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Author:Rev. Mendel Retief
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 Free Reformed Churches of Australia - FRCA
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
 Kelmscott, Western Australia
Title:Rejoice in the LORD; not in the flesh
Text:Philippians 3:1-3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps. 9: 1, 4, 5

Ps. 93: 1, 4

Ps. 84: 2, 6

Ps. 71: 8, 10, 12, 13

Ps. 62: 1, 4


Scripture reading:       1 Cor. 1: 26 – 31; Phil. 3: 1 – 4: 1

Text:                              Phil. 3: 1 – 3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Rejoice in the Lord; not in the flesh        

Ps. 9: 1, 4, 5

Ps. 93: 1, 4

Ps. 84: 2, 6

Ps. 71: 8, 10, 12, 13

Ps. 62: 1, 4


Scripture reading:       1 Cor. 1: 26 – 31; Phil. 3: 1 – 4: 1

Text:                              Phil. 3: 1 – 3



Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,


Our text this morning is about boasting in the Lord, and not trusting in ourselves.

In ourselves we are totally corrupt.  

When we look at ourselves we have nothing to be proud about.


Not even our faith is of ourselves (Eph. 2: 8).  

Yes, even our faith is a gracious gift of God to His elect.

And He did not choose us because we were worthy of election.

Instead, God elected the worst of people, and the least, to be His children.


The apostle says to the Corinthians:


Look at yourself, brothers, you are not the most cleaver people in the world.   God did not call you because you were special, or noble.   Instead, God called the foolish, the weak and the base.   God called the most despised people in the world.   And why did He do that?   So that tiny little man is not able to boast in His presence.   It is all His doing that you were engrafted into Christ Jesus.   He became your wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.   Nothing of yourselves!   It is all His work of grace.   Therefore: if anyone wants to boast, let Him boast in the Lord; not in himself – that is the gist of 1 Cor. 1: 26 – 31 which we read this morning.


Who did God call and join to His church?   Well, look at yourselves, brothers, you are not the best choice in the world!   God chose the foolish and the base and the despised.   And whatever you are now, you are by His grace alone, through Christ alone.


Dear congregation, you see then how this gospel strips us of all human pride.   In ourselves we are nothing, even despicable.  

And therefore it does not befit a Christian to be proud.

In fact, there is not such a thing as a proud Christian.

If anyone is proud, he is simply not a believer.

No one can believe the gospel and remain proud; or he must believe a false gospel.


Now, there are indeed many false gospels – gospels that are adjusted to fit the pride of man. 

The apostle is dealing with such a false gospel, here in our text, when he cautions us to watch out for those Jews who put confidence in their origin.   They boast that they are the physical seed of Abraham, and thus they put confidence in their own flesh and heritage.   They reckon that they, as Jews, are superior to other people, and reckon that their ceremonial rituals sanctify them and qualify them for salvation.   And they boast in their own righteousness.


Now, we are not Jews and we are not plagued by Jews who try to make Jews of us, but that does not mean that this instruction of the apostle is not relevant to us.

In fact, it is very relevant.

It is very relevant, first of all, because of our own sinful nature.   Are we not proud by nature?   Do we not sometimes think that we are something, or that we achieved something to be proud about?   And does such arrogance not plague the churches in our own day?


When you look at the church, do you still recognise its members as humble people who boast of nothing but God’s grace?   


Whenever a church becomes proud and arrogant, boasting of its size, boasting of its abilities, boasting of its wealth and heritage, boasting of the academic standard of their professors, boasting of all its activities and boasting about its many charity organisations, yes, boasting in all that they are and do – God will disown such a church.


We see it also in the history of the church.   In the time of the prophet Isaiah, at the beginning of his ministry, Judah has become proud, relying on her own strength and abilities, her wealth and heritage, her own wisdom and schemes.  

And then the Lord announced His judgment upon them:


“The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day.   For the day of the LORD of hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up – and it shall be brought low…” – Isaiah 2: 11, 12

He sums up all their sin in this one saying that they have become a proud and arrogant people.   He puts this forward as the culmination of their sin: that their eyes are arrogant and full of pride.   

And then He announces that there will be no proud and ungodly church anymore.   It will be wiped out.   Only a small remnant will be left; a remnant who will glory only in the Lord.


