In Philippians 3 Paul turns somewhat abruptly to warn his reader of certain persistent spiritual perils of which they need beware.
He does, he says, in the interests of their safety or wellbeing, that they may know the danger which beset them; then, in order to be positive as well as negative, he sets over against these warnings the true awareness, ambition, and anticipation, which should inform and inspire all proper Christian confidence and choice, consecration and conduct.
For, if our Christian lives are to be “perfect” or “mature”, we need first to have a right mind, and then to complement this with a corresponding consistency of behaviour. We need first to “be thus minded” and then to “walk by the same rule” (verses 15, 16). Let us seek therefore in our study of this chapter to discover a) of what to be beware and b) how to be wise, and that in three directions.
Being found in Christ
Concerning our position or confidence as Christians: let us a) beware of self-righteousness and b) seek to be found in Christ. The first danger is the danger of “confidence in the flesh”, of trusting in what I am and what I do as a religious person—trusting, for instance, in my life-long connection with the church, my status as baptised, confirmed, a regular communicant, my upright living, my untiring devotion—and so to have, and secretly to be proud of, “my own righteousness”.
If such things count, says Paul, he has more to his credit than anyone else. He confesses that he used to count them all up with pride. But a day came when, in one decisive reckoning, he gave up all such “credit”, and indeed transferred it to the other side of the ledger as “debit”, in order to reckon his confidence wholly and only in Christ, and to have reckoned to his account that righteousness which God gives to all who trust not in themselves but in Christ.
Nor, having begun right, will Paul now be persuaded to change. He still continues to refuse to believe that of himself or in himself he has anything of value. His one determination is to reckon Christ as “gain” and to be found in him.
Concerning our progress or achievement as Christians: let us a) beware of self-satisfaction; and b) press on toward the goal. The second danger is the danger of trusting in past experience, counting myself to have apprehended, foolishly supposing that I am all I ought to be, and have all which I am intended to possess as a Christian, when there still stretches before me much land to be possessed, a pathway of progress still to be pursued to the end.
Here Paul absolutely refuses to suppose he has “arrived” and is already perfected; rather he is always on the stretch for more; he presses forward in unceasing pursuit as one aware there is a course to be completed, a goal to be reached, a prize to be won. For those who begin by being found in Christ, and thus finding righteousness or acceptance in God’s sight, are intended to go on to share in the quickening and sustaining power of Christ’s resurrection life. From that, they are to enter increasingly throughout the rest of their earthly pilgrimage into the fellowship of his sufferings and putting to death of the Lord Jesus (compare 2 Cor 4:10, 11), and finally to share in the upward call which will make their participation in the distinctive and glorious resurrection from the dead of Christ’s people. And, says Paul, no matter what our attainment may be as Christians, there is no place for any other attitude. So, if you think otherwise, ask God to “reveal even unto you”.
The crowning glory
Concerning our privilege and prospect and consequent all-absorbing interest as Christians: let us a) beware of shameful worldly indulgence; and b) appreciate the character and anticipate the crowning glory of our heavenly calling.
The third danger is the danger of being carnally or materially minded, of allowing oneself to be dominated by natural appetites and mere earthly interests. Such a way of living is for the Christian a contradiction of his heavenly calling. It can only lead him to take delight in things which before God in the day of judgement will be his shame. Not only so, thus to live is to show oneself to be opposed to the principle of the cross of Christ, by which Christians are crucified to the world. The man who so lives for shameful earthly gain cannot but suffer final eternal loss. In contrast to all this the true Christian ought to remember that he is a citizen of heaven. How then can he “mind earthly things”? What is more, he is called to live looking for one who, when he returns, will come as the Saviour not only of the soul, but also of the body. How then can he wrongly indulge, and virtually worship “the belly”? For these earthly bodies of ours, which now keep us humble and dependent, will then be transformed. Christ promises in the end full salvation for the whole man, body and soul. Nor is it a vain hope, because this Saviour is able even to subdue all things unto himself. Let us therefore beware, and be wise, that we may be ready to be like him, and not be ashamed before him when he comes.
This article was first published in the Australian Church Record on 2nd March 1961. In this series we hear reflections on Scripture from the Rev. Alan M Stibbs.