11. How to Protect Ourselves from Spiritual ThreatsRelated Media
Finally, my brothers, 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 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, and who put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:1-3)
How do we protect ourselves from spiritual threats? How do we protect the church?
When I was a child living in my parents’ house, like many children, I felt that my father always repeated himself. There were always a few things he constantly repeated. He would commonly tell me to not hang around bad kids because they would get me in trouble. He also constantly reminded me to lock the door to our house so no one would break in and steal things. As a child and later a high school student, I remember always saying, “Yes, of course, Dad. I got it. I know.” Moreover, I remember after college I was moving into a new apartment, as I was about to start seminary in Chicago, and my parents stayed with me for a night. As my parents were about to depart and drive back to Texas, my dad said to me, “Don’t hang around any bad people and make sure you lock your doors.” In my mind I thought, “I am a grown man. You don’t need to tell me this.” However, I just said, “Yes, Dad. Thanks for the tip.”
In this text, we see Paul’s fatherly care for the Philippians and like many fathers he repeats himself in order to protect the Philippians. He said, “Finally, my brothers, 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” (Phil 3:1).
What is he repeating? Commentators are divided on that. Some think he is talking about his exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord.” Others think he is focusing on the call to beware of false teachers. Which is it? It is probably better to look at the entire section of verses 1-3 as part of Paul’s holy repetition in seeking to protect the Philippians. Paul’s desire is to protect the Philippians and their faith in God.
How do we protect our faith and the faith of those around us? Some things in our spiritual life should be repeated over and over again. We need to repeat them to ourselves and also to others for protection. As Christians, there are many threats to our spiritual lives. We have a threat from within. We have a flesh that we must battle against at all times (Gal 5:17). We have the world system that constantly tempts and at times even persecutes us (1 John 2:15-17). We have an enemy in the devil seeking to lure us away from God and his plan for our lives (2 Tim 2:26). Also, we must not forget the general consequences of sin on this earth, as we all encounter various trials and tribulations. Life bears thorns and thistles instead of the fruit we have worked for (Gen 3:17-18). Life is hard at times and these difficulties can be threats to our faith. Because of all these realities, there is a need to protect our faith.
In this text, we will see several principles about guarding our faith and others’.
Big Question: According to Paul, what principles must we practice in order to remain safe and protect ourselves from spiritual threats?
Believers Protect Themselves by Remaining in Fellowship
Finally, my brothers, 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. (Philippians 3:1)
When Paul says “finally,” it is better translated ‘“furthermore,” “so then,” or “now then.” It is a word of transition, not conclusion, since half of Philippians follows it.1 Paul is marking a change in thought and focus. Paul here calls the Philippians “brothers” and then seeks to protect them by instruction. The implication of both Paul calling them “brothers” and then seeking to challenge them is that his relationship with the Philippians was part of their protection. As a loving family member, he sought to protect his spiritual brothers and sisters from various threats to their spiritual health. The Philippians had a form of protection in their fellowship with Paul and one another.
This is true for us as well. If we do not remain in healthy fellowship with believers who will hold us accountable, we are vulnerable to various attacks. The spiritual life is not meant to be walked alone. God has given us spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters to help us grow and also to protect us from things that might draw us away from God (cf. 1 Tim 5:1-2).
Similarly, the disciples lived in a close relationship with one another and with Christ as a protection. Christ constantly warned and exhorted them as a protection. He told them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (Mark 8:15). He told them to not worry about what they would eat, drink, or wear (Matt 6:25). Jesus was protecting them, just like Paul was with the Philippians. His relationship with them was a form of accountability. However, it also seems as though Christ needed this fellowship as well. On the night he was betrayed, he called three of his disciples to pray with him because he was weary unto death (Matt 26:3). He needed their prayers. As a man he was dependent upon the accountability relationships with his disciples; he needed their support.
We see the need for fellowship and accountability relationships throughout Scripture. Paul also said this:
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2)
Paul reminded the brothers in Galatia of their need to restore those caught in some sin. Similarly, in Matthew 18 Christ taught the need for us both individually and corporately as a church to hold people accountable as a protection from sin. Listen to what he said:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
If a person is in sin, one should go and show him his fault. If he will not listen, one should bring another person. Then, if he still does not listen, one should bring it to the church. Finally, if this person continues in sin, then the church should discipline him by treating him as a pagan or tax collector—essentially removing the person from their fellowship.
One of the ways we protect ourselves is by remaining in the fellowship. As soon as a person starts to drift away from church and Christian fellowship in general, they are on dangerous ground. Paul, as the Philippians’ older brother in the Lord, sought to warn them and protect them.
Who holds you accountable? How do you respond when somebody challenges or warns you? Who do you challenge? Proverbs says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6). Sometimes it may mean hurting somebody’s feelings when you warn or challenge them, but these wounds are faithful and necessary for protection.
I think we see the importance of this in Paul’s relationship with the Philippians and how he spoke to them as a loving brother. If we are going to protect ourselves, we must have healthy fellowship.
Application Question: Why are accountability relationships and genuine church fellowship so important? How do we develop these relationships? Who are your accountability partners?
Believers Protect Themselves by Guarding Their Joy
Finally, my brothers, 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. (Philippians 3:1)
The next protection for the Philippians was their joy in the Lord. As their older spiritual brother, Paul calls for the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord.” Many have seen joy as the major theme of the epistle. In chapter 1, he mentioned joy several times. He says he always prays with joy because of their partnership in the gospel (Phil 1:4-5). Concerning whether he would die or live, he said he was convinced it was God’s will for him to stay for their progress and joy in the faith (1:25). In Philippians 2:17-18, he declared how he rejoiced in his sacrifice for them and commands them to rejoice as well. Even though Paul was in prison, his heart was protected by his joy in the Lord, and he wanted them to be protected as well. In fact, he will repeat this call for the church to have joy in Philippians 4:2. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord, again I say rejoice.”
Why is the joy of the Lord so important for our faith? Why is it a protection from various spiritual threats? First of all, we should understand that this joy is not a joy in circumstances. It is a joy regardless of circumstances. A Christian can rejoice in poverty, loss, failure, heart-break, etc., because this joy is based on our relationship with the Lord. It overflows from our relationship with God. It is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). As we are abiding in God’s Spirit, he gives us joy.
Why is it a protection? Paul’s command to rejoice in the Lord as a protection or a “safeguard” tells us that a loss of joy in the Lord is a sure pathway into sin and an open door for the enemy. The reality is if we lose our joy in Christ, we will try to find it somewhere outside of our relationship with him. For example, when the prodigal son was no longer content with his relationship with his father and the father’s provisions, he left the father’s house to find his joy and satisfaction in sin (Luke 15). If we lose our joy in Christ, we will be tempted to do the same.
This was exactly Satan’s strategy in the Garden of Eden. What was Adam’s and Eve’s joy in the garden? It was the Lord—joy in his person, his provisions, and his blessing. Therefore, Satan’s temptation was essentially an attack on their joy. He wanted them to not trust God. He wanted them to think God was actually there to keep them from having joy. Satan said, “Did God say you could not eat from ‘every’ tree in the garden?” He tried to make God’s command feel overbearing. He then attacked God’s character. He said, “You will not surely die, but you will be like God.”
This is Satan’s attack against us. He wants us to lose our joy in the Lord. He wants us to focus on every trial, every bad situation, and every circumstance that is not ideal, because when we do that, we lose our protection. There is protection; there is power in our joy in the Lord.
Nehemiah said this in speaking to the Israelites who were mourning during the revival God brought in Israel: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh 8:10b). He said that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Therefore, to not rejoice in the Lord would be to weaken ourselves and make us vulnerable to discouragement, sin, and various other maladies of the evil one.
