Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 3

Pekka Jauhiainen
Reija Becks

Growth and the basic issues – Philippians 3:1–11

In the previous chapters, Paul discussed what motivates the preacher (Phil. 1:15–16). He used Christ's attitude of service as an example of a servant's attitude (Phil. 2:5–8).

Now Paul is talking about the opponents of the gospel. At the same time, he takes himself as an example of an opponent of the gospel and a convert to Christianity. This juxtaposition leads to some fundamental questions. Paul says that it is no trouble to him to write about the same things again, i.e. the basic issues. The basics of salvation comes up again and again in Paul's letters in one way or another – many times in this letter too.

Paul brings up the Jews who were under the law of Moses. Paul uses quite a strong language here and calls the Jews – his own tribesmen – mutilated. Paul had been persecuted by his fellow Jews because they did not believe in the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. Many of course became Christians, like himself, and Paul also had co-workers who were Jews. Only a Jew could use such strong language. If said by people from other nations, those words could be thought to be racist and contemptuous of another nation.

Unconverted persons and Christians think differently about serving God. The unconverted usually think that humanity itself, the condition of being a human, is enough of a basis to start serving God. Christians think that only in fellowship with the promised Messiah, Christ, is it possible to live before God and serve him.

Paul talks about his own life as a particularly good Jew before his conversion. Despite his particularly good starting point and achievements, he now trusts only in Jesus' work and his relationship with Jesus Christ. Among the Jews not converted to Christianity, Paul could have boasted of his own life as a Jew. It was certainly useful in situations where he proclaimed the gospel among those who took their faith seriously. Paul was not just someone who could be taken lightly, a Jew converted to Christianity, which unconverted Jews consider heresy.

Paavali's life had various good starting points and achievements:

1) He was circumcised at one week old, the time required by law. His parents took their faith seriously, even though they did not live in Israel. The Jews who lived outside the territory of Israel generally did not follow the provisions of the Mosaic Law very closely, but Paul's family was an exception.

2) A native Jew had a different status than those who converted to Judaism. Paul's family had a genealogy as proof that they were native Jews.

3) The tribe of Benjamin and the tribe of Judah were loyal to King David. The other Jewish tribes rejected David and rebelled. Paul's original name Saul tells us something about the pride of the family. After all, the name of the most famous person from the tribe of Benjamin, i.e. the first king of Israel, was Saul.

4) The use of the sacred language Hebrew and colloquial Aramaic at home shows authentic Jewishness. This is what "a Hebrew of Hebrews" means.

5) Paul belonged to the Pharisees who took their Judaism and the study of the law seriously. Even non-Pharisee Jews respected the Pharisees and their interpretation of the Bible and their biblical way of life.

6) In Paul's time, zeal/enthusiasm was readiness for bloody deeds to defend the law. Phinehas (Numbers 25:1–13), Elijah (1 Kings 18:40) and the initiators of the Maccabean rebellion (1 Maccabees 1:23–26) were examples of this readiness to shed blood.

7) As a follower of the law, he had developed into someone whom those around him could not reproach.

Although Paul was perfect before people, before God he was not perfect but even an enemy of God's will. The Pharisees and Paul misinterpreted the law as they persecuted Christians. Because of this misinterpretation, they were able to say that they were doing nothing wrong. In opposing the church, Paul at the same time opposed God, and thus the first commandment. Pride in oneself, in one's own special qualities or achievements is also against the values of the Old Testament. We can only boast in knowing the Lord (Philippians 3:3 and Jeremiah 9:22–24). That is what Paul does as a Christian, and he urges other Christians to do so as well (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).

After Paul converted to Christianity, his values changed. He considers all his previous life and achievements as a loss next to knowing Christ. In addition to the word "loss," Paul uses stronger language than what is usually found in translations. In Philippians 3:8, there is the word 'skybalon', which means stinking dung.

