From Rubbish to Jesus

Philippians 3:1-11

November 29, 1998 | Ray Pritchard

To me the most arresting part of this passage is verse 8. I am struck by one word Paul uses to describe his own life. Listen to what he says, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” Circle the word “rubbish.” The Greek word is skubala, used only here in the New Testament. It literally means “dung” or “excrement.” As Paul looked at his background, he said, “It’s all dung in my eyes compared with the privilege of knowing Christ my Lord.”

Now why would a man use such a word to describe his own past life? Is he not being harsh? Is this some kind of hyperbole, an exaggeration to get the reader’s attention? Or does he really mean it?

Dr. Hemwall

This Sunday for the first time in many years Dr. Gus Hemwall will not be joining us for our 8:30 a.m. service. He and Helen always sat in the same place every Sunday—on the west side of the center section just under the front edge of the balcony. Every Sunday I would see Dr. Hemwall come in with Helen by his side, in the last few months walking unsteadily to his seat. I talked with him for the final time just a week before we went to Nigeria. He came up the aisle after the service walking slowly. When he saw me, he said that he had just had celebrated his 90th birthday. I congratulated him on reaching such a significant milestone and then he was gone.

At his funeral on Wednesday, I quoted from a noted motivational speaker who likes to begin each talk with this question, “Do you know why God put you where you are right now?” That’s a tough question for some of us to answer. Have you wondered about that? Why has God put you right where you are right now? That is, why are you where you are at this moment in time? Do you think it happened by chance that you are single (or married), with children at home (or long since moved away), with a good job (or stuck in a bad situation)? Or is there a larger purpose at work in your life?

Let me ask that question from a completely different perspective: What will you have to show for your life when you stand before Jesus Christ?

A good job?

A college degree?

Money in the bank?

Lots of friends?

A large reputation?

A successful career?

The praise of others?

A winning record?

A bagful of awards?

Departmental chairman?

President and CEO?

If that’s all you’ve got to show for your life, then you really don’t have much going for you. Sooner than you think, you’ll be lying in a box six feet underground with grass growing over your head. And all the things of this life won’t matter at all. Someone else will have your money and your job. Your fame will fade, your glory will disappear, and everything you now own will belong to others (and someone else will be sitting in your pew at church). You will eventually be forgotten except by those people who stumble on your gravestone 100 years from now and say, “I wonder who this guy was.”

Howard Hendricks said it this way: “Only two things in this world are eternal—the Word of God and people. It only makes sense to build your life around those things that will last forever.” The Word of God will last forever. People last forever. Everything else disappears.

Where Will You Be When …

When asked by a job interviewer about his goal in life, one man responded: “My goal in life is to go to heaven and to take as many people with me as possible.” The Apostle Paul would heartily agree with those sentiments.

I said all this last Wednesday because Dr. Hemwall discovered years ago that the real purpose of this life is to serve Jesus Christ and to advance his cause in the world. Everything else is secondary. That’s why he devoted his time to medical missions and helped found Compassion International, the Missionary Assistance Program (MAP), and the Christian Medical and Dental Society. In his own quiet way, he lived 90 years and left the world a better place because he devoted his energies to serving others in Jesus’ name. There are hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions—of people whose lives were bettered because of the organizations he established. And most of those people never even heard his name.

When the service was over, someone handed me a piece of paper with a quote from Mrs. Lance Latham, widow of the founder of the Awana club ministry. The question goes like this, “Where will you be when you get where you are going?”

Some of us need to think about that. Evidently the Apostle Paul had wrestled deeply with this question and had evaluated the entire direction of his life before and after he met Jesus. Once he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, his life was radically and utterly transformed. His values were literally turned upside down. Everything he thought was so important became like dung to him when he compared it with the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.

I want to show you from this passage how Paul came to that startling conclusion. As we move through these verses, take some time to ponder that question in the back of your mind: “Where will you be when you get where you are going?”

I. A Stern Warning 1-3

The passage begins with a stern word of warning. Evidently some false teachers had infiltrated the church at Philippi and Paul wanted to make sure the congregation knew how to handle them. In verse 2 he uses three exceedingly harsh terms to describe these false teachers. He calls them “dogs” (not house pets but wild dogs that roamed the streets) and “men who do evil” and “mutilators of the flesh.” These men were immoral, influential and injurious. They were zealous but wrong, active in the church but evil in their influence.

Evidently they were professing Jewish Christians who taught that you had to keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved. They claimed that circumcision was necessary in order to be accepted by God. To the Apostle Paul this was nothing less than heresy. It’s one thing for a man to decide he wants to keep the Law of Moses for himself, it’s something else to demand that everyone else do as he does. It’s even worse to say that if you don’t do as I do, you can’t be saved. To say that you must keep the law in order to be saved is to deny the gospel of grace. These men were mutilating the souls of the people they claimed to be helping.

Notice Paul’s answer in verse 3. When he says “we … are the circumcision,” he means that true believers have been circumcised in their hearts through faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t need a physical operation because we’ve had a spiritual heart transplant. As a result, we worship in the Spirit, we give glory to Jesus Christ, and we put no confidence in the flesh.

