Enemies of the Cross of Christ

We often hear of people who are considered enemies of Christ Jesus, a title we give to particularly harmful or evil people. We need to exercise caution in speaking of people in such language, especially considering we were all once in that same condition.  Yet there is in scripture an example of a class of people who are identified as enemies not of Christ Himself, but of His cross.

In his letter to the Christians living in Philippi, the apostle Paul gives a stern warning about a group of people whom he calls “enemies of the Cross of Christ.” Here is that warning, from Philippians 3:17-19, “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.  For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

What does Paul mean by “enemies of the cross of Christ?”  Three paragraphs earlier, Paul identified these people as the religionists who were seeking to mislead the Philippian believers. These religionists were trying to convince them to find their righteousness not in the life of Christ lived in them by the Holy Spirit, but in works of human effort and religious ritual.  Paul sums up their error in their focus on physical circumcision.  “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh….”

Paul’s view was that there is a true circumcision of the heart, the removal of our preoccupation with self and sin, that occurs by the work of God’s Spirit in us.  Physical circumcision was merely a foreshadowing of this true circumcision.  It did nothing to create righteousness in those who practiced it.  Now, religionists were demanding that the new believers follow religious rituals and rules in order to be righteous, contrary to the Gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles taught it.

Religious rituals and rules are works of the flesh, and to put confidence in fleshly works is to deny the efficacy of our justification by faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross.  Furthermore, it is our inclusion in the death of Christ, our being placed into Him by our faith in His salvation that leads to the death of our self-life.  By this inclusion the Holy Spirit enlivens us and lives Christ’s righteousness in us.  Not by works of the law or works of the flesh can we ever gain or enhance our righteousness.  Such works of the flesh and religious activity are of no use.

Worse, such works of the flesh are opposed the process of true holiness, which is found through our self-denial and commitment to daily live a crucified life.  Surrendering ourselves fully to Christ’s Spirit and not relying at all on religion or the flesh is how we experience the righteousness of Christ.  Thus, Paul describes true righteousness as being found in those who are “…the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.  Paul is outlining our path to holy living and the power of God lived in us.

  • Serving our God by His Spirit in us, not in our own strength or by our own designs.
  • Making our confidence and boast in Christ alone, Who lives His life in us.
  • Putting no confidence at all in works of the flesh, including religiosity and ritual, and fleshly practices and efforts.

To human reasoning, this seems foolish and unnatural.  It seems like we are simply coasting, accomplishing nothing.  The opposite is true, however; we are denying ourselves so that our holiness comes by the power of God at work in us.  This is the only way in which holiness can be accomplished, for in our flesh there is not sufficient strength.  We cannot defeat sin in the flesh no matter how long, how hard, or how sincerely we try.

Paul gives us the right mindset in this passage when he wrote in 3:10 and 11,  “…I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” 

  • Only in our union with our God – knowing Him intimately – can we find the power to live a holy life.
  • That power is the power of Christ’s resurrection present in us by His Holy Spirit.
  • That power becomes operative and effective when we become like Jesus in His death, living a crucified life daily.
  • This results in our life being transformed out from among the dead ones, the literal translation of the Greek in the final phrase of Paul’s sentence.

Oswald Chambers lays out for us the choice we must make if we are to follow Christ and live lives that are holy and not overcome by sin – “Get alone with Jesus and either tell Him that you do not want sin to die out in you – or else tell Him that at all costs you want to be identified with His death.”  It is in the death of our Lord Jesus, and our inclusion into that death, that sin dies in us.  It is not by our own efforts, and it is certainly not by our ignoring sin and ignoring the danger of the self-life under the claim of grace.

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