Paul does not mean that Judaism or right living is not important. However, everything good that happens in a person's life comes from God. Paul wrote about this several times in his letter. Therefore, boasting about one's own achievements is questionable. All honour and praise belong to Christ. It is thanks to Christ that Paul is acceptable to God, i.e. righteous. Therefore, Paul no longer seeks "his own righteousness, ... which comes from the law." With faith in Jesus, you can own what Jesus did on the cross for you. Paul wrote a longer account on this topic in his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 3:21–5:21).

The Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle to the Philippians talk about renewal. Being connected to the resurrection power of Christ renews you and gives rise in you to an inner mind that submits to God's will. According to the Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle to the Colossians, the Christian is joined to Christ's resurrection in baptism (Romans 6:3–4 and Col 2:12). Also, this resurrection power eventually takes you to heaven. The Holy Spirit / Jesus Christ with his power will change you to be fit for heaven (Romans 8:11 and Philippians 3:20–21). It is good to note that the various persons of the Trinity participate in this transfer to heaven. Above we already talked about how God the Father and the Son are worthy of equal respect and how the Trinity works in Christians to do good works. In Paul's writings, we repeatedly find different persons of the Trinity doing the same things. We know the Trinity here on earth by their shared similar works.

Paul writings about participating in Christ's sufferings on the cross are quite compact. We get more understanding about his concise statements through the thoughts in his other letters. They contain two significantly different ideas about suffering:

1) In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul mentions suffering with Christ (Romans 8:17). Before and after this verse, Paul describes the conflict between man's selfish nature and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:1–25). Thus, suffering with Christ is to trust Christ in this conflict. This idea goes well with the thoughts in the third chapter of Philippians, where Paul contrasts his old life with his new life in Christ.

In particular, the letter discusses wrong and right motives of preaching. When detecting wrong motives, we bring them to Christ who suffered because of our wrong actions and therefore also because of our wrong motives. Paul's life before his conversion included exalting his own achievements. It conflicts with the fundamental principles of the Christian life. That is why Paul rejects his own achievements as a false foundation and bases his life on the work of Christ. Paul, even though he was born again by the power of Christ's resurrection, must bring to Christ all that exists of his old selfish nature for Christ to bear. Despite our inner renewal, there always remains an old, unrenewed part in our person for us Christians to wrestle with.

Philippians 3:8–10 tells us concisely that worthiness before God i.e. righteousness is always first. Righteousness is given through the cross of Christ. Worthiness before God is always the foundation for the whole Christian life. After that there can be talk about renewal by the power of Christ's resurrection. Because this renewal remains incomplete here on earth, forgiveness and worthiness before God are still needed. That which is not renewed in us is always taken to the cross of Christ.

2) The Second Epistle to the Corinthians focuses on the duties of Paul and Timothy as servants of Christ. Serving as a Christian may lead us to situations where we will suffer. Paul, together with Timothy, has faced many adversities while proclaiming the gospel. Despite the problems, they keep going because Christ's death gives birth to new things in them all the time (2 Corinthians 4:7–11). Considering the whole of the letter, this aspect can be seen very well. Paul has urged us to follow Christ’s example in serving. In some cases, this service means being exposed to suffering. Christ wants to bear these sufferings with Paul and with all those who suffer.

When reading the Second Epistle to the Corinthians carefully, we can see that there too Paul is speaking about the part of man that is not renewed. This is shown especially well a few verses later, where he talks about the outer and inner man (2 Corinthians 4:16, see also 2 Corinthians 5:1–7). Although in the Epistle to the Romans Paul focused on man’s inner conflict, in it he also talks about suffering externally (see Romans 8:35–37). Thus the cross of Christ has two different sides: the inner suffering when we struggle with our selfish nature and the external suffering due to persecution.

Paul’s example of progress – Philippians 3:12–21

Above, Paul described his own history as a Jew and a Christian. As a Christian, his foundation is in the work of Jesus Christ. Paul's trust in Jesus’s work is also the basis for how he can be an example to the Philippians (Philippians 3:17).

The main theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is the growth of love. In this passage, Paul uses the word ‘teleios’, which is translated ‘perfect’ in some translations. The word can also be translated as ‘adult’ or ‘of full age’. In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul called the recipients children to whom he must give birth anew (Galatians 4:19). To rekindle the faith of the Galatians, Paul reiterated the fundamental issues of Christianity from many perspectives. The most important point among the fundamentals in Galatians is Jesus Christ's work on the cross (Galatians 2:19–20 and 3:1).

In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul calls the Corinthians little children. There were many different problems of morality and competition for power in the church (1 Corinthians 3:1–3). Paul calls the Philippians adults – he assumes that the fundamental issues are in order. Nor has he heard about any similar big problems existing in Philippi like there were in Corinth. Still, before this exhortation, Paul wanted to bring out the fundamentals.

Part of being an adult is that you do not assume that you are perfect. Children often think that some of their characteristics are perfect. Paul is no longer under the delusion that he has become perfect before God, like he thought when he persecuted the church. As a Christian, he always strives to do better. Striving for perfection always starts from the basic thing – faith in Christ, who suffered on

the cross. In mature faith, the work done by Jesus Christ on the cross is still what is essential – the foundation upon which growth is built. Everything that hinders growth, i.e. everything that is selfish in a Christian, is brought to the cross.

Paul wrote word for word about how Jesus has taken hold of him to go downward (Philippians 3:12, overcome = ‘katalambano’). Jesus Christ also humbled and sacrificed himself down on Earth (Philippians 2:6–8 and 3:10). Following the example of what Christ did, Paul also strives downward.

Because of the work of Jesus Christ, through faith, we can be righteous before God i.e. worthy before God. The result of this is that we get to heaven. Paul wants to hold on to this in every way. By faith we have full salvation. However, Paul is not yet there. He is continuously leaving behind the life he lived persecuting Christians.

Because Christ lives in the Christian it is possible to do as Christ did. Paul has emphasized this growth throughout his letter. He hopes that the Philippians would do nothing out of selfishness, but that they would consider the interests of others instead of their own. The model for this is Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:3–8). This is what striving downward is all about. For Paul, it could even lead to martyrdom.

In serving according to the example of Christ, Paul has not yet become perfect. He does not always and in everything do as Christ does. However, as a role model, he is "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead." Paul literally says that he is called to heaven (Philippians 3:14). When Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death, Jesus Christ stood up to receive him (Acts 7:56). Paul received the same welcome when in the end he was put to death by the sword.

Paul called the Philippians mature or perfect. Still, he knows that at least not everyone is ready to take on the mindset of a servant who have Christ as their example. That's why he wrote: "If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you." Some Philippian church members are not ready to receive Paul's exhortation. The reason for this may be that even the basic issues are still hazy. It may be due, for example, to the fact that some of the Christians are new converts. There can be many other reasons too. However, it is different from living as an enemy of the cross. They are just not ready for all that the cross represents. In time, they too will be ready to accept Paul's exhortation to serve in the manner of Christ.

The enemies of the cross mentioned in the passage are not even at the beginning. Confidence in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross has not been developed in them. Being an enemy of the cross can show as the idea that, by your own means, you can earn righteousness, that is, worthiness before God. Enmity to the cross leads to caring for one's own belly i.e. pursuing one's own interests and ending up in damnation.

Believers are waiting for Jesus Christ from heaven as their Saviour. He will transform the Christians from their lowly state to the likeness of his glorified body. The expression that Christ ‘humbled himself’ appeared earlier in the Christ hymn. Because Jesus Christ humbled himself to be in our state, we too in our lowly state can wait for Jesus Christ to be our Saviour. Because Christ has risen, we too will receive a glorified body.

Some of the same words as in the Christ hymn appear especially in Philippians 3:8–9 and 3:20–21. These passages represent two different sides of the hymn, i.e. Christ becoming man and his ascension to heaven. The third chapter reflects the ideas of the Christ hymn in every aspect. Thus, the whole chapter expresses faith and trust in what Jesus Christ has done. It is the starting point for the emergence of a service mindset in a person.