Application Question: How do we maintain our joy in the Lord?
1. Believers maintain their joy “in” the Lord by focusing on their relationship with God.
We learn how to maintain our joy in the Lord by noticing the small preposition “in.” Our joy is “in” the Lord. We must constantly seek fellowship with Christ. We must constantly abide in his Word, fellowship, worship, etc. If we are not constantly developing our relationship with Christ, we cannot have joy. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit which comes from walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:16, 22). Therefore, if we are not walking with the Lord, we cannot have joy.
2. Believers maintain their joy in the Lord by choosing not to indulge in hazards to their relationship with God.
If focusing on our relationship with God is the positive action needed to have joy, then rejecting everything that would hinder that relationship is the negative action. It means choosing to not worry, to not be anxious, to not live in sin, to not live in discord with others, to not meditate on ungodly things which steal our joy, etc. David said, “If I cherished iniquity in my heart the Lord would not have heard me” (Psalm 66:18). Sin hindered his relationship with God and therefore quenched his joy.
Personally, I have to be very careful about worry and anxiety. It can be anxiety about the future, a relationship conflict, or a task needing to be completed. Proverbs says, “Anxiety in the heart of man brings depression” (Prov 12:25). We must zealously guard ourselves from anything that would hinder our relationship with God. Maintaining our joy is both a fruit of developing intimacy with God and also rejecting anything that would hinder that relationship.
Do you have joy in the Lord? Or have you lost it? To lose it means to be in a dangerous position spiritually.
Application Question: What are major threats to your joy in the Lord? How do you practically maintain this joy? Have you seen or experienced how a loss of joy in the Lord is a doorway to all types of sin?
Believers Protect Themselves by Living in the Word of God
Finally, my brothers, 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. (Philippians 3:1)2
The next principle that Paul gives for guarding the believer’s spiritual life is living in the Word of God. He gives this by implication. Essentially, the Philippians would be guarded by reading the writing of the letter he sent them, the book of Philippians, and putting the truths into practice. He says “to write the same things” to them again was a safeguard. The letter itself was meant to help protect the Philippians.
It is the same for us; one of the primary ways we guard ourselves spiritually is by a life lived in the Word of God. It has been said that “The Word of God will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from the Word of God.” You can’t have both. A person who is not walking with God will not desire to read the Bible and won’t desire to go to a church where the Bible is preached. However, a person growing in his relationship with God will love being in the Word of God. One’s relationship with the Word of God is a spiritual thermometer. It shows where our spiritual life really is. If we are growing in the knowledge of Scripture, we will be guarded from many threats of the enemy, but if we are not growing, we are vulnerable.
Application Question: In what ways does the Word of God protect the believer from sin?
1. The Word of God is a protection because it exposes sin.
Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Living in the Word of God is like having surgery. As it cuts us, it reveals wrong heart attitudes: pride, anger, unforgiveness, etc. James compares living in the Word of God to looking into a mirror (James 1:23-25). It reveals all our sins and shortcomings. Some people aren’t even aware of compromise in their life because they are not letting the mirror of God’s Word reflect on them. The Word of God is necessary to expose sin so we can confess it and abandon it.
2. The Word of God is a protection because it enables us to stand against temptation.
David said this: “I hide your word in my heart so I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11). David practiced the discipline of memorizing Scripture in order to protect him from lust, anxiety, retaliation, etc. Hiding the Word of God in our heart is a protection for us as well.
3. The Word of God is a protection because it enables us to stand against spiritual warfare.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, he continually spoke the Word of God to combat the enemy’s lies (Matt 4:1-10). Scripture actually teaches that the Word of God is the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). It is the very weapon the Spirit uses to defeat the devil. We must know the Word of God thoroughly so we can win our spiritual battles.
