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Philippians 3:4b-14 Biblical Commentary:
THE BROAD CONTEXT: Paul and Silas founded the church in Philippi. However, they exorcised a slave girl of her spirit of divination––thus depriving her owners of a source of income. In retaliation, those owners persuaded the civil magistrates that Paul and Silas were advocating unlawful practices, which led the magistrates to imprison Paul and Silas. A midnight earthquake freed Paul and Silas, but they remained with their jailer throughout the night. In the morning, the magistrates, learning that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, and thus not subject to the kind of arrest and imprisonment that they had suffered, apologized, but asked Paul and Silas to leave the city. Paul and Silas complied with that request, but maintained contact with the Philippian church by reports and letters (Acts 16:11-40). My point is that Paul spent very limited time in Philippi, so he conducted the majority of his pastoral work there through emissaries, such as Epaphroditus and Timothy––and through letters such as this one.
Paul has written this letter, in part, to thank the Philippians for the gift they have sent him (4:10ff.). However, the majority of the letter is composed of pastoral concerns––encouragement, exhortations, and counsel.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT: One of Paul’s pastoral concerns is that the Philippian Christians model their faith and practice after legitimate Christian leaders, such as Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Epaphroditus––and that they reject the counsel of “dogs” and “evil doers” (3:2)––”enemies of the cross” (3:18) whose “god is their belly” (3:19).
Verse 3:2 constitutes the heart of the context for our epistle reading. Paul says, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (3:2). Who are these “dogs”––these “evil workers”? What constitutes “the false circumcision”? (Greek: katatomen).
• In that time and place, “dogs” would be a harsh, pejorative term, sometimes used by Jews to refer to Gentiles––outsiders––people who do not enjoy God’s favor.
• To understand the phrase, “evil workers,” we must look to the context––in particular to the phase, “the false circumcision” (katatomen). Presumably, the “evil workers” are involved in “the false circumcision.”
• The Greek word that is translated “the false circumcision” is katatomen––a combination of the preposition kata (according to) and temno (to cut). The words “mutilation” or “butchery” best convey the meaning of katatomen.
The more usual word for circumcision in the New Testament is peritome––a word that Paul uses in the very next verse, where he says, “we are the circumcision” (peritome) (3:3).
The idea that Paul conveys by using these two words––katatomen and peritome––back to back, is that, for a Christian man, katatomen is an illegitimate form of circumcision constituting a kind of butchery, while peritome is legitimate circumcision. The surgical procedure is the same––the difference is the motive. Katatomen is butchery because, for a Christian man, circumcision is surgery without purpose. Christians are not required to observe Jewish law.
Keep in mind that, even with modern pain-killers and surgical techniques, adult circumcision is a painful procedure that involves days or weeks of recovery. In Paul’s day, it would have been extremely painful. If the early church had required male Gentile converts to be circumcised, that would have been a stopper for many men. It would have inhibited the spread of the Gospel. Of course, if God wanted Christian men to observe circumcision, that would be simply the price that men would need to pay. However, that is not the case––God does not require circumcision––so insisting that male Gentiles be circumcised as a prerequisite for church membership is unacceptable.
Also keep in mind that many parents elect to have their baby boys circumcised today––some for religious reasons, but most for other reasons. Some men elect to be circumcised––for various reasons. There is no reason to prohibit circumcision. The issue here is not whether circumcision is good or bad––but whether the church should require circumcision for males seeking baptism.
Circumcision, of course, was mandated by Torah law for all Jewish males. It constituted an indelible sign of a man’s Jewish identity.
The problem for the early Christian church was whether or not to require people to observe Jewish law as a prerequisite for admittance into the Christian church––whether to require male Gentile converts to be circumcised.
The very early church did understand it to be its obligation to observe Jewish law. However, that changed quickly when God gave Peter a vision of unclean animals and “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:13). Peter protested that he had never eaten anything unclean, but God responded, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean” (Acts 10:14). Then God directed Peter to Cornelius, a righteous Gentile, and a number of Cornelius’ companions. Peter addressed those men, saying, “You yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come to one of another nation, but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man unholy or unclean” (Acts:10:28). After a short homily by Peter, “the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word”––both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:44). Peter then asked, “Can any man forbid the water, that these who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we should not be baptized?” (Acts 10:47)––and Peter proceeded to baptize Cornelius and his companions without first requiring them to submit to circumcision (Acts 10:47-48).
Early in his ministry, Paul had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those parts; for they all knew that (Timothy’s) father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). He did this, not because he believed circumcision to be a requirement for Christian men, but to remove a stumbling-block that might stand in the way of Jews accepting Christ. Later, though he could write, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision” (Galatians 5:6), he nevertheless refused on principle to allow Titus to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3-5).
By the time that Paul wrote this letter to the Philippian church, it was well-established that Christians were not subject to Jewish law. However, certain renegade Christians continued to require Christians to observe Jewish law. These renegade Christians, then, are the “dogs”––the “evil workers––the mutilators––that Paul refers to in Philippians 3:2.
The foundational issue is whether Christians are saved by works of Jewish law or by faith. Throughout his writings, Paul insists that it is faith, not works, that saves us.
We know that the influence of these “evil workers” was significant in the church at Galatia. We do not know how serious the threat was in Philippi.
PHILIPPIANS 3:4b-6. PAUL’S JEWISH CREDENTIALS
4If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more: 5circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; 6concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly (Greek: ekklesia); concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.
“If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more” (v. 4b). When Paul speaks of “confidence in the flesh,” he is talking about the assurance of salvation that a man can experience by virtue of adherence to Jewish law––i.e. circumcision. In this verse, Paul lays down a challenge to all-comers who might claim superiority. He says, “I have more reason for confidence than any of them.”
“circumcised the eighth day” (v. 5a). God instituted circumcision as part of the covenant he made with Abraham––a covenant to make of Abraham a multitude of nations––and to be God to Abraham and his seed––and to give all the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants for an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:6-8). God told Abraham:
“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin. It will be a token of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old will be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he who is born in the house, or bought with money from any foreigner who is not of your seed. He who is born in your house, and he who is bought with your money, must be circumcised. My covenant will be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. The uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant” (Genesis 17:10-14).
So the first reason for Paul’s confidence is that he was circumcised, in accordance with Jewish law, when he was eight days old. Being circumcised on the eighth day put Paul in compliance with Jewish law from the beginning of his life. No one circumcised later in life could match that.
“of the stock of Israel” (v. 5b). Paul is Jewish by birth. The people who are intent on requiring compliance with Jewish law are advocating circumcision for converts to the Christian faith. Circumcision would, in their eyes, have the effect of bringing those Gentile converts inside the circle of the people of God. Paul, however, had no need for anyone to bring him inside the circle. He was born inside the circle.
“of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 5c). Joseph and Benjamin were the only two sons of Jacob and Rachel. Rachel was Jacob’s favorite wife, and Joseph and Benjamin were his favorite sons. You will remember the story of the coat of many colors that Jacob gave to Joseph––and the anger of Joseph’s brothers at Joseph’s special status––and the brothers selling Joseph into slavery to a caravan passing by. With Joseph out of the picture, Benjamin became Jacob’s favorite. See Genesis 42-44 for a poignant story of Joseph and Benjamin when Joseph was serving as pharaoh’s right-hand man in Egypt.
The tribe of Benjamin occupied a small territory just a bit north of Judah––quite near to Jerusalem. Trade routes between Judah and the other tribes passed through Benjamin. Saul, Israel’s first king, was a Benjaminite, and Abner, another Benjaminite, was significant in the transfer of the kingship to David. When the northern tribes formed their own alliance after Solomon’s death, Benjamin remained allied with Judah. Moses had said of Benjamin, “The beloved of Yahweh shall dwell in safety by him. He covers him all the day long. He dwells between his shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12).
It would be an exaggeration to say that Benjamin was the most important of the twelve tribes––but it was nevertheless quite important. Paul takes pride in tracing his lineage to the tribe of Benjamin.
