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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Acts 9

Scripture: Acts 9:1-43

Highlights:

  • Saul’s doing his thing–persecuting christians–when he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus
  • There’s a blinding light and Jesus tells Saul that he is the one whom Saul is really persecuting, and that Saul should go into Damascus and await instructions
  • Saul is blind for three days and doesn’t feel like eating
  • God tells Ananias (one of his disciples in the area) to go and heal Saul
  • Ananias is (understandably) reluctant to go. Word has it that Saul isn’t a very nice guy
  • God tells Ananias to go anyway ‘cuz he’s got plans for Saul, so Ananias goes and heals Saul
  • Saul starts preaching about Jesus immediately, which ticks off the Jews in Damascus
  • The Jews look for a chance to kill Saul, but he gets smuggled out of the city by his friends, then shipped off to Jerusalem
  • The disciples in Jerusalem don’t want anything to do with Saul (word had it that Saul wasn’t a very nice guy), but Barnabas takes him under his wing and introduces him around
  • Saul argues with the Hellenistic Jews, which ticks them off, and yet another group of people want him dead
  • Saul gets sent home to Tarsus
  • Meanwhile, Peter’s in Lyddia and heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas
  • Elsewhere, in Joppa, a disciple named Tabitha dies
  • Peter is called in and brings Tabitha back from the dead. Back. From. The. Dead.
  • Peter sticks around the area awhile, staying at the house of Simon the tanner

Historical Context:

Paul:

Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in eastern Asia Minor, which was known for its university.  “The historian-geographer Strabo says Tarsus is a leading center of philosophy, rhetoric and law. [Geography14.5.13.] Tarsus is also an important center of Stoic philosophy, so Paul would be familiar with the leading Stoics and their beliefs.” (GCI)

Paul was the son of an orthodox Jewish father, quite possibly a Pharisee — a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3), “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23).  At an early age Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study at the school of Gamaliel. He was apparently a good student. Paul would claim: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1) He quite possibly stayed with his sister in Jerusalem (Acts 23).

Growing up in Tarsus would’ve allowed Paul to learn “Classic Greek”, Greek philosophy, and Koine Greek which was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, spoken by the common people. (Wikipedia)

“Paul is a Hellenistic or Grecian Jew, like Stephen. He knows Greek culture, and is as comfortable in the Hellenistic world as he is in strict Judaism. But he is also part of the Jewish world in Jerusalem, speaking Aramaic like a native. He may have been in the Hellenistic Jewish ‘Synagogue of Freedmen,’ where he heard Stephen speak. Like many Freedmen, Paul was more fanatically Jewish than many Jews native to Jerusalem. Paul may be a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps a younger assistant, and if so, he heard Stephen speak before it.” (GCI)

The Way:

“The Way” was a name used by the early Christian community to designate itself (Acts 18, 19,22, 24). It was used to proclaim that they knew the way to salvation, or an understanding of what was needed to walk the pathway to salvation. It was also an acknowledgment of Jesus’ designation of himself as “the way, the truth and the life”.

It is interesting to note that the “Essene community at Qumran used the same designation [The Way] to describe its mode of life.” (NCC)

However, outsiders did not refer to the church as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24; 28), or as “Christians” (Acts 11).*

Observations:

  • Acts 9 records the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The other two are in Acts 22 andActs 26.
  • Saul’s name was probably not changed to Paul when he converted  to Christianity. “The testimony of the book of Acts is that he inherited Roman citizenship from his father. As a Roman citizen, he also bore the Latin name of ‘Paul’—in biblical Greek: Παῦλος (Paulos),and in Latin: Paulus. It was quite usual for the Jews of that time to have two names, one Hebrew, the other Latin or Greek.” (Wikipedia). So it is likely that he changed his name to Paul as part of his missionary efforts to reach the Gentiles.
  • Paul had “letters to the synagogues in Damascus”  implying a “commission to bring them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. From this, it seems that the sanhedrim at Jerusalem claimed jurisdiction over all synagogues everywhere. They claimed the authority of regulating everywhere the Jewish religion.” (Barnes)
  • Why Damascus? “It is not certainly known just who ruled Damascus during that period, but the eclipse of Roman authority for a time is proved by the fact that no coins with the image of Caligula or Claudius have been discovered there, whereas there have been found many with the image of Augustus or Tiberius who preceded them, and many with the images of emperors who succeeded them, thus leaving a gap, viewed by Wiesler as proof that during those two reigns Rome had no authority in Damascus.” (Coffman) In other words, it was likely highly populated by Jews and perceived by Saul as a stronghold for orthodox Judaism worth defending.
  • Jesus’ words to Saul on the road to Damascus (“…why do you persecute me?”) reveal “one of the profoundest doctrines of Christianity, namely, that Christ is still upon earth in the person of his followers who compose his spiritual body; and that whatever is done to Christ’s church is done to himself!” (Coffman). Christ and his church are one. He feels what we feel. It’s now wonder that Paul would go on to write about the church as Christ’s body in great length in his letter to the Corinthians.
  • “Luke describes Paul’s work in Acts in terms of [the words spoken by God to Ananias in Acts 9:15]. Paul will take the gospel to the Gentiles (13:46-47) and defend himself before kings such as Agrippa, and even Caesar (26:2-23; 25:12). Paul will also preach to the ‘people of Israel’ (9:15).” (GCI)
  • “Ananias, out of respect to what the Lord had revealed to him, referred to Saul as ‘brother,’ not merely a ‘brother Israelite’ but as a brother in Christ.” (Coffman)
  • Luke describes Saul’s method of preaching by using the verb “proving” which means “placing together,” “bringing together,” or “comparing.” “Paul is placing Old Testament references to the Messiah with each other — and alongside their fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This placing together is meant to lead Jews to see Jesus as the one who fulfilled what the Scriptures say about their hoped-for Messiah.” (GCI)
  • in Jerusalem Paul debates the Hellenistic Jews, the same group to whom Stephen preached, and which ultimately led to Stephen’s arrest, trial and death. In a sense, Paul is taking up the work Stephen began. “In a bit of irony, Paul ends up at odds with the same group he represented, or even led, in its conflict with Stephen.” (GCI) “Jerusalem was the city where he had led the persecutions against the church; there he had stood consenting to the death of Stephen; there he was acquainted with those implacable foes of the Lord and of his kingdom who had formerly been his allies, friends, and fellow-persecutors. He knew their bitterness and their unwavering hatred of Christianity; and yet, to that city, before those people, and in the presence of those very same individuals, he boldly and unequivocally preached the gospel of the Son of God.” (Coffman)
  • “Tabitha is prepped for burial. There is no evidence that they expected that Peter would raise her up to life. the apostles had as yet raised up no one from the dead–as even Stephen had not been restored to life–we have no authority for assuming, or supposing, that they had formed any such expectation.” (Barnes)
  • Peter’s words to Tabitha to raise her from the dead (“Tabitha, get up”) are reminiscent of Jesus’ words to the dead girl in Mark 5 (“Little girl, get up!”), which in its Aramaic form Tabitha kumi would have differed in only one letter from Jesus’ command Talitha kumi [“Little girl, get up”]). [Longenecker, 382.]
  • The fact that Peter lodged with a tanner would have been significant to both the Gentile and Jewish Christians, for Judaism considered the tanning occupation unclean. (NCC)

Discussion:

  • When Jesus says that Saul’s persecution of the church is a persecution of himself, what does that say about our role as the church? What does that say about how God feels about what happens to the church and what the church does? What responsibilities does this convey for us?
  • It was very bold of Paul to go to the people he had wronged and request to be included, and even bolder still to go to the people he used to cavort with and tell them they were wrong. Would you do the same?
  • Why was Barnabas willing to take Paul at his word (that he had converted to Christianity) when the other disciples were so hesitant? Who is an “enemy of the faith” that you would have a hard time believing had truly had a change of heart?
  • Luke recounts Paul’s dramatic conversion story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26), but tells of the “testimony” of other people’s conversion very rarely. What does this tell us about the importance of our own personal testimony?
  • The account of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead is parallel to the account of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead. Peter saw a situation that looked similar to one Christ had been in, and walked closely in his footsteps to achieve the same results. How can we recognize situations similar to those Jesus was in? How can we walk closely in his steps? What results can we expect?

References:

*Interesting side note (that will be taken up again in Acts 11): The term “Christian” was a derogatory term made up by the residents of Antioch (who apparently liked to make up these types of nicknames). “‘Christians’, or Cristianos in Greek, was coined to distinguish the worshippers of Christ from the Kaisarnarios, the worshippers of Caesar.” (Wuest, pg 19). Also, “The Hebrew equivalent of “Nazarenes”, Notzrim, occurs in the Babylonian Talmud, and is still the modern Israeli Hebrew term for Christian.” (Wikipedia)

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • People without “dramatic” testimonies (like Paul’s) feel like they don’t have a story to share, but that it’s important to use “testimony” in discussing God’s effect on people’s life.
  • Testimonies of our encounter with God are meant to inspire hope and show God acting, not impress. If the focus is the convert, the story is ineffective.
  • The passion and hard-lined attitude that Saul had in persecuting Christians was the same zeal with which he advocated for Christ after his conversion.
  • Saul was trying to do the right thing by killing Christians–he was trying to preserve orthodoxy. How many people railing against the church now actually have the right intentions but the wrong perspective?
  • Saul gave up a promising career in the Sanhedrin, and a comfortable life in Jerusalem, to become a wandering preacher, hated, beaten and spending several years of his life imprisoned. What would you give up?
  • Paul was kind of a jerk, but God can use jerks (which should encourage all of us).
  • Interesting how the men with Saul, who had started on their journey with him to go and kill Christians, helped him after his conversion. They witnessed Saul’s conversion, what happened to their own beliefs? They didn’t proceed with a persecution in Damascus. What did they do, think, believe?
  • Luke’s choice of stories are interesting in that they often show a parallel between Peter and Jesus, and then Peter and Paul.