Counting Everything as Vanity for the Sake of Christ | Philippians 3:4-9

Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—

Philippians 3:4-9 ESV

 

Thus far, Paul has expressed his affection and thanksgiving for the Philippians’ partnership in his ministry. He then addressed concerns regarding his imprisonment by reassuring them that God was actually using it to advance the gospel and that He would keep doing so. Paul also urged the Philippians to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by being of the same mind and love, following Christ’s perfect example of humility.

In our last study, Paul began to address the danger of legalism, warning particularly against those who required Gentile Christians to be circumcised. Within our present text, Paul challenges anyone to produce a religious résumé greater than his own, while then emphasizing that he, like everyone else, is dependent upon grace alone through faith.

THE CREDENTIALS OF PAUL // VERSES 4-6

After soundly arguing against the principle of placing confidence in one’s flesh, Paul pulls out a plot twist by saying that he has more reason than anyone for putting confidence in his flesh. With the credentials that follow, we may be tempted to think of the apostle as boasting in his accomplishments; however, the exact opposite is true. He is merely sayings that if anyone could be confident in their good works it would have been him. But they were meaningless. Nothing but vanity. That’s the point. If Paul wasn’t qualified to earn his own salvation, no one is.

Verses 5-6 then act as Paul’s religious credentials of sorts. Studying it, we must admit that it is quite impressive.

Circumcised on the eighth day – It is important to note that Paul did not refute the Judaizers’ emphasis on circumcision because he did not want to go through the painful process. No, Paul was circumcised when he was only eight days old, as Jewish law commands. Thus, if circumcision was the means of justification, Paul already did it. He would only argue against something that he has already accomplished if he truly understood that it was not sufficient.

Of the people of Israel – It is clear throughout the Old Testament that the Jewish people were special. Yet they were special not because of anything that they had to offer but because God Himself chose them to be His chosen people. The Israelites were the people of God, set apart and made holy for divine purposes. Paul, therefore, was not an “unclean” Gentile, but a member of this holy nation.

Of the tribe of Benjamin – Aside from simply belonging to the Israelite people, Paul knew exactly from which tribe he came. The tribe of Benjamin was certainly one of the more prestigious of the twelve tribes.

Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who was born in the Promised Land. The tribe of Benjamin provided many noble warriors throughout Israel’s history (cf. Hos. 5:8). Israel’s first lawful king came from the tribe of Benjamin. Jerusalem and the temple stood within Benjamin’s territory. This tribe alone, beside Judah, remained loyal to David’s house when the monarchy divided in 931 B.C. The feast of Purim celebrated the salvation of the Jews by a Benjamite, Mordecai. After the Exile, Benjamin and Judah formed the core of the restoration community. Of course, this tribe’s history was not without its shame as well (e.g., Saul’s failures, the Gibeans’ atrocity that led to the civil war that almost wiped this tribe out, etc.). Nevertheless Paul could legitimately take pride in his Benjamite heritage. He came from one of the leading families in Israel. (Constable, 49)

A Hebrew of Hebrews – Though Paul was raised in a Hellenistic city, this did not prevent him from learning the fullness of his Jewish heritage. Yes, he knew and mastered the Greek language, which allowed him to scribe the letters that we have presently, but he was also a devout student of Hebrew, which even in their day was a less than popular language.

As to the law, a Pharisee – The Pharisaic sect was the all-star team of Judaism. They were the most educated men in Israel. Their theology was solid. Their commitment to keeping God’s Word was unparalleled. They had such a deep commitment to upholding the Law that they actually created their own laws (that were stricter) just so that they could avoid breaking God’s Law at all costs. Their numbers were always small and elusive. Paul had not only made the cut to be a Pharisee, but he was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the greatest Pharisees ever to live.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Zeal, or passionate fervor, for God and His Word was one of the most valued qualities of a devout Jewish person of God. Paul claims that his zeal for Judaism was so fierce that he killed those who ascribed to the “heretical” Christian sect. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine a greater form of passion than the willingness to kill for one’s beliefs.

As to righteousness under the law, blameless – I see this as Paul challenging his readers to find fault in him. He is certainly not claiming to be without sin; rather, according to all of the works and ideals of Judaism, Paul says he was blameless. He did everything required of him and more. Only a handful of people throughout history could match Paul’s religious dedication and practice.

Merida and Chan use these seven items as seven kinds of works that we often attempt to place our confidence in. Circumcision relates to our confidence in rituals. Being an Israelite and Benjamite correlate to our security in ethnicity and rank. A Hebrew of Hebrews and Pharisee can be seen as tradition and rule-keeping. Finally, a persecutor and blameless are linked to zeal and obedience to the law. Of course, none of these are bad things, but they are not sufficient to justify us before God. Which of these do you most associate with? What form does legalism take in your life?

Now with this religious résumé, Paul is using himself as an example to say that if anyone could be justified by their works, it would be him. If there was anyone that could find fulfillment in the works of their flesh, it would be Paul. In practice, a large portion of us will spend our entire lives attempting to do a fraction of what Paul did. However, verse 7 will show us his true opinion of all his efforts.

COUNTING ALL AS LOSS FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST // VERSES 7-9

Ah! What a sweet but painfully difficult verse to read! Paul’s true heart about his works is made known: that he counts it all as loss in comparison to Christ. This man, who claimed to have been blameless in his religiousness, considers everything on that list in verses five and six to be nothing when placed in the light of Christ.

Notice what is portrayed here. Paul does not say that he failed to find fulfillment in his works. All of his moral accomplishments surely gave him a form of happiness and contentment, an assurance that he was living his life for the greater good.

And that is all true. Legalism does offer a form of satisfaction, a form of gratification that comes from living for a higher purpose. Yet in this sense, religion can become little more than altruistic hedonism. It is hedonistic because the ultimate goal is pleasure. It is altruistic because it derives that pleasure from doing good. Yet even though pleasure can be found in religious works, it is not lasting. It is not eternal. It cannot lead to a permanently satisfied life. It cannot result in joy.

Thus, it is this common thread of joy that comes back into play. The joy that Paul is not afraid to repeat over and over again to the Philippians can only be found via this verse. It is not a matter of what we do, but rather it is a matter of who Christ is. The joy of this letter is not found in work or religiousness. It is only found in the glory and the supremacy of Christ. Just as we saw in the previous chapter, one day everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is supreme, that He is Lord. Being supreme and being one with God puts Jesus as the Creator and Sustainer of the all that exists. This makes Jesus the supreme source of good. Thus, when God wants to give us the greatest good, He gives to us Himself. The glory of the resplendent Christ far outshines all else so that our greatest hopes and works become mere vanities by comparison.

Expounding upon his thought in verse seven, Paul then specifies that there is a surpassing worth in knowing Christ. This knowledge is so valuable that everything is counted as loss (no longer just his religious works) in comparison to it. Jesus is of greater value to Paul than all things put together. The apostle, therefore, joyfully counted everything as lost to him because Christ is far greater and more than enough for him. Especially with the “gain” and “loss” language, it is almost as though Paul is presenting this with the logic of mathematics. If Jesus is greater than everything, I can then have Jesus plus nothing else and still be better off than if I had everything except Jesus. This explains the joyfulness of the apostle in the midst of his numerous sufferings. His persecutors had absolutely zero ability to diminish his love of the gospel because he knew Christ.

Paul further draws a line of distinction between the knowing of Christ and everything else by saying that he counts them as “rubbish.” Unfortunately, rubbish does not capture the weight of Paul’s thought here. Consider Dr. Constable’s thoughts on the word:

The Greek word translated “rubbish” (skybalon) occurs only here in the New Testament. Its derivation is uncertain, but it appears to have referred to excrement, food gone bad, scraps left over after a meal, and refuse. In extrabiblical Greek it describes a half-eaten corpse and lumps of manure. Thus Paul meant that his former advantages (his standing, wealth, and position in the Jewish community) were not only worthless but strongly offensive and potentially dangerous. He put his most prized possessions in the garbage can. (Constable, 51)

Some have gone so far as to argue that Paul was using mild profanity here, and while I don’t think that is the case, it seems to be more impolite than we would often care to admit. Perhaps the best translation in present-day English is “crap” or “dog crap.” While crap is certainly not considered profanity, it is still quite crass. The apostle’s point, of course, is that everything in life is as valuable as a steaming pile of dog crap when compared to Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that things don’t have value. They do. But when placed beside Christ, there is absolutely no comparison.

The final phrase in verse eight leads into one long thought that runs through verse eleven. Built upon the surpassing worthy of knowing Christ, Paul claims that he suffered the loss of all things and counted them as rubbish “in order that” he may gain Christ and be found in Him. This is the glory of losing everything for the sake of Christ: we get Jesus! Christ, Himself, is the reward that makes losing everything completely worth it. Jesus is the great gain that the author of Ecclesiastes searched for under the sun. He is the answer to the vanity of life and placing our hope within our own righteousness under the law is like striving after wind.

Notice also Paul’s emphatic source of righteousness: from God, through faith, and in Christ. Obtaining righteousness through obedience to the law is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done. But this doesn’t diminish the purpose of God’s law because without each of God’s commandments, we would be blind to the depth of our error. Gazing into the God’s law exposes our depravity and helplessness, which, of course, makes the good news even more beautiful. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our righteousness now comes from God Himself through faith in Christ. God is the source. Jesus is the means. And faith is the mode. Our righteousness, therefore, a pure gift of God, leaving us with nothing to boast of before God.

Since Paul’s righteousness was only found by faith in Christ, the Author of life, his counting everything as loss makes complete sense, as does his joy in the midst of suffering. Can you also make such a claim? Has the great gain of knowing and being found in Christ eclipsed everything else in your life? Could you truly rejoice in Christ even if everything else was taken from you?

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