There was a time when Muhammed Ali was perhaps the world’s finest specimen of athletic strength. In his heyday, the heavyweight champ of world could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. And of course, there was no one more impressed with the devastating power and ability of Muhammed Ali than . . . Muhammed Ali. He could give sports reporters and ABC’s Howard Cosell plenty of lively, self-serving copy, to the point where they dubbed him “the mouth that roared.” Truthfully, having scored a seventh-round knockout of Sonny Liston and attaining the world title an unprecedented three times, he did have something to crow about.
Back in the 1960s, humorist Art Buchwald wrote, tongue in cheek, about the trouble the United States Army was having with its newest recruit. “Cassius Clay,” as he was known by back then, had just been drafted into military service, and didn’t want to go. As Buchwald told the story, the raw recruit refused to be just a lowly private. “Me a private? I am too pretty,” he boasted. “I will fight any general for his job.” When it came time for weapons training, he was disdainful. “I don’t need no gun,” he sniffed. “I can make mincemeat of the enemy with my bare hands.” Soon the other recruits grew resentful, asking: why does Army need all the rest of us when it has Clay? We could have all stayed at home.”
Undeterred—in the Buchwald telling—the boastful boxer continued his soliloquy. “I am the greatest. Just tell the Russians that Cassius Clay is in the army, and they will shiver and shake. I am your secret weapon. Send me to Berlin.” He also had a penchant for poems: “Oh love, oh joy, I am so great. I got Liston in seven and I’ll get Khrushchev in eight.”
Well, it was good clean fun as only Buchwald could concoct. Another story, probably also apochryphal, has a flight attendant going up and down the aisles of the plane asking the passengers to buckle up. Lo and behold, Muhammed Ali is sitting there in first class. “Uh, please fasten your seatbelt, Mr. Ali,” she says. He gives her an offended look. “Superman don’t need no seatbelt,” he scolds her. The airline employee takes his insolence calmly. Lowering her voice, she whispers to him: “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”
Well, what does this have to do with you and me as we live our lives outside the boxing ring? Here’s the application for the rest of us. If you’re proud of your résumé, whether it involves boxing, golf, or your high school GPA, the book of Philippians is sober reading. It is human nature, and it always has been human nature, to think that our TKOs and victories in life should count for something. Our achievements in life are what give us self-confidence. They define who we are. If you manage to fly over to Tibet next May and struggle up a certain mountain that stands 29,035 feet high, well, then you can come back to church potlucks here and boast that you have been to the very top of Everest. For the rest of your life, that will be precisely WHO you are: an Everest summiteer. You will want to make sure you’re introduced that way at Rotary luncheons or family reunions from that moment on. The moment the last returns come in on Election Day, that victorious candidate wants his staff and perhaps even his spouse and kids to refer to him in a new way: “Mr. President.”
Here in chapter three of Paul’s letter to the people living in Philippi, he has a chapter titled “No Confidence in the Flesh.” For a few moments, he addresses the biblical custom of circumcision, and the confidence the Jewish people placed in the orthodoxy of that Genesis rite. Now, here in this 21st century, this particular religious rite has ceased to have salvation significance for the people of God. But one of the driving motivations in life of any religious person is to place confidence—or perhaps we should say misplace confidence—in something about himself or herself: a graduate degree. A prestigious job. Their Bible-reading habits. Church attendance. Their involvement with mission program. It might be this or it might be that . . . but for sure it is something. And in the time of this letter, people placed their hope in this minor bit of surgery.
What happens here? You and I find Paul verbally blistering these “mutilators of the flesh” who believe and teach that there is spiritual merit, salvation credit, to be gained by a ceremony like circumcision. He then launches into his own résumé . . . as if to say, “Hey, if heaven’s going by diplomas and citations, I’ll have the biggest mansion on Salvation Street. Let me tell you a bit about my own portfolio.”
The scholars who provide Bible helps for the New International Version describe the list this way: “Paul’s pre-Christian confidence, rooted in his Jewish pedigree, privileges, and attainments.” In the Adventist paraphrase entitled Clear Word, Jack Blanco renders verse four and five this way: “If anyone could put confidence in what he has done, I certainly could. I could challenge anyone for these reasons: I was circumcised an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin when I was eight days old.”
It’s helpful to remember that Benjamin is one of only two faithful tribes which didn’t secede from the House of David in Old Testament history. Paul goes on: “I grew up and was trained in the strictest Pharisaic tradition. If there ever was a real Hebrew, I was one. I kept the Jewish laws so well that I was made a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish national council! Sincere? Was I ever! In fact, I was so sincere that the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem entrusted me with the responsibility to rid the country of Christians. As far as keeping all other rules and regulations of the Jews is concerned, I was so thorough in what I did that I was considered blameless.” (5, 6)
There’s an excellent Bible study resource that is a blessing here in Philippians. It’s entitled the Tyndale New Testament Commentary, and scholar Ralph Martin provides a classic, ticking-off-on-the-fingers list of seven things, seven bragging points. And even Paul was prone to a bit of résumé padding. It’s significant that the first four of his seven claims are just “birthright things.” Paul was just plain born into these advantages. Here they are:
Again, these four testimonials mean very little, since he received them all in the maternity ward of the hospital. So he goes on and adds three more:
Here is the point Paul himself wants to take us to understanding. If this were the basis of salvation, if degree and pedigree were the testing points, then Paul absolutely qualifies. He’s in the club, the inner circle. By any scorecard, these seven points would qualify a man or woman.
But Paul goes right on to declare something in big red type. In fact, he clicks on the bold and the italic and the underlined buttons on his computer laptop, so we will not misunderstand. This list of seven wonderful things? They are not where a person finds his assurance of salvation! His list of seven counts for zero; in fact, these accumulated points count up as a negative, a loss.
Instead, Paul humbly turns to two words: Jesus Christ. Everything else is a loss except for knowing Jesus. Nothing else is going to matter on Judgment Day except for being a friend of Jesus.
There’s a nice Adventist gentleman most of you have heard of. He is tall and friendly; he is dynamic. He is a scholarly, well-educated Christian. He demonstrates real leadership talents. As a young man he went to seminary and received a good education, enabling him to be a pastor and administrator. He served the Lord in Europe for many productive years; his efforts were a great blessing to many believers. As time went by and his hard work and spiritual gifts were noted by others, he rose through the ranks and received various leadership opportunities.
Well, you know the story. In the year 1999, Jan Paulsen suddenly became the president for our entire Adventist denomination. All at once he was the spiritual leader of something like thirteen million Adventists! Now, that’s a résumé!
So we must ask: what is the basis of Paulsen’s salvation? Well, it’s the same for him as it is for me: Jesus’ sacrifice for him on the cross. It’s not his degrees: honorary or earned. It’s not the frequent flier miles he accrues as he circles the globe many, many times a year, dedicating churches and hospitals and meeting heads of state. It’s not the books he writes; it’s not the telepromptered sermons he delivers via satellite to global audiences.
No, it’s not any of those things. Jan Paulsen is eagerly planning to have a home in heaven and a place in the worship of God there . . . because he accepted the shed blood of Jesus for him on a Friday afternoon just outside Jerusalem. Nothing more than that, nothing less than that
You know, sometimes we have someone come to this church who is from the struggling “wrong side of the tracks.” Life has dealt them many hard blows, and perhaps they are in our Sabbath School class without much education. They fill out an offering envelope with very poor handwriting and with mixed-up grammar. Or maybe they’re too poor even to put a dollar in the plate. Other people write letters to this church office, or perhaps to our Adventist media ministries, and the box number on the return address lets us know this letter is coming from a prison. Inside, in a painful scrawl, an inmate confesses major, blockbuster sins.