4. The Word of God is a protection because it helps us grow into maturity.
Paul taught this in Ephesians 4:11-15:
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
Paul said that the very reason God gave gifted teachers to the church was to help the church mature out of spiritual childhood. Spiritual children are prone to danger. They are especially prone to fall into false teaching (v. 14). However, the Word of God, as taught through spiritual leaders, helps spiritual children mature and therefore protects them from various temptations.
If we are going to stay safe, if we are going to protect ourselves from various spiritual threats, we must be people of God’s Word. It exposes sin. It helps us fight against temptation and spiritual warfare, and it helps us mature in Christ.
Application Question: In what ways have you experienced the Word of God as a protection from spiritual threats? Describe your spiritual disciplines with the Word of God.
Believers Protect Themselves by Watching Out for False Teachers
Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh (Philippians 3:2)
Again, we see Paul using repetition to protect the Philippians. He says, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” He is using repetition for the sake of emphasis. Essentially, he is saying, “Watch out for those dogs, watch out for those men who do evil, watch out for those mutilators of the flesh.”
Most likely, Paul is referring to a group of false teachers called the Judaizers. When the gospel began to spread in the book of Acts, a group of “professing” Jewish Christians taught a need for Gentiles to practice the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. Salvation was not by faith alone. We see this conflict at the Antioch church in Acts 15:1. It says, “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’” This brought Paul and Barnabas into a sharp debate with them, and because of this, Paul and other representatives went to the Jerusalem church to seek the counsel of the apostles. The apostle James gave the final decision on this situation. He said,
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)
The Gentiles were not commanded to practice the Jewish law and circumcision as a means of salvation. But, they were to practice sensitivity regarding Jewish customs (meat from strangled animals, blood, etc.) in order to not offend the Jews living in various cities. Essentially, they were asked to practice the law of love (cf. Romans 14:21).
However, even though there was a clear ruling on this issue, it did not stop these false teachers. They essentially followed Paul everywhere he went, seeking to corrupt the churches with a false gospel. In fact, the entire letter of Galatians confronts this false teaching. Paul said this:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8-9)
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:12)
Paul speaks very aggressively towards them. He says anybody who preaches another gospel should be accursed. He also said he wished that those who preached the need for circumcision should go all the way and emasculate themselves.
This is very important to notice because in today’s culture we have become so focused on “tolerance” and “love” that very few ever sound the alarm about false teaching. To teach that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, or the Roman Catholics teach a false gospel is considered unloving. People who hear teaching like this often become offended. However, let us be clear that this is not the way Paul felt as a good shepherd protecting his sheep. And, because these warnings are written in Scripture, we can be sure that this is not the way God feels either. Anybody that teaches a gospel other than salvation by faith through grace alone should be eternally condemned.
Now, I know this is hard to hear, but we must hear it because this is what God teaches. If we don’t hear it, then we will not be heeding the serious warning that Paul gives. He essentially says beware, beware, beware. Christ taught the same thing.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-17)
Jesus said you will know them by their fruits. If you watch long enough, their works will manifest their inward nature. You will be able to tell who the false teachers are.
Observation Question: In what ways does Paul describe the false teachers? What can we learn from these characteristics?
“Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (Philippians 3:2).
1. Beware of teachers that try to steal believers from the church.
When Paul called these false teachers “dogs,” he was saying they were like scavengers. This is a different word than what Christ used to refer to the Gentile woman in the gospels who asked him to heal her daughter (Matt 15:26-27). There he used the word for pet dogs.2 Here Paul refers to dogs that ran in packs, fed on garbage, stole food, and at times even attacked humans. Therefore, they were hated and feared. Paul compared the false teachers to these scavengers. They try to steal people from God’s church. Most times their converts are not unbelievers; they are those who profess Christ in the church. Jesus similarly called them wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15). This meant they would constantly come and try to steal sheep from the flock. Paul said this to Timothy about them:
They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. (2 Timothy 3:6-7)
These teachers would go into homes while the husbands were away and seek to manipulate the women with their teachings and gain control over them. False teachers are prone to spiritual abuse—they seek to control people.
2. Beware of teachers that exalt a particular nation or people group and demean others.
Another implication of the descriptor “dogs” is that these Judaizers taught that the Jewish race was superior to other races. The word “dog” was a common racial slur used by Jews for Gentiles. Jewish men would wake up every morning and say, “Thank you, God, that I am a man and not a woman, a Jew and not a gentile dog.” There was tremendous hostility between Jews and Gentiles. Paul was using irony by calling these Judaizers dogs—the same name they used of the Gentiles.
Yes, in a sense, God called the Jews to be his special people—his kingdom of priests on the earth (Exodus 19:6). They were to be the stewards of the Word of God, the temple, and the worship. But, they were meant to be servants of everybody else—missionaries and not exalted kings. They were selected based on God’s electing purposes (cf. Deut 7:7-8, Rom 9:3-5), not anything special they had done.
This is a common belief among false teachers and false religions. They often exalt a particular race or people group. I remember being in undergrad and one preacher came on campus teaching how black people were the race of Shem (cf. Gen 9:26)—God’s chosen people. All of a sudden, people from our Christian fellowship, specifically African Americans, began to follow this man thinking that they were very special. This teaching is very seductive because of our natural pride and desire to be exalted (cf. Gen 3:5). Certainly, we see this with the Nazi’s, the KKK, other supremacist groups, and many cults. They exalt themselves and consider everybody else dogs. Beware of teachings that exalt one nation or people group over others.
3. Beware of teachers that teach a works salvation.
Paul calls them “evil workers.” Again, he seems to be using irony. These teachers taught salvation by practicing the Jewish law—a works righteousness. However, Paul confronted them by saying their works were really evil. They were evil because their works perverted the gospel, and any good works they had would never be accepted by God. Isaiah said that “even our righteousness is as filthy rags” before God (Isaiah 64:6).
We see works salvation taught in many groups. You can be saved by faith plus baptism. You can be saved by faith plus taking the Lord’s Supper. You can be saved by faith plus other good works. Works salvation essentially is the hallmark of every religion except true Christianity. Every religion says “do this” or "do that" and you can be saved. But, Christianity says it is “all done.” Everything you need to be saved has already been done by Christ. The good works you needed to be acceptable by God were completed by Jesus while on the earth (cf. Matt 3:15, 2 Cor 5:21). The punishment necessary for your sin, Jesus bore on the cross. All you need to do is accept his finished work and follow him as your Lord (cf. Rom 10:13).
We must beware of teachers that say Christ’s work is not enough. They say, “You must join this church. You must do this or that, and you will be saved.” No. Everything has been done. One must put his faith in Christ as sufficient for salvation and follow him as Lord. That is all one must do to be saved. Beware of teachers that preach a works salvation.
4. Beware of teachers that practice a sinful life.
Not only was Paul’s description of “evil workers” a form of irony, it also was the fruit of their lives. False teachers, like the Pharisees, often live what looks like a moral life on the outside. Christ called them “whitewashed tombs.” In Matthew 23:25-28, he said this:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Often false teachers appear righteous on the outside, but on the inside, they are full of anger, pride, jealousy, selfishness, deception, and lust. And eventually, these sins will become clearly manifest. The Pharisees trumped up false witnesses against Christ and had him murdered to protect their position. Beware of teachers that preach righteousness but are full of dead men’s bones. What’s on the inside eventually will fully manifest. Paul said this:
The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden. (1 Timothy 5:24-25)
For some, their sins are obvious, but for others, it trails behind. However, it will eventually clearly manifest. Paul says this in the context of not laying hands on somebody hastily (v. 22). Essentially, he says, “Don’t pick an elder too fast.” Their sins or their righteousness will eventually become abundantly clear. Beware of teachers that practice a sinful life. Paul calls them “evil workers.”
