Philippians 3:1—21

With chapter 3 of Philippians, the tone of the whole letter changes somewhat. Up till now, Paul had written mainly about the need for the Philippians to remain united, giving the power-packed example of Jesus Christ and God the Father as an example of what unity looks like. Toward the end of chapter 2, we are given two examples of men, friends and co-workers of Paul, who modeled their lives on that of Christ.

In chapter 3, the apostle changes the subject, and he does so in a curious way. The first word of verse 1 is finally, a word Paul usually used when he was summing up a letter, not changing subjects. Why did he use that word when he is barely half way through? The word translated “finally” is to loipon, a Greek word that means “as for the rest.” The TNIV and the updated NIV have finally tossed out “finally” in favor of “further,” which is more accurate.

Far from concluding his letter, Paul is about to get to the most crucial part of it; he is about to discuss the issues that were tearing at the fabric of the Philippian church.

1. Place no confidence in works, 3:1—9

a. Warning, vs. 1, 2

The sentence It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again may refer to what Paul had written in the first two chapters or what he is about to write. What is about come in the letter may have been something he had taught them in person earlier in his ministry.

What was so important that Paul felt the need to repeat himself?

Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. (verse 2)

These were Judaizers, false teachers, whose goal in life was to compel Gentile converts to Christ to submit to circumcision and other Jewish practices in order to be saved. These false teachers, converted Jews, are described in a most unflattering way by Paul, showing the utter contempt he had for their teaching:

  • Dogs. The word denotes wile, vicious, homeless animals that roamed the streets attacking whoever or whatever crossed their path.

  • Evildoers. Literally these were men who “worked evil.” The evil here was their instance that in order to be saved, aspects of the Jewish law needed to practiced. The Law itself was not and is not evil, since it came from God. But making it a prerequisite of salvation was evil.

  • Mutilators of the flesh. Paul deliberately parodies the practice of circumcision by calling it a mutilation of the flesh.

These false teachers and their false teaching should not be tolerated in the church. The congregation was warned to “watch out for” or as we might say, “Keep your eyes open for” people who teach such things.

b. Spiritual circumcision, vs. 3, 4

Now, Paul just slammed an important aspect of Judaism, namely the rite of circumcision. His intention, though, was not to diss his former religion. With verse 3, he offers an important explanation: Christians are “the real circumcision,” not those who insisted on the mere physical rite. The Judaizers were trusting the physical rite to make salvation work; their confidence was in the flesh, or more accurately, in something done in and to the flesh. But Paul insisted that the rite was never intended by God or Moses to be used as a means of salvation; that there was a spiritual significance behind the rite and that is where real Christians place their confidence. This idea is covered by Paul in Romans 2:29,

No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

In other words, real Christians do not consider circumcision as having any value in itself, nor do they view a thing like a church constitution or the approval of religious leaders as having any merit when it comes to salvation. True Christians understand that their hope, faith, and confidence should rest in Jesus Christ alone, when it comes to salvation.

c. Paul’s pedigree, verses 5—9

In these verses, Paul seems to be boasting about the very things he has just written against! But that is not his purpose. In fact, Paul’s point in listing his Jewish credentials is very simple:

I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ… (verse 8b)

Once again, it’s not that Paul’s pedigree was a bad thing or that he was sorry he participated in all those Jewish rites. In fact, it was because he was such a faithful Jew that he became such an effective Christian! But, when he stacked all of his achievements in Judaism against just one aspect of Christianity, namely knowledge of Christ, his achievements in Judaism amounted to virtually nothing.

