How do you tell if someone is a Christian? That question may take a while to answer. For some people, a Christian is defined by what they experienced in a church. If the experience was bad, a Christian is a hypocrite, a judgmental person, or a goodie two shoes. For others, a Christian is defined by what they see on television. When they see an evangelist shouting from behind a pulpit and asking for money, they think that a Christian is a greedy loudmouth. In both cases, the definition is made by what the person experienced. Sadly, this is true for many people.
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In today’s message, we will be looking at the difference between a true Christian and a religious person who is not a real believer. The descriptions are given in the Bible in Philippians 3:1-3. There Paul warns about those who claim to be Christians but who reveal their true character as completely opposite. Then he shows what character qualities should be evident in those who are true Christians. As we look through this section of Scripture, think about which describes you better.
- Necessary Warnings (1-2)
a. These can come across as tedious.
On every flight, an airline stewardess has to explain how to buckle your seatbelt, how to exit the plane, and how to prepare for a crash landing. The first time I flew on an airplane, all of this was new to me. At the beginning, I listened eagerly to the announcements. But as I grew accustomed to the same message given each time, I stopped paying attention.
Someone has said that “Repetition is a vital part of learning” (Lightner 659). As Paul wrote these words to the Christians in Philippi, he wanted them to know that he would not be lazy about repeatedly teaching them. He didn’t consider it a burden to do this. He actually wanted to prepare them for what they would be facing.
b. These are meant for your safety.
Paul wanted the Christians in Philippi to have a strong foundation for what they believed. He taught them God’s truth and wrote it in epistles so they would have a paper copy to look back on when he was not there. As they heard, read, and thought about God’s truth, they would be kept safe from competing ideas that were different from what God wanted them to know and do.
c. These are necessary.
One of the things that can turn some people away from good, Bible-believing churches is their unwavering stand for the truth. People want churches to be more accepting, loving, and welcoming. While these things can be good, there are times when God does not want us to be accepting, loving, and welcoming. Paul listed three examples of people who they were to “continually be on the lookout for” (Rienecker).
Look out for dogs.
What is a dog? Nowadays, many families have a dog and think of it as part of the family. However, “the Jews considered dogs to be the most despised and miserable of all creatures… Perhaps it was because of the herds of dogs which prowled about eastern cities, without a home and without an owner, feeding on the [refuse] and filth of the streets, quarreling among themselves and attacking the passerby… Paul uses the term here of those who prowl around the Christian congregations, seeking to win converts” (Rienecker 556).
The term “dog” is used at least twice in the Bible to refer to bad people.
The first I will mention is found in Isaiah 56:10-11. There it is used to describe religious leaders who would not help the people. They were dumb dogs that would not bark a warning. They were also greedy dogs who always wanted more for themselves. In this case, these people were like useless dogs that didn’t warn the people of trouble and were only interested in their own desires.
The second I will mention is found in Revelation 22:15. There it is used to describe those who do not “do His commands” and who will not be inside “the gates of the city” of God. “But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie.” While the passage doesn’t tell us what these dogs are, it is clear that they are not believers and that they keep company with those who rebel against God. Because of this, these dogs are kept out of the city of God.
To sum things up, we need to look out for dogs—people who claim to be religious leaders but who by their actions show that they are actually the enemies of God. Don’t be fooled!
Look out for evil workers.
What is an evil worker? These are people whose actions show that they are evil. They may talk a good game, but when you watch how they act, you soon realize that they are actually evil. Remember what Jesus said? “By their works, you shall know them.”
Jesus told us that the harvest is great and the answer is to pray that God would send more laborers/workers into the harvest. However, He also warns us that there will be people who are evil workers. They work but not for the same purposes. They are actually accomplishing the opposite of what God desires. They may look good for a moment, but their actions eventually show their true character.
