Contemporary ideas about Identity have proven themselves the idol of our time.
About four years ago I got a letter from my youngest sister, who lives in Phoenix. She said she had discovered some interesting details about our family tree. We all knew that on my mom’s side, we were Italian, but that letter provided me with ancestral names, dates, places, and even travel schedules—a level of detail I had never known before.
Namely, in 1911, a man named Benedetto Vessella, and his wife, Bernarda, came from Italy to the United States. These were my great grandparents. They stood in those long lines at Ellis Island, and they probably both struggled with English for a while. They hailed from a little place called Roccasecca, which I had never even heard of, so I hopped on the internet and found it—a mountain town about an hour-and-half southeast of Rome. As an additional fun fact, I also learned that the philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas had come from there.
I wondered what Roccasecca Friday night was like, so I hit Youtube. They were having a foodie event there, with the thickest steaks I’d ever seen. And as I was wishing for one of them, the camera panned.
I saw my kid sister.
At least I thought I did. It shocked me the way it does when you think you recognize someone in a setting where they shouldn’t be. Then I realized it wasn’t my sister at all, but a girl that resembled her. The experience reminded me I’m part of a gene pool in some other place on the globe.
Genealogical services that do research, DNA matches, etc., are in the business of offering people reconnection to a long-lost identity. They specialize in excavating something dead and trying to hook you back up to it. This can generate a powerful emotional response, and no small amount of curiosity. Some folks respond by rushing out to buy the T-shirt—”Proud to be….” (whatever). Others go as far as learning the language of the old country. And in one case, a family I know converted to the religion of their home country, when they discovered what it was, without ever having visited that place, or known anyone from there, or spoken the language.
It’s obvious that today’s hot commodity is not technology, it is identity. Identity has hatched every ideology in today’s public square, and now even controls politics. We all own a particular biological reality. You have a race, a national origin, and one of two genders (The Bible says God made them male and female. There are two, not seventy-two.). You’re supposed to own and appreciate the biological reality you were born with, but you can take it so far that it will become a problem to you, causing you to miss blessings at the personal level.
The Apostle Paul ran into this challenge over and over in the first century. He was constantly fighting the believers’ identity crisis. It seems we always want to be something else, or something old.
Paul writes in Philippians 3,
“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you” (v. 1).
When Paul said “Finally,” that meant he was about to wrap up the book of Philippians. You could expect the credits to start rolling. But something occurred to him, and he ramped back up again, saying, “to write the same things to you is no trouble to me.” In other words, “for me to write a little bit more is not a problem, and besides, it’s safe for you.” Paul’s intuition that the Philippians might be in some kind of spiritual danger, caused this letter to grow from two chapters to four.
And so he delivered a triple warning—Look out, look out, look out!—with each warning building upon the other.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
He began by saying, “Look out for the dogs.” It must have been that while the apostle traveled the ancient world, going from city to city with the gospel, that he noticed packs of dirty, stray dogs running around together, eating trash. The behavior that he observed in those animals reminded him of the behaviors and attitudes of certain people. For instance, dogs are shameless. You can try to train them better, but if nobody is around to watch them, and there is no threat of punishment, they do the grossest things imaginable. Dogs growl, bark, and sometimes bite when they become aggravated. Dogs are driven by appetites. So, said Paul, look out for these people.
But precisely who were they? “Dogs” might have been referring to sinners in general. But the next warning provides a little more of the picture. Paul says, “look out for the evildoers.” This still sounds a bit generic—like something that could be happening in the back of a seedy beer bar, or alley. That’s the reason I prefer other translations that say “evil workers.” This denotes people who have a strategy, and a goal. We’re to watch out for them, but we still don’t know for sure who he’s talking about…until the last warning.
“Look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”
This statement is a back-handed reference to the religious practice of circumcision. It’s a dead give-away that while Paul was issuing his triple warning, he had certain kinds of religious people in mind. Their major cargo was not Christ, but circumcision.
Biblical circumcision originated at the time of Abraham. Abraham had believed God in Genesis chapter 15, at which time God “counted it to him as righteousness” (v. 6). Then, in Genesis chapter 17, God gave him the command of circumcision—to trim off a piece of flesh from his male member. The ritual was supposed to be a sign, an emblem and token as a reminder to Abraham. Every time he bathed, or went to the bathroom, it would be God’s continuing memo that, “You believed in Me, and now you don’t live like other men. Your flesh has been cut off.”
Unfortunately, the Jews got it backwards. They put circumcision first, or at the very least, ranked it equal to faith. They thought the procedure done upon a foreskin was what invited God’s approval and blessing. They diminished the primary importance of faith in Christ. This crowd moved about amongst the early churches, with lots of Jesus-friendly talk, but ultimately selling circumcision. They were apparently telling the believers that in order to have God’s blessing upon your life, you had to go in a back room with a pair of scissors, and get this procedure done. Then you could truly become one of God’s chosen people, a Jew. Why would you ever want to be a Greek or a Scythian, when you could become a full child of God?
In effect, they were selling an identity. They were moving trust in Christ out of the way, and replacing it with trust in skin.
Under those circumstances, the power and joy of the Christian Life would teeter, as it always does when Christ loses center stage. Paul was painfully aware of this. He knew if this kind of influence gained footing among the Philippians, their joy would be endangered.
That’s when he offered the correction about their true identity: “We are the circumcision” (3:3a).
When Paul thought about circumcision, he thought of it not on the Old Testament side of the cross, but on the New Testament side. He didn’t see it as an out-patient procedure. He conceived of it as the cross of Calvary, and when a man or a woman believes in that cross—in the power of Jesus’s blood, and the efficacy of his death—the cross turns into a pair of giant shears that cut off the whole body of flesh, with all its old identity. Paul called this “the circumcision made without hands” (Col. 2:11).
The big benefit of this work is that once the flesh is cut off, there’s nothing blocking your way to the Holy Spirit.
Thus, we are those, “who worship by the Spirit of God…” (3:3b)
Thanks to the cross, you are in direct contact with the Spirit. In fact, He Himself defines worship. As such, He is all you need for worship. I’ve often heard people talk about what they needed for good worship—a certain size of church or certain style of music.
But you’ve already got all you “need.” Anything else is simply a nice extra. Jesus said, “the true worshippers would worship the Father in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). As you are worshiping, and drawn up into “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (c.f. 2 Corinthians 13:14), Jesus said the Spirit would declare the Son to you (John 16:14).
The Spirit reveals, and reveals, and reveals the Son of God to you, until you respond by glorying in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:3). This might look like praise, like, after seeing something fresh of Christ, we tell Him, “Lord Jesus, thank you! I owe you everything, and I’m so happy to throw it all at your feet! There’s nothing better than you!” Or, it could be a song. Having realized something amazing of Christ, you might sing “Amazing Grace.” Regardless, the response is Spirit inspired, and is worship. It could be a confession, as you say, “Lord, I haven’t followed you as I ought. I’ve made up a lot of excuses, and lived my life by them instead.” Whatever shape worship takes, every revival I have ever experienced, or seen in somebody else’s life happened because Christ was given center stage again. But that only happens under the Holy Spirit’s illumination, which only comes through the cutting of the cross.
The final result is “we put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3c).
Paul went on to say what he meant by “flesh” further down the chapter, when he referred to religious pedigree, heritage, race, and tokens such as circumcision. While some of these are obvious non-issues to us today, we are in as much danger now as the saints were then. Perhaps even more so. These days it is not only the flesh, but the mere color of the flesh that occupies our minds. Race has literally become a new religion, with its own set of prophets and teachers. It has its own “holy writings” that always seem to be trending on Amazon. Running afoul of it will result in condemnation. Submitting to it leads to justification (if only for a short time).
Christians, including top-level voices, are being sucked into this vortex, claiming it is all a “gospel issue.” However, while professing a concern for the gospel, they move the core of the gospel out of the way, and replace Him with racial philosophy. Something is clearly amiss.
Fleshly identity always becomes a serious form of insulation between the believer, and the Holy Spirit, the glorification of Christ. The more we empower the outer man, the less we’re aware of God moving in us, and the less we detect any glory in Jesus.
Think about one of these crews working on the roof of a house in the dead of summer. It’s over one hundred degrees outside, and those poor fellows are feeling it. Let’s say the house has a big swimming pool out back, full of shimmering, sparkling, blue water. The owner of the house invites the crew to take a break, go get their trunks, and come back for a swim.
But when they return, one fellow is wearing a sophisticated, full body, insulated scuba suit. The other members of the crew think it’s weird, but don’t say anything. Meanwhile, they all jump in. Everyone is refreshed…except the guy in the scuba suit. He doesn’t quite feel the cool water, tries to remedy the problem by going home, and changing into something else—a deep sea diving suit, with a bronze head cage. If he had felt anything of the pool water before, now he feels nothing. He has assumed that by strengthening his outside layers, he will improve his experience of refreshment. But with each attempt, he has decreased it significantly. Nor can he understand why the rest of the crew, who came back wearing Hawaiian trunks purchased at Goodwill, are having such a whale of a time.
This is the difference between fleshly identity and the circumcision of the cross.
We’re not much safer than the Philippians, because influences exist all around us, on our phones, our laptops, our televisions, that promote identities other than what Christ died for us to have. When the first question we ask is, “What color is he?” and depending on the answer, we are either indifferent or outraged, our minds have been turned to the flesh. We’ve been conditioned to think this way by a media machine that literally crafts narratives, and feeds on clicks, likes, comments, and forwards.
Before you take a stand on some socially enlightened view, understand what is at stake: sincere, well meaning folks are trying to convince you to stitch back on what Christ has cut off. You are the circumcision. Leave it off!
Sometimes I catch myself gravitating back to the attitudes and opinions of my old identity, but when I do, I confess it as sin. Before I get up to preach, I’ve had to tell the Lord, “I know I’m a white southern man, but for me to speak as such to the saints, is an insult to you. I must be the circumcision, worshiping by the Spirit, and glorying in Christ. I must, or else I’m not going to preach anymore.”
And you? What about the particular flesh “suit” you are tempted to wear around? Regardless of its color, you will need to make a decision about it–whether to immerse yourself more fully in it, or to honor the work of the cross.