“The Gospel & Ethnic Animosity” – Philippians 3:1-7
Our text for today comes from Philippians 3:1-7. These are the words of God:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
If you look down further in the chapter, Paul says, “For his sake I count everything as rubbish in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Now, those words are at the heart of the gospel. Not trusting in our own record to make us right with God but receiving the righteous record of Christ by faith.
I have to tell you that original I planned to preach verses 1-11 in a single sermon, but as I studied the passage, I realized that these verses, as rich as they are in theology—they are equally rich in practical application. So, we’re taking three Sundays to go through these same verses, but we’ll look at them from various perspectives. Next week we’ll define what we mean by justification by faith. On Easter we’ll consider how the gospel leads us through suffering into resurrection. But today, our focus will be on verse 1-8: how the gospel of grace through faith changes our understanding of race.
Let’s begin by summarizing the text:
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Teaching often involves repetition, and Paul isn’t bothered to keep teaching the same lesson over and over to the churches. (v. 1) One lesson the Apostles taught over and again was the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. (Rom. 4:11)
“Look out for those who mutilate the flesh,” isn’t a warning about indigenous tribes who carve up bodies; rather it’s a warning against Judaizers who pervert the gospel by conflating the Covenant of Abraham with the Covenant of Grace. They’ve become as Gentile dogs. Rather than “the circumcision,” they’ve become, “the mutilators.” (v.2)
The true “circumcision” isn’t the cutting of an external organ, it’s the removal of the old dead heart of sin. (Deuteronomy 10; Jer. 4:1-4; Rom. 2:28-29) Christians, therefore, put no confidence in the works of the flesh for their justification. (v. 3)
It’s here that Paul begins to dismantle one of the oldest false-salvations in history: that of ethnic and cultural superiority; trusting in one’s ethnic and cultural heritage as a means of justifying oneself. And if it were possible for race and culture to be a savior, no one would be safer, says Paul, than himself. (v. 4)
Here is Paul’s ethnic, cultural, and religious resume: circumcised on the 8th day (Lev. 12:3); this set him apart from pagans. The claim of belonging to Israel meant he was a naturally born member of God’s covenant people, not a second-class convert. Beyond this, he was from a prominent, kingly tribe, and was a Hebrew of Hebrews—not a pureblood Jew practicing Greek culture. As an adult he joined a strict religious order—the Pharisees. (v.5) And what about cultural and racial fanaticism? Paul persecuted the church (Acts 8). What about religious radicalism? Blameless. (v. 7)
But when he met Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was nailed to a bloody cross for Paul’s pardon and forgiveness, he realized that his pride in his ethnic and religious fanaticism was the very thing that was destroying him—and even now in the 21st century, (2,000 years later) racial fanaticism is still devouring us.
One of the reasons the gospel was given was to conquer racial enmity and animosity. All humanity descends from one pair of humans: Adam & Eve which means that no matter how diverse in their physical appearance, economic prospects, or cultural heritage the descendants of that original pair are, we are all brothers and sisters. There is one human race.
And yet, from Genesis 4 onward we see brother turn against brother, clan against clan, tribe against tribe, kingdom against kingdom, and nation against nation. It should, therefore, be no surprise that one of the reasons for the gospel is to put an end to the most bitter ethnic vainglory and racial animosity in history, that of Jew & Gentile:
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)
Do you see what these two passages are saying? If you believe the truth of the gospel—the good news—then racial animosity has been crucified in Christ. Walls of hostility have been struck and broken down by the cross of the bleeding Savior. If you believe that every human being is so wicked that God had to kill his own son to redeem them—then no one can glory in their cultural or ethnic heritage. Therefore, to pridefully elevate a racial or cultural identity above any other, as if any race has more or less intrinsic worth is wicked and foolish boasting.
The white slave holders of the 17th century cannot glory in their whiteness as if that is what saves them. The woke left of the 21st century cannot glory in their anti-whiteness as if that saves them. There is only one true justification and it’s the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.
SHEDDING IDOLATRIES, NOT CULTURE
So, what are we to think about the various cultures of the world? Every human culture and racial history contain goodness and evil, right and wrong, achievements and regrets. Whatever good we find in every culture we call God’s common grace. (Matt. 5:45) Whatever evil we find in every single culture is a result of human depravity. (Gen. 3)
And, whenever you see someone come to the living God in the Bible, they don’t lose their ethnic or cultural history or identity. The Gentiles who Paul reached weren’t required to jettison their cultures. They were called to embrace Christ above their culture.
When you submit yourself to Christ, you are submitting all of yourself—your will, your desires, your family, and even your cultural heritage—but you aren’t submitting those things so they can be destroyed. You are submitting them so they can be cleansed and purified and resurrected. Christianity is the one religion in the world, that when you embrace it you don’t lose your cultural identity—you only lose your cultural idolatries.
Paul’s ethnic and cultural heritage was not revolting, but his viewing of that heritage as a sign of his superiority. What sickened Paul was not his race or his religion, it was his leaning upon it and trusting in it as his source of commendation.
NO CONDEMNATION NOW I DREAD
So, what does Jesus have to say to those who are guilty of glorying in their racial identity, or looking to their cultural heritage as if it could save them. First, he says, confess this great evil. Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and call out to him for mercy and pardon. Whatever gain you had from your understanding of race—count it as loss for the sake of Christ.
And when you do that—you will hear the words that the world can never speak to you:
It is finished. (Jn. 19:30) There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…For God has done what the law could not do. He’s done what the slave holders could not do. He’s done what the white fragility crowd cannot do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (Rom. 8:13) The old has passed away. Behold all things are made new. (2 Cor. 5:17)
Why can’t our world utter those words? Because the grace of God is free grace, and the world cannot have free grace. Guilt can be monetized, but grace cannot. In rejecting the Christ who died for sinners, the world can’t allow sin and guilt and grievances to die and stay dead. So, you are either embracing the death of your sin in Christ and making Biblical restitution for your sins, or you are continually dying for your ethnic sins. There is no other way. This gospel covers every sin that is truly repented of. This grace is free to all who confess and believe. Jesus Christ died and rose for the sins of black and white men alike. He died for the lazy, the bitter, the drunks, and whores. He died for white collar embezzlers and those who cheat on their taxes.
So come to Christ. Bring your sins to him. Lay them down at his feet so that they can die, and you can be raised to walk in righteousness.