Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Apostle Paul knows that one day he will die.

John 12:3
"The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 7, 2019

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

The Apostle Paul knows that one day he will die.

Most likely, in Paul’s mind at least, he thinks that he will die in a Roman prison having suffered for the sake of the gospel.

These circumstances may not reflect our own in their details, but the reality remains the same: we also will one day die. There’s no getting around this fact — whether we are rich or poor, young or old, educated or illiterate, free or imprisoned — we will one day die.

But, for Paul the key is that in life, for all of the time that he has left, he has one goal. And that goal is: “somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” As the season of Lent draws to its climax we have this valuable opportunity to reflect on both death and resurrection.

Paul has come to understand that salvation ultimately lies in the act of resurrection. That is: we learn from the writings of Paul (see also 1 Corinthians 15:19) the extraordinary reality that if God does not raise us from the dead then nothing else matters — there is no freedom from sin and his faith and trust in God is futile.

Paul begins this section by outlining everything about himself that might be considered of value and significance. All those things which will increase and maintain his self-esteem and status in the eyes of himself and others.

  • Paul lists his background and his heritage: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.”
  • He makes clear his education and training: “as to the law, a Pharisee.”
  • Then he boasts of his religious and political convictions and activism: “as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.”
  • And finally, he notes his lifestyle: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are all gains, all plusses, all valuable in our life to achieve status and significance. Moreover, Paul emphasizes that whatever anyone else might claim, he is sure that his CV equals if not eclipses all the others. Paul has “made it!”

But, Paul then makes an extraordinary statement. He describes the value of all this within the value system of the kingdom of Christ Jesus his Lord — complete rubbish! Absolute trash!

So, let’s be clear: Paul is affirming a new reality where followers of the Lord Jesus Christ accept a new and radical value system where background and heritage, education and training, religious and political convictions and activism, and lifestyle matter not one jot compared the value of knowing Christ as Lord.

In order to understand the full extent of what is being expressed here we need to note several key perspectives that will help us understand what is going on.

  • First, we need to be aware that it is most likely that Paul was in prison in Rome (other locations have been debated, but the most recent scholarship affirms the capital city). The reference to the “imperial guard” in Philippians 1:13 is a reference to the elite soldiers who resided only in Rome and were the personal protection force for the Emperor.
  • Second, our passage speaks of Paul’s commitment to Christ as Lord. This is important because for a Jew to speak of someone as Christ is to speak of them as King and then this status is emphasized by the reference to Jesus as Lord. Paul has a commitment to an authority the he regards as higher than any earthly ruler — even the ruler of the world, the Emperor of the Roman Empire.
  • Third, Philippians 1:7 and 1:13-17 make clear that Paul’s “imprisonment is for Christ” (1:13). He is no ordinary prisoner, but he is where he is because he refuses to acknowledge the ultimate authority of the Roman Emperor.
  • Fourth, Paul is writing to a city that is ruled by the Imperial powers. Philippi had been a Roman colony for two hundred years by the time of Paul’s visit and was ruled by Roman law. And as Acts 6:21 makes clear the city was dominated by the people, values, and ethos of the Roman Empire: “advocating customs it is not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”

All of this matters because it reminds us that Paul writes his letter, and the Philippian disciples receive the letter, as islands of devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of a vast ocean of religious, political, and economic devotion to the Empire of Rome.

The key to this passage lies in verses 10 and 11: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul understands that if he is to “attain the resurrection from the dead” then first he must share in the sufferings of Christ. The sufferings of Christ have been articulated in the beautiful hymn in Philippians 2, and specifically verses 7 and 8: He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”

The salvation through resurrection to which Paul aspires requires:

  • The willingness to let go of status and significance in the eyes of the culture in which we live. Nothing we have been, nor that we have worked for previously is of value unless it is rooted in and built upon the foundation of love.
  • The willingness to be obedient to the values and ethos of the kingdom of God. These values are summed up in love. Note Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more …”
  • The willingness to maintain love and loving even to death at the hands of the powerful, the unjust, and the corrupt. Love for the other; love for one’s enemies; love for the outcast.

“We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”