The Prison of Perfection

Philippians 3:1-11

No Confidence in the Flesh

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.10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Dear Friends in Christ,

At first glance, it almost looks like a pretty fancy middle school science project.  Mirrors, metal, wood, bolts.  It’s a strange-looking contraption that is secured to a board about the size of a ping pong table.  But a closer look reveals that this is far from a grade school science project.  Six laser pistols bounce cesium atoms up and down, up and down, up and down.  Since you’ve probably never seen one before, here’s a picture of what I’m talking about.  You know what it is?  It’s a clock, an atomic clock.  And it is quite possibly the closest we human beings have ever come to manufacturing perfection.

It’s called the NISTF1.  NIST stands for the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in Boulder, CO where this clock is housed.  The F1 means that it is the standard by which all other clocks are measured.  Its creators once guaranteed its perfection up to 20 million years.  Now with recent improvements, it is guaranteed to neither lose nor gain a single second for 60 million years.

Now we love perfection, don’t we?  In fact, some of us love it so much that we’re almost obsessed with it.  Hence the term perfectionist.  I wonder if we have any perfectionists here today.  You don’t need to raise your hand, but if you are one, I want you to know that you are not alone.  For there is at least one other perfectionist here today and that is the one who is speaking to you right now.  Only I’ve never seen perfectionism as a blessing, even though it does push the perfectionist to excel and try his best at whatever he does.  Rather I see it more as a curse.  For what difference does it really make if the picture hanging on the wall is just a fraction of an inch off center?  And is it really that important that all the dollar bills in my wallet be right side up and facing the same way?  And is it really worth risking my life as well as a speeding ticket just so I won’t be a couple minutes late for an appointment?

Some of you can’t relate to any of those things, can you?  And the reason you can’t is because you’re so laid back and flexible that you’d make an Olympic gymnast look stiff.  Nothing seems to bother you.  Nothing seems to rattle your cage.  If you’re late for an appointment, they’ll wait on you.  If you misspell a few words on a paper or report you’re working on, so what?  If your clothes aren’t all neatly stacked in your drawers and hung in your closet, big deal, right?  You know what?  I envy people like that.  Though I don’t think I’m the extreme perfectionist I used to be because I’ve learned to deal with it and temper it over the years, I still wish I could be a little less uptight about things that really aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of life or eternity.

In some ways, perfectionism is like a prison.  And in our text for today, Paul, the imprisoned apostle, speaks to those who are trapped in that prison of perfection.  Only the perfectionism that he addresses is not like the one we’ve just been talking about.  Rather, Paul is speaking of a perfectionism that can prove spiritually harmful and eternally detrimental if it is not properly understood and dealt with, which is why, I suppose, Paul deals with it so forcefully in our text.

Indeed, something has happened to Paul when he reaches this point in his letter to the Philippians.  Up until now this has been a very pleasant epistle, a nice friendly letter from the teacher that the Philippians knew so well and missed so much.  But in chapter 3, Paul the mild-mannered apostle becomes Paul the raging prophet.  He resorts to finger-pointing and name-calling, using terms like “dogs” and “men who do evil” and “mutilators of the flesh” to describe some of the people there.  Something has happened in Philippi that has gotten Paul all riled up and he will not stand by on the sidelines and allow it continue.

And what exactly had happened?  Well, apparently a contaminated or corrupted Gospel had spread into this church like a poisonous gas, like a deadly virus.  And Paul stands at the breach in the wall and says, “You’re not getting in here.  You’re going to have to go through me before you can get to them.”  And what was that contaminated Gospel?  In its most basic form, it was the whole idea of perfectionism, of trusting in one’s own works for salvation rather than the work of Christ.  So Paul addresses this issue in v. 3 where he says that we are to put noconfidence in the flesh.

Now what does he mean by that?  Well, when Paul uses the word flesh here, we could very easily substitute the term “religious works.”  For our more modern purposes, in essence he’s saying, “We put no confidence in our church attendance.”  “We put no confidence in how much money we put in the offering plate.”  “We put no confidence in how much time we spend each day praying or reading the Bible.”  While those are all certainly good and noble things that we should do as Christians, Paul is saying that when it comes to standing before God and being granted access into the kingdom of kingdoms, “I’m not trusting in anything I’ve done.”

Now in Philippi there was one religious work or tradition that certain teachers were maintaining was absolutely necessary for salvation and that was circumcision.  Hence Paul’s words in vv. 2 & 3 where he says:  “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus.”  Now it seems strange to us that such a controversy could develop over something like circumcision, but keep in mind that for centuries circumcision had been the mark of God’s chosen people – the sign of the covenant that God had made with his people Israel, starting with Abraham.  And there were many Christian Jews back then who were reluctant to surrender this age-old tradition.  It’s not that they didn’t love Jesus or believe in him, it’s just that they felt they needed Jesus plus circumcision to be saved.  And Paul will have none of that!