5. Beware of teachers that focus on rituals and traditions over God’s Word.
Paul calls them “mutilators of the flesh.” Again, Paul was using irony to make a point. These false teachers taught the necessity of circumcision. Circumcision was a Jewish rite given by God to Abraham (cf. Gen 17:10). Jewish parents would circumcise their sons on the 8th day after birth. This was a sign of participation in God’s covenant with Israel. If anybody was not circumcised, they were to be cut off from Israel—killed. However, this outward sign was always supposed to be a picture of an inward reality. It was to be a picture of having a changed heart before God—a heart that loved him and loved people. Jeremiah said this:
Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it. (Jeremiah 4:4)
The Jews were to circumcise their hearts or God’s wrath would break out against them. To be circumcised physically and not have a circumcised heart meant nothing before God (cf. Rom 2:25-29). It was just a ritual without the reality. This was always taught in the Old Testament. God desires obedience more than all the burnt offerings (cf. 1 Sam 15:22). To practice a ritual without the right heart is nothing before God.
It is the same for us. Our worship must be “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). We must have the objective reality of obedience to Scripture, but if we don’t have the subjective reality—the right spirit or right heart—then it is unacceptable. False teachers and false teaching often focus on the ritual over the heart. They emphasize the form—the right clothes for worship, the right outward appearances, etc. The Pharisees made a great deal out of the washing of hands to be cleansed for worship even though it was not commanded by God (cf. Mk 7:1-2). Many of their rituals were not commands of God but simply traditions of men. Jesus said this about the Pharisees:
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)
With the Judaizers, since circumcision was no longer commanded of God, it was just a ritual that was neither right nor wrong. One could be circumcised or not, and it wouldn’t make them any closer to God. In the church age, it is just a tradition. Be careful of teachers that emphasize traditions and ritual, especially those not commanded in the Scripture. Traditions are an easy substitute for a right heart, which is what God is really after.
Churches that emphasize traditions and rituals often become very legalistic and judgmental. If you don’t have the outside form, if the female wears pants, if this guy has long hair, if this person doesn’t do this, then he or she is often judged and excluded from the fellowship. Be careful of teachers that emphasize rituals over the commands of Scripture.
The majority of the New Testament epistles contain warnings about false teachers and false teachings that attacked the early church. We also need to hear this today, especially as we near the second coming of Christ. Jesus told his disciples to “watch out” so that no one would deceive them. He said in the last days there would be many false teachers and many claiming to be Christ (Matt 24:4-5, 11). There is a new cult started essentially every day. Therefore, we must always be aware of this reality. Satan is seeking to tear people from the flock like a wild dog. In order to protect ourselves, we must beware of false teachers.
Application Question: In what ways have you been exposed to false teachers and false teaching? What are some major errors being promoted currently in the church?
Believers Protect Themselves by Developing Assurance of Salvation
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3)
Paul teaches that one of the ways we protect ourselves is by knowing that we are truly saved. The Philippians would not become prey for the Judaizers or other false prophets if they knew that they were truly born again. And, it is the same for all Christians. Those who are not fully convinced that they are God’s—that they are born again—are very susceptible to those who peddle another gospel, to spiritual warfare, and to other temptations. Paul said the Philippians should beware of them “for” or “because” (v. 4). He then gives reasons why they should beware of them. He describes them (including himself) as the circumcision— those who were truly saved. He essentially says—we are the true circumcision, true worshipers who glory in Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh.
The importance of developing assurance as a protection is taught throughout the New Testament. Peter said this: “Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). Peter said to make our election sure, and if we do, we will never fall or stumble. One of the major themes of 2 Peter is warnings against false teachers (cf. 2:1-22), and Peter says assurance of salvation would help protect them from stumbling and falling into their teaching. Similarly, Paul taught the need to put on the helmet of salvation (Eph 6:17) in order to stand against spiritual warfare. What is the helmet of salvation? It is not being saved; it is assurance of salvation.
A person struggling with whether they are truly saved or not is easy prey for the enemy. Satan works overtime to comfort those who are not saved. He wants them to have a false peace so they will never truly repent of their sins and be born again. And at the same time, he works overtime to afflict those who are truly born again. He wants them to doubt their salvation, fear that they don’t have it, or that they have lost it in order to keep them from being effective ministers of Christ.
Scripture everywhere teaches the necessity of knowing that we are truly born again—truly saved. In fact, Paul taught the need for assurance as the next step right after salvation. In Acts 2:20, he said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” Paul said repent and now prove your repentance by your works. There are necessary works in the life of a believer that prove they are saved. Believers are not saved by works, but works will be present if they are truly saved. If they are without works, then they are not truly born again (cf. James 2:17).
What works does Paul attribute to those who are truly born again?
Observation Question: What works characterize those who are truly born again in Philippians 3:3 and what can we learn from these works?
“For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3).
1. True believers will have a different relationship to sin.
Paul calls believers “the circumcision”—inferring that Christians had the true circumcision and that the Judaizers had a false one. As mentioned previously, circumcision was an outward work meant to reflect an inward reality. That inward reality was a change in their relationship to sin so that they could truly follow God. And, that is exactly what has happened to every true believer. Colossians 2:11 says this: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.”
Paul says that those who are “in” Christ have been circumcised by putting off the sinful nature. This means that sin is no longer their master and that they are no longer controlled by sin. Romans 6:6-7 says this:
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
A person who is born again should continually see a decrease of sin in their life and a greater power over it. John said this:
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:9-10)
John says, no one who is born of God will continue in sin. Why? It is because God’s seed remains in him. This does not mean that a believer will not sin anymore, because he will. He just cannot live in it as a pattern or lifestyle anymore. The things he used to do, he can’t do anymore. Sin leads to conviction and mourning because the believer is doing something contrary to his new nature. A person who lives in sin as a pattern proves that he was never circumcised by Christ (cf. Col 2:11). He is not a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). He is not born again.
Has God changed your relationship to sin? If your profession of Christ as Lord has not changed your relationship to sin, then your profession has probably not changed your eternal destiny. Paul was essentially saying, “You don’t have to follow the false teachers because you are the true circumcision. At the cross, Christ severed the power of sin over your life—you are new.”
What is another characteristic of somebody who is truly born again?
2. True believers will live a life of worship through the Spirit of God.
Not only do true believers have a change in their relationship with sin but also in their relationship with God. Paul says they “worship by the Spirit of God.” Because God has given believers the Holy Spirit, they now live a lifestyle of worship. The Holy Spirit enables them to worship. Romans 8:15 says, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” The Holy Spirit works in believers to cry out to God. They find in themselves a desire to worship, to pray, to serve God, and to hear and study his Word. This is a work of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, the word “worship” might best be translated “‘to render respectful spiritual service.’ True worship goes beyond praising God, singing hymns, or participating in a worship service. The essence of worship is living a life of obedient service to God.”3 Everything the believer does can be worship because he is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Paul said this in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
Some have called this worship “religious affections.” Has God changed your relationship to sin and given you religious affections by the Holy Spirit? Do you desire to pray—to cry out “Abba, Father”? Do you desire to read the Word? Do you desire to share the gospel? Do you desire to serve?
This is a marvelous reality that has happened to every true believer. Where the false teachers worked in their own strength, true believers are empowered by the Holy Spirit with religious affections to serve the Lord.