“The loftiness of man shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day…” – Isaiah 2: 17


And thus the whole book of Isaiah has this theme: don’t trust in man; trust in God alone.   Jahve alone is mighty and able to save.

It is a theme that runs throughout all of Scripture.   The LORD pronounces His judgment on man in his pride and vain glory; man who boasts in his own abilities and trusts himself.  


When man becomes big in his own eyes, God becomes small to him.  

The opposite is also true: when we see God’s greatness, we become small.  


Yes, true faith excludes all confidence in the flesh.

The believer trusts in God, while the unbeliever trusts himself.    It is a matter of faith and unbelief.   Those who put any confidence in the flesh are cursed:


“…‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD.” – Jer. 17: 5


“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is the LORD.” –

Jer. 17: 7


Dear congregation, true faith looks away from any perceived abilities of man, and looks to God alone.   He is our strength, our hope, our glory.   And He alone!


Now, here in our text, the apostle exhorts the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord, and he places this rejoicing in the Lord over against any confidence in the flesh.


Here “flesh” refers to the natural man.   As Jesus said to Nicodemus:


“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” – John 3: 6


There the word “flesh” refers to man in his unregenerate state.   That is: the natural man, corrupt and spiritually dead.

But at the same time the weakness of the flesh is also contrasted with the power of God.

What is impossible with man is possible with God.


Don’t expect anything from flesh; don’t expect anything from man and his abilities.

Expect everything from our great and almighty God.


While this truth applies to all of life, it applies all the more with regard to our salvation:


            “… ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD’” (1 Cor. 1: 31)


Or, to say it with the words of our text: We boast in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.


And so I proclaim God’s Word to you with the theme:

Rejoice in the Lord; not in the flesh


We will note three exhortations:

1.      Let the Lord be your joy

2.      Beware of those who glory in the flesh

3.      Boast in Christ only

In the first place we note the exhortation…

Let the Lord be your joy


            “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord…”

Now, this is not a command to exercise some kind of superficial cheerfulness.  

It is a profound joy that flows from our knowledge of the Lord and of His gracious salvation.   


The apostle now exhorts the Philippians, in the midst of their trials, and while they are being persecuted and oppressed, to rejoice in the Lord.

It is then clearly not a joy that originates in wealth or prosperity, but a joy in the Lord despite many sufferings.


This exhortation to rejoice in the Lord is a theme that runs through the whole epistle.  

We saw it already in chapter 1.   The apostle rejoices in the midst of all his sufferings and trials.   In the midst of much opposition he sees, through faith, the mighty hand of God.   Through faith he is able to see how all his sufferings and all the opposition and even the things which may look like setbacks, have all been turned by God’s mighty hand to the furtherance of the gospel.  

While his own life is being poured out as a drink offering, he rejoices; and he exhorts the Philippians to rejoice with him – chapter 2: 17, 18.

He repeats the exhortation to rejoice, here in chapter 3, and again in chapter 4, where he says:

            “Rejoice in the Lord always.   Again I will say, rejoice!” – chapter 4: 4

Now, every time that he exhorts the Philippians to rejoice, the context of these exhortations speaks of adversity, trials and difficulties.   In these circumstances they must find their joy in the Lord, fixing their eyes on His might and power by which He is working all things for their salvation – even when the opposite seems to be the case.

It is a matter of faith.   It is trusting in the Lord and in His strength, while our circumstances may seem hopeless.  

It is a rejoicing through faith, trusting in the Lord, trusting in His almighty power and the riches of His mercy.

Yes, when we believe in the Lord and trust His promises we also rejoice in Him – to such an extent that not even the most bitter sufferings in this life can extinguish this joy, for it is a joy with a solid foundation.  

When the Lord Himself has become our joy, our joy is sure, even in the midst of sufferings.


That is the context.   The apostle wants to encourage the Philippians in the midst of their sufferings and trials, and in the midst of much opposition, to put their trust in the Lord and to rejoice in Him.


Dear congregation, when we rejoice in the Lord, when we rejoice in His goodness and mercy, then we are strong, as Nehemiah says:


            “…the joy of the LORD is your strength.” – Neh. 8: 10

The Lord Himself is our strength, and by rejoicing in Him we are strengthened. 