“a Hebrew of Hebrews” (v. 5d). The New Testament Greek word Hebraios transliterates the Old Testament Hebrew word ‘ibriy (Hebrew). The word Hebrew is first used to identify “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13), and was probably derived from the name Eber, who was one of Abram’s ancestors (Genesis 10:21). The word Hebrew was used in Egypt to identify Joseph’s ethnicity (Genesis 39:14)––and is used throughout Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Samuel to speak of Israelites (Genesis 40:15; 41:12; 43:32; Exodus 1:15-16, 19, 22, etc. See also Jeremiah 34:9, 14). In New Testament times, Jews distinguished between those who lived in Israel and spoke Aramaic or Hebrew–and Hellenistic Jews who lived elsewhere and whose primary language was Greek (Zodhiates, 495).
Paul is claiming to be a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents and schooled in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. Paul’s Hebrew heritage, then, goes much deeper than his circumcision. He can trace it to his genes, his family heritage, his upbringing, his language, and his long-time practice of the Hebrew faith.
“concerning the law, a Pharisee” (v. 5e––see Acts 23:6; 26:5). The Pharisees were a prominent lay-led religious party known for their strict observance of Jewish law––and their efforts to require others to do likewise. The historian Josephus characterizes them as the leading sect among the Jews––experts in interpreting Jewish law.
We must not lose sight of the fact that there is much to commend Pharisees. They took seriously the religious laws that God commanded Jews to observe. They sincerely wanted to please God by obeying God’s commandments. They exerted leadership to bring their nation into compliance with God’s will. Some of them even refused to pledge an oath of loyalty to King Herod––presumably because that would conflict with their loyalty to God––and some were martyred for that stand. There is much to admire here.
But the Pharisees were among Jesus’ most intractable enemies. The New Testament often characterizes Pharisees as hypocrites––guilty of two significant sins. The first is focusing on little jots and tittles of the law while missing larger issues, such as justice and compassion. The second is seeking personal honor by their public and ostentatious practice of piety.
But we must remember that some Pharisees regarded Jesus favorably. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus by night (John 3), and later defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52). He also contributed a large quantity of expensive spices for Jesus’ burial (John 19:39-40). Joseph of Arimathea, a Pharisee, provided a burial place for Jesus and attended to his body after the crucifixion (27:57-60). Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee, counseled the Sanhedrin to be careful in their judgment of Jesus’ disciples lest they find themselves in conflict with God’s will (Acts 5).
Saul (Paul’s name before he became a Christian) was a Pharisee. There is no evidence that he sought honor for himself by public piety, but he was quite zealous.
“concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly” (Greek: ekklesia) (v. 6a). Saul had studied under Gamaliel, a top Pharisaic scholar (Acts 22:3). In his letter to the Galatian church, he said, “I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).
Saul was involved in the execution of the Christian martyr Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1), and became an active persecutor of Christians (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2). We need to keep in mind that he did so because he was convinced that Christians were leading people astray religiously––and because he thought God wanted him to stop Christians from doing that. His role as a persecutor of Christians was a direct outgrowth of his Pharisaic zeal.
The word ekklesia is most often translated “church” in the New Testament. It is a combination of two Greek words––ek, a preposition meaning “out” and kaleo, a verb meaning “to call.” Greeks used ekklesia to speak of assemblies––gatherings of people who had been called or invited to assemble. Early Christians appropriated ekklesia to speak of the church, by which they meant those people who are called by God out of the world and into a holy community. These early Christians were influenced at this point by the LXX (the Septuagint––the Greek translation of the Old Testament), where the word ekklesia was sometimes used for the people of Israel.
“concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless” (v. 6b). What is righteousness? In the Old Testament (especially in the book of Isaiah), righteousness has more to do with right relationships than with adherence to Torah law. Obedience to the law is important, but only insofar as it reflects true devotion to Yahweh. If a person is in a right relationship to Yahweh, that person will establish caring relationships to other people as well, in particular to vulnerable people such as widows, orphans, and the poor. The law makes special provisions for the care of such people (Leviticus 22:13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 16:10-11, 14; 24:17-22; Isaiah 1:17), but those who follow the law by rote rather than as an outgrowth of devotion to Yahweh are apt to sidestep their obligations to those who are less fortunate (Isaiah 1:23; Ezekiel 22:7; Job 22:9; 24:21; Psalm 94:6).