3. True believers boast in Christ.
The word boast or “glorying” “describes boasting with exultant joy about what a person is most proud of.”4 A true believer will boast continually in God and the things of God, whereas a person who is simply practicing religion will constantly boast in himself. Look at what Paul wrote:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:31)
True believers will constantly be glorying in Christ and boasting in their Savior. I remember reading an article about a famous basketball player who just had a string of high scoring games. The reporter asked the basketball star, “What is your secret?” He responded, “Jesus Christ.” She responded, “You had nothing to do with it.” He again responded, “It’s all God.” I read the comments section on this article and many were upset at his giving glory to God instead of boasting in all his hard work. However, this should be normative for somebody who is saved. It is not that we deny that we worked hard. Like Paul we say, “We worked harder than everybody else.” But, in the same breath, we recognize it was all a grace of God (1 Cor 15:10). He gives us life, breath, and everything else. He gives us our giftings; he works in us to will and do of his good pleasure. True believers recognize their utter bankruptcy and therefore always glory in Christ. They not only need God to be saved but also for everything else. However, those who hope in their religion—their good works—will commonly boast in their works instead of God. Consider Christ’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
It’s interesting, the Pharisee prayed “about himself” (v. 11). He boasted in his fasting and his giving and condemned others less outwardly righteous than him. However, the tax collector could only cry out for mercy from God. His hope was totally in God and not in his works.
Do you constantly give glory to Christ? This is a characteristic of a true believer.
4. True believers put no confidence in the flesh.
When Paul talks about the flesh, he is referring to “man’s fallen, unredeemed humanness; it pictures human ability apart from God.”5 To put no confidence in the flesh means to understand the reality that we can do nothing acceptable to God apart from his grace. Even our righteousness is as filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). A true believer realizes that he can do nothing good in order to achieve salvation, but he also is growing in his understanding that there is nothing good in him apart from God. Listen to what Paul said: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18). There was nothing good within him. In fact, he cried out at the end of Romans 7:24, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul realized there was nothing good within him, nothing that would please God apart from grace. This doctrine is often called “Total Depravity.” Jesus said this: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63).
Because of this reality, a believer, though prone to pride and boasting, will be continually growing in humility. Like the disciples, they will be growing in practicing secrecy even with their good works (Matt 6:1-8). Why? It’s because they realize that it is the Spirit that gives life and that the flesh counts for nothing. They work hard at starving the flesh because it deserves no glory—only God does. “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:31). The Judaizers were relying on their works—their righteousness—to be acceptable to God. However a true believer puts no confidence in his flesh and relies fully on God’s work.
Are you trusting in your baptism? Are you trusting in taking the Lord’s Supper? Are you trusting in church attendance? None of those count as far as salvation is concerned. Our boast is only in Christ for the flesh counts for nothing.
How do we know if we are truly saved? We are the circumcision—God has changed our relationship to sin. We can’t live in sin anymore. We are the ones who worship by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has given us religious affections—a desire to pray, a desire to serve, a desire to study his Word, etc. Our boast is in Christ alone, the flesh is nothing. We glorify Christ in everything because we know the weakness of our flesh. The Spirit gives life, and the flesh counts for nothing.
Knowing that we are saved is a great protection for us. It protects us from the attacks of the devil. It will protect us from deep discouragements. It will protect us from being drawn into cults or false teachings that profess to know the way to true salvation. We must make our election sure as we grow in the faith, and if we do, it will keep us from stumbling and falling (2 Peter 1:5-11).
Application Question: How do believers grow in assurance of salvation (cf. 2 Peter 1:5-11, Matt 5:3-11, Acts 26:20, James 2:14-26)? Do you ever struggle with assurance of salvation? Why or why not?
How do we protect ourselves from spiritual threats and attacks? There are attacks from within through our flesh, attacks from the world, attacks from the devil, and the constant temptations that come with trials. How can we protect ourselves from stumbling and falling away from Christ?
- Believers Protect Themselves by Remaining in Fellowship
- Believers Protect Themselves by Guarding Their Joy
- Believers Protect Themselves by Living in the Word of God
- Believers Protect Themselves by Watching Out for False Teachers
- Believers Protect Themselves by Developing Assurance of Salvation
1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 215). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 217). Chicago: Moody Press.
3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 221). Chicago: Moody Press.
4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 222). Chicago: Moody Press.
5 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 223). Chicago: Moody Press.
Related Topics: Christian Life