Our past, present, and future in Christ

Philippians 3:4–14 is part of the lectionary readings for the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which is October 4th. Paul began the chapter with the exhortation to his readers to “rejoice in the Lord” (v. 1). Joy is a major theme that is stressed throughout the apostle’s letter (1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17–18; 3:1; 4:1, 10).

In 3:1, Paul encouraged his fellow Christians to rejoice because they belonged to the Lord Jesus. Their awareness of their baptismal union with the Son would enable the apostle’s readers to resist the legalistic tendencies of his doctrinal adversaries.

Paul referred to the antagonists as “dogs” (v. 2), those who do “evil,” and “mutilators of the flesh.” Concededly, these words are harsh; yet, they convey the seriousness with which the apostle viewed the imminent threat to his spiritual children in Philippi.

“Judaizers” is the term specialists use to refer to the enemies of the gospel proclaimed by the apostle. These were legalists who insisted that all believers, regardless of their ethnicity, had to observe the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament in order to gain and maintain salvation.

Paul’s enemies also declared that converted Gentiles had to be circumcised before they could be received into the church (Acts 15:1–2). Moreover, the legalists rejected Paul’s claim to be an apostle, arguing that he had diluted the gospel by ignoring the requirements and customs of the Mosaic Law (21:20–21).

When summarizing Paul’s harsh critique of the religious leadership in his day, it is important to avoid the specter of antisemitism that has plagued the church (including Lutheranism) at times during its history. The present focus is not on the general population of Judah, many of whom were on the receiving end of a corrupt civil and religious ruling class. Instead, this is an intra-Jewish rebuke.

Put differently, Philippians 3 candidly reports what one ethnic Jew—Paul—said about his Jewish religious peers. It was not a circumstance in which Gentiles were censuring Jews.

Incidentally, during the period of Second Temple Judaism, the intra-Jewish wrangling was even more intense. For instance, members of the Qumran community castigated the Pharisees, and even Sadducees and Pharisees were caustic toward one another.

Against the preceding historical backdrop, it is understandable why Paul called his opponents “dogs” (v. 2). This was the term that the apostle’s religious peers would call Gentiles, for they considered both Gentiles and dogs to be unclean, vicious scavengers. In a way, Paul reversed the use of this derogatory term by applying it to those who insisted that Gentiles subject themselves to ceremonial cleansing rites before they could become true Christians.

Paul also referred to his antagonists as practitioners of “evil.” After all, the upshot of their troublesome actions and heretical teachings was injurious to the spiritual well-being of Jesus’ followers.

Moreover, Paul called the legalists “mutilators of the flesh,” in which the Greek word translated “mutilators” (literally, “to cut down or off”) is an ironic play on the term rendered “circumcision” (literally, “to cut around”; v. 3). This recalls the disfiguring injuries pagans inflicted on themselves as they participated in frenzied rituals (1 Kings 18:28).

The apostle’s stinging sarcasm was appropriate, for the religious frauds demanded that all Christians be physically circumcised as a prerequisite for becoming holy and acceptable to God. The apostle did not attack circumcision itself, but the significance that the legalists attached to the rite.

On the one hand, Paul affirmed the propriety of his ethnic peers being circumcised. In fact, on at least one occasion he circumcised a believer when he thought it was appropriate to do so (Acts 16:3). On the other hand, the apostle objected to anyone teaching that a right standing with God comes through adherence to a religious ceremony such as circumcision.

Paul transformed the meaning of circumcision from an external mutilation of the flesh, which could be done only to males, to the internal work of God’s Spirit that marks every believer’s union with the Father, based on the Son’s redemptive work (Col 2:11, 13). Paul declared that it is Jesus’ disciples—namely, everyone worshiping and serving God by the power of the Spirit (John 4:23–24)—who are the true “circumcision” (Phil 3:3) and the real people of God (Gal 3:6–4:7).

The above included both believing Jews and Gentiles. Instead of bragging about what they have attained, they exulted in what the Lord Jesus had accomplished on their behalf through His atoning sacrifice at Calvary, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven.

Expressed differently, believers did not trust in their compulsive observance of pious rituals. Instead, they rejoiced in the fact that they had eternal life in baptismal union with the Redeemer (1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17).

Paul indicated that he had many reasons to put confidence in his personal ancestry and professional achievements, especially based on the legalists’ standard of righteousness. In fact, no one had been a more zealous defender of the Jewish laws and customs than the apostle.

Furthermore, whatever credentials the religionists claimed for themselves, Paul contended that he was far more qualified than any of them to speak as a Jew on matters of Torah observance (Phil 3:4). For instance, he was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth (v. 5).

The implication is that Paul’s parents were devout Jews, who faithfully followed the Mosaic Law (Gen 17:12; 21:4; Lev 12:3) and trained their son in his religious duties from the time he was an infant. How many of the apostle’s detractors could say the same?

Next, Paul stressed his birthright as a Jew. Not only was he a member of God’s chosen people by birth (Rom 9:3–4; 11:1), but he was also from the tribe of Benjamin. Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham, and together these three men were the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.

Jacob had twelve sons, two by his beloved wife, Rachel. The older was Joseph, and the younger was Benjamin (Gen 35:18, 24; 46:19; 1 Chron 1:28; 2:1; Matt 1:2; Luke 3:33).

One of the 12 tribes of Israel was descended from Benjamin. Israel’s first king was Saul, a Benjamite (1 Sam. 9:1–2; 10:20–21; Acts 13:21). When Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, the tribe of Benjamin remained loyal to the tribe of Judah (1 Kings 12:20–24). Furthermore, Jerusalem and the temple in the holy city were located within the district of Benjamin (Josh 18:15–16).

Paul’s impressive list of credentials included being a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil 3:5). This meant, in part, that he was the Hebrew son of Hebrew parents (rather than merely a proselyte to the faith).

In more contemporary parlance, one might say that Paul was a true or pure-blooded Hebrew—if one could ever be found. He was part of an elite group who had been taught Hebrew (or Aramaic), the ethnic language of the Jewish people, and schooled in the Jewish traditions (Acts 22:2–3; Gal 1:14).

To his birth and training as a Jew, Paul added three personal achievements. First, he was a Pharisee. Within the Jewish community, no group of people were more highly esteemed as strict observers of the Law of Moses. Indeed, Gamaliel, Paul’s mentor, was one of the most respected rabbis of the day (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5).

Second, before Paul’s conversion, he demonstrated his fervor for the Law by fanatically persecuting Christians, whom he believed were God’s enemies (1 Cor 15:9). The zealot not only denounced the followers of Jesus, but also actively hunted them down to imprison and execute them (Phil 3:6).

At that time, Paul would settle for nothing less than the destruction of the church (Acts 8:3; Gal 1:13). In a way, the apostle had been more blinded to the truth of the gospel than were his legalist peers.

Third, the apostle said he was “blameless” (Phil 3:6) according to the righteousness stipulated in the Mosaic Law. Put another way, if a scrupulous adherence to the law could produce righteousness in a person, then Paul would qualify. After all, by any human measure he was faultless in his Torah observance.

Despite Paul’s seemingly impeccable credentials, he rejected as inconsequential everything he had accomplished before his dramatic encounter with Jesus the Messiah on the road to Damascus. In light of the Savior’s work in the apostle’s life, Paul considered his birth as a Benjamite Jew, his high standing in the party of the Pharisees, and even his slavish devotion to the Mosaic Law to be ineffectual in securing his redemption.

All that once had been a “profit” (v. 7) to Paul (and which his opponents prized), he counted as a “loss” due to his devotion to the Messiah. Expressed differently, what the apostle once regarded as sterling personal assets, he now regarded as grave liabilities.

Paul candidly admitted that every single thing about which he once boasted he now considered to be a “loss” (v. 8). This was especially so when compared to the far greater value of knowing the Messiah as “Lord.”

Likewise, the apostle welcomed, rather than resented, suffering the loss of “all things.” Indeed, he regarded them as “rubbish.” The underlying Greek noun was used in the vernacular of the day for fecal matter—that is, detestable excrement or worthless dung meant to be discarded in a sewer (Isa 64:6).

In Philippians 3:8, the Greek noun that Paul chose for “knowing” expresses the idea of understanding and perceiving an object in an intelligent manner. The word implies personal acquaintance, experience, and familiarity.

So, when Paul spoke about “knowing” Jesus, the apostle was not just referring to gathering theological facts about the Son. More importantly, Paul had in mind experientially knowing the Messiah.

Expressed differently, the apostle desired to know Jesus in an ever-deepening, personal union on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, Paul wanted to have an ongoing relationship through his encounter with the Redeemer, especially as He worked in the apostle’s life (Jer 31:34; Hos 6:3; 8:2; John 10:27; 17:3; 2 Cor 4:6; 1 John 5:20).

Paul was now ready to press home his point. As righteous as he might have appeared in his relentless zeal to obey the Mosaic Law, he now realized that true righteousness can come only “through faith in the Messiah” (Phil 3:9).

One option is that Paul was referring to trusting in the Messiah for salvation. A less likely possibility is to translate the original as “through the faith [or faithfulness] of the Messiah,” which emphasizes the steadfast obedience of the Savior (2:6–11).

The legalists had demanded that believers be ritually purified through circumcision. Paul’s argument was that he was circumcised and did far more in his efforts to be declared righteous under the Mosaic Law.

And yet none of that was of any value to God. The consequence is that no one can attain an upright standing with God. Only He can freely and unconditionally offer it, and it is received when people believe in the Lord Jesus.

The implication is that the merit arising from Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is the sole basis of salvation. Moreover, faith is how believers are joined to the Son and His merit. These truths were at the heart of Paul’s teaching, and he wanted his Philippian friends to permanently establish them as the doctrinal cornerstone of their church.

Amazingly, Paul wanted to know more about both Jesus’ sufferings and His resurrection power. While many believers want more of His power, few would seem to crave “participation in his sufferings” (Phil 3:10).

Paul, however, regarded suffering for the Messiah as a sought-after privilege (Rom 8:17; 2 Cor 12:10). The apostle understood that the power of Jesus’ resurrection was rooted in His self-denial, which led to the Cross.

During Jesus’ earthly sojourn, He taught His followers to take up their own crosses (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Paul realized there was spiritual power in sharing in Jesus’ sufferings. This was the reason the apostle willingly faced incredible hardships for the sake of the gospel.

There were two realms, then, in which Paul wanted to grow in his knowledge of the Savior. The first included a personal awareness of the power that raised Jesus from the dead. To be specific, the apostle wanted to experience that power daily working in his life to bring about Jesus’ righteousness in Paul (Rom 6:1–14; Eph 1:18–23; 2 Cor 12:1–10).

Second, the apostle wanted to have fellowship with Jesus in His sufferings. The idea is that through Paul’s own sharing in the adversity and anguish that came with being a committed believer, he would understand more fully the anguish Jesus endured on the cross. In the process, the Father would transform the apostle into the image of His Son (Col 1:24; 1 Thess 1:6; Heb 10:34; Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 4:12–16).

In all this, Paul wanted to conform to Jesus’ death. This consisted of the apostle divesting himself of personal gains and regarding them as complete losses (Phil 3:7–8).

Being conformed to the Savior also involved crucifying the “sinful nature with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). Paul’s goal was not to languish moribund in a state of lifelessness. Rather, it was to be raised from the dead along with other believers on the day appointed by God (Phil 3:11). At the Messiah’s second advent, Paul would completely know Jesus as supreme Ruler and Redeemer.

On the one hand, the apostle was uncertain about the outcome of his current situation as a prisoner in Rome and how boldly he would witness for the Messiah in the face of impending execution. On the other hand, Paul had no doubt that he (and all believers) would be raised from death to life at the end of the age. In short, the apostle’s confession of faith in the Redeemer made it clear that salvation completely depended on the atoning work of the Lord Jesus.

Paul had just described the kind of knowledge about the Messiah the apostle desired. He also wanted to correct any misconceptions the Philippians had about his teachings.

For instance, Paul noted that he had not yet acquired a perfect knowledge of the Savior, nor was the apostle in a state of spiritual flawlessness. Instead, Paul was pursuing the redemption that Jesus had attained for the apostle—the redemption that he would fully possess when God raises believers from the dead. Yes, the Messiah had already redeemed Paul, but he needed to “press on” (Phil 3:12) to the goal the Savior had set for him.

Paul used the athletic metaphor of a race to illustrate what it means to follow the Son. Both the Greeks and Romans were avid fans of sporting contests. Sometimes the Roman games were violent and cruel, but often combatants merely engaged in feats of strength, endurance, and speed.

Running was one of the more popular sports. When contestants won their races, they might receive prizes of wealth.

Of far more value to most of the competitors, however, was the honored recognition they acquired. After each contest, a herald proclaimed the victor and his hometown, and a judge presented him with a palm branch.

At the conclusion of the games, each victor received a wreath made of olive or laurel leaves (3:14; 4:2). According to Greek tradition, an oracle from the pagan god, Delphi, had established this custom.

Paul repeated his statement that he had not yet attained the spiritual faultlessness that comes only with the final resurrection. Moreover, he called his readers “brothers and sisters” (3:13) to further emphasize his point. If the apostle did not claim to be spiritually complete, surely the Christians in Philippi could not make such a boast.

There were two things Paul could do as he strove for the lofty goal he saw before him. First, he could put his past behind him, which might mean either his former life as a misguided, religious zealot or all his successes up to that point. Despite the apostle’s outward dedication to the Mosaic Law, he had failed to acquire God’s favor or personal righteousness.

Paul was not talking about obliterating the memories of his former life. Instead, the apostle did not want to recall his previous achievements with the intention of noting how they had contributed to his spiritual progress. Nor did he want to dwell on his past sins (which may have included the execution of Christians), for God no longer held these transgressions against His bondservant.

Second, Paul could strive for the future. The apostle used specific Greek words to draw a picture in the minds of his readers of an athlete who was taking part in a footrace.

Just as contestants exerted all their efforts to push forward, so Paul used every effort to drive himself onward. The enormous difference between races in a sporting event and the race in which Christians are running is that a sporting event has only one winner. In the case of the Christian life, all who finish the race win.

Paul’s utmost effort to win the prize was not to run faster or longer than all other Christians, but to reach a common goal. He was not trying to excel above all other believers, but to win a prize that Jesus would award to all who ran for Him (v. 14).

The apostle did not say exactly what the prize would be, but he did indicate that he would receive it in heaven in the presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus of Nazareth. In any case, the Father was the one who called Paul to press on toward this goal, and it was the Spirit who enabled the apostle (especially through the ministry of the Word and sacraments) to run the race. So, Paul ran for the glory and honor of the Creator.

Key ideas to contemplate

At one time Paul had persecuted Jesus’ followers. In today’s Scripture passage, we learn that the apostle focused, not on his past, but on the future to which the Lord had summoned Paul.

Likewise, Jesus wants us to rid ourselves of every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily causes us to stumble. Moreover, the Son wants us to run with determination the race that the Father has set before us (Heb 12:1). Doing this ensures our spiritual growth.

1. Refuse to be preoccupied with the past. Paul regarded his former accomplishments and elevated position in his religious community as a disadvantage to his current Christian walk. In Philippians 3:8, the apostle used words such as “loss” and “dung” to describe his former prestige and way of life. Let us take a moment to consider those things in our past life that would keep us from getting to know the Lord, especially if we were to obsess on them.

2. Get on with the present. Paul urged believers not to be satisfied with their current maturity in the Son, for there is always room for spiritual growth. Thinking we have arrived at full maturity is already a step backward. Paul would urge us, as he did the Philippians, to take a goal-oriented approach to life. This includes a continued emphasis on becoming more Christlike.

3. Maintain a future focus. Paul encouraged his readers to follow his example and not be either legalistic or worldly in their Christian lives. He also challenged them to focus on their heavenly citizenship.

We, too, can benefit from maintaining a future focus, particularly looking forward to Jesus’ return and the glorious transformation of our bodies. As we eagerly anticipate being with the Lord forever in heaven, we seek to live now in a way that pleases Him.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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