By Christopher VanDusen
Christians are supposed to be the most joyful people in the world, but sometimes we forget what our joy is based on, and try to find joy in what we’ve accomplished. When that happens, we find that we’re dissatisfied with ourselves, since we see that even our greatest accomplishments are not only temporary, but are imperfect, and tainted by our own sinfulness. Hence, we end up with no joy at all. So why are we to be joyful, and how do we guard against seeking joy from our own conduct? The apostle Paul answers these questions in Philippians 3:1-11.
The letter to the Philippians was written by Paul while he was being held captive by the Roman government “at his own expense” in Rome (Acts 28:30, ESV). He was awaiting a hearing with the Roman Emperor to settle false charges made against him by some of his Jewish enemies. While waiting, one of the churches he had founded — located in a Roman city of northern Greece — sent one of their members to him to provide him with money and news on how they were doing, and what problems they were having.
In response, Paul wrote Philippians to express his thankfulness for them, and their support of him, and to give them instructions on how to deal with their problems. In the first chapter of the letter, Paul gives thanks for them; explains how he prays for them; describes how the Lord is using his imprisonment in Rome; and charges them to live consistent Christian lives while suffering persecution. In the second chapter, he explains to them how to be unified and loving; how to be a good witness to their unbelieving neighbors; explains his plans to send one of his representatives to them; and explains why he sent their messenger, Epaphroditus, back to them.
So, in chapter 3, Paul transitions to dealing with specific problems that he knew they were facing. The first problem he addresses is the one I described earlier — the problem of losing joy because we forgot the basis of it, and replace it with our own accomplishments. In the case of the Philippians, this temptation came in the form of people who claimed to be Christians, but didn’t actually believe the gospel.
In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul explains the relationship of our joy with our accomplishments, and with the Lord Jesus Christ:
“3 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 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: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 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— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (ESV)
In this passage, Paul does five things to show the Philippians that their joy lies not in their own deeds, or themselves, but in Christ:
- He Commands Them to Joy (Rejoice) in the Lord (v. 1)
- He Cautions Them Against Judaizing Legalists (vss. 2-3)
- He Catalogues His Jewish Accolades (vss. 4-6)
- He Contrasts His Judaism with His Lord (v. 7)
- He Counts Jesus Better Than All (vss. 8-11)
Paul Commands the Philippians to Joy in the Lord
Paul opens this passage by simply commanding the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord, and explains why he’s doing so:
“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”
He begins the second half of this letter with the word “finally”, which means that he’s reached the last major section of it. However, it obviously doesn’t mean that he’s concluding the letter, since there’s one more chapter, and he uses the word “finally” again. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, this is a major transition in the letter, as he begins to address specific problems in the Philippians’ lives.
Although the first sentence is a command, it’s not merely a command, but an appeal from a fellow brother in Christ, since he refers to the Philippians with the Greek word adelphoi, translated “brothers”. Although this word is masculine, it doesn’t only refer to males, but includes all who share the same Father. So I prefer the word “brethren”, or “brothers and sisters”. He’s commanding them to rejoice as one of their brothers in God’s family.
But what does Paul mean by “rejoice”? It literally means to feel an inner happiness or gladness, to such an extent that you have to express it with your body or actions. Isn’t this amazing? Paul is actually commanding the Philippians to feel something. How is this possible?
It’s possible because Paul doesn’t just command them to “rejoice”, but to “rejoice in the Lord“. What does it mean to rejoice “in the Lord”? First, it means to rejoice because of the Lord. We have to remember that feelings aren’t disconnected from the mind, but ought to flow from what we’re thinking. Hence, Paul is calling them to think about the Lord.
But why does Paul call Jesus “the Lord” here? To call to the Philippians’ minds that Jesus is the kyrios, or “supreme in authority”. In other words, Jesus is in control of everything, including the Philippians’ lives. Therefore, they can rejoice knowing that the One who loves them the most is controlling every aspect of their lives.
