Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14
Using his own life as a paradigm, Paul presents us in this passage with a brief existential description of what it actually means to live “through the faith of the Messiah Jesus” rather than trusting in one’s own righteousness (3:9).1 To understand what Paul is talking about, however, we need to do two things: (1) unravel some false assumptions about what we think he is saying and (2) realize that he is referring to a reality in which we already participate even now through trust or faith.
Confidence through one’s own or the Messiah’s righteousness?
In this passage, Paul addresses the way some rival apostles are demanding that the Philippians, as Gentile converts, do certain things (like become circumcised). Paul counters by saying that these demands are based in the “flesh.” Given centuries of later Christian interpretation, we need to clarify what Paul means when he speaks of the “flesh” (sarx). He is not negating the human body in and of itself. Indeed, he speaks positively about bodies, whether they be personal or corporate. Rather, Paul uses “flesh” to refer to what is mortal—what will eventually decay or die and thus can be corrupted in its attempts to secure its survival at all costs.
Further, by linking “flesh” with his rivals’ demand that the Philippians do certain things, Paul is not negating or demeaning Jewish law. Indeed, Paul affirms that the law is good and holy (Romans 7:12) and that the Messiah’s purpose is not to abolish the law, but rather to enable us to fulfill it (Romans 10:4). Moreover, as indicated in this passage, Paul is very proud of his Jewish heritage; he is especially proud of the fact that he is “righteous under the law, blameless” (3:6).
What, then, is at issue here? Whether we are seeking to secure our survival at all costs—by, say, meeting our own or others’ expectations and demands for what it means to be “right” or “good”—or whether we are simply trusting in God’s promises to us in the Messiah Jesus. In other letters, Paul expands on how it is Abraham’s faith or trust in God’s promises to him (for example, that he and his descendants would be a blessing to the nations) that makes him righteous. His being circumcised is something that takes place afterwards as a sign of his faith in this promise (Romans 4:1-16).
Defining faith and righteousness
Again, however, we need to clarify what Paul does not mean by “faith.” It does not mean adherence to some cognitive or behavioral formula that specifies what we are to think or do, even when it contradicts our best sense of what is true and just. Rather, “faith” has to do with fidelity or loyalty to the way of life God’s promises open up for us—a way of life characterized by holding fast to God’s promise of unconditional goodness and mercy, precisely when we are in the midst of what appears to be a precarious future or an irreversible past.
In turn, the “righteousness” that comes through faith does not refer to some kind of legal merit, whether that be something we achieve by our own effort or something forensically declared to us as if in a law court. Rather, “righteousness,” as defined by its usage in scripture, has to do with living in such a way that we embody God’s mercy and justice, as exemplified, for instance, by how we care for those around us, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, and thus are not in a position to reward us for our good work.
Losing everything and gaining the Messiah
What is at issue, then, with “faith” and “righteousness” is how we “regard” or “lead” (hēgomai) our lives—that is, how we interpret and respond to the circumstances we are facing (3:7). Earlier in the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to “regard” others “as better than yourselves” (2:3), just as Jesus did when he did not “regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” but rather “emptied” himself, even to the point of “death” on a “cross” (2:6). In a similar vein, Paul states that he “regards” everything as “loss” and “garbage” in view of the excess of value that comes from knowing Jesus as Messiah and Lord (3:8)—a theme echoed in the Gospels, where Jesus asks plainly, “What will it profit them to gain the whole world, and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36; see also Matthew 16:26; Luke 9:25).
Knowing the power of the Messiah’s resurrection and sharing in his sufferings
What Paul wants “to know” (ginōskō) in all this is the Messiah (3:10). Such “knowing” has to do with intimacy—participating in the other one “knows,” as in a sexual encounter. It is in this participatory sense that Paul wants to “know” the “power” of the Messiah’s “resurrection” and to “share” in his “sufferings” (3:10).
Of course, resurrection here does not mean the resuscitation of a body. Rather, it has to do with the way the Messiah’s being raised from the dead vindicates his death for others by ushering in a new creation. Jesus’ being raised from the dead vindicates his crucifixion and the way it signifies God’s unconditional love and reign of mercy and justice—precisely in a world that contradicts that love and reign.
Paul’s ultimate “goal,” then, is to attain, through the Messiah Jesus’s own faith, the vindication of unconditional love his being raised from the dead signifies. Of course, such vindication is impossible in this life where we constantly face evidence that contradicts God’s mercy and justice. Yet Paul maintains that he can make it his own through the Messiah Jesus who has already claimed him as his own. Thus, because he has already been claimed in the Messiah’s life, he presses on toward his goal, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (3:14).
- I am translating dia pisteōs Christou (3:9) as “through the faith of Christ” rather than “through faith in Christ” (as in the NRSV translation).