In order to further discredit false teachers in Philippi, Paul refers to his natural advantages and storied pre-conversion career in Judaism in verses 4-6. ‘He himself possesses all that to which they attach so much value; nevertheless, he has renounced it all for the sake of Christ’, as one commentator expresses it.1 Another adds:
If ever a man was exemplary in a fleshly way, he was … We may say of him that for some years he lived, fortified with all the rites and ordinances and advantages and righteousness of Judaism. If ever educated and religious flesh was to be trusted, it was to be trusted in Saul of Tarsus. He was filled with religion and filled with the pride which was generated by his belief that all was so much gain to him.2
For the sake of argument he walks the reader through his Jewish background to demonstrate his superiority to his heretical rivals, v. 4, as well as highlighting the inherent excellence of Christ over what they were promoting.
Firstly, he was ‘circumcised the eighth day of the stock of Israel’, v, 5, indicating that he was a pure-blood Jew born into an observant family. Unlike many post-exilic Jews, Paul’s ancestors had not intermarried with Gentiles during the long centuries of dispersion, cp. Neh. 11. 23-27. In addition to their pure lineage, they were also well aware of their tribal affiliation; they belonged to the august tribe of Benjamin, which had furnished the first monarch of Israel. Could his Judaizing adversaries top this? Fee says no: ‘The reason for this one is almost certainly for effect. Gentiles could become members only of Israel; Paul’s membership was of a kind whereby he could trace his family origins. He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin … in whose territory sat the Holy City itself. They were also notable because they alone had joined Judah in loyalty to the Davidic covenant’.3
What is more, Paul was ‘a Hebrew of the Hebrews’, a phrase that describes his cultural affinity with his ancestral language and customs. Though surrounded by the despised goyim (’the nations’), his family remained unassimilated. Rather than being overwhelmed by pervasive Hellenism, they preserved their ancient tongue, literature, and culture. Paul was fluent in Greek and familiar with Graeco-Roman philosophy and literature, Acts 17; yet he preserved his identity as a law-abiding Jew. Martin summarizes it well, ‘he is a true-blooded Jew from the cradle, and nursed in the ancestral faith’.4
No one could accuse Paul of being a nominal Jew. On the contrary, he was a devout member of ‘the strictest sect’ of Judaism, Acts 26. 5, known as the Pharisees. Other passages tell us of his Oxbridge (or Ivy League) equivalent education at the feet of the learned theologian Gamaliel, Acts 22. 3. That he was not a half-hearted proponent of the family faith is evidenced by his reaction to the rise of Christianity, ‘concerning zeal, persecuting the church’, v. 7. This last point was still fresh in the apostle’s mind, as Martin shows, ‘Paul seems never to have been able to forget his persecuting activity, based on that misdirected zeal for God (Acts 22:3; cf. Rom. 10:2) and his cause, of which he speaks here. The memory of it continually haunts him; so much so that he uses the present participle of the verb, diokon, persecuting, as if the action were before his eyes at the time of writing’.5
A classic commentary further describes his seriousness regarding religious matters, ‘Foremost among the zealots stood Saul of Tarsus – had his adversaries ever shown a similar fervour? – had they so openly committed themselves? His zeal for the law outstripped theirs … If he did not now enforce the Mosaic ceremonial, it was not because he had never loved it, or had been quite careless when it was assaulted. Not one had laboured for it so prodigiously, or fought for it so ferociously’.6 The able classicist J. B. Lightfoot’s paraphrase of verse 8 brings out the force of the former persecutor’s statements, ‘I was zealous above them all; I asserted my principles with fire and sword; I persecuted, imprisoned, slew these infatuated Christians; this was my great claim to God’s favour’.7
Furthermore, Saul’s carefully cultivated image as a keeper of the law was unassailable to any human observer (‘blameless’ as verse 8 tersely expresses it). In other words, his life seemed in line with law-keeping and adherence to the added traditions of his fathers – he was no obvious hypocrite (though this pious façade concealed a horrible struggle with sin, Rom. 7. 5-13). Fee clarifies, ‘Here he is probably referring especially to matters of “food and drink” and “the observance of days”, since, along with circumcision, these are the items regularly singled out whenever discussion of Torah observance emerges in his letters’.8
Verse 7 succinctly articulates the vast sea-change in Paul’s thinking concerning his previous religious attainments. Dunham explains the original wording, ‘In the Greek text of these verses, the word for “gain" is plural and for “loss" singular. “For Christ’s sake I have learned to count my former gains a loss.” In this dramatic abruptness there is a notable contrast. Each of the outward privileges in Paul’s catalogue had at one time been a distinct and separate gain, individual items of profit. Now – they are all one big bundle of loss; loss because they are useless’.9 By a conscious decision Paul valued his former benefits against what he had gained in Christ. Of course, there was no real comparison, for Christ so far exceeds anything that this world – religious or otherwise – has to offer.
The specific act of counting these things ‘loss’, demonstrates Christ’s work within him and is itself reminiscent of what the Lord of glory did in the incarnation. Hendriksen notes this phenomenon,
‘Compare ‘I have counted’ (perfect tense) here with ‘he did not count’ (aorist) in 2:6. The verb indicates arriving at a sure judgment based on careful weighing of facts. Cf. Phil. 2:3. The similarity between 3:7 and 2:6 is striking. Christ “did not count his existence-in-a-manner-equal-to-God something to cling to, but emptied himself”. This counting and this emptying is reflected in Paul, who, by having counted things that were gain to him to be loss for Christ, emptied himself of ‘all things’ (Phil. 3:8) that he might gain Christ’.10
Just as the Thessalonians turned to worship the true Lord from their earlier veneration of impotent idols, 1 Thess. 1. 9-10, likewise Paul exchanged dead religious works and their pride-enhancing accomplishments to receive ‘the surpassing worth’ (ESV) of knowing Christ, Phil. 3. 8. In comparison with Him, all else is esteemed as ‘dung’ (AV; NET), ‘filth’ (JND), or ‘rubbish’ (NKJV; ESV; NASB).11 Another writer remarks on the stark contrast, ‘There is a powerful statement of divine grace in these verses. What Paul was and did was nothing. What Christ had done was everything. Nor was it just the Jewish background he counted loss. Paul gave his statement universal validity with the word “everything”. Absolutely nothing could transcend for him the value of knowing Christ’.12 Martin cogently adds, ‘The goal of Paul’s revaluation is the supreme one of a personal possession. He loses all, to gain–Christ’.13
Darby’s translation accurately captures the sense of verse 9, ‘And that I may be found in him, not having my righteousness, which would be on the principle of law, but that which is by faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God through faith’ (Italics original). Paul now enjoyed a righteousness from God – of divine design and execution – as opposed to one based on his past incessant striving after a standard that is unattainable by mankind. The law condemns human beings, for it reveals them to be transgressors, Gal. 3. 19; 1 Tim. 1. 9. In Christ Paul gains a righteousness which is attainable, for it is God’s free gift apart from human works, Rom. 5. 1. It stands in contrast to what observant Jews – indeed all religious people who seek to come to God on the basis of their own efforts – vainly sought, Rom. 10. 3, 5.
To Paul, the greatness of this new life centred on his personal knowledge of Christ and relationship to Him. The righteousness that he was provided was wonderful, but his language focuses on winning the Lord and knowing Him, vv. 8-10. Christianity is not merely assent to dogma or understanding of certain doctrines; it is mainly a living connection to the risen Saviour. Knowing Him exceeds any earthly blessing and merits any suffering. What the Judaizers were offering could not hope to compare with the life and righteousness offered in Christ.
Hermann Olshausen, Biblical Commentary on the New Testament, Volume 5. New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, & Co., 1859, pg. 423.
F.B. Hole, Philippians. Electronic ed.: http://biblecentre.org/commentaries/fbh_54_philippians.htm#Philippians3 Accessed on 10/13/11 [Italics original.]
Gordon Fee, IVP New Testament Commentary: Philippians. Electronic ed. (1999; Quickverse ‘08 STEP Files, 2006.)
Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987, pg. 150.
Martin, pg. 151f.
John Eadie, A Commentary On The Greek Text Of The Epistle Of Paul To The Philippians, New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1859, pg. 178.
J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle To The Philippians. London: Macmillan & Co., 1903, pg. 148.
Fee, see note 3.
Maxie D. Dunnam, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 31 : Philippians. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1982, pg. 287.
William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary Vol. 5: Exposition of Philippians. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962, pg. 161, ftnt.#139. [Italics original.]
W.E. Vine notes Paul’s irony in using this term: ‘… the plural here signifies ‘bits of refuse,’ and probably refers to the leavings of a feast, pieces thrown to the dogs, garbage. Judaizers regarded Gentile believers as dogs, while they themselves enjoyed God’s banquet. Paul reverses the figure. The Judaizers are the dogs’. Collected Writings of W. E. Vine: Philippians. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997; electronic ed.
Anthony L. Ash, The College Press NIV Commentary: Philippians, College Press Publ., 1994, electronic ed., pdf., pg. 45.
Martin, pg. 155.
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