So then, what does it mean to rejoice in the Lord?   To rejoice in the Lord is not a certain kind of joy or a certain aspect of our joy.   No, the Christian does not know of any other joy than joy in the Lord.

The apostle does not say: you may rejoice in this and in that and in many things, but you must remember also to rejoice in the Lord! 

No, the saints know of no other joy.   All our joy is joy in the Lord.

If it is not, it must be an unholy joy.  

We receive everything from the Lord, and we receive nothing apart from Him, therefore all our rejoicing in all of life is in Him only.


“Rejoice in the Lord” – this phrase is well known as it appears frequently in the book of Psalms.   There, in the book of Psalms, we also see how our rejoicing in the Lord applies to all of life and to every situation in life.  


“Rejoice in the Lord” – when we see how this phrase is used in the Psalter, we also note that

this rejoicing is more than just a feeling or a mood.   To rejoice in the Lord is an act of faith in which we purposefully focus our eyes on the Lord, trusting His power and righteousness and goodness and mercy and faithfulness towards us.  

When we thus through faith look to the Lord, this focus on the Lord, putting our trust in Him, produces joy.   And that is the way in which we are exhorted to rejoice.

Rejoice by looking to Him.  

Rejoice by putting your trust in Him, believing the gospel, trusting His promises.


Psalm 33 begins with this exhortation:


            “Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous!...” – verse 1


And then, throughout the psalm, it provides the reasons for rejoicing in the LORD:


“For the word of the LORD is right, and all His work is done in truth.   He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the goodness of the LORD.   By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.”


“The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He makes the plans of the peoples to no effect.   The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations.   Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”


And thus the whole psalm continues to give all the reasons why we are to rejoice in the LORD.   And then the psalm ends with these words:


“…our heart shall rejoice in Him, because we have trusted in His holy Name.   Let Your mercy, O LORD, be upon us, just as we hope in You.”


Note the reason for rejoicing in the LORD: “our heart shall rejoice in Him, because we have trusted in His holy name.”   It is a joy that flows from trusting in the Lord.

When we fix our eyes on the LORD, and put our trust in His holy Name, then we rejoice.   And then only do we rejoice “in the LORD.”


We note this in many of the psalms, but let us just look at one more example.   In Psalm 35 David is surrounded by enemies, even his fellow Israelites, brothers to whom he has done nothing but good, who now seek his hurt and destruction.   Then he pleads with the LORD for help.   And putting His trust in the LORD, he says:


“…my soul shall be joyful in the LORD; I shall rejoice in His salvation.   All my bones shall say, ‘LORD, who is like You, delivering the poor from him who is too strong for him…’” – Ps. 35: 9, 10


His soul shall be joyful in the LORD.   Why?   Because: he trusts the LORD.


That is also what the apostle Paul has in mind when he exhorts the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord.  

He already mentioned their adversaries and their sufferings in chapter 1, and here in chapter 3 he will warn them to be on their guard for dogs and evil workers, but in these circumstances he wants them to focus their eyes first of all on the LORD and to rejoice in His strength, in His goodness and in His salvation.


Their joy in the LORD will be their strength in the midst of their struggles.  


The apostle now places this rejoicing and boasting in the LORD over against a different kind of boasting: those who boast not in the Lord, but in the flesh.


We note that in the second place…

Beware of those who glory in the flesh


“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!”


The apostle warns them to watch out for dogs, evil workers, and the mutilation.

Actually, these three titles – dogs, evil workers, and the mutilation – are three descriptions of one and the same adversary: Jews who boasted in their perceived superiority above other people; who thought salvation is only possible for Gentiles if they become Jews and keep the Jewish laws which distinguished them as Jews, especially circumcision.  

They had confidence in their physical ancestry, and they trusted in outward rituals which separated them from the Gentiles.   But all their confidence was carnal, boasting in the flesh, instead of boasting in the Lord, and in the riches of His mercy towards us in Christ.


Where the apostle speaks of dogs, evil workers, and mutilators, the Greek text has the definite article in front of each description.   The apostle says:


            “Beware of those dogs, beware of those evil doers, beware of those mutilators.”


In the verses that follow, it becomes clear that he is speaking about Jews who boasted in being the physical children of Abraham and boasted in their circumcision, and reckoned that their own observance of the law contributed to their justification before God.


We read about them in several places.  