2. A desire to know Christ, 3:10—15

a. Experiencing resurrection power, vs. 10, 11

Instead of getting bogged down in religious rites and wasting time and effort trusting in their efficacy, Paul had a single minded desire:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection… (verse 10a)

But Paul doesn’t just want to know about Christ, he was interested in experiencing the power that raised Christ from dead and in fellowshipping with the risen Christ. Paul’s desire was to be intimately acquainted with the great Power behind Christ’s resurrection (God the Father) and to have that divine power operating in His life through Christ’s presence in it. It is this power that enables the believer to live a new life:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4)

…you have been raised with Christ… (Colossians 3:1)

And for Paul, knowing Christ involved knowing Him in His totality. Paul didn’t want to know or experience just the “good parts,” but he wanted to experience everything Christ did, even His suffering. Paul wanted to be completely identified with His Lord in every way imaginable. How contrary to the modern Christian’s view was Paul’s.

b. Pursuing the prize, vs. 12—15

In verse 11, Paul viewed his resurrection from the dead as the end of his journey, just as it was with Jesus. In verse 12, Paul sounds like he making a similar statement:

Not that I have already obtained all this…

Here, though, all that came before, had yet to be “obtained” by him. The word means “to receive a prize.” Paul is denying that he obtained a prize at the moment of his conversion. He has won the prize of Christ, but that was just the beginning; there was so much more to win. In order to receive those other prizes, he must continuously put forth the effort to receive them. Spiritual progress—maturing in the faith—should be the goal of every Christian.

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 13b—14)

Using the metaphor of a footrace, Paul describes his life as a continual “forgetting the past in order to focus on the future.” It is a relentless thing, this “straining” to grow in his faith. It takes effort; it is hard work, just like competing in a race.

What was the prize Paul was racing to grab hold of? There are a number of ideas, but it seems to us that the goal and the prize are identical: complete knowledge of Jesus Christ. Paul’s pursuit of this prize was as single-minded and as intense as was his persecution of the church a lifetime ago.

The writer to the Hebrews expressed this idea in a different way:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1, 2)

3. Learn from mature believers, 3:16—21

a. Good and bad examples, vs. 16—19

Christians shouldn’t sit around waiting to know it all before living the faith! All believers should according to the knowledge they already have.

Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (verse 16)

The phrase “live up to” is a way to translate a single Greek verb, stoichein, which means “to keep in line with,” and suggests consistency and harmony. Christians, then, should live lives in a consistent, deliberate manner, in harmony with what they know to be true in regards to the teaching of the Bible. We all grow and mature at a different pace, but each one of us should be faithful to as much of God’s truth as we possess at any given t ime.

To help with that, Paul offers himself and others as examples to follow.

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. (verse 17)

Paul was not perfect and this verse has nothing to do with his ego. Elsewhere, he put it like this:

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

Contrary to the destiny of the false teachers, Paul’s destiny would be glorious, so why would anybody want to follow their example and meet their end?

b. Climax of Christian faith, vs, 20—21

The word “our” is emphatic, and serves to stress the distinction between true believers and those who are trusting in the flesh. True believers are concerned with spiritual things because they are citizens of a spiritual kingdom. The Judaizers and all who are trusting earthly achievements, are focused, not on spiritual things, but things of this world.

But our citizenship is in heaven. (verse 20a)

Moffatt translates this sentence, “We are a colony of heaven.” The verb “is” comes from the Greek huparchei, meaning “to subsist.” It’s a small word, but an important one. It points to the fact that the Christian’s heavenly citizenship is not a result of anything he did to earn it, but it is dependent on the prior grace of God. In other words, we can become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven only because of what Jesus did on the Cross, not because of any decision we may have made.

For Paul and for all believers, the climax of the faith is the resurrection, where Christ will “transform” our physical bodies so that they will conform to His resurrection body. This is actually a deeper statement that it appears on the surface. Remember, Paul had been warning against the Judaizers, who placed a premium on doing something to the body in order to be saved. Paul refers to our human body as “lowly” or of no significance. Our bodies are so unimportant in relation to our eternal destiny, that they won’t even make it into heaven; Christ will have to change them. So, what good is circumcision, if that circumcised body isn’t worthy of heaven?

Chapter 3 of Philippians is really a pivotal chapter in the New Testament teaching of how the grace of God changes everything about a person.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:16, 17)

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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