“Status” - Sermon by Joe Ellis on Philippians 3:1-11 - October 31, 2021
This passage is about how you get to have the status of being a part of the people of God. When I say status, I mean something pretty specific. Think about when you drive through Witset — you’ll see a gas station that says status and non-status. If you have First Nations status, you show your status card which says “this is proof that I have First Nations Status”. I have a permanent resident card that says my status in Canada. When I go through customs I show the card and the officer lets me back into the country. These status cards lets you know if you belong in a particular group. Most of the time you don’t have a physical status card to let people know you are a part of a particular group or people — so you prove your status in different ways.
As a Jew, Paul didn’t have a physical status card. He proved his status in other ways — that’s what he was doing when he talked about when he was circumcised, his race his tribe, his Torah observance, his zeal — Paul pulling out his old status card — showing that by the old standards, he had the status of being a part of God’s family. Paul was showing that he more than checked all the right boxes, proving that he had the status of being a part of God’s people — the People of Israel. He pulls out that status card, shows it off, and then does something pretty strange: he crumples it up and throws it away. Paul pulls out his old status card and says none of that matters anymore. The card has expired. He’s not saying that his Jewish identity isn’t good. He’s saying that’s not what gives you status as being a part of the people of God. The only think that gives you that kind of status is faith in the Messiah.
At this point in the letter, Paul is trying to nip a problem in the bud. There were some Christians in Paul’s day who said that in order to have status as being part of God’s people, yes, you needed faith in Jesus, the Messiah — but you also needed some other status cards like maybe circumcision, or maybe not eating certain kinds of food. Faith plus.... And of course, we can’t be too hard on these “faith-plus more” Christians. But the reality is that we do the same. We add a lot to our own status cards that we carry around today as Christians. Faith doesn’t quite cut it, after all, no one can really see faith. So we add lines to our status card, like faith plus a regular quiet time, faith plus putting a certain bumper sticker on your car, faith plus having a successful marriage, faith plus attending church regularly. Faith plus putting up with a zoom worship service.
Some of these things are good, beautiful, desirable, but when they become part of a Christian Status Card — Paul says they’re garbage. Whenever we pull out anything besides our faith in the Messiah as proof to others (or ourselves) that we belong to God’s people, we’ve missed the boat. That “faith plus” idea of status really stirs up Paul’s anger. Listen to the way Paul addresses these people who are advocating for an enhanced status card: "Watch out for the dogs! Watch out for the ‘bad works’ people! Watch out for the ‘incision’ party, that is, the mutilators! We are the ‘circumcision’, you see — we who worship God by the Spirit, and boast in the Messiah, Jesus, and refuse to trust in the flesh.” Paul is taking issue with those who say that if you want to have status of being part of God’s people — you need something beyond faith in the Messiah. To this, Paul says “NO!”
Imagine you are holding your status card, the card that says you are a member of God’s family. Hold it in your hand. Look at it. Do you know the only thing that it will say? “Faith in the Messiah.” Faith in the Messiah is the only thing that marks a person out as being a part of God’s people.
Before the Messiah came, there were all sorts of status symbols that marked a person out as being a part of God’s people. The list could get quite long. Again, that’s what is behind the list that we see in verses five and six. Paul was saying, “Not only did my status card show that I was part of exclusive group of God’s people, my status card showed that I was the cream of the crop.” Circumcised on the eighth day. He’s not some convert to Judaism who was circumcised later in life. He’s not a Gentile convert like many in the church in Philippi, he’s an Israelite from the Tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of the first king of Israel. A Hebrew of Hebrews. This is a way of saying that Paul spoke the native language of his fellow Jews. Think of a Jew today who can speak fluent Hebrew — it gives you a certain clout. Torah-Observance — even better, a Pharisee. Pharisees painstakingly observed the laws of Torah. And Torah observance was perhaps one of the great status markers of Israel. One of the great purposes of observing Torah was to set the nation of Israel apart from the other nations — a way of broadcasting: “We are the people of God!” That’s what was behind many of the food laws, to literally set the Israelites apart. They ate at different tables from everyone else. Finally, Paul says he had Zeal. We might think of this as glittery passion — but for Paul, a person who had zeal was one who literally would fight for God’s Kingdom and glory. The first person we read about with zeal was Phinehas, who stabbed an adulterous couple while copulating in their tent. “Zealous?” Paul says, “I persecuted the church!” Official status under the law?” Paul says: “Blameless.” Paul’s not talking sinless perfection. Paul is saying that on every way that you could measure someone as having the status as being a part of God’s people — he more than checked all the boxes. When you’re talking about Status Cards, Paul’s was the cream of of crop. Now that he’s held up his beautiful status card for everyone to see, he does something incredibly shocking. He throws it in the trash. He throws all the privileges that status had given him and throws it right into the garbage.
Paul uses a banking metaphor. Imagine logging into your bank account and are looking at your bank statement. Look at how on one side you can see all the lines where money has gone in, and on the other side you see lines of money going out. Now imaging that the bank statement you’re looking at doesn’t tell you how much money you have, but how certain you can be that you’re part of God’s family. The more lines you have on the positive side, the more confident you can be that you are in God’s family. You just hope that the positives outweigh the negative. Looking at Paul old way of counting he acknowledges that it might have looked like he had a pretty healthy spiritual bank account… Before Jesus came, all those things Paul mentioned would have been deposits on his Bank Statement.
Circumcision on the Eighth Day. Cha-ching.
Observing Torah. Cha-Ching
Ethnically Jewish. Cha-Ching.
Zealous Persecution. Cha-ching, just like a cash register.
All of those things added together would lead you to think that Paul had a pretty strong account. Few people had the same rock-solid status as Paul. Yet Paul says, all those lines that he previously thought were deposits into his bank account, he calculates as loss — because of the Messiah! Because of the Messiah, none of those other lines mattered anymore. They contributed nothing towards his status of being a part of God’s people. Nothing. Circumcision, Ethnicity, Torah Keeping, speaking the right language, Zeal — none of that contributes one cent towards being counted a part of God’s people. Not one iota. He goes further — “I calculate everything as a loss because knowing Jesus the Messiah as my Lord is worth more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah, I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and now I calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah…only!” Paul says, “Because of the Messiah, I’ve suffered the loss of everything.”
Picture again your bank statement. Picture the positive numbers of cheques that have been deposited into your account — imagine seeing next to each positive number the same amount being withdrawn. Right under that $350 cheque you deposited last week? — $350. Right next to that $1200 cheque you get each month? — $1,200. Paul says that’s what has happened to him through knowing the Messiah. He lost all that he gained, and it involved a lot of suffering. If you know anything about the life of Paul, it doesn’t take much to imagine how, in the eyes of his fellow Jews, he literally lost everything he had worked so hard for. In their eyes he had totally lost his status. Imagine his fellow Jews looking at Paul’s life after knowing Jesus and thinking: What good is Paul’s circumcision when he’s preaching that Greeks don’t need to be circumcised? What good is his ethnicity when he’s preaching: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus, the Messiah?” What does speaking Aramaic matter, when you’re spending most of your time with Greeks, speaking Greek? (In all his letters, Paul wrote only one Aramaic word!) What does Torah observance matter when you sit down and eat unclean food with Gentile sinners? What does past zeal in persecuting the church matter when you become a pillar of that very church! In the eyes of his fellow Jews, Paul had very much lost every trace of the status that was once so impressive. And Paul paid dearly through suffering. He was beaten, imprisoned, cursed, and thrown out, left for dead. Paul paid dearly for his loss of status. Yet Paul says, “I calculate all those things that were so important to me as trash, so the profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be found in him, not having my own covenant status defined by Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness.” All those other status markers, Paul regards them as “trash.” Note, he is not saying that his ethnicity or any of those other status markers, are bad — rather, he is just saying that they contribute nothing to his status of being a part of God’s people.
Now, at this point you could wrongly think I’m arguing a flawed sort of theology called “replacement theology,” or “supercessionism.” The idea that the church has replaced Israel. That the history of Israel and God’s covenant with Israel, is no longer important — All these have simply been left behind and replaced by the church.
Nothing could be further from what Paul is saying. You’ll note that I’ve resolutely been saying, “Messiah” and not “Christ” throughout this sermon. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, but often we think it's just Jesus’ last name. Paul has been talking about the Messiah throughout this passage. The Messiah in no way sets aside all that had came before in this history of Israel. Quite the opposite. The Messiah was and is the fulfillment of all God’s covenant promises that God had made with his people, Israel. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, is the very sign of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises and his people.
Think of it this way: In the year 135, there was a Jewish military leader named Simon Bar-Kochba who led a revolt against Rome. The Rabbi Akiba hailed Bar-Kochba as the Messiah and called all Israel to rally to his flag. The Rabbi wasn’t imagining that the person he thought was the Messiah was somehow replacing God’s promises and nullifying the history of his people — the Rabbi believed this person, he thought was the Messiah, was the fulfillment of God’s promises and the climax of their history. That’s why the Rabbi called all Israel to follow this messiah. Israel was defined by those who follow the Messiah. Of course, Rabbi Akiba was wrong, Simon Bar-Kochba was defeated and no one remembers him except historians. Not so with Jesus. Jesus is God’s true Messiah, God’s ultimate expression of his faithfulness to his promises and his people. Now, the only thing that matters, the only thing that gives us the status of being part of God’s family is whether we follow God’s Messiah, or not. True Israel is defined only by who follows the Messiah. That why Paul said that his status card isn’t defined by Torah, his race, his language, or anything else. His status as being a child of God comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness. The status of being a part of God’s family is given only through faith, fellowship with the Messiah. This is not a denial of Judaism, this is not a denial of God’s promises to his people — it is their fulfillment.
Remember who the Messiah is. The Messiah is the longed for King of Israel. The Messiah is the King who is anticipated and promised throughout the Old Testament— the King who’s rule would extend to cover the Earth in its entirety. The King before whom all nations would bow. The King who would observe and uphold Torah in perfection. The King who would rule with truth, justice and fairness. Jesus is the long awaited Messianic King. Now, when you read about the Kings of Israel — you know that the King always embodied the people. What happens to the King, happens to the people. If the King is faithful, the people are also credited with faithfulness. If the King is faithless, so too the people. Jesus is the one true King. Jesus lived a perfectly faithful life. He made Paul’s status card look pathetic. Jesus embodied and lived perfectly not only all those status markers we’ve been talking about — but more than that — he did what no Israelite had ever been able to do. He did what no human had ever been able to do — he lived a life of perfect faithfulness to the will of God. Perfect obedience. Although he was equal to God, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Jesus lived a life of perfect faithfulness. Where every human was in debt to God, where every human had sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, only Jesus was truly faithful. On every possible measure, Jesus was faithful. On every possible way of accounting for what it looks like to be a Child of God, Jesus was faithful. Truly, Jesus is the only human whose God account is in the black, not the red. And really, all those other status markers that we think might push us into the black? — those things that people have thought will give them credit with God: circumcision, ethnicity, regular quiet times, law keeping, regular church attendance (even on Zoom!), sacrificial giving, a successful marriage, successful kids, the right bumper stickers — none of those things pull us out of our debt. As it written: “There is no one righteous, not even one… all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All have lost their status.
Yet for those who have faith in God’s Messiah are found in him. We are in the Messiah. We are in Christ. Remember, the King embodies his people. When we submit to Jesus as our King, that means that we are in Him. What is true for Jesus, becomes true of us. Jesus is the only line that matters in our account. Nothing else matters. No longer is our status defined by anything else, praise God for that because we will fall short. Our status comes only through the Messiah’s faithfulness. Because we are in the Messiah, his status becomes our status. His death becomes our death. His resurrection becomes our resurrection. His suffering becomes our suffering. His victory becomes our victory. His status before God is our status before God. All this is given as a gift to us through the gift of faith — through trust in Jesus alone as our Lord and Saviour. Nothing else matters. All that matters is knowing Jesus, the power of his resurrection and the partnership of his sufferings. The only status we ever need is that of being in Jesus, our Messiah.