For *we* are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and boast in Christ Jesus, and do not trust in flesh. (Philippians 3:3, JND)
I think of Philippians 3:3 as one of the definitions of a Christian in Scripture. J. N. Darby defined Christianity from 1 Thessalonians 1:9 & 10, Martyn Lloyd-Jones reputedly defined Christianity from 1 John 4:16; but I think Philippians 3:3 is as good a working definition as either of those.
There are three characteristics of the circumcision in Philippians 3:3, and I think they are worth considering. First, those of the circumcision worship by the Spirit of God. Scripture puts a great emphasis on worship, much greater than most Christians seem to. When the Lord Jesus spoke with the woman at the well in Sychar, He told her, "the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers" (John 4:23). You don't read a whole lot in Scripture about God seeking for things, but here's an example: the Father is seeking worshippers. Worship is a high and holy calling: perhaps the holiest calling of all.
But we're supposed to worship in a certain way: the Lord Jesus said the Father was seeking people who would worship "in spirit in and truth", Paul specified that we "worship by the Spirit of God." We don't just worship any old way: worship is to come from and be empowered by the Spirit of God. It is a sobering thought that throughout the history of Israel's idolatries, there was frequently a mixing-up of the worship of the Lord with their worship of idols. We might consider Exodus 32, where Aaron made the golden calf for the people to worship, "And Aaron saw it, and built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation, and said, To-morrow is a feast to Jehovah!" (Exodus 32:5, JND). Notice how quickly Aaron mixed the worship of Jehovah with idolatry. This danger isn't diminished today: 1 John (certainly one of the last books in the Canon to be written, if not the last) ends with the warning, "Children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21, JND). The mixing of Christianity with idolatry is a very real danger. I suppose we can fairly say that the first characteristic of worship by the Spirit of God is that it's not tied up with idols.
Do I need to mention that worship by the Spirit of God would be worship according to truth? The Lord Jesus explicitly tied these together in His conversation with the woman at Sychar. I've sometimes been accused of anti-intellectualism (which is perhaps another blog post), and I certainly won't say that having the correct answers is the priority... but we can't claim to be worshipping by the Spirit of God when we're flagrantly denying what He says. The fact is that the Spirit of God came here to guide us into all truth (John 16:13); if we're going to play fast and loose with the truth, we're not doing anything by the Spirit of God.
It is a fact that the Epistles consistently describe the Spirit as being in opposition to "the flesh." This has sobering consequences when we consider we're called to "worship by the Spirit of God." Worship by the Spirit of God will necessarily be something that's in opposition to the flesh. Now, we need to be very careful when we say something like that, because flesh is a very adaptable thing: it can put on religious airs easily. The history of asceticism is largely the history of the religion of the flesh, which is certainly counter-intuitive. But it is so: the flesh can be a very religious thing. When we consider passages like Galatians 5 or Romans 7, we need to be careful to recognize that the lusting of the flesh against the Spirit can be very deceptive. Flesh is quite willing to bow in prayer, so long as it doesn't actually have to submit to Christ.
Second, the true circumcision "boast[s] in Christ Jesus". There's a connection here with the first point (worship by the Spirit of God): we don't generally think of boasting "in" someone else. Usually we boast about ourselves. But the true circumcision is characterized by boasting in Christ Jesus. I was speaking in a meeting recently about 1 Corinthians 1:30--31, "But of him are *ye* in Christ Jesus, who has been made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and holiness, and redemption; that according as it is written, He that boasts, let him boast in the Lord. (JND)" Paul tells us we're to boast in "the Lord." Why? Because He is or righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking in abstractions: we think of things like holiness as abstract qualities, but God says these things are a Person. I am to be holy and live a life that's holy, but it's all based on the fact that God has given me Christ Jesus to be my Holiness. I ought to live righteously, but my Righteousness is the Lord Jesus.
The Epistles talk a lot about boasting in the Lord, and I think it's true that boasting in the Lord is based on our own inability and unworthiness. The man who's got it all together doesn't boast in Christ Jesus: the boasting in Christ comes from the realization that all my worth is in Him. If I have worth in myself, I don't look for it in Christ. I boast in Christ when I realize He's what I have. And this is what Johnny D would say is the secret to the Christian life: that God has called me to a life where Christ is my All in All. He's all I need, and He's all I have. Trouble and temptation come when I forget these two propositions: all I have is Christ, and He's all I need.
We're called to delight in God's Son like He does. We're called to be completely taken with one Person. God's Son has died here, has been buried here, has been raised from the dead, and has been welcomed back into Heaven. There He's been given the highest place. We're waiting for Him to come back. Now here's the secret: 2 Corinthians 3 tells us how we become like Christ Jesus, it's by "beholding His glory":
But *we* all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, JND)Want to be like Christ? Stare at Him.
Finally, the true circumcision doesn't "trust in flesh." I suppose this is connected with the two previous points, both worship by the Spirit of God and boasting in Christ Jesus stand in opposition to the flesh. But there is a deeper meaning here and we don't want to overlook it. There is the ever-present danger of trying to live "after the flesh," a danger Scripture warns against time and again.
The Epistles insist that we are "in Christ," that we are identified with Him in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. In Romans, men are alive in sin, but the believer has died with Christ. In Galatians, we're crucified with Christ, but He lives in us. In Ephesians, men are dead in trespasses and sins, but the believer is quickened with Christ, ascended with Him, and seated in the heavenlies with Him. In Colossians, the believer has died with Christ and has been risen with Him. So Romans and Ephesians are opposite in this sense: in Romans we started out alive and have died; in Ephesians we started out dead and have been raised.
In the Romans account, the believer is dead with Christ---dead to sin and to the Law. Our old man is crucified with Him, and we are to reckon ourselves dead to sin. Notice it doesn't say we're to reckon the old man dead: it says the old man is crucified with Him (Romans 6:6) and as a result we're to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11). After this---after we learn that our old man is crucified and the "body of sin" is annulled (Romans 6:6) and we're to reckon ourselves dead to sin---we meet a new character in Romans 7, "the flesh". Romans 7 says that the flesh is in us, and nothing good is in the flesh (Romans 7:18). So we have a strange situation in the believer: the old man is crucified, but the new man lives in the old man's body. We are redeemed just like Adam fell: Adam died spiritually the day he ate the fruit, but he didn't die physically for another 930 years. Similarly, we are redeemed and alive spiritually, but our bodies aren't yet redeemed, so we await for the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23). All of this is summed up in Romans 8:
But *ye* are not in flesh but in Spirit, if indeed God’s Spirit dwell in you; but if any one has not the Spirit of Christ *he* is not of him: but if Christ be in you, the body is dead on account of sin, but the Spirit life on account of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that has raised up Jesus from among the dead dwell in you, he that has raised up Christ from among the dead shall quicken your mortal bodies also on account of his Spirit which dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to flesh; for if ye live according to flesh, ye are about to die; but if, by the Spirit, ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live: for as many as are led by the Spirit of God, *these* are sons of God. (Romans 8:9--13, JND)Our body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But our mortal bodies will one day be raised just like Christ's body was. Still, we're not there yet. So we are called not to live after the flesh---that's part of the yet-unredeemed body---but to be led by the Spirit of God.
So Romans presents the very real conflict between the flesh and the spirit. We're spiritually redeemed, but we're still in the unredeemed body. Our mortal bodies will one day be redeemed, but we're still waiting for it: "we await the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory" (Philippians 3:20--21, JND). In this conflict, we need to be careful that we're not walking after the flesh.
And this brings us back to Philippians 3:3. We're to have no confidence in flesh. Let's consider this carefully: it was the religious leaders in Israel who rejected and crucified the Son of God. That's not to say we wouldn't have done the same thing: certainly the Gentiles were complicit insofar as it was actually a Roman who gave the order. But the point is, flesh can be a very religious thing. Fleshly religion generally takes two characters in Scripture: one is sensual, the other legal. The Colossians were warned that they were denying their crucifixion with Christ by being subject to ordinances (Colossians 2:20--23), and they were told that these ordinances were "to the satisfaction of the flesh." The flesh is us loves to feel religious, and it's quite willing to bring us into bondage of ordinances to do it. The Colossians were apparently getting into some weird legalistic mysticisms, the flesh loves that. The Galatians were borrowing from Judaism and the Law, the flesh loves that too. What is the Scriptural judgment of the Galatians? They had been justified by faith, but were trying to achieve perfection (i.e. spiritual maturity) by the flesh (Galatians 3:3). It doesn't work that way: you can't start one way and finish another. You have to walk in Christ the same way you received Him (Colossians 2:6).
This is a subtle error, and an easy one to fall into. But fundamentally, keeping law appeals to flesh. This is the uniform testimony of the Epistles. So Romans 7 begins with the solution, then presents the problem: "So that, my brethren, *ye* also have been made dead to the law by the body of the Christ, to be to another, who has been raised up from among the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God" (Romans 7:4, JND). We are dead to the Law, just like we are dead to sin. And notice, the whole purpose of being dead to the Law is so we can bear fruit to God. You want to be fruitful? You can't do it unless you're dead to the Law. And notice: you're dead to the Law just like you're dead to sin. If you want to say that being dead to the Law isn't really, you know, dead; then you're going to have to say the same thing about sin. We are as finally and completely severed from the Law as we are from sin.
But the problem is, we see lawlessness and we try to combat it with law. It doesn't work: it can't work. We're saved by faith to live by faith. We're not saved by grace to live by law. We're not justified by the Spirit to be made perfect in flesh. We didn't receive Christ by grace to walk "in Him" by law. It doesn't work that way.
Our verse says we're to not trust in flesh. When you reduce the Christian walk to efforts of law, you're placing confidence in flesh. This isn't an easy lesson to learn, and it's counter-intuitive, but it's important.
So how do we walk? Romans 8 gives us the answer, as does Galatians 5. Galatians 5 is more succinct, but perhaps less helpful:
But I say, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall no way fulfil flesh’s lust. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these things are opposed one to the other, that ye should not do those things which ye desire; but if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under law. (Galatians 5:16--18, JND)The answer in Galatians is, "walk in the Spirit and you'll find you're not fulfilling the flesh's lusts." So, how do we walk in the Spirit? I think it's this simple: look at Christ in glory, this will change you (2 Corinthians 3:18). Then, as we submit ourselves to Him, we'll find we're walking in the Spirit.
Romans 8 gives us more explicit instruction, "So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to flesh; for if ye live according to flesh, ye are about to die; but if, by the Spirit, ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Romans 8:12--13, JND). Romans brings up the idea of mortifying the deeds of the body (notice the use of "body" in Romans 6--8, it's quite an interesting study). Here's the thing: self-improvement doesn't work. It can't work, it's not supposed to work. The whole point of Romans 7 is that there is sin in your flesh, and you are powerless over it. So you find that when you want to be good, you're bad. This is the plain teaching of that chapter. There's sin in you, and it's bigger than you are. So how do we go about mortifying the deeds of the body, when every time we try to do something good, we find ourselves doing the very deeds we're trying to mortify? This isn't a trivial question: it's what the poor tortured man in Romans 7 wants to know. It's what every sincere Christian will eventually struggle to answer.
Notice that Romans 8 carefully guards against asceticism: it's not that we mortify the deeds of the body, but we by the Spirit mortify them. This isn't some self-improvement plan: it's fueled by something entirely outside myself, the Spirit of God.
Do we understand that? Do we see that our only hope is to be led by, to walk by, and to live in the power of the Spirit of God?
So once again we return to the answer in 2 Corinthians 3:18. As we behold the glory of the Lord (with unveiled face), we are changed into the likeness of His glory. Beholding Christ is transformative. We're changed by what we see when we're looking at Him. And notice we can't look at Him except by the Spirit. The Spirit of God is explicitly given to draw our hearts to the Son (John 16), to remind us of what He Himself said, to show us what the Father thinks of Him. This is the secret to our power.
And really, this is the only power the Christian has. We're nothing, and that's what we're called to. We're called to be nothing, but to have Christ as our everything. God's not interested in autonomously good Christians, He's interested in having people who're absorbed with His Son.
There might be pain here, just like there's pain in physical circumcision. Paul felt it:
Because it is the God who spoke that out of darkness light should shine who has shone in our hearts for the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us: every way afflicted, but not straitened; seeing no apparent issue, but our way not entirely shut up; persecuted, but not abandoned; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body; for we who live are always delivered unto death on account of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh; so that death works in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:6--12, JND)Death has to be at work so in us. That's the process by which the life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal flesh. See, God's glory shines in Jesus' face; but that glory only really shines out when it's expressed in unworthy vessels. God doesn't want us to think we have anything to do with it, remember we're supposed to boast in Christ Jesus. So the God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9) has us under a sentence of death, so that we learn to trust Him.
But it's not only negative. We're not Buddhists, we don't strive for nothingness. Notice Paul wasn't trying to put himself to death: it was God's work in him. He wasn't saying that we need to deliver ourselves to death, but that this is the process through which God takes us. Delivering ourselves to death is just the sort of mystical monasticism that Colossians condemns. There's nothing good there. We're not called to asceticism, but to delight in the Son. I'll repeat that as many times as necessary: when Paul described the principal of death working in him, his focus was on Christ. He wasn't looking at himself, but at the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Look at the end of 2 Corinthians 4,
Wherefore we faint not; but if indeed our outward man is consumed, yet the inward is renewed day by day. For our momentary and light affliction works for us in surpassing measure an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16--18, JND)What was he looking at? He was looking at things that aren't seen. He was looking into glory. And notice that while his outward man was being worn down, his inward man was being strengthened.
I've known a lot of Christians who've become obsessive with death working in us, to the point where they forget there's a new man who's not being put to death, but who's supposed to be feeding and growing. We don't grow merely by the cutting away and breaking down of the outward man, but by nourishment, feeding, and sustenance of the new. We're not called to be nothing. The principle of death isn't our calling, it's merely a process God uses as He brings us down the path. The point of death in us is that we would learn to trust in the God who raises the dead, and so that Jesus' life would be manifested in our mortal flesh.
On the other hand, I hear and read an awful lot of "ministry" that encourages all sort of "spiritual disciplines" in order to grow in Christ. I've ranted about this sort of thing before, but I have to say it again: it won't work. It won't work, because it can't work. Scripture explicitly condemns efforts of self-improvement. Scripture explicitly condemns trying to war against sin. Scripture explicitly condemns fleshly efforts. We can't say we have "no confidence in flesh" and then say "next time I'll do better." It's foolishness. It's Galatianism. It's wickedness. We're called to walk in the Spirit. Walking the in Spirit doesn't mean setting your alarm clock to get up early and read your Bible, it doesn't mean making vows, promises, or covenants with the Lord to do this or that thing. Can you imagine making a vow and then saying you've no trust in flesh? Doesn't the very act of making a vow mean you're confident you can keep it? Isn't it, by definition, trusting in yourself? This is precisely what Scripture says we can't do. Consider 2 Corinthians 1:9, "we ourselves had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not have our trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead;" We cannot trust in ourselves. Making covenants with God is the very opposite of Christianity. It's exactly the sort of thing the Epistles warn us against. We're not made perfect through effort, just like we're not declared righteous through effort. God freely justifies when we believe (Romans 4:5). God gives us Christ as our Holiness (1 Corinthians 1:31).
So let's forget this self-improvement nonsense and turn to Scripture. Want to live like the true circumcision? Then worship by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and don't trust in flesh.
If you really want to be like Christ, look at Him. That's the Scriptural answer. As we behold His glory, we'll be transformed to be like Him.
We strive to know Christ. He is our object, He is our goal. As we learn Him, as we know Him, as we love Him, then we're led by the Spirit. And it's as we're walking in the Spirit that we find we're not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh.