The Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 4 - Glorying in Christ

"Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not irksome, but for you it is safe. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision: for we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh: though I myself might have confidence even in the flesh: if any other man thinketh to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless. Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ." (Phil. 3:1-7).

"Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord." On the face of it, it looks as though the Apostle was going to close his letter at that point, but we find that he goes on for some considerable time afterward. The word "finally" does not necessarily mean conclusion. It is a word which is translated in various ways in the New Testament, and can just as readily be rendered "henceforth" or "for the rest." Here it seems clearly to indicate that Paul is making a new start upon some other things, bringing something more into view, and is saying, For the rest, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.

"To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not irksome, but for you it is safe." We are not told what it was that was being referred to by the Apostle, when he writes of "the same things." Some have thought there to have been an earlier letter which has been lost. Others have seen in the words a reference to Paul's own talks with them, while in their midst. Others, again, consider the words to imply a repetition of this exhortation to rejoice in the Lord; and certainly Paul did not find that irksome, whilst as certainly for them it would be very safe. It is always safe to rejoice in the Lord! But we do not know definitely to what he was referring, but we can enter quite well into the spirit of what he writes.

This letter is simply the letter of a heart overflowing with the Lord Jesus, and, when that is so, "finally" may be said many times, but you never really conclude there. The whole spirit of the letter is just that; that being full of Christ you must speak, you must give out what is inside. That is the best kind of preaching; but be sure it is the fulness of Christ that makes you go on.

There comes in, at this point, the striking of a fresh note. At one point in the letter at least, there seems to creep into the sky a black cloud, the dark cloud of a painful recollection, and it is at this point that you meet that cloud.

"Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision." That is indeed a dark cloud of painful recollection. It is just something held over from the great controversy which came to its climax in Galatia, the great battle with the Judaisers, who were seeking by every means, mainly foul, to seduce the believers from Christ in clearness and in fulness, and to bring them back again into the bondage of a set, traditional, religious system.

Very few of the assemblies of the Lord's people which came into being through the ministry of the Apostle Paul escaped the work of those Judaisers, and evidently this fair work at Philippi had also been attacked; and, although now the full force of the blaze of conflict has spent itself, and Paul's Galatian letter has broken the stream in the main, this reference is like the rumblings of the departing storm. Still, however, there is the necessity for keeping the Lord's children alive to the fact that this evil thing is not yet altogether dead, and that still there are perils, and still they need to be warned. No stronger language could be used than the Apostle uses of the Judaisers here. He calls them "the dogs." It is a strong word for Jews, because the Jews had always called the Gentiles dogs. What was specially in the Apostle's mind we do not know. We know that the term "the dogs" was usually employed to imply uncleanness. In the book of the Revelation we read that the dogs will be kept outside of the city; they are the unclean things, the scavengers. Whether the Apostle was using the term in this sense, and if so, was referring to the spiritual rather than the moral uncleanness of these Judaisers, we cannot tell. It may be that, because they had dogged his heels wherever he had gone, and yelped at him, and sought to destroy his work, he so termed them.

"...Beware of the evil workers...." Literally not workers, but workmen, men who are not only doing works of an evil kind, but men whose business it is to do them. "Workers" is a more or less general term, and does not imply that that is their principal vocation in life. But when you say more precisely, as in the Greek, "evil workmen" you are referring to men whose one business in life is to do this thing. And the Judaisers had made it their business to destroy the work of the Apostle, and to destroy the work of these believers.

"...Beware of the concision; for we are the circumcision...." Here is a contrast. These Judaisers were going about saying, Unless ye be circumcised ye cannot be saved, making circumcision essential to salvation. This, however, was not exactly the point, but what they were doing was to go about with a view to making these marks the marks of a tradition in the flesh of believers, merely in order to have so many people who could be numbered as having been circumcised. Paul speaks of them in the Galatian letter as wanting "to glory in your flesh." That is to say:- See how many converts we have made, and they all bear the mark of their conversion in circumcision! Paul says that is simply concision, the making of a mark, a cutting, an external sign; and he puts over against that "the circumcision." The more outward mark is not circumcision. That is what Paul is saying. Circumcision is an inward thing, a spiritual thing, a deeper thing than a mere outward form. He then immediately goes on to give three marks of true circumcision.

Spiritual Worship

"We are the circumcision," as differing from the mere concision, outward marks, who "worship by the Spirit." The first mark of true circumcision is "worship by the Spirit of God." That will take us back immediately to John 4 where the Lord Jesus, indicating the Samaritan Temple in Mount Gerizim and then the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, said: - "The hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father... the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth... God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth." You note a change of dispensation from the merely outward, the merely traditional, the Jewish system, from a religious order which is connected with external forms and rites, to a dispensation in which everything is in the Spirit. And the first thing in this dispensation is spiritual worship. What is spiritual worship? What is it to worship the Father in spirit and in truth? Worship quite clearly implies that God has the central, and the supreme, and the exclusive place in a life. But that has to become a thing which is inward by the Holy Ghost. It is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, putting God into His supreme place at the centre of our being, and that is worshipping God in spirit and in truth. That is a mark of true circumcision, that now right at the very centre of our being, by the Holy Ghost, God is enthroned in supremacy.