In fact, he tells the Philippians that if there was ever anyone who had reason to put confidence in the flesh, confidence in his own works, it was he.  In vv. 5-6 he gives them his resume: “Circumcised on the 8th day” (that’s his way of saying, “I’m no convert; I’ve been a Jew all my life.”) “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin” (that’s better than being a Kennedy from Massachusetts or a Bush from Texas) “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee.”  He’s a religious Who’s Who in Jerusalem, one of the elite few.  “As for zeal,” he says, “persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.”  Cleaner than soap.  More pious than the pope.  Paul was the MVP of the Jews – the Most Valuable Pharisee.

But all of that changed on that fateful day when Paul, formerly known as Saul, was making his way to the city of Damascus where he was going to put some heat on the Christians there.  But as it turned out, who took the heat?  Saul did, didn’t he, as a light so bright that it seemed like someone just slammed on the stadium lights knocked him to the ground and the One who is the true light of the world, Jesus Christ, spoke to him and changed his life forever.  And after Paul looked into that light and saw the absolute, flawless, and faultless perfection of Jesus, he was blinded.  He couldn’t see anymore both literally and figuratively.  He couldn’t see anymore value in his resume.  He couldn’t see anymore merit in his merits.  He couldn’t see anymore reason to boast about anything he had done.  He couldn’t see anymore reason to live except to dedicate the rest of his life to talking less about what he had done and more about what Christ had done.

To put it bluntly, all of Paul’s accomplishments suddenly seemed like dung, a big pile of manure.  I would not be so crude to say that were it not for the fact that that is exactly what Paul says in our text.  In v. 8 he says that all his accomplishments are “rubbish.” But if you look up the Greek word that is translated rubbish there, you discover that it literally means dung.  So Paul is saying here, “What I’ve done matters nothing; what Christ did matters everything.”

Now what brought Paul to that point?  What led him to realize that his rather impressive resume wasn’t really that impressive at all?  Simple.  Somebody raised the standard.  Just like happened with me some years ago in the Salem tennis tournament.  Unfortunately they don’t have that tournament anymore, but I had actually won it the year before and was feeling pretty good about my game.  And now I found myself in the finals again.  But my opponent was someone I’d never heard of before, much less played.  If I remember correctly, he was a foreign exchange student from Germany.  And oh was I ever in for the tennis lesson of my life!  He humbled me.  He demolished me.  He destroyed me.  In essence, he raised the standard so high that any accomplishments I’d ever made in tennis didn’t seem like all that much because he was so much better than I was.

And so it is with Jesus.  He raised the standard of perfection so high that even an MVP like Paul had to recognize how far short he fell of that standard.  And we need to understand the same too lest we become guilty of trusting in our own works for salvation or playing what I call the comparison game.  You know how that goes, don’t you?  “Yeah, I’ll admit that I’m a sinner, but hey, at least I’m not as bad as so and so down the street.”  Please listen, my friends.  So and so down the street is not the standard to which God compares us.  He is not the standard by which we are judged.  Rather that standard is Christ.  Is it any wonder then why Isaiah wrote that all our righteous acts are like what?  Filthy rags in the sight of One who is so holy and so perfect.

“So what are you saying, Pastor?  Don’t do good works?”  No!  Good works are great.  What I’m saying is don’t trust your good works to save you because they can never be good enough.  “But if we don’t trust our good works, then what do we trust?”  Well, if you want the long answer to that question make sure you’re here 3 weeks from today on Reformation Sunday.  But if you want the short answer, consider the following story.

A church elder died and went to heaven.  Peter received him at the gate.  The elder said, “I’m so happy to be here.  I’ve been looking forward to getting to heaven all my life.”  And Peter said, “We’re glad to have you, but in order for you to enter the gate of heaven you need a thousand points worth of goodness.”  The elder said, “Surely I have a thousand points.”  Peter said, “Alright, tell me about it.”  The elder said, “Well, I was an elder in the church for 35 years.  I taught Sunday School for 40 years.  I visited the sick every Thursday night in the hospital.  I was married and faithful to the same woman for 55 years.  We raised 3 children, all of whom are involved in active ministry.  I even helped fund a floor at our local hospital.  How many points do I get for all of that?”  Peter looked down at his clipboard and said, “Let’s see.  All that is worth 1 point.”  The elder nervously looked down at his feet and then up at the sky and down at his feet again and up at the sky, and then he blurted out, “Lord, have mercy.”  And Peter said, “Ah!  Now that’s worth a thousand points.”

Who are you trusting for salvation, my friends?  Or maybe I should say, what are you trusting?  When we find ourselves standing before God someday, I guarantee we won’t feel like boasting about or pointing to anything we’ve done.  Would you boast of your mathematical abilities in the presence of Einstein?  Would you boast that you can play Chopsticks on the piano if you were sitting next to Beethoven?  Of course not.  Why then would you want to boast of what you’ve done in the presence of the One who has already done it all and done it perfectly?  The only question that will be asked that day will be this:  In whom did you put your trust for salvation?  And the only answer that will matter that day will be Jesus.