(This is an excerpt from our book The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A Readers’ and Writers’ Guide for Believers)
Philippians Three has a strange statement at the beginning. So then, my brothers, keep on rejoicing in the Lord. It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you; indeed, it is for your safety. (3:1) You may think some things in this book are repetitive, but as Paul says, repetition aids safety. You can’t tell people too many times to keep rejoicing in the Lord. How is it for your safety? Several translations mention the idea of safety, but one says it is “necessary.” Apparently good writers repeat things for our own good.
Paul not only wants to remind us to keep rejoicing, but he also wants us to remember to be on guard against false teaching. We mentioned counterfeiting in the introduction. We wish we could just avoid counterfeit Christians, but they are all around us. They also write books, so we need to watch out for them in what we read.
In the Jewish culture, dogs are unclean. So perhaps Paul, when speaking about dogs, may have meant that we are not to accept what is unclean. Peter had a vision before preaching to Cornelius in which God showed him not to call anything common or unclean, and he had to learn that lesson more than once. Paul accused him publicly of wrongdoing when he separated from Gentiles to gain favor with visiting Jews. Peter was not to treat non-Jews earnestly seeking truth any differently from his fellow Israelites.
This is not what Paul is talking about here. He does not want people to pollute the church by inviting in those who are not cleansed from sin. Some people think we must show love for all by including everyone, regardless of whether their message is true.
Some believers participate in ecumenical meetings where people who do not believe the Scriptures and who teach heresy are allowed equal participation. We cannot love everyone so much that we allow them to cause confusion at best and corruption at worst in our churches. We should not be sucked in to believing error and watering down the word by what we read, either.
Those who put human, or even spiritual, experiences above the Word of God are evil workers. The Old Testament Scriptures warned against believing a prophet who told the people to do things the law told them not to. This might seem obvious, that a message opposite to the Scriptures is wrong, but so many people are sucked in by books communicating a heart-wrenching story, a vision of angels, a life-altering experience. Humans cannot rely on their feelings to decide who and what to worship. That’s why we have the Word of God. It is the perfect standard.
In Paul’s day, people came to the Gentile Christians and told them they had to be circumcised in order to be truly saved. There is nothing wrong with being circumcised. It is not mutilation in itself. Paul circumcised Timothy when he began to be a part of the ministry. Physical things become mutilation when they are works that people say we must have as part of salvation. Justification is by faith alone. A writer whose book demands works as part of salvation is mutilating the faith.
Paul says his former assets are liabilities, because confidence in the flesh is the opposite of confidence in Christ. We cannot save ourselves by our works. People in books can and should do good works, but not as a way to become justified.
You might think that an imitator is a fake or a bad thing. But Paul wanted to be an imitator of Christ. During our college years an instructor gave an illustration using a pattern. We lay it on a piece of fabric so that we can cut out something that is exactly the same. But what happens to us, as human beings, when we lay the pattern of Jesus Christ onto our lives and begin cutting? Sometimes God picks us up, holds us side by side with Christ, and says, “You don’t look much like My Son.”
Some of the people in the books we read, fictional or real, don’t look much like Jesus Christ. They are imitating something quite different. We don’t want to be influenced by the kinds of books that give us the wrong kinds of patterns to imitate.
Paul, as stated above, tossed everything he once valued — his human works — onto the rubbish heap. The pattern of Jewish tradition apart from the Scriptures wasn’t making him look much like the Messiah. It is because of him that I have experienced the loss of all those things. Indeed, I consider them rubbish in order to gain the Messiah. (v. 8)
Paul admonished us to do as he had done, to be
found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of the Messiah, the righteousness that comes from God and that depends on faith.
The books we read should teach this need to embrace this change, as Christ has embraced us, wholeheartedly.
I want to know the Messiah—what his resurrection power is like and what it means to share in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, though I hope to experience the resurrection from the dead. (3:10)
How many books really teach us this kind of passion to know Christ better? How many self-help books really help us toward the goal of being Christlike in every aspect of our lives?
It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already become perfect. But I keep pursuing it. But this one thing I do: Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I keep pursuing the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly call in the Messiah Jesus. (3: 12-14)
Read books about the maturing process. Don’t dwell on the past, successes or failures, but keep seeking to answer God’s call and become more like Christ. Look at it as a prize to be won, not an ordeal to be suffered through.
Our citizenship, however, is in heaven … He will change our unassuming bodies and make them like his glorious body (3: 20-21)
Many books focus on this world, this life, and barely consider heaven. If they do, they focus on near-death experiences with visions of what it will be like, disregarding what it really takes to go there. We get to heaven by his glorious power. People practically worship heaven and angels in books, but we must worship Christ and focus on him.
The Scriptures take two positions toward enemies. One is praying for their destruction. The other is Jesus Christ’s admonition to love your enemies. (Matthew 5:24)
Books that manage to balance those perspectives are excellent reading. Paul delivers his warning with a mixture of sadness and finality.
For I have often told you, and now tell you even with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of the Messiah. Their destiny is destruction. (3: 18-19)
Destiny of destruction
Loving your enemies does not mean you want them to keep on doing evil. Paul reassures believers that these people will not be able to continue to harm believers or the cause of Christ. Their days are numbered.
God of appetite
Easy believism, the prosperity gospel, and any beliefs that allow focus on self fall into the category of making your appetite your god. It is the opposite of everything Paul has been talking about. The shame is that it is common in Christianity.
Glory is shame
We read a blog that decried “divorce parties.” The writer was already angry that divorce would be considered a festive occasion. But a reader of his blog iced the cake by sagely justifying multiple divorces. What is wrong becomes right, and is then justified and even celebrated. Sin and freedom are almost synonymous in many books nowadays. Words are redefined to glorify what should be shameful.
Mind is earthly
For people who truly want to know Christ, the books written by shallow, world-bound people who claim to be Christians are easy to spot. But more and more people are losing their grip on the Scriptures and substituting expert opinions, devotional stories, commentary, studies, and popular sermons for Scriptures.