Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Faith of the Gospel

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”

These “opponents” were primarily Jews.

Flesh Mutilators in Philippi

We know this because later on Paul warns, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” He was referring to Jewish legalists. These men insisted circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses were requirements of salvation, making it a matter of works rather than faith. Their confidence — their “faith”, such as it was — was in their own past and present compliance with prescribed religious rituals rather than in Christ. That third chapter is the only specific reference Paul makes to the type of opposition the original recipients of his letter were facing.

That’s an interesting bit of information. The circumcision sect were not initially a problem in the Macedonian city of Philippi, where, at the time of Paul’s first visit, it seems there were insufficient numbers of Jewish men to even establish a synagogue (the requirement was apparently ten heads of households). During that same visit, Paul encountered opposition from local citizens of the Roman Empire, as Luke details in Acts 16. However, there is no indication that these angry Gentiles took particular note of Paul on his two subsequent visits, or that they singled out the church he had begun there for persecution. In fact, the Philippian church reportedly flourished, such that Paul could address the “saints, overseers and deacons” in his epistle.

And then along came the Jews. As always.

Here Comes the Opposition

Organized Jewish opposition had previously followed on Paul’s heels throughout his journeys, trying to undo the work he had begun. It happened in Lystra, with Jews making the 35 mile journey from Iconium to cause trouble. Later, Jews from Thessalonica chased Paul and Silas to Berea, where they agitated against them. However, this “opposition” of which Paul warns the Philippian church was nowhere near so overt. Paul had to tell the Christians in Philippi to “look out” for it. Rather than inciting riots in the streets as before, Judaism had crept in among them, quietly trying to persuade them to exchange living faith for dead legalism.

It needs to be understood exactly what was at stake here, as we live in a day when the words “Judeo-Christian values” are tossed around so frequently that some readers may think a move from confessing one set of beliefs rooted in the Abrahamic covenant and the Law of Moses to confessing a different set of beliefs that arose out of the same soil makes for no great moral adjustment.

The most significant difference, of course, is that the formula “Christ plus the Law” cannot save. Adding any human effort to the “confess and believe” of Romans 10:9 wholly invalidates the “believe” part. As Paul put it elsewhere, “If you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” The end.

One Horrific Error or Another

That’s bad enough, but there is more. The Judaism being promoted by the circumcisers was characterized by one horrific error or another. The dominant Sadducean element (the powers that be who crucified Christ) did not even believe in resurrection. They presented a religion bereft of hope or reward, promoted assimilation into Greek society and were extremely self-sufficient to the point of denying God’s involvement in everyday life. Their reading of the Old Testament was non-literal, eliminating most of its supernatural aspects. Accepting circumcision at the urging of Sadducees was the first step on a long road back to a religious system that offered nothing but the bleakest sort of proto-atheism appended to a regimen of onerous rule-keeping.

The minority Pharisaic element of Judaism was in some ways even worse. The harshest invective the Lord Jesus ever uttered was directed their way. Seven times in Matthew 23 he calls them “hypocrites”, accusing them of shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. The Pharisees had the details right: they accepted the literal words of the Torah, and believed both the Prophets and Psalms were God speaking. They claimed to believe in resurrection and reward. All that was good; however, the conduct of the Pharisees gave the lie to all the fine things they professed to believe. They claimed to receive the word of God, then promptly set about explaining it all away. The Talmudic Judaism that survives today is descended from these men; men Jesus said were making Gentiles into “children of hell”. Accepting circumcision from the Pharisees was the first step down a road that invalidates every word of the God in whom it claims to believe.

The End-Product of Gospel Preaching

Against these two major errors and the incalculable weight of religious tradition they represented, Paul encourages the Philippians to strive side by side for the “faith of the gospel”. If we speed-read that into something like “strive to get the gospel out to the world”, we are not getting the full impact of Paul’s words. Contending for the message of the gospel is no small thing, but Paul is saying a little more than that, I think. For example, he is not encouraging the Philippians to insist on their right to promote truth. In fact, there was no such right for them to claim in Macedonia or anywhere else. Preaching the gospel might get some of them killed.

Rather, Paul is telling the Philippians to strive together for the faith that is the end-product of gospel preaching; the fully-realized combination of a transformed worldview and a transformed lifestyle that the Lord Jesus had in mind when he instructed his apostles to “make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In contrast to practice-heavy Sadducean Judaism and doctrine-heavy Pharisaic Judaism, both of which fell appallingly short of God’s will for his people, Paul urged the Philippians to contend for the clearly-defined body of doctrine he had committed to them, lived out daily in a way that no honest observer could call hypocritical. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he pleads.

What Goes Around

I’m not sure if you noticed, but those alternatives facing the Philippian church sound a little familiar, don’t they? Like the Pharisees, huge numbers of Churchian evangelicals mouth all the correct platitudes about the inspiration of scripture, the centrality of Christ and the importance of commitment to orthodoxy while denying much of it in practice. Every year, more and more churches become increasingly like the world around them, all the while claiming to belong to a Christ whose headship they do not recognize in practice.

On the other hand, like Sadducees, the secular materialists of our day don’t believe in much of anything, yet manage to be oddly dogmatic about how people ought to live, to the point that they’ll accost you in the street or disemploy you in a heartbeat if they think you don’t agree with their program. In this they are as illogical as Sadducees: if there is no resurrection, no hope, no judgment and no reward, why should you or I embrace any particular human ideology, including theirs? But like first century legalists, these folks have finally realized the most effective way to attack the faith is from the inside.

Faced with enemies who either deny our hope in Christ outright or else refuse to live it out in any meaningful way, how should we strive together for the faith of the gospel? By adopting a manner of life worthy of the gospel of Christ ... and by refusing to back down.

The faith of the gospel is not just a list of the articles of belief or a series of precepts; it is all the practical daily implications that follow from them. If you want to really put the fear of God into the other side, try living it out fearlessly.

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