That is not exaggerating the position, because all that follows in this third chapter is simply a bearing out of that. The true circumcision is marked, firstly, by worshipping God, or worshipping by the Spirit of God. That is different from the formal worship of the Temple of the Jews, the outward service, all that elaborate ritual and order of the old dispensation. Now everything has become inward by the Holy Spirit, and the first thing out of which all else arises is found in God being in His place at the centre of our being by the Holy Ghost, and everything in our lives going out to God, all for God. Taking the illustration of the old Jewish system, we note how God had a mark upon everything. Everything that a Jew possessed had the mark of God put upon it. If he had a crop of corn, the first ripe handful was marked for God. It said: All this harvest is God's, and you have to hold and use all the rest for God's glory, and indicate that you do so by bringing your first handful to God, and saying: This is but a tithe, a firstfruits; it is a testimony that I hold all the rest for God. If a Jew had a family, the firstborn son was marked as God's. But the firstborn was not an isolated unit. He represented all the rest of the family, and all the rest of the family, and of the family life, was gathered into the firstborn. It does not matter where you look in the whole life. God put His mark upon it, and claimed it, and demanded first place.

Now the outward order has passed, and the new meaning has been established in a new dispensation, and God has come into the first place in everything, so that everything in life has to be held in relation to God. That is worshipping God by the Spirit.

Do you see the relationship between this and the testimony of baptism? You only have to turn over to the Colossian letter, chapter 2, and verse 12, and you will find a very definite reference to circumcision as being related to baptism. The circumcision of Christ, "the putting away of the whole body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism." So that baptism is the outward testimony in this dispensation to the fact that all that relates to the self life has been put away, and that now everything in life has become related to God, is to be held for God, God having primary place. The first mark, then, of the circumcision which is spiritual, is worship by the Spirit of God.

Glorying in Christ

It is a very sad thing to see how many come to this testimony of baptism, and in all earnestness assent to the challenge of it, that now it is "no longer I but Christ," and at the time are rejoicing and glorying in Christ, but afterwards are found in that position which implies that they have taken everything back from Christ, and all is for self again. May that not be true of us. Circumcision in its spiritual meaning and value means that Christ is the object of our glorying.

No Confidence in the Flesh

"Have no confidence in the flesh...." There is no need to enlarge upon that at the moment. All we need to do is to see how Paul deals with that matter. He follows that clause immediately with an explanation of what he means, as having been already demonstrated in his own history: "Though I myself might have confidence even in the flesh: if any other man thinketh to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more." What is it to have confidence in the flesh? It means to lay store by these things which follow, or by that which is implied or represented by them. "Circumcised the eighth day..." That was a mark of the true Jew. It was the eighth day. Circumcision was performed in Egypt amongst the Egyptians, and was also practised amongst the Ishmaelites. But neither the Egyptians nor the Ishmaelites circumcised on the eighth day. The Ishmaelites left it to the thirteenth day, and the Egyptians had another day. But amongst the Jews it was the eighth day.

For us there is a spiritual significance about that. We see that there was a Divine thought in the eighth day, and that if the putting away of the whole body of the flesh is related to the grave, then resurrection unto newness of life, which is unto Christ, is a matter of the eighth day, "eight" being the number of resurrection. Paul is saying that being circumcised the eighth day marked him out as a true Jew; not an Ishmaelite, not an Egyptian, and not a proselyte, but a true Jew, something of which Jews who had that privilege boasted.

"Of the stock of Israel." The Edomites were through Isaac, through Esau. Ishmael was also from Abraham. But these were not true Israelites; for they were not in the covenant. Paul is saying "of the stock of Israel," that is, within the covenant, claiming and possessing all the covenant privileges.

"Of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews." Of pure Hebrew parentage. To the Jew these were the great things, the advantages, the privileges of birth. To these he adds some of the advantages of being a Pharisee, and occupying a position of influence because of his pre-eminent zeal. All this was to his natural advantage. If he had liked to use it, as he did once, it would have carried him a long way, it would have meant a high position, a great influence. It was a basis upon which, standing and working, he would have been carried a long way in this world. Now he calls that "confidence in the flesh." In a word, this means not to rely on any natural advantages, whether inherited or acquired; not to work on the ground of anything which we have or can be of ourselves; not to use our own strength, our own wisdom, our own wit, our own resources to get on, to make our way, to get a place. That is all confidence in the flesh, and true circumcision rules all that out; rules out reputation, ambition and all natural resources, and brings to a place where Christ alone is our resource for everything. Paul's own life is a wonderful commentary upon this. Naturally he lost influence, position, reputation; naturally he lost everything by this spiritual circumcision. But what a gain it has been! What an influence! What a reputation! What an achievement! It is so supremely superior to anything of nature, or that nature could have accomplished. It was not for one moment the result of any natural resource. It was Christ. And so the whole of this chapter goes on to talk of the super-eminence of the knowledge of Christ. That is what follows.

Do you say that it is all very well for us to speak about what true spiritual circumcision means, or, in other words, what the Cross requires? I am quite sure that sometimes the repetition of these things is irksome, when stress is laid so much upon the Cross as a means of circumcision, and that all that is of nature must be set aside, all that is of this world must go, and how we must come to the place where nothing that is personal must influence or be resorted to, that the Cross cuts off our natural life absolutely. Well, if that emphasis is repeated frequently it may become an awful barren kind of doctrine.

But take these things which Paul put at one time on the credit page of his life book. These were the big things that counted. And then to lose those things while he was in that natural realm would have been to lose everything. The day came when Paul scratched out at the top of that page the word "credit" with reference to his natural inheritance and attainments and put "credit" on the other side, and under the word "credit" on the other side he put another list of things; not this time, "Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel," and all the rest but, "the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord," and all that that meant. That was the credit. Now which was superior? The going of the one made room for the other, and there is no comparison between these two. If the Cross stands between, and all that is of nature is smitten - the true circumcision cuts all that off - what comes in? All this other, all that Christ is. Note all that, Paul says to us. That was my life! All that was my glory once! That was everything to me! But now it is as mere refuse, as that which you throw away and for which you have no use, because something else so supremely superior has come in - the knowledge of Christ. That is what the true circumcision leads to.

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