Paul in Philippians 2 calls the church of Jesus to unify around the message and mission of the incarnate and crucified God. But what about Christians and churches who preach a different message or who are on a different mission? How should we relate to them? Paul in Philippians 3 tells us how we are to think about those people and their message, and he is not polite.
The Apostle Paul had a nasty history with false teachers. He had been harassed, beaten, and run out of town more times than he could count by Jews who were angry at the spread of Christianity. Then, at the end of the first missionary journey, Paul began to run into something worse. A heresy developed among the early Christians. There was a strong, vocal minority of Christians who still believed that Jewish practices were necessary for people to be saved. “Yes,” they would say, “you must put your faith in Jesus to be saved, but you also must be circumcised (if you are male) and you must keep the Law of Moses in order to receive the grace of God.” Paul called that teaching a false gospel (Galatians 1) and actively opposed them to all the churches. The early Christian leaders quickly met and unanimously decided that these so called “Judaizers” really were a false gospel and sent letters to all the churches denouncing them (Acts 15).
It is in this context that Paul writes to the Philippians to encourage them to unity around the message of the incarnate and crucified Jesus, but to be on the look-out for those people who call themselves Christians, but really do preach another gospel. His opening words in Philippians 3 are as strong as they are instructive: “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh (a telling reference to circumcision and the Judaizers).”
Before reading on grab your Bible and read Philippians 3.
Given Paul’s history with this early Christian heresy, how are modern readers supposed to read and think about Philippians 3 in the age of mass media? Paul’s words in Philippians 3 do three things: First, they put us on our guard. We are to be on the look-out for those who would teach another gospel. Paul uses the words “those who mutilate the flesh” to describe those Christians who were preaching that circumcision was required for salvation, and he says we are to be on our guard against them.
Second, Paul’s words help us see false teaching clearly for how insidious and dangerous it is. He uses powerfully strong language in Philippians 3. He refers to these false teachers as “dogs” and “evil doers” and describes their practices as “flesh mutilation.” We know that Paul had the greatest of compassion on unbelievers. He literally gave his life so that pagans might hear the good news of Jesus, but when it came to Christians who twist the gospel for selfish and personal gain and Christians who preach a gospel that changes the true message and mission of the church, Paul’s intensity level went through the roof.
Third, Paul’s teaching in Philippians 3 helps us tell true teachers from false teachers. He tells us that true teachers worship Jesus and false teachers worship themselves. He tells us that true teachers preach loss for the sake of Christ, and false teachers preach gain. And finally he tells us that true teachers preach the sufficiency of Christ and his resurrection. False teachers preach that God is a means to some other end.
The challenge in taking Paul’s words and delivering them to a modern audience is getting your group members to see that though it is easy to spot some false teachers, they exist for a reason. False teachers exist today because our natural inclination is to love their teaching. We have to constantly preach the gospel to ourselves in order to combat our love for false teaching. Our hearts naturally long to worship ourselves. Our hearts long for rewards, accolades, and merits. Our hearts naturally hate grace. And our hearts are hard-wired to love things other than God. Christians are idolaters too, and we are especially good at taking the gifts that God has given us and falling so in love with them that we begin to see God as simply the gift giver and not the ultimate prize himself. Paul says, “I will give up everything, so that I might gain Christ.” For Paul, Christ is the end, not a means of getting a better career, a happier life, or a stronger marriage. True teaching proclaims that Christ is all sufficient for all our needs.
- Read Philippians 3:1-3. Paul contrasts his worship of Christ with those who place their confidence (or worship) in themselves. How can you tell whether someone worships Jesus or themselves?
- Read Philippians 3:3-8. Paul sends a very strong message in these verses. It almost sounds like Paul hates everything he accomplished before Christ. What message do you think Paul is trying to get across in this section?
- What does our culture ascribe ultimate value to? Offer some suggestions and then follow up by taking a few minutes to consider what you are personally giving highest priority to in your life. Contrast this with the value that Paul ascribes to Christ.
- Read Philippians 3:8-11. How does Paul’s emphasis on the suffering and resurrection of Christ change the way we think about this life?
One of the great treasures of my ministry was the time I spent serving alongside Ed Gravely. For close to 4 years we wrote small group curriculum for Christ Community Church. This blog series is adapted from my archive of curriculum we wrote concurrently with the pulpit ministry of CCC. If any writing in these posts is pleasant to read I’m sure Ed deserves the credit.
Other posts in this series: