The apostle opens the third chapter with an exhortation: “Finally my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” The introduction of the word finally would seem to indicate that the apostle was about to reach the conclusion of the epistle. Instead, what appears to be grammatically and in thought a long digression follows beginning with verse two and continuing through the third verse of chapter four when he again brings up the theme of rejoicing in the Lord.
The command to rejoice is found in the present imperative tense, emphasizing the thought not only of rejoicing in the Lord, but continuous rejoicing. It could be translated, “Keep on rejoicing in the Lord.” He immediately introduces the digression which follows with the words: “To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe.” By this the apostle seems to indicate that he is repeating a matter of instruction which he had given them previously, either in an earlier epistle as some think, or in his oral ministry while he was in their midst. The problem which he introduces is of such moment that he feels that it would be best to repeat his instructions as it would not be grievous to them and it might assure their preservation from departure from the faith.
Paul introduces the discussion with a sharp threefold word of warning: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.” The Scriptures do not define these terms, but it would seem from the discussion which follows that he is describing Judaizers or legalists. The term concision means cutting and apparently applies to the same persons he is describing as dogs and evil workers.
Dogs today are regarded as pets and objects of affection, but in Bible times they were scavengers, normally living on garbage and without human masters. They were always looking for something to eat. The people therefore described in this terminology seem to have the characteristic of dogs. They are described as evil workers and offer a form of legalism comparable to those who belong to a cult of self-mutilation such as was common in the early centuries. Some heathen religions had rites in which self-inflicted wounds were marks of special holiness. Those of whom they were to be afraid had the religious characteristics of dogs, evil workers, and these pagan legalists. The term concision may have referred to Judaizing teachers who emphasized the rite of circumcision.
In contrast to these, in verse three he states the position of a true Christian in the words: “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” In referring to Christians as belonging to the circumcision he apparently is not talking about the rite, but rather the spiritual significance of separation to God which it signifies. In contrast to those who have legalistic rites, a true Christian worships God in the Spirit rather than in the letter of the law and rejoices in Christ Jesus rather than in his own holiness. He does not depend on his own achievements, avoiding confidence in the works of the flesh as indicated in verse two.
In verse four the apostle takes up his own experience with confidence in the flesh. If anyone had a right to confidence in religion as such or a worship of man’s own attainment, the Apostle Paul was in a position to take a foremost place. He writes: “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”
As others have also observed, there is a fivefold ground for trusting in the flesh (1) Confidence in a rite. Like all faithful Jews, he had observed the command given to Abraham and had received circumcision on the eighth day according to the law. If the rite of circumcision would offer confidence in the flesh, Paul had just ground for claiming it.
(2) Confidence in race. Many of the Jewish legalizers felt that their race gave them automatically standing before God in the matter of salvation. If so, Paul also could claim having a superior race because he was not only of the stock of Israel, but he was of the favored tribe of Benjamin. Further, he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, meaning that he could speak and understand the Hebrew language.
(3) Confidence in religion. In respect to the law Paul was a Pharisee, one who belonged to the strictest sect of the Jews who observed not only the law itself, but the detailed interpretation of the law which had accumulated in centuries of exposition. If confidence in a religion would help, Paul had every right to claim this ground.
(4) Confidence in record. In addition to all these claims for confidence in the flesh, the apostle had manifested great zeal in persecuting the church and certainly nothing more could have been demanded of him than the zeal which he manifested in hounding Christians to prison and even to death prior to his own conversion. His record with the Jews spoke for itself.
(5) Confidence in personal righteousness. In addition to all these other claims, the Apostle Paul had meticulously kept the law in so far as it was possible for any Jew to do so. His was a high moral character, and he had observed the details required in the religious life of the Jews. Even though this fell short of perfection and left him condemned before God in the light of God’s perfect and just demands, he was far ahead of his Judaizing competitors. None of them could equal the record of Paul himself.
Having itemized his ground for confidence in the flesh however, the Apostle Paul sweeps it aside in the words of verse seven: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted18 loss for Christ.” As compared to what he had in Christ, all these items of legal righteousness paled into insignificance. He therefore writes the Philippians: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
When the Apostle Paul met Christ, he once and for all counted as loss all his religious righteousness which he once possessed. Now he states he continues to count all things but loss. In its place he has first of all the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. Christ was more than all the truth that Paul knew through his study in the Old Testament, more than all the learning he had received at the feet of Gamaliel. Christ was pre-eminent, satisfying alike to the heart and mind of the apostle. All other things were as refuse in comparison to the excellency of the knowledge of Christ.
Not only had Paul come into a personal relationship with his Savior but he had come into a new position. He was now in Him as he states in verse nine. In his new position in Christ he no longer needed his own righteousness which was of the law, but had received by divine imputation a righteousness which was through the faith of Christ or, more accurately, the faith in Christ. His was a righteousness on an infinitely higher plane than human attainment. It was a righteousness based on the perfect work of Christ bestowed on Paul as the free gift of grace. The importance of the issue which Paul raises in this discussion with the Philippian church is just as apparent in the church of Jesus Christ today. There is the tragedy of millions who have never heard the gospel and who have not been reached by any evangelical testimony. One of the greatest of tragedies, however, is represented in the thousands who attend church regularly and yet are just as far from true salvation in Christ as one who has never heard. The tendency to return to an external form of religion, whether legalistic, mystical, or emotional, and to exalt ritual instead of reality has given thousands a false sense of security. Their confidence is in a religion, not in Christ; in human works, not in the finished work of their Savior. The result is churchianity, not Christianity; reformation, not regeneration; education, not sanctification. They need to have what Paul had, a vital experience of faith in Christ and a recognition that in Christ alone one can be saved and established in a perfect righteousness which God will accept in time and eternity.
The apostle, however, does not mean to imply by the perfection of his position in Christ that there is not yet much ground to be attained. He holds before him this objective in verse ten: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” He had already stated that he had traded his legal righteousness for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. Now he wants to go on. He wants to know Christ, not simply as his Savior, but in the power of His resurrection. By this reference he does not have in mind the apologetic significance of the death of Christ which establishes His deity and justifies confidence in His finished work on the cross. It is rather the experimental realization of that same delivering power of God which is revealed in Christ’s resurrection and now needs to be appropriated by Paul. It was not simply the fact and significance of the resurrection which he claimed. He wanted the same power in his own life.
It was for this power that Paul prayed God on behalf of the Ephesian Christians in his great prayer in the first chapter of that epistle, when he claimed by faith for the Ephesians the knowledge of the greatness of the power of Christ manifested in His resurrection from the dead and His exaltation to glory. Paul wants this same deliverance in his own life in his battle with sin and human limitations. Along with this expressed desire he wants to claim also the fellowship of His sufferings in order that he might be conformed unto the death of Christ. The Apostle Paul was not seeking an easy road in which divine power would deliver him from human limitations. He realized the path of power was also the path of suffering. He wanted the mind of Christ to be realized in himself.
It is significant that in thus thinking of attaining the knowledge of Christ Paul uses the infinitive form gnonai, meaning to know experimentally. There are different words for knowledge in the Greek New Testament which Paul could have used. For instance, he could have used the word meaning to comprehend mentally (Gr. eidotes from oida) found in 1 Thessalonians 1:4 where the statement is made: “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.” Our election of God must be perceived intellectually rather than experimentally. Another word for knowledge is to know by acquaintance or by familiarity or contact (Gr. epistomai, Acts 10:28). Still another word for knowledge refers to a deep insight based on logical analysis of the facts (Gr. suniemi, Eph. 5:17). The word here, however, is the common word to know experientially. Though there is an intellectual aspect of it and though knowledge by acquaintance or by analysis may form a part of it, Paul wants more than this. He wants to know Christ in his own personal experience.
The knowledge of the power of Christ’s resurrection which Paul desires is a reminder that the resurrection of Christ is the supreme demonstration of the power of God in this dispensation. In the Old Testament God gave to Israel the illustration of power occasioned by His deliverance of them from Egypt. Whenever Israel had any questions as to whether God had power, they were told by the prophets to remember their deliverance from Egypt and from its plagues, how God carried them through the Red Sea, how He gave them manna from heaven, water out of the rock, how they crossed the Jordan, and how they conquered Jericho. In the prophetic Scriptures which speak of Israel’s future kingdom on earth the standard of power in that day is revealed to be the regathering and restoration of the nation Israel. This will be the supreme demonstration of the power of God and faithfulness to His word.
To Christians like Paul who live in this present age, however, the resurrection of Christ is our supreme illustration. That power which God manifested in the transformation of the dead body of Christ in the tomb to the glorious risen Savior now at the right hand of the Father is God’s token of His power to transform us and to lift us above the results of sin and establish us in Christ for time and eternity. The apostle intentionally reverses the historical order placing the resurrection first and then following with the reference to the sufferings of Christ. This is the order of Christian experience. When one experiences the power of Christ, it is then possible for him to enter into the fellowship of His sufferings and be made conformable to His death. The apostle of course is speaking of complete identification with Christ, not only in position but in experience.
This statement of purpose on the part of the apostle is followed by a declaration of his hope. “If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” A number of interpretations have been given to this problem text, made difficult by the uncertainty as to what Paul meant when he expressed the hope of attaining to the event of resurrection. The word for resurrection itself (exanastasis) is a word found only here in the New Testament, having the peculiarity of the ordinary word for resurrection with the prefix ex meaning out of. Paul is not referring here to a general resurrection of all the dead, but rather to a special resurrection which will be out from among the dead. By this token he is referring to the resurrection of the righteous as distinguished from the resurrection of the wicked.
According to premillenarian interpretation, the resurrection of the righteous will precede the millennial kingdom, whereas the resurrection of the wicked will follow the millennial kingdom. Further, many interpreters believe that the Pauline doctrine of the resurrection and translation of the church is an event which will precede the predicted time of the great tribulation. It was this event of the translation of the church which Paul regarded as the goal of his faith and hope.
Expositors, however, have been troubled as to how this hope was in any sense dependent upon his knowledge of the resurrection power of Christ or his growing apprehension of the grace of God. Did it not in fact rest instead upon the gift of righteousness which he had mentioned in verse nine of this chapter? It is true of course that Christian experience is a confirmation of the fact of salvation and therefore would grant additional assurance of being included in the resurrection of the righteous.
This passage, however, yields the possibility that what Paul actually had in mind at this point was the hope that he would “attain” to the resurrection, that is, still be living on earth at the time of the resurrection of the righteous dead and that he himself would be translated without seeing death. If it were possible to realize this goal through growing Christian experience and even suffering for Christ’s sake, Paul was willing. Later, of course, as indicated in 2 Timothy, it was made plain to Paul that he was to suffer a martyr’s death, but this was not known to him at this time and did not form a part of his conscious expectation.
One of the by-products of Judaizing legalism was the thought of the possibility of attaining perfection through human works. This, however, Paul definitely disclaims. Even though he is perfectly satisfied in Christ, he recognizes there is much yet to attain in Christian experience. This he states in verses twelve through fourteen: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
In this statement the apostle definitely puts behind him the idea that perfection is something that can be reached before we see our Lord at the rapture of the church. Perfection in an absolute sense is not for this life. The Scripture teaches that it is possible for the Christian to be filled with the Spirit and to have victory over sin. Christians should grow in grace and increase in maturity and experience holiness. All of these are proper goals. In spite of all God’s wonderful provision, however, no one reaches the stage of sinless perfection.
No possibility is recognized in the Scripture of eradicating sin or of reaching the point in spiritual maturity where it is impossible to sin any more. There are always more goals to be reached. The word perfect in verse twelve (Gr. teleleiomai) does not mean perfection in the absolute sense. It is rather the word for reaching an ultimate goal. This Paul declares to be the “prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” as stated in verse fourteen. This future goal is when Paul leaves earth and flesh behind and enters into the presence of the Lord, either through death or translation. His present task is not perfection, but is rather to lay hold on the purposes of God for his life, to wit, to fulfill his apostleship and God’s purpose for him to grow in grace.
In attempting to achieve this he declares in verse thirteen that he realizes that he has only imperfectly accomplished this objective, but that in his zeal to reach the goal, like a runner, he is ignoring the things which are behind him and reaching forth unto those things which are ahead. He presses for the finished mark and the prize which lies beyond it, the high calling or upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.
On the one hand, therefore, Paul disclaims that he is on any high plateau beyond which there is no improvement. He denies that he has attained all that he wants to attain. His earnestness, however, is expressed in his relentless determination to fulfill his course and eventually to meet his Savior face to face. In these words Paul also contrasts the self-satisfaction of the legalist, in what he is and what he has attained, with the true spiritual approach of which Paul is representative, recognizing the perfections of Christ on the one hand and on the other the imperfections of human apprehension of Christ.
The application of these truths, however, to the Philippian Christians is made in verses fifteen and sixteen in these words: “Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.” The fact that this exhortation is addressed to “as many as be perfect” has seemed to contradict the statement of the Apostle Paul in the preceding section that perfection has not been attained. The misapprehension, however, arises from a misunderstanding of the meaning of perfection. The word here translated perfect (Gr. teleioi) means perfection, in the sense of maturity or full growth. These are exhorted to have the same attitude or approach that Paul has indicated was true of his own experience. If they have failed to achieve this or have failed to understand it, he promises that “God shall reveal even this unto you.” It is Paul’s point of view, however, that their difficulty is not lack of comprehension, and he therefore exhorts them to walk by this same rule and to mind the same goals that were before Paul.
In verses seventeen to nineteen he concludes his treatment of the Judaizers by calling upon the Philippian church to mark those who follow Paul and those who do not. Judaizers are described as enemies of the cross. Paul expresses this in these words: “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)”
One of the sad facts of modern Christianity is that everyone who claims the name of Christ is not necessarily worthy of the name. Some of the worst enemies of the cross are those who claim to be leaders in the Christian religion. For those living in days of confusion that parallel to some extent the issues which faced the Philippian church, it is necessary to observe those who follow Paul’s example and those who do not. This should not be a superficial distinction, but based upon a true Biblical definition of vital Christianity. Paul is not talking about those within the church who differ on minor issues, but rather those who deny the centrality of the cross and the principles of grace that enter into Christian salvation and the Christian walk. He declares that the Judaizers in the Philippian church are enemies of the cross of Christ. It is apparent that he regards them as being outside the true body of Christ. Their end is described as that of destruction, and they themselves are pictured as utterly berefit of a true worship of God, substituting instead glorying in their own flesh.
In contrast to this sad future for the enemies of the cross, the apostle in verses twenty and twenty-one holds before us the goal that is ours as Christians. He writes: “For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.”
In the point of view expressed by Paul in this inspired Scripture our conversation or citizenship is not in this life, but is in heaven. The earthly phase of our experience is purely temporary, the goal is to be with the Lord forever. Accordingly, our hope is not simply deliverance from sin in this life or growth in grace or the knowledge of Christ, but our anticipation leaps forward to that day when we will see our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here again Paul has in mind the time of the resurrection of the righteous dead and the translation of the living saints. On that occasion he declares in verse twenty-one that our vile body, or body of humiliation, will be transformed and fashioned according to the pattern of the glorious resurrection body of Christ. This will be a demonstration of divine power of the One who is able to subdue all things unto Himself. Our present body will be transformed into a body that will last forever, a body that will not know pain, or disease, or sin. It will be a body that is timeless in its character and will never wear out. It will be suited in holiness for the glorious presence of the Lord. This does not mean that our bodies will have divine attributes such as God alone possesses, but our resurrection bodies will reflect to some extent the beauty, the glory, and the holiness which is in the resurrection body of our Lord in heaven.
With this thought before us, it is fitting to turn to the verse which opened this chapter where Paul said: “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” We should keep on rejoicing in the Lord as our Savior who give us righteousness. We should rejoice in the Lord of experience, the One who manifests resurrection power, and the One who can give peace, joy, and victory over sin. Paul contemplates the fact that the day is coming when these hours of struggle for attainment and apprehension of Christ will be over, and we will stand as trophies of His grace in His presence.
Today with Paul we can share the experience of dissatisfaction with ourselves and at the same time complete satisfaction and trust in the Savior. That which is imperfect now will be replaced by perfection in the presence of the Lord. Ultimate victory for the Christian is assured, whether in the fulfillment of the hope of Paul we live until the day of the resurrection and the translation of the saints, or whether, like Paul, we leave behind our vile body and go immediately into the presence of the Lord through death. This important truth is Paul’s hope and the hope of all who claim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
18 Translation from Gr. hegemai, meaning here to count or to regard. It is used in the perfect tense meaning that he has counted the things which were gain to him loss for Christ in the past and he still is doing so. The thought is reiterated in verse eight where in the expression “I count all things but loss” he uses the present tense, and in the latter part of the verse, “do count them but dung,” he uses the aorist indicating a definite act. The use of the three tenses emphasizes how completely he counted all things loss for Christ.