“…certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” – Acts 15: 1


Unless you become a Jew, unless you are grafted into the Jewish nation through circumcision, they said, you cannot be saved.

“Salvation is only for the Jews and for those who become Jews!”, they reckoned.


The apostle Paul deals with this error especially in his epistle to the Galatians, and there he points out how this error is also an attack on justification through faith alone in Christ alone.   Christ’s atonement on the cross is then not sufficient for salvation.   You must first qualify by becoming a Jew and keep the Jewish laws and ceremonies.   That will qualify you for salvation!


We do not have the time now to look at this error in detail.   (We will hopefully do that next time, when we look at the verses 4 – 11.)   For now it is enough to know that the apostle has these Jews in mind who boasted in their Jewish identity and in their own righteousness.   They boasted in the fact that they are the physical descendants of Abraham, and that as Jews they qualified for salvation better than Gentiles, and thus also wanted to force the Gentile believers to circumcise themselves and keep the Jewish laws regarding holy and unholy food, holy feast days, and all the other ceremonial laws.


Why then does the apostle call them dogs?


The Jews regarded dogs as extremely unclean.   They referred to Gentiles as dogs because they regarded them unclean.   In Ex. 22: 31 the Lord said to His people:


“…you shall be holy men to Me; you shall not eat meat torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.”


What is unholy is for the dogs.   A Jewish commentary on that text says for example: flesh torn in the field may be used to feed dogs or Gentiles.   The word dog became to them a religious term for people who are unclean, who do not regard the laws of clean and unclean food.  


But now – these Jews who counted themselves so clean and holy, and called the Gentiles dogs – the apostle now calls them dogs!

He overturns their boasting, and says that they are the unclean ones.

These Jews who are so strict in keeping their food laws – you may not eat this and you may not touch that – these Jews who count themselves holy and clean because of their observance of outward rites and ceremonies – they are now called: dogs.  

They are the unclean!


Furthermore, he calls them “evil workers”.

We may also translate the Greek text:  “evil doers”.   Or: “workers of iniquity”.


While they have the appearance as if they are strict observers of the law, they are in fact the worse transgressors of the law, without any spiritual understanding of the law.

They only have regard for outward ceremonies and rituals, by which they count themselves holy, while their hearts are full of murder and adultery.  

Our Lord Jesus gave a vivid description of such people in Matthew chapter 23, where he calls them whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.   And thus He said to these Jews:


“Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Mt. 23: 28


Yes, they boasted of their righteousness and their obedience to the law, while they were in fact nothing but lawless.   And thus the apostle calls them evil doers, workers of iniquity.


Again, it is a term which has its origin in the Old Testament.   “Workers of iniquity” is a term which is for example frequently used in the Psalter.  


            “The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate all workers of iniquity.” – Ps. 5: 5


It is used for the enemies of God’s people who oppress them – Ps. 6: 8


In Psalm 14 David uses this term for people who are totally corrupt and depraved.  

The workers of iniquity shall fall and not rise again – Ps. 36: 12


And now the apostle uses this term for these Jews who boast of their own righteousness!

Their works are not good, but evil.    They do not keep the law, but break it.


And then comes the third blow.   He calls them: those mutilators.

The Greek word refers to cutting.   And it is here a collective noun for a group of people: the cutters!

In the Greek text there is also a play of words: the word circumcision and the word mutilator sound quite similar.

The apostle refuses to call them the circumcised; he calls them the cutters.   


Also with this title he overturns their boasting.   He uses a word for them that links their physical circumcision to those pagan cuttings which are forbidden by the law.


            “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead…” – Lev. 19: 28


He compares their physical circumcision to pagan lacerations – think for example of the prophets of Baal how they cut themselves until the blood was gushing out on them – 1 Kings 18: 28.   By such rituals of cutting and slashing the pagans mutilated their bodies.   

And now the apostle equates the circumcision of these proud Jews to pagan cutting and mutilation! 

That is how he views circumcision apart from Christ; and apart from the righteousness and sanctification which is only to be found in Him.  

Yes, apart from its spiritual meaning and fulfilment in Christ, circumcision becomes a pagan ritual!


And then the apostle also gives the reason why he refuses to call them the circumcision: they are not God’s covenant people, we are!   We – who trust in Christ alone.


“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh…” – verse 3.


