Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14
Today’s reading follows Paul’s heated condemnation of evangelists who had been insisting that Gentile believers in Christ must be circumcised and become Jews, in order to be brought into right relationship with God. Paul’s argument against Gentile circumcision, while not an issue for Christians today, is actually the driving purpose behind everything he says in this passage. The reward for the preacher is a chance to challenge longstanding anti-Jewish interpretations of Philippians 3 and also to convey Paul’s radical vision of God’s power to reconcile all humankind to God and to one another through the cross of Christ.
3: 4b-6, “As to righteousness under the law, blameless”
Philippians 3 is one of two passages where Paul gives an overview of his life as a zealous student of Torah, and the sudden expansion of his understanding of God’s providence through a revelation of Christ “in” him (Galatians 1:16). The following points walk you through a way of seeing Paul’s ministry appropriately within his self-concept as a Jew.
- In the similarly autobiographical Galatians passage (Galatians 1:13-17), Paul alludes to Jeremiah’s call, which he sees as a model for his own calling: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”(Jeremiah 1:5).
- Understanding how deeply Paul took on Jeremiah’s call as his own is crucial for understanding his mission as a Jew and a believer in the power of God revealed in Christ.
- Paul saw himself as one called to prophesy at a true turning of the ages, in which God had made the final, definitive move to bring Gentiles into right relationship with the divine and with one another.
- Paul’s use of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) imagery to describe the power of the cross (Rom 3:21-26) explains how God freely chose to accept the entirely unjust crucifixion of the Messiah as the pivot point for the beginning of a new age of righted relationships for all people, opening up paths for Jews and Gentiles to be in relationship with God and to welcome one another deeply, precisely as Jew and as Gentile (Romans 15:7).
- Circumcision is the sign by which Jews and Gentiles are distinguished from one another. When, in Paul’s churches, Jews and Gentiles—the circumcised and the uncircumcised—eat together, interpret the Torah and the prophets together, discuss how to live as witnesses to God’s holiness and mercy together, then they are living signs of the new age ushered in by the cross and resurrection of God’s Messiah. Their distinction-in-relationship is the sacramental sign of the power of the cross.
- Paul did not “convert” from being a Jew to becoming a believer in Christ. He understood himself to be the Jewish prophet of a wholeness and reconciliation long imagined and hoped for by God’s people: “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:8-9).
- For the Jewish community, God is fulfilling the promise of bringing the nations into God’s fold; for Gentiles, God is welcoming them with undiluted mercy.
In the opening lines of this lection (Philippians 3:4b-6), Paul makes it clear that he continues to value the pillars of his Jewish faithfulness: circumcision, deep belonging within the community, devotion to God’s Word, willingness to risk himself for the things of God. His final point is especially important for present-day interpreters to pay attention to: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul was not a person burdened by the Torah and his inability to keep it—quite the opposite. He took deep pride in keeping it, as a way of life.
3:7-11, Gaining clarity about what matters most
High regard for Jewish fidelity is the grounding for the turn Paul makes in verses 7-8: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” It is the obvious value of what Paul is now calling a “loss” that gives power to his new estimation of things. All the riches of Paul’s previous religious experiences are “loss” and “rubbish” (New Revised Standard Version; the Greek word is earthier, more like “dung,” “excrement”) compared to the magnitude of what God is doing through Christ for the healing of the whole world.
The salvation of the Jews is not at stake here; what is at stake is the inclusion of the Gentiles, previously considered (by Jews) to be so under the power of unjust systems and powers—Sin with a capital S—that they were not free to be in right relationship with a just God. In Paul’s view, Sin dominated the Mediterranean world, the whole world that Paul knows, through powerful Gentile rulers completely out of relationship with Israel’s God and God’s justice. God’s act of reconciliation through the cross is the unmerited opening up of salvation, peace, justice, holiness for the nations, the critical move in the release of all people from the suffering wrought by Sin.
Besides the theme of loss and gain, this part of the reading is structured by the focus on faith (Greek, pistis) as the way in which people align themselves with the power of God in Christ. Paul uses the word faith twice in verse 9: “… not having my own justice from the law, but that [justice] through Christ’s faith (pistis Christou), the justice of God [founded] upon faith. Because believers are baptized into the body of Christ, they have access to the power of Christ’s own faith and faithfulness as they open themselves up to faith in him and faithfulness to his self-offering way of life. Faith is a channel of salvation for Gentiles and a channel of revelation for Jews, as they see the magnitude of God’s power to save all. Their shared faith makes it possible for Jews and Gentiles to respect each other in community, while they may maintain some distinct practices.
3:12-14, A prisoner’s defiance
In order to grasp the power of the final verses, it is important to remember that Paul was in prison, a state that he refers to four times in Philippians, likely literally, as being “in chains” (1:7; 13 twice, 1:17). He also says that he has been “laid” there (1:16) for the offense of defending the counter-cultural Gospel of Christ. But despite his physical bonds and extreme vulnerability, verses 12 -14 are a beautiful blend of Paul’s subjectivity to God’s claim on him (“Christ Jesus has made me his own; “the heavenly call of God”) and his inner activity, courage, determination, and agency (“I press on,” “straining forward,” “I press on”).
The fuel for all of the intensity of Philippians 3:4b-14 is Paul’s commitment to his call to spread the Gospel of God’s reconciliation of all people to God and to one another through the cross and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. Cross and resurrection, grasped together, are the sign that the time of dividing people from each other is over, and the era of reconciling grace is here. Paul’s insistence that Gentiles be accepted as they are is an invitation to present-day preachers to lift up models of gracious, merciful, courageous reconciliation.