Philippians 3

Paul, the perfectionist

So far in this letter, we have seen Paul the:

  • Joyful servant of Christ;
  • The thoughtful pastor;
  • The unbeatable idealist;

Now we will see Paul the perfectionist. Anyone who knows a perfectionist or happens to be married to one, knows they can be difficult to live with. The thing with Paul, though, is that he was seeking perfection in Christ, not through his own efforts or skills.

Another way to look at this letter so far is like this:

  • We have the philosophy of the Christian: “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” 1:21
  • We have the pattern for Christian living: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” 2:5

In chapter three, we come to the prize for Christian living: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus,” 3:14. Throughout this chapter we see how the Apostle has changed from the past so that he could accomplish his purpose in the present, all with a hopeful eye to the future.

1. An always present danger: Judaizers. 3:1—3

Paul begins this part of his letter with the word “finally.” Usually we use the word to conclude something, but that is not how Paul used it. The word in the Greek to loipon, which really means “as for the rest.” What is “the rest?” Paul was about to come to a vital part of this letter; a problem that was apparently threatening the unity of the Philippian church.

A small clue to the problem might be this:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. (verse 1)

Were they rejoicing in something other than the Lord? Perhaps; and it seems that Paul had already addressed this issue sometime in the past. Maybe it was another letter which we no long have. Knowing that the Judaizers were really legalists who rejoiced in their own works, this might well be the case. Legalism and the temptation to pile rule upon rule in an effort to control members has always been an ever-present threat to the Church of Jesus Christ, even down to this day. It seems that for some, simple childlike faith is never enough.

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. (verse 2)

In the verses that follow, it is clear that Paul has the Judaizers in mind. This group of false teachers had nothing better to do than dog the steps of the Paul and other Christian evangelists, seeking to force their converts to submit to certain Jewish practices, beginning with circumcision. It wasn’t that they hated Jesus or didn’t believe in Him; it was that they believed Jesus wasn’t enough. Salvation to the Judaizers was Jesus plus other things.

The reference to “mutilators of the flesh” obviously refers to circumcision, and these teachers that insist on it as a condition of salvation, are “men who do evil.” The Greek can also mean “deceitful workers.” These were men were appearing to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but were in truth working evil. Such men who add “accessories” to the plain, simple truth of the Gospel are nothing less than pure evil.

What is interesting is that Paul reserves the word “circumcision” for genuine believers! The Judaizers were “mutilators of the flesh,” but only a true believer could be considered as being circumcised. True circumcision involved three key points:

  • Such believers worship by the Spirit of God, not by human traditions or rites;
  • Such believers glory in Jesus Christ. In other words, true believers recognize that their hope is found in Christ alone and not in obsessive observations of a religious legal code;
  • Such believers put no confidence in the flesh. Sinful humanity has no grounds for confidence before God; true believers know they cannot achieve any kind of righteousness apart from Christ and therefore they trust wholly in Him.

True believers have realized the truthfulness of Edward Mote’s words:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus name.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

2. Paul’s example to follow, 3:4—16

Paul is very careful to ensure that his readers know his reaction to the Judaizers was not coming from jealousy or envy. There was nothing in the Judaizers Paul coveted. He put himself in their place for a few moments and contends that if external rites and obedience to rules and regulations have merit in themselves, he would have much more to place his confidence in than all the Judaizers put together!

In truth, Paul never denied his Jewish upbringing, and here he uses it to prove a point. Here was a man who had been raised in meticulous observation of the Mosaic Law. He was raised from infancy to be a Jew of the Jews. As an adult, he described himself as “faultless” in terms of his zealousness both in strict obedience to the Law and in making sure others practiced such obedience. There never was a Jew like Paul; no Judaizer could boast of the accomplishments Paul had achieved. Among the things he could boast of in his past:

  • Circumcised on the eighth day. This was the basic, initial rite of the Mosaic Law. He had godly parents who raised him right; they reared him according the Law of their day.
  • Of the people of Israel. He was no mere “half-breed,” as many of the Judaizers probably were. He was all Hebrew.
  • Of the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he “came from the best family.” Of all the tribes, Benjamin alone had remained completely faithful to the Davidic throne at the time of the Kingdom’s division. From the tribe of Benjamin came Israel’s first king, after whom Paul had been named by his parents.
  • A Hebrew of Hebrews. There were no skeletons in his closet. In terms of his lineage, his language, his culture, Paul was completely Hebrew.
  • He was a Pharisee. Paul knew the Scriptures; he was a teacher of the Law.
  • He zealously persecuted the church. In other words, he fought to preserve the Law from outside corruption. He was totally devoted to its preservation and its practice.
  • He faultlessly obeyed the letter of the Law.

What an impressive resume! What Kosher business wouldn’t hire a man like Paul? He had it all. If ever there was Jews fast-tracked for success, it was Paul. And yet, in spite of his past, Paul had his present, which meant far more to him:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. (verse 7)

It wasn’t that Paul didn’t appreciate his upbringing or that it was valueless, but the truth was, his past was a great blessing to Paul. In fact, Paul was chosen by Christ because he was who he was. Only Paul could go the places he went and take the Gospel to the people he did; thanks to his past, he was the perfect choice. But while his past prepared him for his present, it did not make him righteous; it did not improve his standing before God one iota. All his learning, his godly parents, and his good name meant nothing to God. And in his present, they meant nothing to Paul in comparison to Christ.

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ… (verse 8)

All those “pluses” of his past had become less than zero in his present because of Christ’s presence in the present. In fact, all the good things in his past were like trash when compared to Christ. This verse is a marvelous statement about the majesty of salvation. Our confession of Christ is just the beginning of our salvation. Consider what Paul wrote to the Colossians—

in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:3)

Everything of value that makes life worth living is hidden in Christ! But to find it and appropriate it personally takes a lifetime. How precious are these treasures hidden in Christ? They are worth letting go of the past; they are worth the sacrifice of jettisoning everything you have. Maybe that’s why so many believers never experience the fullness of Jesus Christ. He surely cannot give you new blessings to grab hold of if you are always holding onto the past.

In telling the Philippians all this, Paul is not boasting; he wants them to follow his example—

I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (verses 13, 14)

Paul’s single-minded desire is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings,” (verse 11). His honest assessment of his spiritual journey was that he still had a ways to go; Paul the great Apostle had not arrived. As with us all, Paul’s conversion was the beginning, not the end of his journey.

Paul uses a familiar metaphor, a race, in describing the Christian life. The picture he draws is that of a runner leaning or throwing himself forward, stretching himself out as far as he can with all his might. This runner is committed to finishing the race; he does not look back, nor does he pay attention to other runners. Chrysostom remarked:

For the runner reckons not up how many circuits he hath finished, but how many are left.

It is true that Paul admonished his friends in Ephesus to remember where they came from and how far they had come in Christ, but the purpose in doing so was to give glory to God, not to dwell on it.

When we can leave the past behind, we can reach for the prize God has waiting for us. But what is this “prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus?” The prize is not something to be found on earth, but it is to be caught up and be in the presence of Christ. The prize is also not salvation; nobody can run for salvation. Salvation is a gift we accept from Christ, and a prize is not a gift. What Paul is teaching is simply this: after we receive the gift of eternal life, we must run for the prize. And that prize is to be with Christ in the heavenlies; that must be our goal.

In other words, living the Christian life requires a monumental effort on our part. It takes guts and determination and commitment. And it takes sacrifice. It takes effort to focus on Christ and not on the flesh and the accomplishments of the flesh. Maybe this is why so many Christians find false teachings so attractive. It takes no particular skill or effort to obey a rule or regulation. It takes fear; fear of punishment if the rule is broken. It takes no sacrifice to glory in the flesh or boast of your achievements. It makes you feel good. But faith is different. Living by faith takes skill and effort and a lifetime of practice to get right.


How we live our Christian life comes down to choices we make. These choices begin with salvation, but that choice was the easy one! We much choose who we listen to. We must choose in whom we put our faith and trust. We must choose to run our race to win.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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