In terms of bragging rights or college credits or résumés, such a person would have little chance of making the mark. And if you and I didn’t have Philippians three, we might think that only good typists or people who stay out of Leavenworth or who have been to Yale can get into heaven. But the good news is that those smeared-up letters seem to know the necessary two words: Jesus Christ. Those two words are their hope and your hope and my hope and even President Jan Paulsen’s hope
Isn’t it ironic, in terms of how the world thinks, that our human résumés can end up being less that zero! Norman Gulley, professor of theology at our own Southern Adventist University, tells an interesting story in his excellent book, Christ Is Coming! He has a chapter on purgatory, and it reminded him of a university exam he had at Newbold College over in England some years ago. The professor handed out some of those dreaded “ blue books” with thirty or so pages he was supposed to fill. The general idea was to simply write and write, as fast and as furiously as you can on assigned topics.
So he sat there ready to take this semester test with his fellow persecut-ees. As he glanced over the exam, it consisted of five tough theological questions. Real brainbusters, all of them. Well, his pen skimmed rapidly across the blank pages, filling them in with every insight, every key text, every doctrinal argument he could think of. Now, Gulley enjoyed several advantages. He was blessed with knowledge, with a rich and descriptive vocabulary. He was able to articulate extensive explanations. In other words, he was really cooking . In his gut he knew that he was successfully hitting the high points. Things were going well.
Unfortunately he was also racing the clock. There were not many minutes left by time he got to Questions Four and Five. Worse, those were the two topics he actually knew best. Rats! He could really have waxed eloquent if given more time. He could certainly have nailed an extra couple of A+ scores onto his total. But he comforted himself with the knowledge that, overall, he’d done pretty well.
Just as the closing bell rang he chanced to notice a small line at the top of the exam: “Pick any THREE”
What? Pick any three? Why, he could have done one of the first three, then really given a blue-ribbon essay on #4 and #5, the two that he knew cold. In a flash Gulley realized that what he thought was his great advantage, his skill and knowledge, had actually been working against him these past two hours. All that prosy writing, the flowery words, the extra-long illustrations he had crammed in on numbers one through three . . . had, instead of helping, cost him big-time.
Here’s the point. As we study what the Holy Spirit is endeavoring to teach us here in Philippians three, Paul reminds us that the same thing can happen to a person seeking salvation. We can pile up what looks like advantage points, great résumé fillers. Paul himself had a curriculum vitae second to no one in religious world. In terms of orthodoxy, he’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and gone on to add a whole place setting.
But then Paul shreds his résumé and gives this stark announcement: “All of this counts for zero.” In fact he takes it down even farther; these advantages, these pluses—are really hindrances! Minuses! Notice verses seven and eight: “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”
In this world, what are normally considered assets? Well, money. Have you ever hit a single computer button while using software like TurboTax and suddenly found yourself $2,500 poorer than you thought you were? Notice that the world actually calls bank accounts and possessions exactly that: assets. We count them as pluses even when they get in the way of our true assets. Often we discover, in terms of seeking Christ, of desiring fellowship with God in heaven, that money can often be a liability rather than a blessing. We don’t need I Timothy 6:10 to tell us that the love of money is the root of all evil; we know that already. For our journey to heaven money can sometimes be the biggest negative you pack along.
Let’s consider the so-called advantage of power. Is power a good thing? We usually call it a plus: we list the jobs we’ve held, the number of employees we’ve supervised. It’s true that sometimes godly people can use power to lead themselves and others to Jesus. But how often does it go the other way? How often does power corrupt and keep us far away from the ways and methods of humble Jesus?
Perhaps you remember watching on C-SPAN in late 1998, right at the end of the President Clinton impeachment saga and the last moments of the Lewinsky scandal. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had just resigned as Republican leader after some disappointing election results. A leader named Bob Livingston ascended rapidly, rather abruptly, to become the new Speaker of the House in our United States Congress. All at once he enjoyed visibility, influence, a high profile. “What an advantage!” he must have thought to himself. “This is wonderful!” He probably got to move to a larger office, get the use of a limousine, be assigned a personal plane for his travels back and forth. The voters in his district must have been ecstatic. Aides were no doubt giddy with anticipation over their sudden newfound fortunes. Being Speaker, top man in House, was sure to be a great plus in all their futures.
Well, not so fast. If you remember, a certain “men’s magazine,” known for its X-rated stories and titillating features, was out looking for dirt, for gossip, sexual peccadilloes. As this story developed, they immediately targeted him for destruction. Instead of looking for motel receipts and proof of improper liaisons in the lives of other, less-noticed politicians, editor Larry Flynt now went after Bob Livingston. And this new high-profile leader discovered that fame and power, instead of being his advantages, were the twin nightmares of his entire political life. He soon began to wish that he was sitting in the back row in the corner like before.
It’s no wonder Paul looks back to his past, at all the perks he once had. In the Sanhedrin he had mastered the highest levels of orthodoxy. In terms of obedience he was a black-belt believer. Verse eight has Paul pulling out of his thesaurus just about the strongest language you’ll find anywhere in the Word of God. How does he feel now about his former so-called “advantages”? “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ.”
The things that the world considers great blessings, star points on our fact sheets, are often negatives if we’re seeking Christ and friendship with Him. Theologian Karl Barth pointedly observes: “He rejects them with horror [his past good points], and treats them as liabilities.” In the Tyndale commentary, Martin puts it this way: “The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash – along with everything else I used to take credit for.”
It’s hard to do, isn’t it . . . and it’s a different pain, a unique sacrifice for each of us. How can we give up that “Everest” identity? Psychologist Leonard Felder authored a book entitled The Ten Challenges, which describes how God’s Exodus 20 law actually helps bring us to a point of emotional wellness. He tells about a woman who came to him for counseling. She had a rather unique ability to slice-and-dice other people with her tongue. No one came out unscathed after one of her verbal assaults? She had lost friends and jobs over this character flaw, but simply couldn’t stop. Even when Felder pointed out how she was losing out, she plaintively asked: “How can I give up that identity of being a verbal warrior?” It is always hard to surrender the building blocks of our self-worth.
Let’s move on to verse nine and get back on a positive track, shall we? “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” All Paul’s past accomplishments, remember, had to do with righteousness and obedience: all good things! But they were his good things! He was obeying—or trying to—in his own power. All his goodness, and it was a counterfeit goodness that made him capable of persecuting, even killing, and being proud of it . . . was separate from Calvary. It was his own little pile of bricks trying to reach up to heaven.
That makes this a tricky, sobering, slippery challenge because, in a sense, this is “good rubbish.” It is the “rubbish” of obedience, of keeping the law, of doing good deeds, of being in church each Sabbath morning, of memorizing Bible verses. These are all gold-star activities, but if they’re done to earn salvation, if they’re performed to earn a home in heaven apart from Jesus and His death for us, then these things are negatives. They’re way below zero.
Just for fun let me close with this idea. What if, all of a sudden, the NBA changed all of the rules in basketball? What if jumping high were the worst thing a player could do? What if high-flying dunk shots always brought a penalty? What if putting the ball in the basket gave two points to the opposing team? Well, what is superstar Kobe Bryant good at? The last time I checked, he excels at jumping high, dunking the ball, putting that orange sphere in the hole. And with this head-spinning change of rules, everything that had, up till now, made him a multi-million-dollar franchise man for the Los Angeles Lakers, would instantly be negatives.
You’d have to start over, anxiously consult the rulebook, and then ask, “What does it say here is important now?” In this Rule Book called the Bible, the one spiritual rule for the 21st century is simply this: “The surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2009. Click here for usage guidelines.
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