Let me be clear about this. Religion without Christ is dangerous. Millions of people today are trusting in their religion to get them to heaven. They believe because they were baptized as an infant (or as a child or as a teenager or as an adult) that they are going to heaven. Or they think that because they were raised as a Baptist (or Methodist or Lutheran or Church of Christ) they must be born again. It’s not so. Religion without Christ will send you to hell. You can say your prayers five times a day, you can be baptized, you can listen to Billy Graham, you can take the Lord’s Supper, you can light the Advent candle, you can even drop a million bucks in the offering plate, and if you don’t know Jesus, it’s won’t do you a bit of good.

Many religious people have “Christ-plus” faith. They are trusting in Christ plus baptism or Christ plus church membership or Christ plus going to Mass or Christ plus good works or Christ plus giving money. They love to sing that old gospel song: “Jesus paid almost all of it” because they think they’ve got to add their part to what Jesus did.

Don’t trust in your religion! It can’t save you.

Don’t trust in your parents’ religion! It can’t save you.

Don’t trust in your baptism! It can’t save you.

Don’t trust in your church attendance! It can’t save you.

Religion is good and so is baptism and church membership and many of the other outward trappings of Christianity. But if your heart has never been circumcised by faith in Christ, you are not saved and you are not going to heaven. That’s the warning Paul wants you to understand.

II. A Misplaced Confidence 4-6

He goes on to give a personal illustration from his own life. Here is Paul’s personal spiritual pedigree. He lists seven different points about his background:

A. Right Ritual: Circumcized on the eighth day

B. Right Race: An Israelite

C. Right Family: The tribe of Benjamin

D. Right Religion: Hebrew of the Hebrews

E. Right Occupation: A Pharisee

F. Right Zeal: A persecutor of the church

G. Right Morality: Outwardly keeping all of God’s commands

If you aren’t impressed, it’s only because you aren’t a Jew living in the first century. There’s a term we sometimes use to describe people from a very high position in society. We call them “blue bloods.” Paul was a Jewish “blue blood.” He was as “in” as you could be in the first century. He had it all—Jewish descent, an excellent Jewish education, high social standing, a reputation for keeping the Law, and a reputation for moral purity. What more could you want?

Now stop right there. That’s the whole point of this passage. What more could you want? If being religious could get you heaven, then Paul should have had a guaranteed front-row seat right next to Moses and Elijah. His spiritual resume was as good as it gets. Talk about your high draft pick. He was number one.

The point is, most people in the world stop right here and go no further. They take a look at their spiritual resume and figure, It’s not too bad. Maybe it’s not as good as Paul’s, but it’s surely good enough to squeak into heaven. They go to church occasionally, they try to be good, they haven’t killed anyone lately, they try to help others in need, and they figure that somehow it’s all going to work out in the end.

They subscribe to the oldest religion in the world—the Do-the-best-you-can religion. They figure as long as you do your best, when you die, God will smile, shake his head, and say, “Aw, come on in.” Most people sincerely believe that doing your best is enough. What more could you want?

III. A New Accounting 7-8

And that brings us to the third section of this passage. As Paul considers his life before and after coming to Christ, he does a kind of mental accounting to draw up a spiritual profit-loss statement. On the Profit side he puts two words: Jesus Christ. On the Loss side he lists those seven things he used to brag about. Think about that for a moment. Paul is casting aside his national heritage, his ethnic background, his religious training, his family heritage, his years of education, his training as a Pharisee, his reputation for religious zeal, and his standing as a man of high moral character. He’s saying, “It doesn’t matter at all. It’s all dung to me. The only thing that matters in life is knowing Jesus Christ.”

I only have one question at this point—but it’s a big one. Why would Paul come to such a radical conclusion? When we read about “rubbish,” we ordinarily assume he’s talking about things God calls sinful. For most of us, the “rubbish” of life involves angry thoughts, bad habits, dabbling in pornography, sexual immorality, gross misconduct, idolatry, witchcraft, racial prejudice, an uncontrolled temper, and the other “bad stuff” that we know is wrong. If I said to you, “Get the rubbish out of your life,” how many would instinctively think about your ethnic heritage or your college education or your years as a Sunday School teacher? But that’s precisely what Paul is talking about in Philippians 3. For Paul, anything that keeps you from Christ is “rubbish” and “dung” no matter how good it looks to you.

It’s not that the things on Paul’s list were wrong in themselves. Most of them were morally neutral. There was nothing wrong with being circumcised (God commanded it in the Old Testament), nothing wrong with being from the tribe of Benjamin, nothing wrong with zealously keeping God’s law. The heritage issues were things he couldn’t change about his own background and his lifestyle choices (with the exception of persecuting the church) weren’t in themselves sinful. But they were “rubbish” to him because he took inordinate pride in them, he looked down on others because of them, he evaluated everything in the light of them, and in the end, those human things were the “dung” that had to be thrown overboard so that he could come to Jesus.

