One of the things that’s tough when we read the Bible is figuring out how everything fits together. Sometimes it’s just confusing. Lots of things are clear, but then there are the issues that puzzle us. Sometimes we don’t need to know. We can live okay without everything figured out. But sometimes it’s important that we understand.
If some issues are confusing now, imagine how it must have been in the early church. We’ve been going through the book of Philippians, which is a book written to a church just a few decades the start of the church. Everything was new. If you were Jewish, your understanding of your faith had been turned upside down. If you were a Gentile follower of Jesus Christ, you had to figure out not only what it meant to be a Christian, but you also had to understand how the Jewish faith fit in. There was no New Testament to consult. You had these preachers coming in and telling you what it meant to be a Christ-follower, and sometimes what they told you was contradictory.
Look at one issue – spiritual growth. How do you grow spiritually? [Get answers] We say read your Bible, go to church, attend a small group, and so on – but don’t we all know people who have done all these things, and still haven’t grown spiritually? It’s not always as clear as we think it is.
One of the reasons that Paul wrote this letter is because he wanted to clear up some confusion that had come up in the Philippian church. Some of the issues we’re going to look at in today’s passage are still confusing for us, especially as it relates to how to grow spiritually.
What God Does – What We Do
Let’s look together at Philippians 3. Paul had just covered one of the controversies I’m glad we no longer have – the debate about whether or not Christians have to follow Old Testament regulations, especially relating to circumcision. Paul was pretty clear that our acceptance with God doesn’t depend on our human efforts. It depends only on what Jesus has done for us. He says, “I no longer count on my own goodness or my ability to obey God’s law, but I trust Christ to save me” (Philippians 3:9). Our acceptance with God is a product of what Jesus has done for us, and we add nothing to the equation.
But it’s hard to figure out what God does and what we do. How do you reconcile what Paul has said with what he said earlier, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)? How do we trust Christ to do it all, and then work it out in our lives at the same time? What do we do and what does God do?
This isn’t just an academic issue. It’s pretty important that we know how we can grow, and that we understand our responsibilities as followers of Christ. Once we start that journey, what’s our part in following him?
Mistake One: Spiritual Pride
Paul helps us answer this question today, but he begins by clearing up two mistakes that people may have made at Philippi already. The first mistake has to do with what he’s just said. Paul was afraid that some people might have read what he had just written – about trusting in Christ, giving up all for him, experiencing his mighty power and suffering – and got the impression that Paul had already arrived, that he had made it spiritually. That’s a pretty big barrier to spiritual growth – believing that you’re already completely mature. Paul writes, beginning in verse 12:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
It looks like some people may have misunderstood what it means to follow Jesus. They thought that they’d arrived. Some may have thought that once you became a Christian, nothing else is required. Perhaps they thought that they reacted against the Judaizers (those who required circumcision) Paul had just finished criticizing by saying, “We’ve already arrived. We’re spiritual enough. We already have all the spiritual blessings and maturity we need.” Paul wanted to clear this confusion by stating that he hadn’t yet arrived. If Paul was still in process, what hope do we have of thinking we’ve arrived?
We make this mistake sometimes today. Sometimes we emphasize entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ so much that we stop there. Once somebody’s entered a relationship with Christ, we’re happy. We emphasize that moment so much that we forget the entire growth process that follows.
There’s a real danger to falling into this. There are some people who give the impression that they think they’re spiritually mature, that they don’t need to grow any more. It’s deadly. It’s called spiritual pride. I love to be part of a church like this where we’re okay showing up and saying, “I don’t have it all together. I am a mess. I need to admit that I’m still very much in process.” There’s something healthy about humility, about admitting that we’re nowhere close to where we should be. It’s freeing to be able to admit that we don’t have it together, and that as long as we’re alive we’ll continue to be in process. We haven’t arrived yet.
I love what Paul says to those who think they already are perfect. “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (Philippians 3:15). In other words, it’s a sign of maturity to admit that you’re imperfect, and if you think you are perfect, that in itself is an admission of immaturity. He continues, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” I love it. That’s so true. If you think you’re perfect, isn’t it true that God will bring somebody into your life to clarify the issue? God will eventually let us know that we are far from perfect, if we ever buy into that illusion. He concludes, “Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians 3:16). If we think that we’re perfect, and that nothing else is required, Paul is confident that our error will be corrected. God will clear up the mistake for us. It’s just a matter of time.
Here’s the first application for us. Admit that you’re a mess. Admit that you’re still very much in process. If you really want to grow spiritually, it’s important to understand that what Paul says: “I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made” (Philippians 3:12, The Message).
Mistake Two: Anything Goes
Paul then takes on another mistake:
Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (Philippians 3:17-19)
We read this passage, and it’s not immediately clear who he’s talking about. After a bit of research, it’s clear that Paul was addressing a group that existed back then, and still exists today. You can forget this name as soon as I mention it, but they were called antinomians. They were against the law. They believed that because of what Jesus did, we’re free from all laws. There are no moral constraints, no ethical guidelines. We’re free to live as we please. These people had no problem engaging in immoral behavior and then going to church. They thought they were believers, but Paul called them enemies of the cross of Christ.
I’ve met people like this. I guess those of us who live like we please and then come to church fall into this category. Some don’t even feel guilty. I knew a couple in one church that actually took this position as a formal one. They left the church as soon as they found out that we believed there are ethical obligations for believers. This position is obvious ly a barrier to spiritual growth. Paul is teaching us to avoid these two mistakes: to think that we’ve already arrived, or, on the other hand, to believe that anything goes. Both of these positions will prevent spiritual growth.
How to Grow
So how should we grow? Assuming we all understand we don’t have it all together, and we can’t just live however we please, what help does Paul give us in understanding how to grow spiritually? Paul does give us too principles that we can begin to apply this week.
One – Here’s the first. Do you remember when you first learned how to drive? I was pretty confident. There was only one thing that scared me when I learned how to drive – those concrete barriers that they put on the side of the road. They were just inches away from the car. I was always scared of hitting them. I would drive with my eye to the barriers, and my driving would be all over the place. The solution was counter-intuitive. I had to keep my eyes further down the road. I was scared to do this – who was going to watch the concrete barrier? But as soon as I put my eyes on the right place, I drove a lot better, and I never once hit a barrier.
It’s tempting to keep our eyes on the barriers in order to grow spiritually. But listen to what Paul says: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). The key to spiritual growth isn’t to watch the barriers. It isn’t to focus on the mechanics. It’s to focus on Jesus. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, and strain towards pleasing him, it begins to fit into place. The metaphor Paul uses – to strain toward the goal, to win the prize – could have been a military or an athletic one. It’s about making Jesus the focus of our lives.
Here’s what we should do: remind ourselves that the goal, everyday when we wake up, is not to read so many verses or pray for so many minutes, although these things may be good as a means to a goal. The goal is to please Jesus. The goal is to win the prize, to pursue Christ. If you want to grow, set your eyes on Jesus daily, and a lot of other things will fall into place by themselves. Keep your eyes on Jesus.
Two – Here’s the second application. It hit me yesterday, when we visited the Royal Winter Fair, an agricultural fair in the middle of the city. It’s strange to visit a place right in the city with cows, horses, hay, sheep, carcasses, everything you can think of related to farm and agriculture. We had a blast. One of the things that made it so enjoyable was that it’s so removed from our daily life. It felt like a different world. As much as I enjoyed it, I knew that at the end of the day I would get in my car, drive a couple of miles, and be at home once again in the city. I wasn’t tempted to buy a horse trailer or a combine. It was fun visiting, but it wasn’t home.
Paul says in verse 20, “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.” (Philippians 3:20-21). He said in Philippians 1:27, “But whatever happens to me, you must live in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ, as citizens of heaven.”
Paul wrote in an age of city-states. You would be a citizen not of a country, but of the city in which you lived. Philippi was a Roman colony, and most of the people who lived there had a privilege that others didn’t enjoy. They weren’t citizens of Philippi; they were citizens of Rome, with all the privileges and responsibilities that brought.
One of the keys to growing spiritually is to understand that we’re not citizens here. We’re citizens of somewhere that’s much better, that will last a lot longer, of a place that’s really home. When we think about this regularly, it changes our perspective. We’re only staying here temporarily. This isn’t our home.
My wife’s a deep thinker at night. I’m not. Last night, she asked me as I fell asleep, “What do you think heaven’s like?” I said, “I think heaven’s a place where people don’t ask you questions as you’re trying to go to sleep.” But she was on to something. Thinking about heaven changes our perspective. When we understand that we’re citizens of heaven, it changes how we live today.
If you want to grow spiritually, keep your eyes on Jesus. Make him your focus. Love him and live for him. And daily remind yourself that you’re only living abroad. Heaven is your home.
Philippians 4:1 is a good way to end. They divided the chapters wrong; it really belongs here. Paul concludes, “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (NIV)