Philippians 3:12-16

Pastor Beth Staten

This morning's passage is from a letter from the apostle Paul to the Christians gathered in the city of Philippi. For several weeks we have been exploring the themes of this letter: joy, gratitude, unity, humble love, righteousness. This morning is part two of the Scripture we looked at together last week. If you missed it, that's OK. We're going to read the whole passage with last week's verses to hear the progression of Paul's thoughts. As this letter builds in logic and intensity, these Scriptures are the high point. Paul's urging toward joy, gratitude, unity, humility and righteousness have been leading to this point right here. It's like climbing a mountain. From the height of these verses we can see the lay of the land in this letter. We can look back and see all the work we did to get to this point. And we can look forward to see where we need to head next. We have said in the past that the apostle Paul was a pretty intense guy, and these verses have a lot of emotion. Some of us are a little leery of emotion in the Bible because we might hear it as angry or accusatory. As you listen today, I invite you to hear good emotions in these verses: excitement, passion, and hope.

Scripture Reading   Philippians 3:1-16

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, 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.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

This is the Word of God for all people.


Think for a moment about a time when you felt awesome. Maybe you kicked a goal or stuck a landing. Maybe you played or sang some gorgeous music. Maybe it was an excellent golf swing or a really productive workday. Maybe it was waking up next to the person you love or a moment when you parented exactly the way you want to. Maybe it was a moment of revelation as you read the Bible or felt God's presence in a powerful way during prayer. 

Maybe it's the last time you laughed really hard. Whatever it was, you felt awesome. You knew in that moment that you are fine and that the world has beauty in it. Everybody got a moment? Now feel that feeling again. ... That's the feeling I want you to hold on to as we talk through today's Scripture.

The question for us this morning is what kind of people are we going to be, and how are we going to get there? What kind of Christians are we going to be and what's going to motivate us? In these verses, Paul gives us two different options for answering this question.

First off, Paul assumes that we all want to be righteous. The choice is whether we want to be self-righteous or whether we want to be God-righteous. Now it's a safe bet that given those two choices none of us are going to say out loud that we want to be self-righteous. We all know what self-righteousness looks like and it's usually not pretty. However, Paul reminds us today that even though we say we don't want to be that way, it's actually a tempting option. Because when we are self-righteous we get to be in control. We decide what we think the rules are, and we follow those rules, and then we declare ourselves good. 

This is what he's talking about with circumcision and confidence in the flesh and righteousness that comes from the law. The temptation of this righteousness is that it is safe. It is secure. We know we have it because we earn it. If we want to be good, we get out the rule book, we follow the rules, and we're good. If we suspect that there might be something unacceptable about ourselves, if we suspect that at our core we are not good enough, self-righteousness is very tempting because we can prove our worth. Insecurity? Follow the rules. Problem solved.

However, there are two HUGE drawbacks to self-righteousness. The first is that in order to prove that your rules are the right ones, you have to convince other people to follow them. Every time someone else follows the rules you follow, you feel validated. Their conformity proves your rightness! This is what's happening at the beginning of today's passage when some people are insisting that Gentile Christians should follow Jewish laws. If you're trying to prove yourself, you want as many people as possible to follow the same rules you are following.

The second huge drawback to self-righteousness is that you are being motivated by fear. You are pushing the heavy rock of your own self-righteousness up a hill and if you stop for a second, your insecurity is going to roll backwards and crush you. Now this works because fear is a powerful motivator. Evolutionary biology proves this. We very quickly learn what things are dangerous and we do whatever we must to avoid those things. Paul says in verse 9 that self-righteousness comes from the law, and by definition a law is enforced by threat of punishment. Motivation by fear of punishment is highly effective. The drawback is that it is also exhausting. 

Thank God there is an alternative. The other option that Paul presents in these verses is what he calls God-righteousness. The righteousness of God throughout the Old Testament refers to God's character and will for justice in the world, and also the actions that God takes to enact that justice on behalf of the vulnerable. That's good stuff. We want that righteousness. That's the kind of people we want to be. We want to be people who live with Jesus as our Lord, who make no compromise with oppression, who don't judge other people or ourselves by what we look like or how much money we make. We want to be good stewards of this incredible creation. We want to be a force for justice and peace and love in the world. We want to stand against evil. 

The good news is that this God-righteousness is NOT about following rules. God's own righteousness is a union of God's character and God's actions, and it's the same for us. When we experience this God-righteousness, our actions are in line with our character. That will never happen with self-righteousness. Motivation by fear will only ever result in temporary external behavioral modification. The motivation to really be who we want to be has to be a stronger fear, and the one force stronger than fear is LOVE. God-righteousness is motivated by love. Listen to what is written in 1 John 4. "God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect, or complete love casts out fear; because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever is still afraid has not yet been made complete in love. We love because God first loved us."

God-righteousness is motivated by love. Love will lead us to be the people we want to be in the world. Paul says that the way we switch from self-righteousness motivated by fear to God-righteousness motivated by love is by simply trusting that Jesus showed us the way. Jesus showed us exactly what God-righteousness looks like in human form, and so we follow his example. God-righteousness is not earned. We experience it the same way we experience a gift. That's what the word grace means. We fall into self-righteousness because we struggle to trust that God can love us that simply and completely. But it's true. We experience that grace by faith, which means trust. We experience God-righteousness by placing our trust in love instead of in fear.

And then Paul says everything falls into place. This is where his passion really lights up. Paul wants to experience Christ, the power of his resurrected life, joining those in the world who suffer, and being conformed to a life of self-sacrificial love. Is he there yet? Is he perfect? No. And this side of the new Jerusalem he never will be. What keeps him moving forward is love.

Paul's metaphor is a race, so where are my runners? The White family did a half-marathon a few weekends ago, right? You cannot run that far unless you WANT TO. At some level, you have to love it. There are going to be moments when you want to quit, but what carries you forward is how good you feel. And like the kids demonstrated so well, we can't run looking backwards. When we don't live up to our values, we let it go and keep moving. We're not afraid of being punished for our failures because we aren't motivated by fear. 

Can we agree here together this morning that we are DONE with religion that is motivated by fear? That we are done with LIVES that are motivated by fear? God's breathtakingly good news is that we are perfectly loved with a love that we do not have to earn. We will not be ashamed of who we are. We will not judge others by the worst thing they have done. We will follow Jesus' way of sacrificial love, knowing that we are not alone. The book of Hebrews also uses the race metaphor when it says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." 

We are motivated by love. Love for our family. Love for our friends. Love for our enemies. Love for ourselves. Love for the God who invites us into a life more beautiful than we dared to believe possible. Only love will lead us where we need to go. Amen.

Recent Message

Rev. Beth Gedert

This morning as we continue through our discussion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we are going to hear to some verses that may get some us in areas where we feel sensitive. They might remind us of harsh things we've heard in church in the past, or times when God has not been presented as loving. But the fact that other people have used these texts poorly is not a reason for us to ignore them. This is our sacred text, and we are not afraid of what's in here. When the Bible gets difficult, it is tempting to pull out all the reasons that it might not speak to our culture. For example, the Bible doesn’t account for the range of gender roles, sexual identity and expression that we now understand exists in the world. Our topics for this morning—adultery, marriage, divorce and making promises—were different in the ancient world. And this is important for us to realize, especially because it can keep us from using the Bible against other people.