A person may say, “I’m a Presbyterian. My father was a Presbyterian, my grandfather was a Presbyterian, and all my ancestors for 12 generations were Presbyterians. I am descended from John Knox on my father’s side and Jonathan Edwards on my mother’s side, and both of them are descended from John Calvin. To which I reply, “That’s really neat.” You should be proud of such a fine heritage but don’t make the mistake of thinking that your heritage gets you any special favors from God. You must be saved by grace just like everyone else. That truth applies to all of us. Just substitute Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Brethren, Methodist or ________________ (fill in the blank with your favorite religious group). It even applies if you come from one of the founding families of Calvary Memorial Church.

Born in the Heart of Dixie

I should add that after I preached this sermon a good friend who hails from Great Britain thanked me for my comments. But, he added, he could not imagine ever feeling that way about his British heritage. Then with a smile, he said that he might feel that way if he were an American.

Behind that quip is a good point. All of us come from one background or another. I happen to be a son of the South—born and raised in the heart of Dixie. Before that my father’s family immigrated from Wales several hundred years ago and my mother’s family comes from Scotland, Ireland, and before that from the area of Europe we call the Czech Republic. I am very happy with my family heritage—and even “proud” of it in one sense of the word. And I would imagine those who are Italian or Filipino or Nigerian or Greek or French or Norwegian or Brazilian would say the same thing. And well they should.

There is no reason not to take pride in your ethnic or national heritage—to appreciate the good points and to learn from the inevitable mistakes made by your ancestors. But (and this is the point of Philippians 3) if you think that being Japanese or Indian or Portuguese or British or Eskimo somehow puts you in a better position with God, you are sadly mistaken. And if you use your national heritage to look down at other people because you feel superior to them, you haven’t yet understood your own sin and how desperately you stand in need of God’s grace. As Paul did a new accounting of his life, that’s the conclusion he came to—that his “advantages” didn’t matter in God’s eyes and that in some ways they actually kept him from discovering God’s grace until he learned to count them as dung compared with the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.

IV. A New Life Goal 9-11

I wonder if we understand how radical this perspective really is. Look at what we have in Christ:

A. Full Justification—v. 9

B. Continual Sanctification—v. 10

C. Future Glorification—v. 11

Some people consider verse 11 a strange verse because Paul seems to be expressing doubt about his own resurrection when he says, “somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” I think he means to say that Jesus is his Plan A and he has no Plan B. I think he’s saying, “I’m trusting in Jesus so fully that I don’t have a fallback position. If Jesus doesn’t come through for me, my body is going to rot in the grave.” That’s what salvation by faith is all about. It means trusting Jesus so completely that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there.

Here’s the point. Put all that we have in Christ on one side of the ledger and then put your spiritual resume on the other side. What we have in Christ is so great that nothing in this world can compare to it.

Paul expresses the goal of his life twice in these verses. He says in verse 9: “That I may be found in him.” He wants to live in such a way that when the end comes, he will be found (by God) in Christ. Take a piece of paper and an open book. Let the open book represent Christ and the piece of paper your life. Now take the paper, place it in the open book, and then close the book so that the paper is completely covered. Now the paper (your life) is “in” the book (Jesus Christ). It’s not enough be “near” Christ or “next to” Christ. True salvation means to be “in” Christ so that when God looks at you, he doesn’t see you, he sees Jesus instead. That’s what Paul means in verse 9 when he speaks of having a righteousness that comes from God by faith. To be “in Christ” means that God imputes (or reckons) the righteousness of Christ to your account. You get the credit for Jesus’ perfect righteousness.

Then he says in verse 10: “I want to know Christ.” Whenever I see those words, I can’t help but think of Len Hoppe who died three years ago this coming January. Len had a passion to know Jesus deeply and personally and that passion infiltrated every area of his life. When he died just a few days short of his 43rd birthday, his wife Roberta had those words inscribed on his tombstone—”I want to know Christ.”

That brings me back to the question I asked earlier: “Where will you be when you get where you are going?” When you finally come to the end of your life, what will you have to show for the 30 years or the 50 years or the 70 years or the 90 years you were on this earth? For Dr. Hemwall and for Len Hoppe, the answer is the same. They ended up in heaven because that’s what they were living for on the earth.

The problem so many people have is that they are still playing in the rubbish heap of life and their hands are covered with the dung of earthly gain that counts for nothing compared to knowing Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago the Lord asked the question this way: “What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36). We’re all on a journey from time to eternity. Sooner than we think, we’ll be in a casket and people will be weeping over us. What will they say about you then? What will they put on your tombstone? “He spent his life on things that didn’t matter” or “He met Jesus and his life was never the same.”

Do you know Jesus? Or are you still trusting in your religion to get you to heaven? I urge you to do a new accounting of your life and figure out what matters—and what doesn’t. If you don’t know Jesus, you’re in danger of losing your eternal soul. In this world and the next, nothing matters but knowing Christ and being found in him. Are you willing to trade your own spiritual resume for the righteousness of Jesus Christ?

Would you like to go to heaven? Here are five words that can take you there: Only Jesus and Jesus only. May God help you to leave the rubbish of your good deeds—and run to the Cross where you can find new life in Christ.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?