All boasting in the flesh is vain and sinful.   Anyone who has confidence in himself is an unclean dog and a pagan.  

Such a person is not righteous, but a worker of iniquity.  


Yes, these proud Jews, who thought that they could stand on their own feet before God, they were in reality not circumcised children of Abraham, but mutilated pagans in God’s sight!  

Why?   Because: they boasted in the flesh, in their own worth and abilities.  


Over against that the apostle teaches us to glory in Christ Jesus.

We note that in the last place, that…

Our boasting has to be in Christ alone


The apostle says to the Philippians:


“…we are the circumcision…”


“We” – that is: all true believers, whether Jew or Gentile.

All true believers are circumcised in Christ.

The apostle Pauls says to the Colossians:


“In Christ you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting of the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ…” – Col. 2: 11.


In that passage he explains that we are circumcised with Christ through our union with Him in His death and resurrection.   Our sinful flesh was put to death, and we were raised a new man in Christ, sanctified and holy.


And to the church in Rome he wrote:


“…he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” – Rom. 2: 28, 29


This was already made clear in the Old Testament, that circumcision is an outward sign signifying cleansing and sanctification, which is first of all a matter of the heart.


“…the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” – Deut. 30: 6


And there are many more such passages in the Old Testament.

An Israelite did not receive a sanctified heart to love the LORD by means of outward circumcision, but through spiritual circumcision worked by the Spirit of God.

It is that true and real circumcision which we receive in Christ; and in Him alone.


Those who are sanctified in Christ, they are truly circumcised.   They are the true Israel (Rom. 2: 28, 29; 9: 6 – 8; Gal. 3: 29; 6: 16).

We who believe in Christ, we are the seed of Abraham and heirs of the covenant promises, which were sealed by circumcision – Gal. 3: 29.


Those who believe in Christ, they are washed and sanctified by the blood and Spirit of Christ; they serve God in the Spirit with sanctified hearts, putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8: 12, 13).


We – who make our boast in Christ alone – we are the true circumcision.


Now, here in verse 3, he says:


            “…we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit…”


The word that he uses for “worship” is a word that refers to all service unto God.   It does not refer only to formal worship, but to our whole life which has become a sacrifice and service unto God (as in Rom. 12: 1).

This is God’s work in us through His Spirit, who sanctifies our whole life and enables us to put off the deeds of the flesh.


And here in verse 3 he again speaks of rejoicing in Christ, but this time he uses another word for rejoice.   Here in verse 3 it may be translated: boast in Christ Jesus.

Instead of boasting in the flesh, we now boast only in Christ, and have no confidence in the flesh.   We no longer boast of our own worth or our own achievements, nor do we trust in any of our own abilities or natural qualities.   Christ has become all our boasting, and apart from Him we have nothing in which we can glory.  


The apostle now places this over against the Jewish boast of superiority.   He places this humble boasting in Christ over against the pride of men who confide in their own flesh, their physical ancestry, their history, their traditions, and their own merits.


Dear congregation, self-glorying, and to boast in one’s own abilities, is not simply a casual fault, but the basic attitude of the ungodly, of those who are spiritually unclean and uncircumcised.   Yes, such boasting characterises the ungodly.


“They utter speech, and speak insolent things; all the workers of iniquity boast in themselves.” – Ps. 94: 4


The apostle Paul does not only attack the false doctrine of justification by man’s own works, he also opposes all boasting based on self-trust.


The gospel of Christ Jesus humbles us.  

There is no such thing as a proud Christian.

An attitude of pride and self-trust is totally foreign to the gospel, and to the Christian faith.


The true Israel of God is a humble people, conscious of our own unworthiness, living by God’s grace only.

Our justification and our acceptance before the throne of God is by grace only, in Christ alone, though faith alone.  

We have nothing to boast of but the mercy of God.


Brothers and sisters, let us then put our trust in our perfect and complete Saviour, Jesus Christ, and glory in the riches of His mercy.

Let us not be unclean dogs who trust in our own righteousness, our own worth, or our own achievements.

Let us believe the gospel and humble ourselves before God.


Let us fix our eyes on the Lord, on the greatness of His power and worth, the greatness of His goodness and mercy, and rejoice in Him, and boast in Him, with sanctified hearts and circumcised lips.



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Mendel Retief

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