Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2020

Philippians 3:4b-14 Commentary

“Are you becoming perfect?” is the perhaps strange way Carole Noren, to whom I owe many ideas for this Commentary, begins a sermon on Philippians 3.  It is, however, also an appropriate question, in light of the amount of attention the New Testament pays to the issue of perfection.

While Christians may sense that the Holy Spirit is graciously making us increasingly like Jesus, few of us would claim that we’re becoming perfect.  Thankfully, then, this Epistolary Lesson helps clarify the kind of perfection toward which God is moving us.

Its author’s credentials are, of course, nearly impeccable.  If anyone had a reason for confidence in his moral excellence, ethnic pedigree and religious fervor, it was Paul.  If anyone was, in other words, as close to perfection as you can get, it was Paul. He was, after all, from the high-ranking tribe of Benjamin, a faithful Pharisee, a passionate persecutor of heretics and an obedient keeper of Moses’ law.

While a comparison to Paul’s positive attributes may make some of us blush, many of this Commentary’s readers are also obedient to God’s law. Quite honestly, when I listen to and watch many of my colleagues, they remind me at least a bit of what Jesus Christ must have been like. So with Paul, we too might have reasons to put confidence in our goodness.

Yet in Philippians 3, Paul insists that no religious and moral credentials can compare with what God has shown him in the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, there God has shown him what he calls a righteousness not based on keeping the God’s, but on God’s amazing grace.

By comparison to that righteousness, Paul considers all of his substantial accomplishments to be “loss,” literally, rubbish or dung. It’s as if what he thought was the banquet of God’s approval turned out to be nothing but the garbage left over after a feast.

Paul, of course, rejects not God’s law that he obeys so fully, but the confidence he felt because of his ability to keep that law. God had shown the apostle that God accepted him only because Christ fulfilled. As a result, he would never again treasure his own righteousness that came through obeying the law.

Those who proclaim Philippians 3 might want to explore with our hearers how the modern church is tempted to find its own confidence in a kind human righteousness. Most no longer hope that God will save us because of any good work. Yet some Christians at least seem to have turned faith into a kind of new source of self-confidence. God accepts us, they almost imply, because of the “righteousness” of our faith.

So even as Christ’s church recognizes the truth of the gospel, it remains on guard against false teachings. After all, under Satan’s unrelenting pressure, it’s always easy for God’s dearly beloved people to stray from the truth.

Such heresy can be very subtle. The confidence that comes from faith is no exception. Faith is, after all, a central part of the Christian life by which we receive God’s grace. But it isn’t the means by which Christians earn God’s grace.  Faith is only and always the receptacle of God’s grace. Righteousness comes not from anything God’s adopted sons and daughters do, say or even believe, but from Christ alone. So Philippians 2’s proclaimers teach nothing less or more than this: confidence rests in God’s grace alone.

Yet while such confidence in God’s grace alone might produce a kind of complacency, Paul displays none of that. In fact, his experience of God’s grace seems to energize him in ways that no legalism ever could. After all, the apostle goes on to compare the Christian life to that of athletes that are training for a race. Two kinds of incentives, notes Earl Palmer, motivate team athletes. One is the pressure they feel in trying to make the team. The other pressure is that athletes feel to excel because they’re on the team.

Paul likens Christian motivation to that which comes because an athlete is on some kind of team. Jesus’ followers run the race that is the Christian life, he writes, not to somehow “make God’s team,” but because, by God’s great grace, we’re on that “team.” So neither guilt nor pride nor fear motivates Christians. Only our awareness of God’s unconditional acceptance motivates us to strive for perfection.

Paul responds to that justification by trying to fully identify with Christ and make Christ his own, because Christ has made him his own. His awareness of God’s acceptance of him also frees him to concentrate on what’s important. The apostle can forget the human success and misplaced religious passion that lies behind him. God’s acceptance of Paul allows him to strain on toward what lies ahead, the goal of becoming fully like Jesus Christ.

In other words, God’s gracious acceptance of him allows Paul to focus on his relationship with Jesus Christ. It frees him to seek to know Christ, gain Christ, be found in Christ, have righteousness in Christ, know the power of Christ’s resurrection and share Christ’s sufferings.

