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Philippians 3

Scripture: Philippians 3:1-21

Overview:

  • Paul’s all, “Look here, crew, keep a stiff upper lip. Rejoice! Let me tell you one more time all about how God wins so that you can be stalwart in the face of opposition.”
  • Then Paul tells them that the punks in Philippi giving them a hard time are, in reality, just garbage-eating junkyard dogs who think their doing good but actually doing evil, and who might as well be advocating body-scaring mutilation when they promote circumcision.
  • Paul reminds them, “We’re the ones who are members of God’s true nation (because our hearts are circumcised, not our… you know), and it’s us who truly serve God, and we serve God in spirit (not by doing things to our bodies and thinking that’s holy), and we don’t need to have national pride, or even care what nation we’re from, because we’re all one in Christ.”
  • Then Paul says that if the Jews in Philippi think they have the right qualifications for holiness, then Paul has more. He lays down the smack down like this:
  • Circumcised on the eighth day, according to the law? Check. Born of two Jewish parents? Check. Born in one of the coolest, most faithful, king-producing tribes? Check. A Jew among Jews? Yep. Faithful to the Law? Yeah, super strict, every day adherence kinda faithful. Passionate about Judaism? So passionate he hunted down Christians. Ever broke the Law? Nope. Time to drop the mic? Booyah.
  • Yet, despite all his credentials, Paul says he’d willingly tossed them all overboard for Jesus. Everything is garbage compared to knowing Christ.
  • Paul tells them that just as God was “found” in human form, so Paul wants to be “found” in Jesus’ form. Real rightness with God comes from having faith in Jesus, not by obeying a bunch of rules.
  • Paul goes on, “I want to be like Jesus so much that I’m okay suffering like he did and dying like he did, because one day I will rise from the dead like Jesus did.”
  • Paul reminds the Philippians that he hasn’t reached his goal of fully being like Jesus yet, but like a runner in a race he stays focused on reaching towards Jesus, because that was the reason Jesus reached out to Paul.
  • “Like an athlete being called to the podium to get a prize,” Paul says, “God is calling me to heaven to receive mine.”
  • Mature people will agree with Paul, he’s sure, or else God will make it clear to them at some point. Regardless, Paul hopes for his Philly peeps to continue to live up to the status they’d been given by Jesus.
  • Paul wants them to follow his example in pursuing Jesus-likeness. He tells them that he’s saddened by those who think the Cross is not important, because it is the very defining attribute of God’s love.
  • Those that don’t believe in a suffering, self-sacrificing God are destined for destruction, Paul says. “Their real god is their own human desire, and the things they think will bring them glory will actually bring them shame, and they think they’re focused on heaven, but they’re really focused on earth.”
  • Paul tells the Philippians–people living in a Roman outpost who act as if they are in Rome itself–that they are actually citizens of heaven–people living in an outpost of the kingdom of God who should act as if they are living side-by-side with God himself.
  • “The real emperor, Jesus, is coming,” Paul says, “and he will rule over everything and transform our lowly, temporary bodies into eternal, glorious bodies like he has.”

Historical Context:

Jeremiah 9

Paul echoes Jeremiah 9:23-26, where the Lord says that the truly wise will boast in the Lord (thus not put confidence in such “flesh” matters as wisdom, strength, wealth), in a context where “the whole house of Israel” is judged as being “uncircumcised in heart.” Jeremiah says that true boasting in the Lord means to “understand and know me,” in the sense of knowing God’s true character—which is exactly the point Paul will pick up in Philippians 3:8-11. As in Jeremiah, “boasting” here carries the nuance of putting one’s full trust and confidence in Christ.6

Dogs 

Dogs in the First Century were mostly without masters; they wandered at large in the streets and fields, and feed upon garbage, corpses, etc. They were considered unclean. The Jews called the heathen dogs.1

Paul is saying that the Jews causing problems in Philippi think that they are adhering to the law, but in doing so they have so broken the intent of the law and so have become ritually unclean, just like the Gentiles.

The Jews often spoke of themselves as banqueters seated at the Father’s table. The Gentiles would be dogs greedily snatching up the refuse meat which fell therefrom. Here Paul reverses the image.7

Evil workers

The Jews thought that they were good workers. They obeyed all their laws. And so, they thought that God would approve of them. Paul said that, in fact, they were evil.3

In trying to make Gentiles submit to Torah observance, Judaizers (and their contemporary counterparts, the legalists) do not work “righteousness” at all but evil.6

Circumcision

It is likely that the people causing problems in the Philippian church were Jews who thought all Gentile converts had to be circumcised and follow the laws of Moses (i.e. become Jewish) to believe in the Messiah.

In this letter, Paul does a bit of wordplay between the Greek word “katatomē” (off-cutting” or “down-cutting”), and the word “peritomē (“around cutting” or “circumcision”) to show his disdain for their beliefs. Cutting of the body was also a pagan form of worship, so Paul is drawing a negative parallel with both Jewish and Gentile customs.6

Paul is essentially saying the Jews were causing injury to the true faith. It was as if they were cutting it to piece.3

Paul emphasizes that the physical cutting of the body to join the nation of Isreal will not save the Philippians. The church in Philippi must realize that the spiritual circumcision of the heart through faith in Jesus is what truly admits one to God’s real Isreal, his kingdom, the church. They are a part of the redeemed covenant community by a circumcision done not with human hands, but by Christ himself.4

Paul’s further comments using the word “flesh” may be a very derogative term referring to the actual flesh cut away in circumcision.

Tribe of Benjamin

The Tribe of Benjamin was well regarded for several historical reasons:

  1. Benjamin was the child of Rachel, the wife whom Jacob loved most
  2. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob  born in the promised land (Genesis 35:16-18)
  3. Benjamin was untainted by the sin of Judah against Tamar (Genesis 38)
  4. The tribe of Benjamin was located near the temple, and indeed it has been said that the temple was on the dividing line between them and the tribe of Judah
  5. The tribe of Benjamin provided Israel their first king (Saul)
  6. Jerusalem was in the territory of Benjamin.
  7. They provided a very wise man, Mordecai, who saved the Jews during Esther’s time (the reason for the Feast of Purim)
  8. Benjamin remained loyal to David’s family when the Israel split and became two countries
  9. Benjamin held the post of honor in the Israelite army
  10. After the Exile, Benjamin and Judah formed the core of the restoration community

Paul imitating Jesus

Paul parallels his description of Jesus in chapter 2 with his own experience in chapter 3.

Jesus (Philippians 2:6-11) Paul (Philippians 3:7-11)
 [Jesus] being in very nature God I, myself, have reasons for such confidence… circumcised on the eighth day… of the tribe of Benjamin… a Hebrew of Hebrews…
 He made himself nothing by taking on the very nature of a servant Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss… I consider them garbage
 And being found in appearance a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death–even death on a cross!  …I may be found in [Christ]… [I want] participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in death
 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place  I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection

Citizenship

The word Paul uses for “citizenship” (Greek: politeuma) is found nowhere else in the New Testament. It properly means, any public measure, administration of the state, the manner in which the affairs of a state are administered; and then the state itself, the community, commonwealth, those who are bound under the same laws, and associated in the same society.1

Paul goes on to say that “we await a Savior… the Lord…” This is a play on the Philippians; Roman citizenship and what that entailed. The primary title for the Roman emperor was “lord and savior”; Paul now puts those two words side by side: “our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ .”6 This verse is saying, “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality.”1

Observations:

  • The word “flesh” in Philippians seems to refer to every advantage which a person may have of birth and/or to any external conformity to the law, such as circumcision.1
  • The Mosaic law required that circumcision should be performed on the eighth day (Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:3).1
  • When Paul says he regards his past as “loss in comparison with the knowledge of Christ,” the comparison he is making is to sailors throwing cargo overboard in a storm to save their own lives. Valuable as the shipment may be, they are willing to throw it all overboard to save themselves.1
  • “I consider them garbage.” The word “garbage” (Greek: skubalon) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, properly, dregs, refuse; what is thrown away as worthless; chaff, feces, or the refuse of a table or of slaughtered animals; and then filth of any kind.1
  • The  expression “in Christ,” or “in him,” is found more than one hundred fifty times in Paul’s letters.2
  • in the New Testament Greek, the word for “faith” almost never has the sense of subjective, cognitive believing. The true meaning is nearer to our word “fidelity” or “faithfulness,” which carries with it a sense of obedience, action, thought as shown by deed.2
  • Paul says that he has abandoned works as a way to secure favor with God and has turned instead to faith in Christ as the only means by which one may be justified before God. He wants to “be found in him,” that is, when God is judging mankind, he doesn’t want to be “found” in any other way.4
  • The idea of “partaking of Christ’s sufferings,” “taking up the cross,” and being “crucified with Christ,” as stressed throughout the New Testament (1 Peter 4:13; Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:11). It was expected that every Christian should suffer as a result of his faith.2
  • Paul is not referring here to our participation in Christ’s sufferings on the cross as if somehow our sufferings could contribute to Christ’s atoning work.  What he means is that we share in Christ’s sufferings since he too lived and walked in a fallen world. The relationship between experiencing resurrection power and suffering is that the former becomes most evident in the context of the latter. His power through us is seen most strikingly in the midst of our struggles.4
  • There are two ways to look at the phrase “[I] take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” A) Paul wants to take hold of Christ because Christ had already taken hold of him. This translation indicates the ground on which Paul can pursue Christ. B) Christ laid hold of Paul for the purpose of Paul pursuing him. Though both interpretations are certainly true, this latter one seems to be better. Paul’s point is not that it is because of Christ that he can seek Him, but that Christ saved him for this purpose. Thus the reason Christ took hold of Paul—undoubtedly a reference back to his Damascus road experience—was so that Paul might know him fully.4
  • When Paul says “God has called me heavenward,” the word “called” refers to the First Century “call” of the official presiding over of the athletic games for the victorious athlete to step up unto the podium and receive their prizes. The “prize” Paul expects to receive is the ability to know Christ perfectly.4
  • It is interesting that Paul calls the Philippians’ opponents “enemies of the cross of Christ.” This group of people obviously had a major problem with the cross in particular. They likely opposed the idea itself—or at least the centrality of the idea—of the cross, most likely because they thought it demonstrated weakness.According to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, the cross stands as God’s utter contradiction to human wisdom and power, and therefore inevitably creates enemies of those who refuse to go that route.6
  • hen Paul says that “their god is the belly,”  he may be referring to the Judaizers who held a strong belief in ritual purity and adherence to certain Jewish food laws. The problem with this is that the term belly seems to connote some degree of licentiousness and an inordinate attentiveness to one’s sensual needs. If this is true, then the ascetic practices of the Judaizers would hardly come under such a rebuke. It may be, as many have suggested, that Paul’s use “belly” is roughly equivalent to his use of “flesh” in other contexts.4
  • Paul stresses imitation of Jesus now because just as knowing Christ now means being conformed into the likeness of his death (v. 10), so in our final glory we will be conformed into the likeness of his resurrection.4
  • Paul’s description of his past and how that relates to his present circumstances is an echo of Paul’s hymn in Chapter 2 about Jesus lowering himself to become a slave. Formerly, Christ did not consider God-likeness to accrue to his own advantage, but ‘made himself nothing,’ so Paul now considers his former ‘gain’ as ‘loss’ for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. As Christ was ‘found’ in ‘human likeness,’ Paul is now ‘found in Christ,’ knowing whom means to be ‘conformed’ (echoing the morphe of a slave, 2:7) to his death (2:8). Finally, as Christ’s humiliation was followed by God’s ‘glorious’ vindication of him, so present ‘suffering’ for Christ’s sake will be followed by ‘glory’ in the form of resurrection. As he has appealed to the Philippians to do, Paul thus exemplifies Christ’s ‘mindset,’ embracing suffering and death. This is what it means ‘to know Christ,’ to be ‘found in him’ by means of his gift of righteousness; and as he was raised and exalted to the highest place, so Paul and the Philippian believers, because they are now ‘conformed to Christ’ in his death, will also be ‘conformed’ to his glory.7

Discussion:

  • When we think of dying, we wish to have our departure made as comfortable as possible1, yet Paul challenges the Philippians to be willing to die in humiliation like Jesus. What do you think of this challenge? Why shouldn’t we be comfortable? What does suffering accomplish?
  • Paul asks the Philippians to imitate him as he imitates Christ. Who would you tell to imitate you? In what way?
  • Paul set aside all his cultural credentials in pursuit of Jesus. What cultural credentials do we hold onto today? What defines us that we don’t want to let go of? Jobs? Nationality? Social economic class?
  • Paul tells them to be citizens of God’s realm, not Rome and to believe in Jesus as the true emperor, not Nero. How does this concept of “heavenly citizenship” play out in modern day America? What defines us as Americans that opposes our definition as members of the kingdom of God? Politics? State/national pride? Consumerism? Democracy? Manifest destiny? Just as if we lived abroad today, which laws of the country we’re temporarily living in should we adhere to to and which should we realize don’t apply to us based on our true homeland?

References:

  1. Barnes’ commentary
  2. Coffman’s commentary
  3. Easy English commentary
  4. Herrick’s commentary
  5. Hagelberg’s commentary
  6. IVP commentary
  7. Constable’s commentary
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