Paul seems to have been about to close his letter when something led him to warn the Philippian Christians to beware of those who taught that circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses were necessary for salvation.
1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:1-3, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and the Jews (Genesis 17:10-14). Some Jewish Christians, whom we call Judaizers, taught that Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians had to circumcised and obey the law of Moses to be fully saved (Acts 15:1,5). Paul thought that introducing such a requirement was a perversion of the gospel of grace, in another letter telling the Galatian Christians, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:2-4).
Here, Paul calls the Judaizers “dogs,…evildoers,…those who mutilate the flesh” and claims that Christians who believe as he does are the true covenant people. He identifies three characteristics that distinguish Christians from the circumcision party:
- they worship God by the Spirit of God, rather than by participating in some external rite
- they glory (put their confidence) in Christ Jesus, rather than in their membership in a select group
- they put no confidence in themselves
4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
To show that he has as much reason as anybody to put confidence in himself, Paul lists several positive aspects of his pre-conversion background. The first four concern his pedigree:
- circumcised on the eighth day in strict conformity with Mosaic law (Leviticus 12:3)
- of the race of Israel, God’s chosen people
- of the tribe of Benjamin, which stood high in Jewish estimation
- a Hebrew of the Hebrews, raised to speak Aramaic and probably Hebrew and in accordance with the Jewish way of life even though he was raised in Greek-speaking Tarsus
The other three concern his personal achievements:
- regarding the law, a Pharisee, the Pharisees being the strictest Jewish sect (Acts 26:5)
- regarding zeal, persecuting the church (Acts 8:3)
- regarding legalistic righteousness, blameless
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
Although his background was impressive, Paul felt that it was “loss” and “rubbish” compared to knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. At one time his overriding goal in life had been to destroy the church, but after meeting the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6) he became as zealous for him as he had once been against him. Paul doesn’t condemn the aspects of his background listed in verses 5-6 as bad in themselves but rather counts them as worthless in comparison to knowing Christ.
Paul goes on to identify three benefits of his knowing Christ:
- he has been justified or declared by God to be righteous in His sight (verse 9)
- he is being sanctified or separated from sin and dedicated to service to God (verse 10)
- he will be glorified or raised to heavenly glory (verse 11)
All three of these benefits are available to us too. However, as Paul made clear to the Philippian Christians, we cannot earn them but must accept them in faith from Jesus Christ on the basis of what he did for us on the cross of Calvary. Our salvation from start to finish rests on our saying, “I believe in you,” to him. And only as we do so will we be able to rejoice in him as Paul encouraged the Philippians in the verse introducing this passage.
As with most of the articles in this series on Philippians, this article is adapted from one which I wrote for Suite101.com when I served as its Pauline Studies editor. Next week I’ll post an article from our family newsletter which elaborates on what I said above on verses 9-11.