Being the People of God: How Do We Know (Philippians 3.1-11)?

           How do we know we belong to or are the true people of God?  Jews living during the period of second-temple Judaism (6th century BC – 70 AD) would have answered the question with a simple strait forward answer: keep our covenant with God.  Though the meaning of keeping covenant differed with the various Jewish sects that existed during this period of history, it was keeping of the covenant that marked one as belonging to Israel – the true people of God.[1]

          Of course when such thinking is engrained into one’s very worldview, it is extremely difficult to discard in light of a new revelation from God, namely Jesus of Nazareth.  So it was with those Jews who became believers in Jesus as God’s Messiah.  They believed and became followers of Jesus while retaining their convictions regarding the covenant God made with Abraham.  Had the gospel of Jesus Christ never advanced to the Gentiles then perhaps this would never have become an issue but it did.  Suddenly these Jewish believers wanted to impose their convictions regarding the covenant upon the Gentiles which caused a major crisis in the new emerging Jesus movement that we call the church.  The crisis was both theological and practical:  Must Gentile believers keep the covenant and if so, then must they not be circumcised too and keep Torah as well?  And if they do not, then they obviously do not belong to and are not the true people of God?

          Many Jewish Christians answered these questions in the affirmative and wanted to insist on Gentile Christians being circumcised and keeping Torah in addition to having faith in Jesus Christ.  The Apostle Paul, a Jewish Christian himself, would have nothing to do with it.  If the Jewish believers wanted to boast in their keeping covenant, Paul insisted he could boast even more in v. 4-6:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.[2]

Paul’s point is that if keeping the covenant is the means by which God’s true people are identified, Paul can out-do the Jewish believers insisting on such heresy.

          However, Paul knows that the gospel of Jesus Christ has made all these religious accomplishments pointless in trying to identify oneself as belonging and being the true people of God.  Twice, Paul says he regards these accomplishments as “loss” in v. 7-8.  In fact, Paul is so insistent on the worthless value of such accomplishments for this purpose that he regards them as “rubbish” in v. 8.  The term translated as rubbish was used to speak of garbage or excrement.[3]  This is why Wright suggests the term is probably more appropriately translated as crap or another term even more vulgar.[4]  The problem with the Jewish believers placing their confidence in keeping the covenant – what Paul has spoken of as “flesh” (v. 3-4) – was that they were turning their national and ethnic identities into the means by which they existed as the people of God.[5]

          Why would Paul regard such accomplishments with such disdain?  The simple answer is that once Paul came to believe in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord, he realized that any attempts at being righteous on his own merit were pointless.  It wasn’t about what Paul could do anymore.  It was about what God had done in Jesus Christ.  Thus Paul understood that what marked him as belonging to and being part of the true people of God was that which “comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith in Christ” (v. 9).[6]  It was faith in Christ and not covenant keeping that marked Paul or anyone else, Jew and Gentile, as belonging to the true people of God. 

          Why is this so important?  Eleven years ago in 1999 when I began pursuing biblical studies in preparation for God’s missional calling, if you would have asked me how I knew I was part of and belonged to the true people of God (i.e., the true church of Jesus Christ), I would have responded by saying because I have been baptized into Jesus Christ (for the remission of my sins); that I gather each week with other Christians and our worship is done according to scripture which includes participating in communion; that I live a moral life that is in keeping with the teachings of the New Testament; and the list could be exhausted further with greater detail but I think you understand my point.  What are such accomplishments?  They were accomplishments used to mark myself and the group of congregations, the Churches of Christ, of which I am happily affiliated with as the belonging too and being the true people of God and mark other believers in Jesus Christ whose religious accomplishments did not match mine (with the various doctrinal details) as not being of and not belonging to the true people of God.  Whereas the Jewish believers were placing their confidence in their national and ethnic identities rather than Christ, I was placing my confidence in the identities of the Churches of Christ and my doctrinal understanding of scripture rather than faith in Christ.  I know I am not the only person to have made such a mistake nor am I the last person to make that mistake (some still do).

          I now believe that what marks us as being a Christian, the true people of God is faith…specifically faith in what God has and continues to do in Christ Jesus…and not faith in what I have done as a follower of Jesus.  Only God truly knows who truly belongs to his true people and who do not.  I nor anyone else has the calling of being judge.  However, I do know that there are many people who profess the name of Jesus by faith in what God is doing in Jesus Christ even if their doctrine and piety is not expressed in ways that I believe are taught in scripture.  I also know that despite my best attempt to interpret scripture faithfully and living according to the sound-teaching of scripture, my doctrine and piety is not perfect either.  But this passage is not talking about faith in our ability to attain perfect doctrine and piety.  It is talking about faith in Christ.

          What then does this suggest?  Does faith in Christ as that which marks us as belonging to and being a part of the true people of God nullify the necessity of such biblical practices as baptism and communion or moral/ethical living?  Absolutely not!  Further, nothing about this passage changes how people should respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Scripture still calls people to repentance and baptism as well as faithful living and participation in a local community of Christians for worship, fellowship, and ministry as God’s missional people.  Nor does this passage suggest that one cannot cease to belong and be a part of the true people of God (but that is another entire issue).  I still believe that as Christians we ought to strive diligently to be good students of scripture, who prayerfully and in humility interpret scripture so that, being led by the Holy Spirit, we will be obedient to God’s will as followers of Jesus Christ.

          Faith is what counts.  Not faith in ourselves and our biblical practices but faith in what God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ on our behalf.  That is why we confess with the Apostle Paul that we want “…to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead” (v. 10-11).

___________________________

            [1] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1 Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 262.  “It was the covenant that drove some to ‘zeal’ for Torah, others to military action, others to monastic-style-piety.  The covenant raised, and helped to answer, the question as to who really belonged to Israel.”  See also N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), 73-74.

           [2] All scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

          [3] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed., rev. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 932.

          [4] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 149.

          [5] G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 222. 

          [6] There are a couple of exegetical questions that are too exhaustive to deal with at the present time.  The first question is whether dia pisteō Christou should be translated as ‘through faith in Christ’ or  ‘through the faith of Christ.’  The second question is whether tēn ek theou dikaiosynēn should be translated as ‘the righteousness from God’ or ‘the righteousness of God’.  Both questions are critical to the over all exegesis of Philippians.  The later is beyond the scope of purposes here.  As for the former, without trying to dismiss the significance of the question or resolve it, I agree with Fowl that God’s righteousness is established “through the faithfulness of Christ… to which believers respond on the basis of faith [in Christ];” Stephen E. Fowl , Philippians, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 154.

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2 responses to “Being the People of God: How Do We Know (Philippians 3.1-11)?

  1. Good stuff, and how is the new work going?

    Your Friend,

    Matthew

    • Matthew,

      Thanks for the comment. Everything is off to a great start. The congregation has a real deep love for God and neighbor and is eager to see that love result in action. I’ve been preaching through Philippians which I love because it puts the gospel of Jesus Christ back on center-stage…which is always good to be reminded of.

      How are them mountains?

      Grace and peace,

      Rex

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