Let me begin this article with a simple question/survey. Important: Please take no more than one minute to do it. Do it candidly without considering what answer you might be expected to give.

Q. Examine your heart honestly and mark out three things which you consider to be most important in your Christian life. Prioritise them, marking the singular, most important aspect with the number ‘1.’

         I managed to quit smoking altogether.
         I am able to maintain a daily quiet time.
         I am a total teetotaller for Christ’s sake.
         I have family worship every day.
         I am can recite the WSC from memory.
         I am serving actively in my church.
         I pray every day.
         I am happy and peaceful and guilt does not trouble me.
         I am a sabbatarian by conviction.
         I am baptised.
         I am no longer easily angered, and can love those who hate me.
         I have read through the Bible at least once.
         I can read my Bible in Greek or Hebrew.
         I am a pedobaptist/baptist* by conviction.
         I worship in a Reformed, or at least reforming, church.
         I do not celebrate Christmas, Easter or Good Friday.
         I know the five points of Calvinism and the essence of Covenant Theology very well.
         I have led a number of people to Christ.
         I sing only psalms and I know most of the Scottish tunes.
         I am faithful in witnessing to the lost.
         I am amillennial/premillennial.*
         Other #1:  _______________________
         Other #2:  _______________________

Did you answer honestly from your heart? This list is not purely imaginary. It comes from my interaction with various people I have met over the years. One elderly man I met in London confessed: “The best thing that ever happened to me in my Christian life is my deliverance from Christmas!” Another person said to the effect: “I am most grateful to God that I can worship in a Reformed Church.”

What about you, dearly beloved? What is the singular, most important thing in your Christian life? Is it that you have read through the Bible? Is it that you are Reformed by conviction? Is it that you have been used by the Lord for the conversion of sinners? I do not know what your answer is. But if I know most of us well enough, I suspect that you did not mark anything because you are conscious that your answer may expose your inclinations, and you may be afraid that there is, in fact, a correct answer which you should give. Beloved, you are right that there is a correct answer. But I fear that you may not be able to give the correct answer if you are honest with yourself.

What then is the correct answer? I believe it is found in the inspired words of the Apostle Paul in the first 11 verses of the 3rd chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. We may divide the verses as follows: (1) verse 1: The Duty of Rejoicing; (2) verses 2–6: The Wrong Basis of Rejoicing; and (3) verses 7–11: The Right Basis for Rejoicing.  In discovering what is the right basis of rejoicing against what is wrong, we will also see what ought to be the most important thing in our Christian life.

The Duty of Rejoicing

The book of Philippians is often known as the epistle of joy, and you can sense Paul’s joyful and positive tone throughout the letter. Well, almost throughout the letter; because chapter 3 seems to be an exception. The tone in chapter 3, at least in the first few verses, appears to be grave and rather harsh, is it not? Why is this so?

It is so because a dangerous kind of teaching or attitude had crept into the church which Paul recognises could rob the Philippians of the true Christian joy and freedom that he has been advocating. This heresy cannot be taken lightly. And thus, before he concludes the letter, he finds it necessary to issue a warning to his readers. He writes:

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe (Phil 3:1).

It should be noted the call, “Rejoice in the Lord,” is a command in the present tense. It may be rendered “keep rejoicing in the Lord.” Although the words of rejoicing such as: ‘joy,’ ‘gladness,’ ‘rejoice,’ etc., have been used more than ten times in the first two chapters in this letter, this is the first time that Paul is calling his readers to rejoice.

It is important for us to appreciate the significance of this call. Firstly, we must know that is our duty to rejoice. Just as a husband cannot excuse himself for failing to love his wife because he has no more feelings for her, so a Christian cannot excuse himself for joylessness because the initial joy of conversion has been forgotten or because of his circumstances. In chapter 4, Paul would enjoin us to rejoice in all circumstances (vv. 4–6), and he would also recommend a remedy for those who find it hard to rejoice because of mental or emotional impediments (vv. 7–9). But from Philippians 3:1, it is clear that one of our Christian duties is to rejoice. Joylessness is sinful. Secondly, when Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord,” he is telling us that we do have a basis for rejoicing. He would repeat the call again in chapter 4 (verses 4 and 10), and each time, he would say, “Rejoice in the Lord.” He is essentially saying: “Rejoice not in anything else, but in the Lord.” This is important because it is the positive thesis of what he is going to say negatively in the next few verses. He is warning his readers that finding joy in the wrong place could mean forsaking true, lasting joy.

Wrong Basis for Rejoicing

The wrong basis for joy and confidence that had crept into the church was brought in by the Judaizers. These were Jews who were apparently converted to Christianity, but in their zeal to maintain the Old Testament traditions taught and insisted that Gentile Christians were required to be circumcised and to keep the ceremonial laws of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1–2). Paul warns against them very strongly:

Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision (Phil 3:2).

Notice the triple bewares! ‘Dogs,’ ‘evil workers’ and ‘concision’ all refer to the Judaizers; so, Paul is essentially stating the same warning three times: no doubt to emphasise how absolutely important it is for the church to be continually on the look out for them. The church must never let down her guard. Judaizers are dangerous to Christianity. It is not just a matter of opinion or of different conviction. It is heresy.

Paul calls them ‘concision,’ which means ‘mutilators of the flesh’—referring to their insistence that the Gentiles should be circumcised. He calls them “evil workers” because they seem to be promoting the Gospel, but is in fact serving another master. Most surprising, however, is that he calls them dogs.

“Dog” was a term used by Jews to describe Gentiles. Psalm 22:16a, “For dogs have compassed me,” is prophetic that the Lord would be surrounded by Gentiles when He is on the cross. This was indeed fulfilled because it was Gentile Roman soldiers who crucified Him and then stood around the cross. Similarly, the Lord Jesus said to the Syrophoenician woman, “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs” (Mk 7:27). Why then did Paul use the term ‘dogs’ to describe the Jews? The answer is very simple. The term is not intended to be a derogatory term. When the Jews call Gentiles ‘dogs,’ they do not mean to say that Gentiles are dirty or are like animals. Our Lord certainly would not have said that to the Syrophoenician woman if that is what the term is intended to mean. Rather, the term simply describes the fact that Gentiles are out of the covenant community. In other words, by calling the Judaizers ‘dogs,’ Paul is saying that these are not in fact true believers. They may be Jewish by nationality, but not a true Jew (Rom 2:28–29). That is why he says in the next verse:

For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:3).

Paul is saying that Christians who have no confidence in the flesh are the true circumcision. These rejoice that the ceremonial laws have been fulfilled in Christ, and so worshipping God in spirit and in truth (cf. Jn 4:24) involves no more the external ceremonies. Moreover, genuine Christians, unlike the apostate Jews, do not think circumcision saves. Circumcision had its right and proper use as the sign and seal of covenant of God (Rom 4:11), but its significance had been abused by the apostate Jews. Moreover, a new sign had been instituted in its place. In his fuller treatise against the Judaizers, Paul explains:

For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:27–29).

But here, Paul is not concerned with the theology of circumcision. He is concerned with the dangerous attitude and philosophy that underlie the thinking of the Judaizers, namely, confidence in the flesh or in religiosity. He explains:

Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: [I have at least 7 more reasons than they have to boast:] [1] Circumcised the eighth day, [2] of the stock of Israel, [3] of the tribe of Benjamin, [4] an Hebrew of the Hebrews; [5]as touching the law, a Pharisee; [6] Concerning zeal, persecuting the church;[7] touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless (Phil 3:4–6).

But these credentials and marks of religion, which would be highly prized by the Jews, he now counts as useless. And worst then useless, he counts them loss.

Right Basis for Rejoicing

But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung that I may win Christ (Phil 3:7–8).

What was a big plus for him is now a colossal minus. He calls them: dung, or human excrement (Greek: skubalon). It was precisely all these that caused him to believe he could attain salvation by works and caused him not only to reject Christianity but to persecute Christians. But now with the knowledge that he is a sinner saved by grace, Paul counts all his past credentials loss. Notice how he emphasises this four times:


Old Life

New Life

those I counted loss

for Christ

I count all things but loss

for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ

I have suffered the loss of all things

for whom [Christ]

[I] do count them but dung

that I may win Christ

When compared to the “excellency of the knowledge of Christ,” i.e., the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ, what he had considered gain earlier were no gain, but loss. Suddenly, he realises: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa 64:6a). Indeed, they were a hindrance to him, because they blinded him in his own self-righteousness. Thus he emphatically cast them away so that he may know Christ, so that he may gain Christ (cf. Mt 13:44–46).

But what does it mean to gain Christ or to know Christ. Paul explains:

Firstly, it involves justification:

And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith (Phil 3:9).

To “win Christ and be found in Him” is to be found on Christ’s side or to be justified by Christ’s righteousness. It involves the sinner recognising that, apart from Christ, he is nothing, have nothing and is unworthy of anything but damnation, even at his best. He, therefore, has no confidence in himself, but gives Christ all the glory.

Secondly, it involves sanctification:

That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (Phil 3:10).

It involves knowing Him experimentally. It involves being more and more like Him and experiencing the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in his life in sanctification. It involves not conforming to the world, but being transformed daily, so that he may be conformed to Christ.

Thirdly, it involves glorification:

If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Phil 3:11).

It involves perseverance to the very end (cf. Mt 10:22). Knowing Christ is not just praying a sinner’s prayer. It is the beginning of the Christian journey that would bring him unto the celestial city. It is a journey of faith, beginning with the armour of righteousness that Christ puts on him. It is a journey of much tribulation, but he knows he would be helped by the Holy Spirit. It is a journey he knows he would complete because he is in the hands of God the Father.

In contrast to the mundane, spiritual impoverishment that characterises many a Christian life, Paul recognises the richness of his new life in Christ. He is able to walk in this newness of life because he was willing to serve only one Master (cf. Mt 6:24). The old is past, the new is come. He cannot continue to hold on to the old. He can no longer hang on to his old self-righteousness and his own accomplishments and considering himself to be righteous and acceptable to God because of all these. He realises that these he had considered gain in the past, are now the very weight that so easily beset him in his Christian race. Like the writer of Hebrews, he casts them aside one by one. He recognises that if he were to put so much as a thread of hope on any of these, his Christian journey would be greatly imperilled.


What ought to be the singular, most important thing for the Christian but “knowing Christ”? Paul expresses it in no uncertain terms when he says:

I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.

However, it is so easy and tempting to put our confidence and our joy on other things, and use them as indicators of our spiritual health.

Paul speaks of his heritage in that he was of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and an Hebrew of Hebrews. Are you putting confidence in the fact that you are born in a godly family? If you do not repent, your godly heritage can become a snarl to you. Why is it that so many pastors’ and elders’ children perished? Why it is that Hophni and Phinehas perished? Indeed, the parents are partly to be blamed, but I suspect that a large part of the problem is that these who perish had placed their hope not on Christ but on their godly parents.

Paul speaks about his status in that he was circumcised on the eight day, a Pharisee. Do you place your hope on your baptism rather than on Christ? Do you take pride that you are in a Reformed church or are Reformed by conviction, instead of being thankful that you are a disciple of Christ? Do you consider your Christianity better than others, and so you are a better Christian than your friends in other churches? Do you have a holier-than-thou attitude? I’m afraid if you do not repent, and begin to trust in Christ alone again, you may be side-stepping out of the way of life.

Paul speaks of his zeal in persecuting the church. Are you secretly proud of your zeal: that you are better than those who do not attend all the appointed meetings in the church? Are you gauging your Christian life by these? Beloved, your zeal may be as misdirected as the zeal of Saul of Tarsus, thinking that his zealousness would win him credit with God. It is good that you are attending to the means. But remember to check your heart and your motive, whether you are seeking to win the favour of God and man.

Finally, Paul speaks about his discipline and righteousness in his being outwardly blameless according to the law. Are you so proud that you are more discipline than others in maintaining a regular daily devotion, and you just cannot understand why other people cannot do as you do? Do you pride yourself that you are so strict in keeping the Law that you begin to be very judgmental about others. I am afraid, if this is the case, you could be obeying the Law for the wrong reasons.

Have you tasted of the “excellency of the knowledge of Christ,” beloved? Have you cast aside everything that may hinder you in your knowing Christ, and fully hoping and trusting in Him and Him alone? Have you been side-tracked by secondary issues so that your Christian life is not about knowing Christ but about some convictions which you have or do not have? Do you know a form of Christianity but have forgotten Christ? Pray, ask the Lord to help you that your sight may be refocused back to Chris