Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In today’s reading Paul shares his own story as a paradigm. And readers today react to it in polarized ways.

"Vineyard." Image by Jenny Downing via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0.

October 8, 2017

Second Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14

In today’s reading Paul shares his own story as a paradigm. And readers today react to it in polarized ways.

Paul’s grounds for boasting (Philippians 3:4b-6)

Just beforehand, Paul asks the Philippians to beware of “those who mutilate the flesh” (this is advocate for circumcision as key to faithfulness), implying these opponents place undue confidence “in the flesh” (3:2-4a). In principle Paul’s churches place no significance on such externalities. But now Paul goes on to boast: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more” (verse 4b).

What follows are seven credentials, listed succinctly for rhetorical punch. Paul names many of these elsewhere (Romans 11:1; 1 Corinthians 15:9; 2 Corinthians 11:22; Galatians 1:13-14, 23; 1 Timothy 1:13). Most striking is the closing credential: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6). These words are situational, referring not to general “righteousness” before God (compare Romans 3:21-28; 7:7-25) but to Paul’s past Torah observance in line with Pharisaic interpretation. By this standard, Paul says his past record is spotless.

True credentials (Philippians 3:7-14)

Now Paul throws his past trophies out the window: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). The words “gain” (kerde) and “loss” (zemia) conclude each respective Greek phrase, giving them emphasis. Paul then broadens the application: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verse 8).

Paul deems these things “rubbish” (New Revised Standard Version), better translated “refuse” or “excrement” (skybala), since the strength of the word is hardly an accident (its only New Testament appearance). For hearers living in a world largely lacking effective sewage systems, real-life associations with this word came readily to mind.

Paul’s shift in perspective moves dramatically from a righteousness defined by the Torah toward “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verses 8-9).

The virtue of striving?

At first read, Philippians 3:7-14 may seem to emphasize (Paul’s) human striving. But a closer look shows this idea mistaken.

  1. The verb “gain” (kerdaino) in verse 8 plays on earlier language (“gains,” kerde), not to emphasize human attainment, but to redefine true gain. An alternative translation is “regard Christ as gain.”
  2. Paul contrasts “a righteousness of my own” with “the righteousness from God based on faith” (verse 9), which is “through faith in Christ” (New Revised Standard Version, dia pisteos Christou). The last phrase may better be translated “[the] faith of Christ,” which places far greater emphasis on Christ’s faithfulness (so also in Romans 3:22, 26; Galatians 2:16, 20; 3:22).
  3. Many of the key verbs in Philippians 3:7-14 are passive, drawing attention to God’s work: “and be found in him” (verse 9), “becoming like him” (verse 10), “have already been made perfect” (verse 12, alternate New Revised Standard Version translation), and “I have been captured by Christ” (verse 12, my translation).
  4. Most of the verbs regarding Paul’s pursuits either are negated (verses 9, 12, 13), speak hypothetically (verses 8, 11), or convey merely cognitive and experiential acts (regarding: verses 7, 8, 13a; knowing verse 10; compare 13b). Just a few remaining verbs depict active striving on Paul’s part (verses 12-14) — activity that is ongoing and unfinished. These various verbs imply more about Paul’s shift of perspective (and subsequent energies) than his ability to achieve results.

In short, Philippians 3:4b-14 is not so much about human striving as it is about a radical shift in perspective, redefining what “true gain” is.

St. Paul the Arrogant?

Many find Paul’s extensive focus on his credentials and autobiography in this passage off-putting, if not arrogant. Why does he devote so much space to talking about himself? A few considerations help contextualize this.

First, Paul writes within the context of an established relationship. The Philippian believers likely appreciated the personal nature of Paul’s reflections, since it reminded them of their community founder — now at a distance. Modern readers, who lack this connection, naturally react differently.

Second, Paul writes about himself neither to inform nor to promote himself, but to instruct. Among Greco-Roman writers of this time, it was extremely common to refer to their lived examples as models for paraenesis (exhortation, encouraging others to action). Doing so not only gave concrete examples, it held authors accountable to persevering (see Pliny, Epistles 7.1.7). And so, to the Philippians, Paul’s self-reflections were far more culturally expected than cocky.

St. Paul the Passionate

In case you missed it, Paul writes passionately about his devotion to Christ. He uses rhetorical strategies to emphasize the “loss” (or “excrement”) of past trophies and “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8-9), names Christ by name often (verses 7, 8, 9, 14), speaks in personal terms about his relationship with Christ (verses 8, 12), describes the relationship using verbs at home in ancient romance literature (“pursue” dioko, “capture” katalambano, “have been made perfect,” teteleiomai), and longs passionately to “know” (here “experience”) Christ, his resurrection, and his sufferings — and thereby to be conformed with him in his death (verse 10). These are hardly reflections of an armchair theologian.

The passion and personal nature of Paul’s words reflect one who has known firsthand a complete life makeover and reorientation to a new Lord, for whose sake “all things” are now comparatively worthless. And so, Paul cannot but write fervently, personally, and lovingly about this new path and participation in Christ’s work — partially to instruct others, but no less to reflect authentically his own experience.

Paul’s words raise the natural question for us, as believers and church communities: What superficial “gains” has Christ shown to be “loss” for us?

In a world where the prevailing church culture may or may not look any different from prevailing business models or country club associations, where has knowing Christ compelled us to say “No” to cultural priorities in order to pursue relentlessly the things that truly matter?