence or trust in it as essential for gaining acceptance with God. What was in the OT an outward sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants has now become a source of pride and a reason to boast. It no longer points to the inward circumcision of the heart (see Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Ezek. 44:7), but has become an end in itself.
But as Paul makes clear throughout his writings, the external ritual means nothing when it comes to one’s standing with God. “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). What a person does to his/her own body, what marks they may bear in their physical frame, has nothing to do with whether or not we are in good standing with God. Those who submit to circumcision thinking that it gains favor with God have done nothing more than mutilate the flesh.
Again, don’t miss the irony in Paul’s denunciation of these false teachers. In thinking they are clean, they are in fact dogs. In thinking their deeds are good, they in fact do evil. And in performing a physical act, all they accomplish is mutilation of the flesh.
Paul took time to describe and denounce these false teachers in order to set the stage for his glorious affirmation that acceptance with God comes only by faith in the righteousness that Jesus Christ provides.
In fact, those who are in good standing with God have been circumcised in their hearts; the condemnation of sin and guilt has been cut away within, or internally, or spiritually, not physically. These are the ones who worship under the guidance and power and prompting of the Holy Spirit, as over against those who put their trust in empty religious rituals that accomplish nothing. These are the ones whose only boast and glory is Jesus Christ. These are the ones who put no confidence in fleshly or earthly attainment. They put no trust in ceremonial, hereditary, legal, moral, educational, or financial accomplishments. As Paul will say in v. 8, such are nothing but a pile of dung!
But if all such earthly, religious, fleshly achievements and characteristics are of no saving value, why does Paul bother to list his own, as he does in vv. 4-6?
In all likelihood, he does it to answer the charge that his repudiation of such accomplishments is little more than sour grapes. In other words, his enemies would probably have said: “Oh, sure, it’s easy for Paul to denounce these religious works because he never had any himself!” Paul’s response is: “Not so fast! If you want to compare religious resumes, I’ll win hands down every time. If it were possible for someone to have grounds for boasting because of good deeds, it’s me. But in fact I regard all such achievements as utterly worthless!”
Let’s look briefly at these fleshly badges of honor.
(1) “circumcised on the eighth day” (v. 5a; see Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3) – Perhaps his enemies said, “Hey, the reason he denounces physical circumcision is because he’s really a Gentile!” No, says Paul. I too received the physical mark in my flesh, and unlike pagan converts to Judaism who were circumcised as adults, I received this on the eighth day after my birth.
(2) “of the people of Israel” (v. 5b) – In other words, Paul belonged to the nation by birth and not by conversion (such as Lydia in Acts 16).
(3) “of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 5c) – For numerous reasons I don’t have time to discuss, the tribe of Benjamin, although comparatively small, was highly esteemed in the Jewish world.
(4) “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (v. 5d) – With this Paul possibly intends to say that both his parents were Hebrews; unlike Timothy, for example, who had a Jewish mother but a Gentile father (Acts 16:1). In other words, there is no pagan or Gentile blood in his genealogy. Or he may mean that he speaks Hebrew and faithfully observed all the Jewish customs.
(5) “as to the law, a Pharisee” (v. 5e) – The word “Pharisee” first appeared in the middle of the second century b.c. and literally means “the separated ones.” The point was that these were committed to maintaining ceremonial and moral purity. They avoided defilement at all costs. Not all Pharisees were evil (remember Nicodemus?). Paul was a son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6) and was educated under the great Pharisee teacher Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3). So, this was not a label of reproach but of pride for Paul. He is saying that he was fully committed to complete obedience to the Law of Moses.
(6) “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (v. 6a) – See Acts 22:3-5 for Paul’s own description of how far his zeal took him! In essence he said, “I was willing to kill and be killed for the sake of my ancestral traditions and the Law of Moses.”
(7) “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (v. 6b) – This of course describes how other people would have perceived him. No one could indict him for having consciously and willfully disobeyed the Law. But before God and in the eyes of divine omniscience, it was altogether another matter. Paul’s point, though, is that his conscience was clear when it came to obedience.
Let’s pause and put this into contemporary terms. It would be as if someone said, “My ancestors came to America on the Mayflower! I am a direct descendant of the founding fathers of this country. I was educated in the finest Ivy League university in the land, from which I have earned multiple graduate degrees. I serve as an Elder in my local church. I’m independently wealthy. As far as religion goes, no one does it better than I do. I memorize Scripture. I attend church every week. I give generously of my money. I serve in children’s ministry. I’ve even led a small group and preached on a couple of occasions.”
Now that’s quite a resume of religious achievement! To be continued . . .