Next, Paul explains why he’s commanding them to rejoice in the Lord. Thus far in this letter, he’s already told them to “rejoice”, so he tells them that it’s no “trouble” for him to write “the same things”, since it’s “safe” for them for him to do so. In other words, he’s going to keep reminding them of the most important things, so they don’t forget, and become depressed, or fall into other sin. And one of those most important things is to “rejoice in the Lord”.
Paul Cautions the Philippians Against Judaizing Legalists
In verses 2-3, Paul warns the Philippians of people who are seeking to rob them of their joy by saying,
“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh . . .”
Paul identifies these enemies of the Philippians with three names. The first one is “dogs”. This was an insult that the Jews of that time used for non-Jews, or Gentiles. In that day, dogs weren’t commonly used as pets by people in the Roman Empire. Rather, most dogs were wild beasts that roamed the wilderness looking for prey. They were despised as some of the most disgusting and vicious animals, and of hardly any value to people, if any. This was how many Jews viewed Gentiles, and so they called them “dogs” — wild animals confined by God to a life of scavenging for food, and living in filth. But Paul here calls these non-Christian Jews “dogs”, implying that they’re no better than non-Christian Gentiles.
The second name Paul uses for these opponents of Christians is “evildoers”. This is also a reference to the predominant Jewish view of Gentiles at that time. Whereas Jews thought that they were the doers of good — since they thought they were obeying God by practicing their religion — and they viewed the Gentiles as evildoers who didn’t obey God, these Jewish people were also evildoers, just like the Gentiles.
Finally, the ESV translates Paul as calling these people “those who mutilate the flesh”. In reality, Paul literally called them “the mutilation”. This, too, is a reference to the Jews, and to their relationship to Gentiles. In the early church, Jews were known as “the circumcision”, since all of their males were circumcised, whereas most Gentile males weren’t circumcised. The reason for the difference was that the Old Testament commanded the Jews to circumcise their baby boys, so as to mark them as members of the people with whom God made His covenants through Abraham and Moses. In the case of these Jewish enemies of the Philippians, instead of calling them “the circumcision”, Paul calls them “the mutilation”. By doing so, he’s saying that their circumcision, and their insistence that other men get circumcised, is no better than mutilation. He may even be comparing their obsession with circumcision with pagan rituals of mutilating the body, such as the cutting that’s seen in the prophets of Baal.
So, who exactly were these people? Most likely, Paul is addressing people known now as “Judaizers”. These people can be seen in the book of Acts, and were Jews who claimed to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but insisted that, in order to be saved, one had to observe the laws God gave Israel through Moses in the Old Testament. In other words, they taught that, in order to have one’s sins forgiven by God, one had to not only believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but also to practice Judaism. Hence, they’re called Judaizers.
In verse three, Paul explains why these Judaizers are dogs, evildoers, and “the mutilation”, rather than God’s “sheep”, doers of good, and “the circumcision”. The first reason he gives is that he and the Philippians are “the circumcision”. In other words, in contrast to those who are simply Jews being God’s chosen people whom He’s promised to bless through His covenant, it’s the Christians who are God’s chosen people, and marked with the sign of God’s covenant with them.
How does Paul know that Christians are the true “circumcision”? Because they are marked by three characteristics that only God’s people possess. First, they “worship by the Spirit of God”. In the New Testament, worship doesn’t simply mean to be in awe of God, or to sing praises to Him, but it means to serve Him supremely with one’s whole heart, out of love for Him. Paul defines worship in Romans 12:1 as presenting one’s body, meaning one’s self, to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (ESV). But how do Christians do this? Paul says they do this “by the Spirit of God”. In other words, God the Holy Spirit, who has given the Christian new affections and desires, lives inside of him, and empowers him to worship God in the way that pleases Him — “in spirit and in truth” (John 4).
The second mark that characterizes “the circumcision” is that they “glory in Christ Jesus”. The word “glory” means “to boast proudly”. In the case of the Christian, he glories — not in himself — but “in Christ Jesus”, or in “the anointed Jesus”. This is one of Paul’s favorite titles for Jesus as the Savior. The fact that Jesus is the Christ, or the Anointed One, means that He’s the God-man whom God the Father has anointed — or appointed and empowered — with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, to be His final Prophet, Priest, and King. In this verse, the emphasis is on Jesus’s role as Priest, in which He sacrificed Himself to God to satisfy His wrath against sinners, and ascended into heaven to ask God to bless His people because of that sacrifice. The Christian glories in Christ Jesus as his substitute on the cross, and his Mediator and Priest before God, who gives him full access to God as his loving Father.