Paul mentions them another time in an epistle to the church at Corinth:
2 Cor. 11:13-15 – “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.”
If Satan has been a liar from the beginning, should it be any surprise that he is influencing others to believe his lie and to rebel against God? These evil workers can be tricky just like Satan. But as we ask God for discernment (James 1:5), He will give us the wisdom to see through their trickery. How will we know the difference between a good worker and an evil one? We simply compare what they are saying and doing with what God has revealed in the Bible. If they are turning people away from what God has said, then they are an evil worker. Watch out for them and avoid them.
Look out for the mutilation.
What is the mutilation? There were people in Paul’s day that were very dogmatic about being circumcised. As you may recall, God introduced this practice to Abraham as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham’s family. The Jewish people continued this practice as sign of their dedication to God. However, at some point, the ritual became more important to them than their inner dedication to God. They considered themselves blessed by God for having been circumcised despite the fact that their hearts were far from God.
“One particular group in Paul’s day was especially guilty of putting confidence in the flesh. These were the Judaizers. They plagued Paul and his converts constantly. Confused about the gospel, they added works of the law to faith in Christ, both for salvation and for Christian living. The Old Testament rite of circumcision was of special concern to them. They insisted that it was necessary for salvation” (Lightner 659).
How does a person become a Christian or obtain God’s salvation?
First, let’s talk about why we need to be saved by God. The New Testament makes it clear that we are sinners who have broken God’s laws. “There is none righteous, no not one. … All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The sad fact is that each of us is a sinner from God’s perspective. And since “the wages of sin is death,” each of us is headed for judgment from God for our sins. The ultimate judgment for sinners who rebel against God is eternity in the Lake of Fire.
Second, let’s talk about how we can be saved by God. The New Testament makes it clear that we can’t save ourselves because we are already guilty. The Bible says that we are not saved by “works of righteousness which we have done” and that it is “not of works, lest anyone should boast.” So the work of being circumcised isn’t the answer not is doing any number of good things. Instead, God sent His only Son Jesus to die in our place. God judged His Son for our sins on the cross so that we would not be judged. Having accomplished that for us, God sets down the terms. What are they? Do you need to be circumcised? Do you need to memorize large portions of the Bible? Do you have to feed the poor and help the sick? No, God says that “whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” When you recognize your sinfulness and place your faith in what Jesus did on the cross for you, God promises that you will escape the coming judgment and will be given eternal life. That’s it.
Now let’s get back to Philippians 3. Paul warned the believers in Philippi about dogs (self-serving religious leaders), evil workers (those who by actions opposed God), and the mutilation (people who trust in what they do to be made right with God). Each of these people were a danger to those who have believed in Jesus and who want to do what God says.
This leads us to the next point.
- True Christian Character (3)
In this section, Paul contrasts the false teachers with what a true Christian should be. After talking about those who have a wrong view of the Jewish rite of circumcision, Paul describes himself as the true circumcision. He is not meaning that this rite is necessary for Christians (see Gal. 6:15) but is merely showing that what was considered so important to the false teachers was not accomplishing what God desires. It is not the action itself but the heart behind the action that God desires. Even Old Testament believers would have known this.
Deut. 30:6 – “And 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.”
This is what God wants. He wants people who will “cut away” sinful thoughts and actions from their lives and who will lovingly obey His commands. This would be a truly “circumcised” person to God.
With that in mind, what distinguishes true Christian character from what these false teachers were pushing? Notice that Paul mentions three things that are inner attitudes and not outward actions.
a. Christian character is distinguished by true worship.
True Christians are characterized by true worship. It is not the outward show that others can see, but the inner worship of God from the heart. A good example of this is found in Luke 18:9-14. There, two men went to the temple to pray to God. The first man was a religious Pharisee who talked about himself and compared himself with others to make himself look good to God. What he did or did not do make him feel right with God. The other person was a despised tax collector. As he prayed to God, he knew his sinfulness and simply asked God from his heart to be forgiven. Jesus made it clear that God forgave the tax collector instead of the religious man.
What was the difference? The difference was each person’s heart. One was trying to impress God with his actions, while the other was coming to God with a right heart. This is what God desires in worship. He is more interested in the inside than the outside. Remember what God told Samuel? “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” The point is that true Christians worship God from the heart without trying to impress Him with their actions.
b. Christian character is distinguished by true boasting.
Paul says that true Christians rejoice in Jesus. The word rejoice can be defined as “to boast, brag about; to rejoice in, glory in” (Mounce). To put it another way, what is it that a true Christian brags about? Paul says that we should be bragging about Jesus instead of ourselves.
If you think about it, what did we do to save ourselves? We did nothing. And we could do nothing. Because of our sinfulness, there was nothing that could have said or done that would have moved God to overlook our reputation. In fact, the Bible describes even the good things we do as filthy rags. God is not impressed with our good deeds.
There are times when I look back on my own record. God knows the many times I have sinned against Him. I am ashamed to think about the sins I have committed against God. But when I think about what Jesus did for me, my whole attitude changes. Jesus gave His life for me. Jesus died for my sins. Jesus loved me. Jesus has changed me. So, if there is anything to brag about, it isn’t me; it is Him.
c. Christian character is distinguished by true humility.
Apparently, the Judaizers and false teachers were not very humble. They had become so concerned about their outward reputation that they soon put their confidence in themselves instead of Jesus. One might have said, “I have been circumcised, so I am right with God!” That doesn’t sound like someone who is trusting in Jesus to be saved. Someone today, might mention that they have been baptized, have memorized many portions of the Bible, have attended many church services, or any number of other things. But is this what God wants? Is He looking for pompous loud mouths to announce how great they are? I think not.
Paul pointed out here that true Christians are different. They don’t put confidence “in the flesh.” Instead, they humbly acknowledge that everything they are is because of Jesus. Humility is the opposite of pride, right? Instead of thinking about ourselves, we don’t think of ourselves. This is not something we come by naturally. But when someone is born again, changed by God, he knows that the changes were made by God and are not something produced by himself. This is humility.
In our study today, we have only looked at three verses. But there was a lot there. First, we saw a necessary warning. Paul had to warn the believers about dogs, evil workers, and the mutilation. Each of these were false teachers who showed their dangerous influence by their wicked character and actions. Next, we saw what true Christian character is like. It involves true worship, true boasting, and true humility. A true Christian is much different than the evil workers mentioned earlier because he has a right attitude toward God.
As you think about the two types of people, you can see a real difference. The evil workers were all about themselves. The true Christian is all about Jesus. Which one describes you better? Have you been living your life with the desire to make yourself look good in order to impress God. If this is your motivation for doing things, you are in the wrong category because God is never impressed by our good works. Have you been living your life in humility, thanking Jesus for all that He has done in your life? Then you are in the second category. You are someone who through faith has found what God truly desires.
One other thought: If you are in the first category, you are in the wrong place. You are still under God’s judgment and in need of being rescued by Jesus. Will you turn from your sins today and put your faith in Jesus. He will forgive you and change you from the inside out. And if you are in the second category, but you have drifted a bit, there is hope for you as well. If you have not been worshiping God from the heart, or if you have become proud, stop and repent. Change your mind and get back to where you belong. God wants each of us to love Him and to serve Him but He first wants our hearts. Does He have yours?
Lightner, Robert P., “Philippians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983, pp. 658-59.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, 1 Corinthians through Revelation, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983, pp. 310-12.
“ἀσφαλές” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/asphales on 3/24/2023.
“ἐργάτης” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/ergates on 3/4/2023.
“καυχάομαι” – as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/kauchaomai on 3/24/2023.
“κατατομή” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/katatome on 3/4/2023.
“κύων” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/kyon on 3/24/2023.
“ὀκνηρός” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/okneros on 3/4/2023.
“πείθω” as viewed at https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/peitho on 3/4/2023.