Starting Right and Finishing Well: A Study of Philippians 3

Paul writes to the church in Philippi to encourage them to rejoice in their trials and to be considerate of one another. In chapter 3, he comments on the foundation of the faith and exhorts them to finish well. He tells them that salvation is not by works, but he exhorts them to work. Let’s see how he balances these two thoughts.

The true people of God

Although Paul is only in the middle of his letter, he indicates his transition by writing, "Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!" (3:1). He wants to stress that joy is found "in the Lord."

"It is no trouble for me to write," he says, "the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you" (3:1). In other words, I’ve told you before, but I think it will be helpful if I remind you. Then he warns them about false teachers.

"Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh" (3:2). Paul is referring to Judaizers, who taught that people must be circumcised in order to be saved. This heresy was apparently not an urgent problem in Philippi, but Paul wanted to be sure that the Philippians wouldn’t fall for it.

He uses harsh words about those who taught salvation by works — dogs, evil-doers, mutilators. He used the Gentile objection to circumcision — that it was a mutilation of the flesh. Paul was not opposed to Jews circumcising Jews, but in this letter, writing to a primarily Gentile church, he felt free to use the Gentile perspective.

"Dogs" was Jewish slang for Gentiles. Why does Paul refer to the Judaizers by their word for Gentiles? He considers them not truly the people of God, not part of the true Israel. "For it is we who are the circumcision," he writes (3:3) — and by that word we, he is including his Gentile readers. Although they are not physically circumcised, they are part of the true circumcision (Romans 2:29).

Those who have faith in Christ have the circumcision that counts, the circumcision of the heart. We Christians, not the Judaizers, have the true worship: "we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh" (3:3). Our hope of salvation, he says, is not based on our flesh, anatomy or genealogy. Our confidence is in Christ.

Past performance is worthless

If salvation were based on genetics and Jewish laws, Paul would do well. Even though he has those, he trusts in Christ, not in his works. "Though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more" (3:4).

Then he lists his merits: "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (3:5-6).

Paul has everything the Judaizers have, and more. He was born a Jew, educated in Judea, zealous even by the standards of the strictest group. He did everything he could, but it was not enough. Not because he failed, but because even at its best, the old approach does not work. He had to start over.

No one can accuse Paul of preaching grace for his own benefit or to ease a troubled conscience. Paul has gone from being a respected rabbi, to being a persecuted apostle, for one reason only: he is persuaded that Christ is the truth, the way and the life. "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ" (3:7). He counts those things as spiritually valueless. They cannot bring him any closer to God.

"What is more," he writes, "I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things" (3:8). Paul was willing to give up all his Jewish advantages, all his merits, because Christ is so much more valuable. Paul is still a Jew, of course, but genetics and traditions cannot save him.

"I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (3:8). Circumcision is not wrong in itself, but it is worthless for salvation — and actually harmful if someone trusts in it. Only Christ counts; only he is of value for our relationship to God. Paul wants something far more valuable than anything Judaism can offer, and that is Christ.

On judgment day, Paul wants to be found in Christ, "not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (3:9). True righteousness does not come through law-keeping (no matter how well we keep the laws) — it comes only as a gift of God to those who trust in Christ. This is the right place to start.

Eyes on the goal

Paul’s goal is "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (3:10-11). Now he knows only in part (1 Cor. 13:12), but he wants to know Christ fully, and he will experience this only in the resurrection.

But to share in Christ’s glory, Paul also shares in his sufferings, and by doing so, he will in some way attain the resurrection. Not that he will earn salvation through his sufferings, but that through faith he is united to Christ, including his crucifixion and death (Rom. 6:3-6). He shares in Christ’s sufferings as well as his glory. Both are part of being "in Christ" through faith. He has joined Jesus in the journey of salvation, and he is willing to follow him wherever he leads.

But Paul has not yet achieved what he wants: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Phil. 3:12). So Paul works hard to perform the work for which Jesus called him. This is part of knowing Christ — knowing his will and being eager to do it. Paul wants to experience the riches of Christ, even if they involve some suffering. His confidence in Christ does not make him complacent or lazy.

And again he says: "Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (3:13-14). He does not rest on the many good things he has already done — he works, for that is what Christ called him for. Paul is not talking about qualifying or earning the prize, but about his zeal for it.

Good examples

Paul has a reason to explain his eagerness — he wants the Philippians to share his approach. "All of us who are mature should take such a view of things" (3:15). Those who are mature recognize that they are not yet complete, but the immature sometimes claim victory prematurely. So Paul adds, "And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you" (3:15). As you mature in Christ, you will learn to think this way, too.

"Only let us live up to what we have already attained" (3:16). Those who are in Christ should live like it (Eph. 4:1); we should let Christ make a difference in our lives, changing us, giving us zeal for his work. And to reinforce this active faith, we are to be attentive to good examples. "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (Phil. 3:17).

Be zealous for Christ, he says. "For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ" (3:18). Here Paul equates the gospel with "the cross of Christ." The good news is based on a crucified Savior, for salvation comes through what Christ did, not on what we do. But many people are embarrassed by the cross and stress works instead.

"Their destiny is destruction," Paul says (3:19). "Their god is their stomach" — they seek financial support — "and their glory is in their shame." They glory in the flesh, in circumcision and works of the law. But now that Christ has come, it is shameful to choose these things instead of Christ, or to insist on both, when Christ is all that we need. Paul concludes, "Their mind is on earthly things" (3:19).

In contrast, Paul says, "Our citizenship is in heaven" (3:20). Our minds are set on heaven, not on earth. We focus on the spirit, not the flesh. Our hope is in the future, not in this world. "We eagerly await a Savior from there [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (3:20-21).

When Christ returns, we will be like he is (1 John 3:2). He will give us the righteousness we need, and that is why we can so eagerly strive to do his will. "Therefore," Paul concludes, "that is how you should stand firm in the Lord" (Phil. 4:1). Be eager, press onward, and trust in Christ!

Questions for application

  • Have I been fairly successful at keeping biblical laws? Does that tend to give me confidence?

  • Do I count my past (whether good or bad) as rubbish, as irrelevant?

  • Do I want the fellowship of sharing in the sufferings of Christ?

  • Does confidence in Christ make me zealous, or complacent?

  • Can I trust God to teach people who think differently than I do?

  • What is my attitude toward the cross of Christ?

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