While Jewish law was replete with rules for practically every occasion, three kinds of observance especially characterized the observant Jew: Circumcision, faithfulness to Jewish dietary laws, and the observance of the Sabbath and other holy days. While Paul doesn’t specify what he means by blameless, he is probably claiming faithful observance within these three categories. In his case, faithfulness did grow out of his right relationship with God.
Of course, when Paul claims to have been blameless, he was referring to his understanding prior to meeting Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). After becoming a Christian, he came to realize that his faithfulness to the law had been incomplete––so he says, “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10)––and characterizes himself as chief among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). He describes his struggle with sin, saying:
“For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the law, that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present. For I delight in God’s law after the inward man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, the sin’s law” (Romans 7:15-25).
PHILIPPIANS 3:7-12. PROFIT AND LOSS
7However, what things were gain (Greek: kerdos) to me, these have I counted loss (zemia) for Christ. 8Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency (hyperecho) of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse (skubala), that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; 10that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship (koinonia) of his sufferings, becoming conformed (summorphou) to his death; 11if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained (elebon––from lambano), or am already made perfect (teteleiomai––from teleioo); but I press on (dioko), if it is so that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus.
“However, what things were gain(Greek: kerdos) to me, these have I counted loss (zemia) for Christ” (v. 7). Here Paul uses terms that any banker can appreciate––profit and loss. The word kerdos means gain or profit. The word zemia means loss.
What Paul is describing here is a world turned upside down––a world in which Jesus has switched all the price tags. The things that used to be expensive are now cheap, and vice versa. The things that Paul used to covet are no longer important to him. The Christ whom he used to persecute has become his salvation. This is very much in keeping with the New Testament’s Great Reversals:
• Reversal was a primary theme in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
• Jesus said, “But many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (Matthew 19:30; see also Matthew 20:16; Mark 9:35; 10:31, 44; Luke 13:30).
• In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the last hired became the first paid––and those who worked only a short time received the same wages as those who worked all day (Matthew 20:1-16).
• It is a Great Reversal that Paul, who once insisted on adherence to Jewish law, now considers those who insist on circumcision to be “evil workers” (3:2).
“Yes most certainly, and….” (v. 8a). These words connect verse 8 to verse 7, and re-emphasize the upheaval in Paul’s values after meeting Christ.
“I count all things to be loss for the excellency (hyperecho––excellence or superiority) of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord” (v. 8b). Thomas Chalmers, the great Scottish pastor, preached a sermon that he entitled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” In that sermon, he said that there are two ways of getting rid of an unworthy affection (such as a love of worldly things):
• The first way would be to dwell on the unworthiness of that affection. However, Chalmers went on to say that this method seldom works––seldom persuades the person to give up the unworthy affection. We have seen the truth of that. An alcoholic is not likely to quit drinking as a result of dwelling on the deadly effects of his/her addiction. He/she is likely to be contrite––to feel guilty––and to swear that he/she will never drink another drop. However, if that is as far as his/her therapy goes, he/she will almost certainly continue to drink and to become drunk.
• The second way would be to develop a new affection––a worthy affection––so that the new and worthy affection unseats the old and unworthy affection. Chalmers said that this method is far more effective at helping a person to get rid of the unworthy affection. We have seen the truth of that as well. If an alcoholic is to rid him/herself of addiction, it will almost certainly be the result of acquiring a new affection. That new affection might be friendships formed in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings––or it might be a new faith in Christ. Once the person develops a new and worthy affection, it often becomes possible for him/her to get rid of the old and unworthy affection.
Paul is saying that he has experienced something like that. He has experienced the “excellency” (hyperecho––excellence or superiority) of knowing Christ as Lord, so that the things that he used to hold dear no longer have any power over his heart.
“for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse (skubala), that I may gain Christ” (v. 8c). Paul is saying that, after seeing the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9)––and experiencing grace at Christ’s hands––his new affection for Christ has caused him to re-assess what is important and what is not. His new and worthy affection shines so brightly that his old and unworthy affections fade into the background. He doesn’t even mourn their loss. In fact, he seems quite happy to see them gone.
The Greek word skubala literally means something thrown to dogs, but in common usage came to mean any number of worthless things, such as garbage or dung. The things that once seemed so precious to Paul now look to him like garbage or dung. They no longer have any power to ensnare his heart.
“that I may gain Christ” (v. 8d). Note the contrast between the word “loss” in verse 8c and the word “gain” in this portion of the verse. Yes, Paul has lost something by virtue of becoming a Christian––but his gain outstripped his loss.
On the morning that I was writing this exegesis, I happened to read a true story on CNN Online. The title of the story was “The American secretary who became king: A woman’s journey to royalty.” It is the story of Peggielene Bartels, who was born in Ghana but who emigrated to the United States thirty years ago. She has worked as a secretary in the Ghanaian embassy for all those years.
However, in 2008, her phone rang in the wee hours of the morning. When she picked up the receiver, she heard her cousin say that her uncle––the previous king of Otuam (a village of 7,000 people)––had died, and the village elders had chosen her to be their new king––not queen––king. While astonished at the prospect of being a king, she accepted the honor. She continues to work at the Ghanaian embassy––and lives in the U.S. most of the year––but she spends her holidays in Ghana working to improve the lot of the people there. She also calls Ghana every morning at one o’clock a.m. to learn what is happening in Otuam and to dispense advice and counsel.
Being chosen to be king has turned out to be a lot of work––and has probably cost her a good deal of her discretionary income––but King Peggy doesn’t mind. She says, “I realize that on this earth, we all have a calling. We have to be ready to accept it, because helping my people has really helped me a lot––to know that I can really touch their lives.” She adds. “I would have really regretted it if I hadn’t really accepted this calling.”
We hear that kind of spirit when Paul says that he has happily suffered the loss of the things that he once counted dear so that he could embrace Christ Jesus as Lord.
“and be found in him” (v. 9a). The “him” in this verse is the “Christ” of verse 8. “In him” equates to “in Christ,” a phrase that Paul uses frequently. Some examples include:
• Christians “being justified freely by his (Jesus) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).
• Christians who “were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
• We must “consider (ourselves) also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11).
• Christians “are sanctified (made holy) in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).
• Paul describes the Corinthian Christians “as to babies in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
• “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
• God “in Christ, and reveals through us the sweet aroma of his knowledge in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
• “In Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
• “For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26).
• “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Being “in Christ,” then, involves an all-encompassing relationship with Christ Jesus––a relationship that has saving power. That relationship involves receiving justification (being made righteous) as a gift rather than as an achievement. That makes us equal at the foot of the cross, so there is “there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female.” When we are “in Christ,” there is no room for boastfulness because we have all received the same gift.
“not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (v. 9b). The comments on righteousness in the exegesis on verse 6 (above) apply to this verse as well.
Paul contrasts the righteousness that is from Jewish law with the righteousness that is from God:
• The kind of righteousness that is from Jewish law is a “righteousness of my own”––a personal achievement by the individual by virtue of adherence to Godly standards. The problem, as outlined in the comments on verse 6 above, is that we find ourselves violating God’s standards time and time again. That was a problem for the early Jews. It was a problem for Paul (Romans 7:15-25; 1Timothy 1:15). It is a problem for us.
• The kind of righteousness that is “from God” is not a matter of personal achievement, but is instead given by God on the basis of faith. It is a gift of God (Romans 3:24; 5:16; 6:23).
“that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection” (v. 10a). In verse 8, Paul introduced the idea of “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In both Old and New Testaments, knowing often involves deep personal relationships, and that is the idea here.
For Paul, knowing Christ is much more than what some people call “head knowledge.” It is “heart knowledge” as well. It is the kind of all-encompassing knowledge that a mother feels for a child––involving both intellect and emotions––indeed, challenging both intellect and emotions to the edge of their limits. Good mothers want to know what is going on in their child’s life––what the child is learning in school––problems that the child is facing––the names of the child’s friends and something about their character––physical ailments that might hold the child back––everything.
That’s the kind of knowing to which Paul aspires here. He wants to know Christ––to know the power of Christ’s resurrection––to know his sufferings––to know Christ to the fullest extent of Paul’s ability to know.
It is no wonder that Paul would want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. After all, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ’s resurrection has laid the foundation for our resurrection. Christ’s victory over death is also our victory.
“and the fellowship (koinonia) of his sufferings” (v. 10b). This word koinonia is familiar to many Christians today––even those who have no training in the Greek language. We use it to speak of koinonia groups––small groups within the church that meet regularly and encourage sharing and faith-building. Groups of that sort tend to be intimate, and friendships fostered in those groups tend to be deep and enduring.
When Paul speaks of wanting to know “the koinonia of Christ’s sufferings,” he is once again talking about “heart knowledge” as well as “head knowledge.” To know the koinonia of Christ’s sufferings is to understand the hardships of Jesus’ life on earth as well as the sufferings that he bore on the cross. It evidences a willingness to enter into those sufferings to the extent that that seems needful. Paul is no masochist, but he has endured beatings, shipwrecks, and a host of other things that came about as a consequence of his witness for Christ––in fact, he is writing this letter from a jail cell (1:12-14). Paul treats his personal sufferings as another mark of identification with the Christ who suffered for him.
“becoming conformed (summorphou) to his death” (v. 10c). The Greek word summorphou is a combination of syn (with) and morphe (form or shape). He is talking here about his life taking on the form or shape of the crucified Christ.
At the time of this writing, Paul is uncertain where his imprisonment will take him. It could lead to his death. While he is not seeking death, he once again treats that possibility as another mark of identification with Christ. Earlier in this letter he said:
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work;
yet I don’t know what I will choose.
But I am in a dilemma between the two,
having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake” (1:21-24).
We need to be clear that, while some Christians will be called to a martyr’s death, that won’t be true for most Christians. It is possible for us to live sacrificial lives that reflect something of the spirit of Christ as he died on the cross. It is possible for us to live for others––to love others with agape love, the kind of love that puts the welfare of the other person first. It is possible for us to live lives that bear witness to Christ’s life, his love, his death, and his resurrection. To do those things is to live a life conformed to Christ’s death.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul dealt with what it means to live a life conformed to Christ’s death. To those who would say, “Let us continue in sin, that grace may abound!” Paul responds:
“May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?
Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death,
that just like Christ was raised from the dead
through the glory of the Father,
so we also might walk in newness of life.
For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death,
we will also be part of his resurrection;
knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him,
that the body of sin might be done away with,
so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin.
For he who has died has been freed from sin.
But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him;
knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more.
Death no more has dominion over him!
For the death that he died, he died to sin one time;
but the life that he lives, he lives to God.
Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin,
but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:1-11).
“if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (v. 11). While I have separated verses 10c and 11 in this exegesis, let me put them back together here. Paul says, “becoming conformed to (Christ’s) death; if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
In other words, Paul intends to live a life conformed to Christ’s death––and, if necessary, to die a death conformed to Christ’s death––so that he might also be conformed to Christ’s resurrection.
“Not that I have already obtained” (elebon––from lambano) (v. 12a). Paul is saying that he has not yet elebon (attained, obtained, found, taken) something. What is that something? What is missing? The things that are missing are the things that he mentioned in verses 10-11: Knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection; the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings; being conformed to Christ’s death; and especially attaining the resurrection of the dead. When Paul accepted Christ, he started the process of obtaining all these things––but that process will not be complete until Christ transforms Paul’s death into resurrection. Paul says:
“For our citizenship is in heaven,
from where we also wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;
who will change the body of our humiliation
to be conformed to the body of his glory,
according to the working by which he is able even
to subject all things to himself” (3:20-21).
“or am already made perfect” (teteleiomai––from teleioo) (v. 12b). The Greek word teleioo has to do with finishing something––bringing it to completion––growing to maturity––reaching a goal. Paul’s faith journey has not yet reached its final destination––and will not do so until the day he experiences his own resurrection. He is on the road––he knows the destination––but he must continue his journey in this life for the time being.
“but I press on (dioko), if it is so that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus” (v. 12c). The Greek word dioko is a “hot pursuit” kind of word––a “striving” kind of word. It can mean to prosecute or persecute or track down––note the energy implied by each of those words. Here it means to pursue earnestly––and there is energy in that definition as well. Paul is saying that he is pressing on with energy and determination toward the goal of taking hold of something.
What is that something for which Paul is striving? It is “that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus” (v. 12c). It is “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14).
The issue that this raises is faith versus works. Elsewhere, Paul emphasizes that we cannot be saved by our works (Romans 3:27-28; 4:1-5; 11:6; Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 10). Salvation is available only through grace––as a gift from God. It could not be otherwise, because he found it impossible to live a sinless life (Romans 7:14-24).
However, in this verse, Paul’s emphasis on pressing on and taking hold makes it sound as if he anticipates that his actions will play a significant role in his salvation.
We sometimes treat faith and works as if they are somehow opposed to one another––but Paul, the chief advocate of salvation by faith––acknowledges “that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor extortioners, will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Paul also says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh.” He says that the works of the flesh are: “adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”––and warns that “those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” He says that the fruits of the Spirit are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control”––and enjoins us to live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).
Christians will almost surely argue the relative efficacy of faith versus works until the kingdom comes, but Paul sees both as important. I like the way that Early Palmer sums it. He says:
“We run the race, not in an attempt to somehow make the team,
but because we are already on the team” (Palmer, 360).
PHILIPPIANS 3:13-14. ONE THING I DO––I PRESS ON TOWARD THE GOAL
13Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling (Greek: klesis) of God in Christ Jesus.
“Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold” (v. 13a). Paul has a healthy view of his own status with God. Earlier he said, “If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more” (v. 4b)––and proceeded to outline reasons why that was true (vv. 5-6).
However, here he says, “I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold.” Taken hold of what? Taken hold of “the knowledge of Christ Jesus” (v. 8). Taken hold of “the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings” (v. 10). Taken hold of “that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus” (v. 12c). Taken hold of “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14).
“but one thing I do” (v. 13b). There is no “I do” in the Greek text. A literal translation would be simply, “one thing.” A number of translations add “I do” in an attempt to capture the sense of the original.
In any event, Paul’s laser-sharp focus on “one thing” in this verse fits nicely with the ease with which he counted everything as “loss for Christ” (v. 7)––and his pressing on to “take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus” (v. 12). Paul has the ability to isolate that which is truly important––and to focus all his attention and energy on pursuing that. He doesn’t allow distractions to distract him.
“Forgetting the things which are behind” (v. 13c). In writing, a principle of emphasis is that we can’t emphasize everything. If we put everything in bold text, we emphasize nothing. To emphasize a key point, we must be selective––must make most text ordinary and carefully select a bit of text for emphasis.
In a footrace, competitive runners understand that they must not succumb to the temptation to look over their shoulder to see who is gaining on them. Each glance over the shoulder steals a bit of the runner’s energy––slows his or her pace just a fraction––and might cost him or her the winner’s crown.
Paul applies those principles here. He chooses to forget “the things which are behind”––yesterday’s actions––yesterday’s accomplishments––yesterday’s sins. Yesterday is out of reach. Paul lets yesterday fall behind him––forgotten.
In his book, Growing Spiritually, E. Stanley Jones tells of a college president who was asked how he kept going in the face of the criticisms that college presidents have to endure. He replied, “Oh, I just keep moving and let the shots drop behind me.” An excellent plan!
Yes, yesterday’s accomplishments and yesterday’s sins were important then––and continue to resonate in our lives even today. However, the person who spends too much time polishing yesterday’s trophies isn’t likely to win another trophy today or tomorrow. The person who is wallowing in yesterday’s guilt isn’t likely to have the energy to meet today’s challenges––or to grasp tomorrow’s opportunities. We must be careful lest we allow our past to overwhelm our present––and to sabotage our future. Paul is conscious of that danger, and isn’t about to fall into that trap.