Yet Paul is aware that is far from being perfect.  Twice in verse 12, in fact, he admits that he has not yet “arrived.” Yet Paul doesn’t let his imperfection paralyze or discourage him. He has experienced God’s powerful grace. The apostle knows that God accepts him as God’s adopted son for God’s only-begotten Son Jesus’ sake. Now he feels free to respond by seeking to become more and more like Jesus Christ.

Paul’s imperfection comforts Christians who may feel inadequate. It means that the greatest missionary of all time had not yet arrived. Thankfully, then, God doesn’t expect Jesus’ followers to have won the race that is the Christian life. God simply expects God’s adopted sons and daughters to run that race.

However, Paul’s awareness of his imperfection also offers a warning for Christians who assume that we’ve spiritually arrived. People who are spiritually self-satisfied are in danger of dropping out of the race that is the Christian life and never finish that race at all.

When Paul later insists, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things,” the word for “mature” he uses comes from the same root as that for “perfect.” So it’s almost as if the apostle insists that Christians who are mature know we aren’t perfect. Those who think we are perfect, on the other hand, aren’t mature.

Noren notes that we usually think of perfection in the Latin sense, which is flawlessness, being without defect.  Paul, however, writes in the Greek whose word for perfection implies completion, maturity and fullness.  Christians know that no one can become flawless in this life. Only Jesus Christ was perfect in that sense of the word. It is, however, reasonable, to hope for maturity in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

Much of our culture seems too busy making excuses for not being perfect to claim to be flawless. Yet it also thinks little of the biblical understanding of perfection about which Paul writes. Everything around us urges us to love and take care of ourselves before we worry about others. So our culture encourages us to cultivate our self-esteem rather than our love for God and each other. It calls us to accept ourselves as we are, not strive for some love of God and each other.

In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, however, Paul calls his siblings in Christ to let the Spirit set a different goal.  We make it our goal to become more spiritually mature, particularly to become more loving toward God and each other. Christians work to open ourselves completely to the work of the Holy Spirit within us. Only the Spirit, after all, can make God’s treasured people spiritually mature in our love for the Lord and each other.

Attaining that goal, however, requires that we forget what is behind so that we can continue to press on toward the Christian maturity that lies ahead. Guilt about our past and anxiety about our future, after all, sometimes prevents Christians from fully enjoying God’s work and loving presence here and now.

Guilt is the sense that we’ve done something wrong. It may be our memory of some specific sin we’ve committed or just a vague sense that we’ve failed God. In terms of the maturity that is Christian love, we may feel guilty that we’ve never fully loved God or each other. That guilt may prevent us from striving to become more loving.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is what we may feel about the future. We may feel uncertain about what will happen with things like COVID, race relations and climate change. Christians may also worry because, for instance, we assume that we can never reach the maturity that is full love for God and each other. That too may paralyze us from working to be increasingly loving.

In Philippians 3, however, Paul calls his readers to forget the guilt of what lies behind and surrender our anxiety about what lies ahead. Because God has graciously forgiven us, God’s adopted children’s past sins, our past failure to love doesn’t need to paralyze us. God’s forgiveness frees us to move ahead. Paul, as he writes in verses 13-14, presses on. He strives be more loving because he’s confident that God’s grace has taken away the guilt of his past and his anxiety about his future.

Yet while the truth of God’s grace is absolutely certain, our understanding of it isn’t. So, by God’s Spirit, Christians seek to grow in that grace as well. Philippians 3’s hearers and proclaimers grow in that grace by, among other things, trying to view people as God views them. When we see others as those who no more or less deserve God’s grace than we do, we see them as God sees them.

Yet when we see others as those whom God desires to save, we see them with Christ-like love too.  Then we also see God as a holy, righteous God who wants us to share his passionate love for his children, for Jesus’ sake.

Illustration Idea

In her book, Nothing but the Best: The Struggle for Perfection at the Juilliard School, Judith Kogan writes:  “Singers look and act different from instrumentalists because (some say) they are vulnerable in a way that instrumentalists are not. The singer is his instrument.

“The singer is judged not only on what he does with his instrument but on the quality of the instrument itself… the voice faculty that rejects a candidate seems to say there is a structural defect. Singers are more touchy, more flamboyant, more exuberant than instrumentalists because, in a way, there seems to be more at stake.”


Preaching Connections: , ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup