legalism

Eye on the Prize

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:12-21 ESV

Paul has just expressed the motivating factor behind his life: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection…” (Philippians 3:11 ESV). For Paul, this knowledge of Christ was to include a personal and tangible experience of the divine power that raised Jesus from the dead. This remarkable resource came in the form of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. As Paul told the believers in Rome, “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you” (Romans 8:11 NLT). The power made available by the Spirit of God within him was producing spiritual fruit in Paul’s life: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). These qualities were the direct result of the Spirit’s presence and power, not Paul’s own self-effort.

But Paul knew that the resurrection power made available by the Holy Spirit had an even more significant aspect to it that he longed to experience: His own physical resurrection from the dead. Paul had a long-term or eternal perspective. He knew that there was much more to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ than what we experience in this earthly life. Yes, Paul was fully aware that the resurrection power he longed to experience would have short-term, in-this-lifetime ramifications. It would produce spiritual fruit and provide the power we need to live new lives in Christ.

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:4 NLT

But Paul also knew that there was more. And he longed to experience the full scope of that resurrection power in his life.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. – Romans 6:5 NLT

And in his letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul explained what it will mean to be raised to life as Jesus was.

Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 NLT

And the apostle John explains that, while we cannot fully comprehend the nature of our final resurrected state, it is something for which we should eagerly long.

…we are already God's children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

So, Paul was striving to live in the power of the Spirit in this life, but longing to experience the transformative power of the Spirit that comes in death. He maintained a delicate balance between his thoughts on the here-and-now and the hereafter.

And now, Paul confesses to the Philippian believers that he is far from perfect. In other words, he had not yet attained all that he longed for. He was a work in process. But he had an unflinching desire to pursue and experience all that Christ had died to make available to him.

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. – Philippians 3:12 NLT

He uses the Greek word, diōkō, which has a range of meanings. It carries the idea of physical exertion and effort. It is not a passive word. It could mean “to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing.” It would also refer to someone running in a race who used all their available energy to reach the finish line. Paul wasn’t sitting back and waiting for heaven. But he also wasn’t waiting for the Holy Spirit to do all the work. He knew he had a part to play in the process of his spiritual transformation.

Paul had a singular focus in life: To become like Christ. He wanted to “possess that perfection” that Christ had in mind for him. He wanted to experience all that his new life in Christ had to offer.  Which is why he says, “I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:14 NLT). Notice where his attention is fixed: On the prize, the finish line. Paul is not insinuating that our glorification is somehow tied to our self-effort in this life. He is not teaching that we have to somehow earn our way into heaven. He is simply emphasizing that he wanted what God wanted. He understood that God had an eternal reward in store for him, and he would not be satisfied with anything less. He would not allow himself to be distracted by the things of this earth.

And Paul urged the Philippians to follow his example.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. – Philippians 3:17 NLT

Paul wasn’t bragging. He wasn’t holding himself up as some icon of spiritual virtue. He was simply encouraging them to live with the same focus on the finish line that he had. And he warns them that there were plenty of other examples they could follow that would only leave them disappointed and defeated in their spiritual lives.

…there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. – Philippians 3:18-19 NLT

Notice his emphasis on conduct. As followers of Christ, we cannot attempt to separate our behavior from our belief. The two go hand in hand. They are to be inseparable. And yet, Paul warns that there are those within the Philippian church whose conduct, if followed will end up in destruction. The Greek word Paul uses is apōleia, and while it can refer to damnation or eternal destruction, it can also be translated as “waste” or “ruin.” Keep in mind the metaphor of running a race that Paul has utilized. These are individuals who fail to finish the race well. They find themselves distracted along the way and, rather than victory, they experience defeat. Is this a reference to a loss of their salvation?  Highly unlikely, since Paul believed that salvation was the work of Jesus Christ. As he told the believers in Ephesus: “Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). And Jesus Himself promised, “And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39 NLT).

What Paul seems to be referring to are those within the Philippian church who were living lives of licentiousness. They were what became known as antinomians, which simply means anti-law. They held a view that was diametrically opposed to the Judaizers. One group were legalists, putting far too much weight on keeping the law. The other side simply said the law no longer mattered and taught that we could live however we wanted to live. This mindset had serious ramifications and Paul points the danger behind this anything-goes mentality.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

Jude had some strong words for this group as well.

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. – Jude 1:10 NLT

Paul pulls no punches when he states that their “conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18 NLT). Their conduct did not match their confession. Their behavior didn’t line up with their expressed belief. They lived for the here-and-now, failing to focus their energies and attentions on the long-term goal God had in mind.

And Paul leaves his audience with little doubt as to his point in all of this. He wants them to live with purpose. He wants them to conduct their lives according to their newfound status as citizens of heaven. That is their home. That is their destiny.

…we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. – Philippians 3:20 NLT

Paul is not suggesting that they be so heavenly minded that they end up being of no earthly good. He is not calling them to live with the heads in the sky. But he is calling them to live with their eyes firmly fixed on the finish line. They are running a race that will require that they maintain their focus. They will have to strain and strive in this life. They will have to fight off exhaustion and ignore the pain and suffering that comes along the way. And Paul brings it all full-circle, reminding his brothers and sisters in Christ that the point of it all is the day when we will all experience the power of the resurrection.

He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:21 NLT

That’s the goal. That’s the prize. And that should be the very thing that keeps us running the race to win.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Capacity to Love.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV

Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to them as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways create loop holes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single law. In fact, Jesus is now going to show that obedience to the Law required far more than merely external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.

One of the phrases you will see Jesus use repeatedly in these verses is “you have heard that it was said.” This is important to understanding what Jesus is saying. He is addressing perception versus reality. With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused about what the commands of God actually were. By saying, “You have heard”, Jesus is claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’tabout legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. NOT doing something didn’t mean you had no desire to do it.

For instance, Jesus says that the general perception regarding God’s command not to commit murder was inaccurate and insufficient. It wasn’t just about taking someone else’s life, it was about hatred. And hatred stems from the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage not to commit murder, doesn’t mean you don’t have the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same gospel. Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.

“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT

Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. The came to Jesus, in a huff, wondering why the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. This was one of the many man-made laws they had made that were of higher importance to them than the rest of God’s law. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus would have some very strong words for these men:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV

God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment, but those who hate. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22 ESV). Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning. 

Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus says that the reality is much different. Hatred is forbidden and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him. God’s ultimate desire for us is not we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love.  Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT

It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away as being well-deserved. We see our hatred is harmless. But Jesus would say that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as unworthy of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He loved us. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT

God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men, but is more likely tied to increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Paul wrote of his former relationship with God’s law:

I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. It would manage behavior, but not change the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.

Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT

Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, we are able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us. 

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Sinners and the Self-Righteous.

Luke 15

“The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’” – Luke 15:28-30 NLT

Jesus associated with sinners – regularly and gladly. It was for the sake of sinners that He came to live and die. And the reality is that He came for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. He came for every person alive on the planet when He walked the roads, paths, and streets of Israel. Because "everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God's glorious standard" (Romans 3:23 NLT). Jesus came to save sinners. So what's the point of this chapter? It's made clear by the way Luke introduces it. "Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people – even eating with them" (Luke 15:1-2 NLT). This sets up the series of parables told by Jesus to all those within ear shot. And He makes a very damning point, aimed directly at the Pharisees and teachers of religious law – the spiritual elite of the day. These men were the poster boys of piety. They were looked up to and envied for their spiritual depth and religious zeal. They were biblically knowledgeable and the icons of religious virtue. But Jesus knew better. He understood that they were also sinners in God's eyes, but they simply refused to admit their sin. They had covered over their sinfulness with self-righteousness and religious activity. But as Jesus had once described them, they were like whitewashed tombs – clean and pristine on the outside, but full of death and decay on the inside. Earlier in his gospel, Luke had recorded a statement from Jesus that expressed His sentiments regarding these so-called religious leaders. "I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent" (Luke 5:32 NLT). These men considered themselves righteous and right before God because of all their efforts done on God's behalf. They somehow thought they had scored brownie points with God because of all the spiritual exercises and religious activities in which they engaged. The issue wasn't whether they were sinners or not – it was that they refused to admit that they were and repent.

So Jesus told them three simple stories, and each makes the same painful point. In the first one, a man has a hundred sheep and loses one. "What will he do?" Jesus asked them. The answer isn't quite so obvious as we might think. Jesus says that the right thing to do would be for the man to leave the ninety-nine other sheep alone and defenseless in the wilderness and go after the one lost sheep. In other words, Jesus suggests that the one has more value to the man than the ninety-nine others who he abandons in the wilderness as he searches for the lost sheep. And when he finds that one lost sheep, he puts it on his shoulders and joyfully carries it home. Mission accomplished! Jesus says that "there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven't strayed away!" (Luke 15:7 NLT). This sounds like a direct reference on Jesus' part to Isaiah 53:6. "All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God's paths to follow our own." Nine of the "sheep" in Jesus' story are the self-righteous who smugly believe they are safe and sound, when in reality, they are just as lost. Their problem is that they refuse to acknowledge their lostness. It's interesting that in the story, the man took the found sheep home and hosted a party with his friends. He left the other sheep in the wilderness. There is no more reference made of them.

In the second parable, a woman has ten coins and loses one. Jesus asks the obvious question as to whether or not this woman wouldn't ransack her house in order to find the ONE coin that was lost and then rejoice over it when she did. As in the first story, when the woman finds the one lost coin, she calls in all her friends and neighbors and and rejoices with them. I would have to think that her friends and neighbors would have thought the celebration a bit much over one found coin. But Jesus says, "In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God's angels when even one sinner repents" (Luke 15:10 NLT).

Finally, Jesus told them a parable regarding two sons and their father. This one is the more familiar story to most of us. We typically refer to it as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We have made the younger son the hero or focus of the story. But based on the context, the real focal point of Jesus' story is the older son. The younger son in the story demands that his father give him his inheritance early. Upon receiving it, he promptly takes a journey to a distant country where he blows it all in record time, living the high life. He ends up in poverty and recognizes that his only hope is to return home and beg his father for forgiveness and place himself at his mercy. Which he does. And the amazing thing is that the young man's father receives him back joyfully, graciously, and extravagantly. He throws a party and showers him with gifts. This is where the older brother comes in. Rather than rejoice at the return of his younger brother, this guy becomes sullen and angry, because he has remained at home, working diligently, serving his father faithfully. He became angry and refused to take part in the festivities. He tells his father, "I have slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to" (Luke 15:29 NLT). He believed all his effort and hard work should have earned him a party, not the rebellious younger brother. Like the Pharisees standing in front of Jesus that day, this older brother felt like he was the one who should have been the center of attention. He had earned it. He deserved it. But the story reveals something about this man. He didn't serve his father out of love, but out of a sense of duty. He didn't serve his father joyfully or willingly, he did it as if he was a slave. It was all a burden to him. He did it expecting to receive something in return for all his effort. But that's not how things work in the Kingdom of God. Effort doesn't earn us anything. It is a grace-based economy. Paul reminds us, "Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it" (Ephesians 2:9 NLT). Jesus came to save the lost. But it's hard to save someone who doesn't THINK they're lost. It's hard to rescue someone who doesn't THINK he needs rescuing. The religious leaders were just as sinful and in need of salvation as the tax collectors and other sinners of their day, but they refused to admit it and repent of it. And they would be left defenseless in the wilderness, sitting ignored on the counter in the house, and outside the party looking in.

Father, while I can have a lot of the attributes of the Pharisee in my life, I thank You that one day You opened my eyes and helped me to see my sinfulness. You searched for me and found me – lost and with no hope of ever being found. You rejoiced over my salvation, because You are the one who made it happen. It was not something I did. I didn't earn it or deserve it. It was all You. And I am grateful. Thank You for sending Your Son to die on my behalf – a sinner condemned and unclean.  Amen.