“and stretching forward to the things which are before” (v. 13d). The imagery here is of Paul leaning forward toward the goal. A runner in a tough race could not expect to win a race while leaning backwards––nor even standing upright. A “leaning forward” posture will contribute to the win. Paul applies that principle to his life. He runs the race of life leaning forward––focused on the goal line.
“I press on (dioko) toward the goal” (v. 14a). As noted above in the commentary on verse 12c, the Greek word dioko is a “hot pursuit” kind of word––a “striving” kind of word. Paul isn’t ambling along. He is pressing ahead with every ounce of energy toward the goal.
“for the prize of the high calling (klesis) of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14b). Paul uses this same imagery in his first letter to the Corinthian church:
“Don’t you know that those who run in a race all run,
but one receives the prize?
Run like that, that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
There he talks about runners exercising self-control “to receive a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 9:25). Here, in this letter to the Philippians, he defines that incorruptible crown as “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
The people of Paul’s day would have used the word klesis to speak of an invitation to a dinner or some other special occasion. There are higher and lower kinds of such callings. Most people would consider an invitation from the president to a White House dinner to be a higher calling than an invitation from an ordinary friend to share a pot of tea. An invitation to an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise to the Bahamas would be a higher calling than an invitation to fish for crappies.
Most people would consider those higher callings (dinner at the White House or a cruise to the Bahamas) to be prizes––examples of extraordinary luck or highly successful politicking. Such invitations would inspire envy when awarded to someone else––and joy when awarded to oneself.
Here Paul talks about the highest calling of all––the call “of God in Christ Jesus.” As it happens, Paul had experienced such a call in a highly unusual encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-21). Blinded by a bright light, he heard a voice calling, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul said, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
That was just the beginning of Paul’s call, of course. God called him to take three missionary journeys––to establish a host of churches––to serve as an apostle to the Gentiles––and to write letters that today constitute almost half of the books of the New Testament. It would be impossible to over-estimate the importance of Paul’s writings on Christian doctrine. His was certainly a life well lived.
Paul’s calling wouldn’t be all sweetness and light, of course. He often found himself in prison––in fact he is writing this letter from a prison cell. He was beaten with stripes and rods. He was stoned and shipwrecked. He often found himself in peril––from rivers, robbers, Jews, and Gentiles. He found himself in peril in cities and open country and on the sea. He suffered hunger, thirst, cold, and nakedness (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
BUT––and we must not miss the importance of this––BUT Paul had seen the risen Christ––and had experienced the power of the Holy Spirit working through his life––and had enjoyed God’s guiding hand. He knew that he enjoyed God’s favor––and that his life had significance beyond calculation––and that God had prepared a place for him after his death. Therefore, he considered his calling to be a prize––a high calling––something worth living for and, if necessary, dying for.
Also, we should also not miss this: When Paul talked about “forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, (and pressing) on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14), he was modeling the kind of life to which God calls each one of us. No, we can’t all be apostles. No, we can’t all write books of the New Testament. No, most of us will never establish a new church. But God calls each of us to a distinctive calling––so we will do well to let the past fall behind us––and to stretch ourselves toward the future––”toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World EnglishBible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica StutgartensaOld Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963)
Bockmuehl, Markus, Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998).
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., McCann, J. Clinton, and Newsome, James D., Texts for Teaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982)
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Paul’s Letters to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)
Hansen, G. Walter, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009)
Hawthorne, Gerald F., Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians, Vol. 43 (Dallas, Word Books, 1983)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Hooker, Morna D., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 2001)
Martin, Ralph P., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Philippians, Vol. 11 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1987)
Martin, Ralph P. and Hawthorne, Gerald F., Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004)
Osiek, Carolyn, Abingdon New Testament Commentary: Philippians & Philemon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000)
Palmer, Earl F., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richard R. Melick, Jr., New American Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Still, Todd D., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Philippians & Philemon (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2011)
Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Company, 1886)
Zodhiates, Spiros (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga, Tennessee: AMG Publishers, 1992)
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Copyright 2013, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan