3.1 Further, my brothers and sisters, 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. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
Paul again tells his congregation of Philippi to “rejoice” because rejoicing works as a perfect antidote to suffering, offering stability for the believer. Next, Paul feels compelled to give a warning. It seems that a group of presumably itinerant Jewish-Christian preachers is causing trouble for the Community of Philippi, insisting that the Philippians adhere to the Jewish rite of circumcision (hence, “mutilators of the flesh”). The members of this group likely view themselves as superior to the Christians at Philippi because of their Jewish lineage and observance of all things Jewish. In their eyes, the Philippians (read gentiles) were second rate Christians.
“Dogs and evil doers” (3.2) were terms reserved for gentiles, but Paul calls the Jewish-Christian group by these names, making it clear to the Jewish band of brothers have it all wrong—it is they who are the disobedient ones. By insisting that the Philippians observe their religious rituals, they encourage the Philippians to place their value and confidence in things other than Christ. For this reason it is they who stand outside of God’s grace—they are the dogs and evil doers.
Of all people, those of Jewish decent should know that the circumcision that God looks for is the circumcision of the heart, one performed by His Spirit: see Deut 10.16; 30.6; Jer 4.4; 9.25-26; Rom 2.28-29. This Scriptural background helps explain verse 3 where Paul, identifying himself his brothers and sisters of Philippi, states, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit. . . .” The believers of Philippi belong to the new Israel, God’s new chosen people—righteousness comes through faith.
Paul presses further, offering his own impeccable resume:
If others think they have reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
His religious accolades are so impressive that he may be considered, “a Jew of Jews.” By placing his accomplishments next to his opponents he undoubtedly seeks to put them in their place. But ridiculing them is not his only intent; rather, Paul seeks to show how his relationship with Christ has shed new light on his formerly held values:
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, 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 is through faith in [a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
From a Jewish perspective, Paul had every reason to brag. He came from the right places, was associated with the right people, and worshipped and followed God like no other man. But his newfound faith in Christ radically changed his perspective: everything he formerly deemed important, he now considers worthless, rubbish, crap—it all amounts to nothing. This is because Paul no longer finds his identity in his accomplishments; instead, he finds his identity in Christ (3.8-9). He knows that his right standing before God is based wholly on the unmerited grace of Christ, demonstrated on the cross and granted by faith. Paul’s entire goal now is to know Christ (3.10). This is what matters to him.
“Knowing Christ” has long since been a favorite expression of the church, but what does it mean? There are countless sermons and entire books devoted to the topic, but I’m not going to regurgitate that information here. I just hope to express what Paul meant based on the context at hand. So, how does Paul come to “know” someone like Jesus? After all, it’s not as if he can just invite Jesus over to supper or to play cards in order to get to know him better like you might, for example, with a new acquaintance, friend, etc. So how does Paul go about “knowing Christ”?
For Paul, knowing Christ entails an intentional commitment to walking in His shoes. It means embracing all that Christ was and is about, including His life of servitude and suffering, even death on a cross. It means living and entering into the life of Christ. Following Christ in this manner is the only way one may truly come to “know” Christ.
But note that Christ’s suffering is not all Paul hopes to gain in knowledge of Jesus. Knowing Christ also entails experiencing the resurrection: “yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (3.10-11; see also 3.21 below). Thus, knowing Christ means living and experiencing the entire life of Christ—conformity to death and conformity to life.
This is all evidenced by Paul’s repetition of language and ideas from the famous hymn in 2.5-11. Note G. Walter Hansen’s observations:
Paul draws striking parallels between his transformation (3:5-11, 21) and Christ’s incarnation-crucifixion-exaltation (2:5-11) to reveal how his personal experience conforms to the narrative of Christ. (1) When Paul considers the privileges of his previous, superior position to be a loss (3:7, 8), he is like Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage (2:6). (2) Paul gives up everything valuable so that he will be found in Christ (3:8-9), just as Christ made himself nothing so that he would be found in appearance as a human being (2:8). (3) Paul’s desire to be conformed to Christ in his death (3:10) reflects Christ’s decision to take the form of a servant and become obedient unto death (2:7-8). (4) Paul’s longing to know Christ Jesus his Lord (3:8) anticipates the day when all will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (2:11). (5) Paul’s reenactment of the narrative of Christ also includes his expectation that he will know the power of his resurrection, attain to the resurrection from the dead (3:10), and ultimately be transformed by Christ so that his lowly body will be like his Christ’s glorious body (3:21).
It’s apparent that, for Paul, knowing Christ can only be had by living Christ.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained. 17 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. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Just like Paul, we’re not there yet—we must press on toward the goal. Paul lays out two different paths: we may walk as Paul and his compatriots do (3.17), or we may walk as enemies of the cross (3.18). In other words, do we intentionally enter into the life of Christ, a life of servitude and suffering for the sake of others, or do we shy away from suffering? The latter is what it means to be an enemy of the cross—to fail to embrace the sacrificial life of Christ, unwilling to suffer with or on account of Him. Enemies of the cross, understandably, prefer the easier and more widely traveled road of self consideration, interest and gratification: “. . . their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame” (3.19). In the end, the two possible routes we may take are, ultimately, decisions to live either other centered or self-centered lives.
Let us not forget, however, that although the path of Christ is the harder and more difficult road to travel, it ultimately leads to glory. This is testified by the life of Christ, who after becoming obedient unto death was exalted by God to the highest place (2.8-9). So will it be for all in Christ: just as we participate in His suffering (1.29; 3.10), we will also experience the vindication that comes after—his exaltation and resurrection. Note that this is not simply an escape from our present bodily existence but rather a transformation, the same one that Jesus, our prototype, experienced: He will “bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (3.20-21; see also 3.10-11 above).
Application: Enter into the narrative of Christ. Live Christ and be encouraged.