The final mark Paul uses to describe those who belong to the true circumcision is that they “put no confidence in the flesh”. By “the flesh”, Paul doesn’t simply mean the human body, but who people are, and what they do with that body. Whereas the Judaizers were putting their confidence for their acceptance by God in who they were, and what they’d done in their flesh, those who are spiritually circumcised have no confidence, or trust, in who they are, or in anything they’ve ever done, for God’s acceptance and forgiveness.
Paul Catalogues His Jewish Accolades
In verses 4-6, Paul catalogues, or lists, the things he used to put his confidence in for God’s acceptance of him — the accolades that he took pride in. The Judaizers, too, have confidence in their flesh,
“. . . 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.”
In these verses, Paul proves that if anyone could ever have grounds for trusting in who they were, and what they’d done, to earn God’s favor, it was him. But all those reasons were based on Paul’s “flesh”, or merely human achievements. That’s why he says he had reason “for confidence in the flesh”, and more than “anyone else”.
So, what were Paul’s reasons for his trust in his flesh to save him? First, he was “circumcised on the eighth day”. Like I mentioned earlier, circumcision was the physical mark on every male Jew that reminded them that they were part of God’s Old Testament people, with whom He had made two covenants — one through Abraham, and the other through Moses. However, Paul wasn’t only circumcised, but circumcised “on the eighth day”, as God had commanded the Jews to do in the Law He gave them through Moses.
Second, Paul belonged to “the people of Israel”, which could be literally translated “the descendants of Israel”. Israel was actually the name that God gave to Jacob, after he had wrestled with Him, and showed that He had faith in God to receive His blessing. As a member of Israel’s descendants and nation, Paul thought that he automatically partook in the blessings of the covenant that God had made with Israel.
Third, Paul belonged to “the tribe of Benjamin”. Benjamin was Jacob’s last son to be born, and was the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Also, the land that was given to this tribe in the Promised Land included Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, and the home of God’s temple, where He dwelt for many years. Hence, the Jews thought that this was the best tribe to belong to.
Fourth, Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews”. This means that he learned the Hebrew language, and undoubtedly knew the Old Testament in Hebrew. This is significant because, at that time, the usual language that most Jews spoke and read was Greek, the favored language in most of the lands around the Mediterranean Sea. However, Paul knew the language of the first Jews, and the original language of the Jewish Scriptures.
Fifth, Paul says that, regarding “the law”, he was a Pharisee. What does he mean by “the law”? This refers to the Law that God gave to the nation of Israel through Moses, which included not only the Ten Commandments, but also every other law in the first five books of the Bible imposed on the nation of Israel. The Pharisees were a special group of Jews who followed extremely strict teachings about the Law, which imposed even more laws on them to observe. They believed that they were the most faithful keepers of the Law, and therefore looked down on the rest of the Jews.
The sixth reason Paul had for his confidence was that he was “a persecutor of the church” when it came to “zeal” or “passion”. He was so devoted to what he believed about God, the Law, and the Messiah, that he thought that the people who thought Jesus was the Messiah deserved to suffer and die.
The seventh and final reason Paul gives for his confidence in his flesh was that he was “blameless” when it came to “righteousness under the law”. This means that no one could point to a single violation of the Law in his life as a Pharisee. Outwardly, he was a consistent and continual keeper of the Law.
These were all the things upon which Paul based his right relationship with God, and his worthiness to receive God’s favor and blessing.
Paul Contrasts His Judaism with His Lord
In verse 7, Paul says that all these things he trusted in, and thought were valuable, he despised when he became a Christian:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
Paul says that all the things he’s just listed were “gain” when he was a Jew. He thought that they benefited him in his work to earn God’s favor. However, when he became a Christian, these things that he once viewed as gains, he treated as “loss”. Instead of benefiting him, he saw that they actually harmed him in his pursuit of God’s favor.
Why did they harm him? Because he was trusting in them as God’s basis of blessing him, even though God didn’t consider them as deserving of blessing in a spiritual sense. The things that were inherent to who he was as a person, such as his ethnicity, had no value whatsoever in God’s justice system. Even worse, the things that Paul did that he thought earned God’s favor were in fact sinful, since he did them with sinful motives — not out of love for God and people, but out of love for himself.
But why did Paul see that his former gain was really loss? He says “for the sake of Christ”, or “on account of Christ”. When He believed that Christ had come from heaven to earth to suffer the punishment he deserved from God, to rise from the dead, and become the King of the universe, and that God forgave him based on these things, he saw that the things he had been trusting in had only been hurting him.
Paul Counts Jesus Better Than All
In verses 8-11, Paul goes further in his contrast of Jesus with the things that people trust in for satisfaction and joy by saying,
“8 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 9 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— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
In the first sentence, Paul moves from contrasting his Judaism with Jesus, to contrasting everything with Jesus. Not only did he consider his Jewish “gains” as “losses” when he became a Christian, but he also considered everything as loss when he discovered “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord”.
When Paul says “the surpassing worth” he means a value that exceeds anything that could be compared to it. What has this surpassing worth? The experience of “knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord”.
But what does it mean to know Christ Jesus the Lord? Notice that Paul doesn’t say “knowing about Christ Jesus”, but knowing Christ Jesus Himself. When Paul became a Christian, he didn’t just learn information about Christ Jesus, but he met Christ Jesus as his Savior, Lord, and God. But in the Bible, knowing someone doesn’t just mean becoming acquainted with them, but experiencing a loving and intimate relationship with them. For example, in Genesis, it says that “Adam knew his wife, and she conceived”. Obviously, this refers to intimate knowledge in the context of what’s supposed to be a loving relationship. In a similar way, to know Christ Jesus is to experience the most intimate relationship that a mere human can experience, and to love Christ Jesus as one’s Savior, Lord, and God.
After saying that he considered everything as loss in comparison with knowing Christ, Paul goes on to say that he also suffered the loss of “all things” for Christ’s sake. Paul indeed lost it all when he became a Christian because his whole life was based on a belief system that said that Jesus was a liar and impostor, and that His people were the worst people in the world. When he was saved, Paul had to give up his whole life, which was in direct opposition to God’s will and Word. As a result, he was now persecuted by the very same people who had loved him for his hatred of Jesus. He gave up his reputation, his occupation, and many, if not all, pleasant relationships with people. His old life was no longer his, since it was the life of the old Paul.
Not only did Paul lose everything because of Christ, but he says he also counts them “as rubbish”. The Greek word translated “rubbish” could also be translated “garbage” or “waste”. So, not only did he lose these things, but he now hates them, and views them as filth, and worthy to be destroyed.
But why has he lost everything? First, he says “in order that [he] may gain Christ”. This means to know Christ, and to gain everything that Christ, as a human, possesses. Paul further describes what he means by saying he’s lost it all so he may “be found in [Christ], 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”. What does he mean by being “found in” Christ? The implied Person who finds him in Christ is God, and by being “in Christ”, Paul is referring to spiritual union, or oneness, with Christ. This means that Paul wants God to treat him as He treats Christ — as a human being who deserves God’s favor and blessing — even though Paul doesn’t deserve God’s favor and blessing.
That’s why Paul says that he’s not found in Christ because he has “a righteousness of [his] own that comes from the law”. In other words, his right standing, or innocence and worthiness, before God, isn’t based on his observance of the Old Testament Law. Rather, he has the righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”. When a person trusts in Christ as his Savior and Lord, God declares that person “right” or “righteous” before Him, and therefore treats him as if he’s innocent of sin, and deserving of favor and blessing. Again, Paul emphasizes that this righteousness “depends on faith”, not on who a person is, or what he’s done.
In the last two verses of this passage, Paul explains the ultimate reasons why he lost everything and considered them garbage to gain Christ and be found in Him. The first reason is to “know” Christ. Again, Paul is implying that the most valuable experience for anyone is to experience and love who Christ is as Savior, Lord, and God. The second reason Paul gives for changing his mind about everything is to know “the power of [Christ’s] resurrection”. When Jesus rose from the dead, He rose not in the same type of body that He had before He died, but in a new, spiritual, and eternal body. That’s the life that Paul wanted to experience — spiritual and eternal life — and as a Christian, this life can be experienced in some ways now.
However, Paul didn’t just want to experience the power of Christ’s life, but also His death. He says that the third reason he lost everything to gain Christ was to “share [Christ’s] suffering, becoming like him in his death”. When Paul became a Christian, he almost immediately suffered persecution and hatred from his former Jewish companions, and later suffered many threats to his life. This is because his enemies hated Christ, their Creator, and because Paul became like Christ, and lived for Christ, they hated him too. By suffering the hatred of the world for its Creator who died to save them, because he strove to save some with the gospel, Paul became “like [Christ] in his death”.
But why? Why did Paul want to share Christ’s sufferings that threatened to kill him? This is the ultimate reason: “that by any means possible [he] may attain the resurrection from the dead”. Paul wanted to rise from the dead, just like Christ did, so he could have a new, perfect, sinless, and eternal body, with which he could enjoy and worship Christ forever.
Rejoice in the Lord, Guard Against Legalists, Know Christ Jesus
So, if you claim to be a brother or sister in Christ, how does this passage apply to you?
First, Paul’s first command for the Philippians is just as relevant for us today. You have a moral obligation to rejoice in the Lord. Do you regularly rejoice in the Lord because you’re thinking about Him?
Second, Paul says that it’s “safe” for the Philippians for him to “write the same things” to them. Do you regularly think about the most important things about the Christian life, like rejoicing in the Lord, and are you attentive to the teaching and behavior of your church family, watching out that they don’t forget these things?
Third, Paul commanded the Philippians watch out for legalists who tried to convince Christians that their faith in Christ wasn’t enough for their right standing with God. Are you continually on the alert to any hint of such teaching?
Fourth, Paul described true Christians with three marks — they worship God through the Spirit of God, they boast in Christ Jesus, and they have no confidence in the flesh. Do you worship God spiritually by the power of God the Holy Spirit by obeying Him out of love and reverence for Him? Do you boast in Christ Jesus for the value of your life, and your acceptance from God? Do you put any confidence in the flesh in any way for your right standing with God? If you don’t worship God spiritually, don’t boast in Christ Jesus, or have any trust in anything about you for your acceptance by God, then you’re not a child of God, but an enemy of God. You need to change your mind and believe the gospel, which is the good news that God sent His eternal and divine Son to become a man, to suffer His wrath, hatred, and justice, on a Roman cross for our rebellion against Him, and to rise from the dead as the King of the universe. God now commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Christ as their only Savior and divine King to receive His forgiveness and peace with Him, because He’s going to send Christ to judge everyone perfectly, and to punish His His enemies forever for their rebellion against Him. Please make sure you’ve done this, so you can have God’s forgiveness and favor, and eternal life, and be reconciled to Him.
Fifth, remember that whatever merely human benefits you have, they’re garbage when compared to knowing Christ. From the perspective of his culture, Paul had everything before he was a Christian — the right heritage, the best education, one of the most prestigious occupations, and the respect of the most powerful people in his society. However, when he met Christ, and trusted in Him as His Savior and Lord, he realized that all those things were absolutely worthless when it came to true life and satisfaction. He found that knowing Christ Jesus as His Lord and Savior gave him true joy and satisfaction. Remember that, and seek to love Christ more, so that you can experience more of His character and work in your life.
Sixth, Paul literally gave up everything to become a Christian, so he could experience Christ, the power of His resurrection, and share in His sufferings, so he could get a new, perfect, body someday. You don’t have to literally give up everything to become a Christian, but you do have to spiritually give up everything you find satisfaction and fulfillment in, so you can gain a relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior. Do you live to experience Christ, the power of His resurrection, and His sufferings, so you can gain a new, perfect, sinless, body someday? If you do, then you’re willing to give up anything to be used by Christ to glorify Him, because knowing Christ is what gives you joy and satisfaction.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.