COMMENTARY ON PHILIPPIANS
LESSON NUMBER 32
“Though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ” (Phil 3:4-7, NKJV).
Paul now identifies himself with the saints of God–the true circumcision. He does not speak of himself as an Apostle, but as a representative of someone who has “no confidence in the flesh.” Although men tend to glory in their position or status, we have no record of any Apostle boasting in their Apostleship. Nor, indeed, did they use it as a means of lording it over people. They knew they were NOT Apostles by achievement, but by Divine selection. As Jesus said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:19). This section of Philippians deals a devastating blow to religioous pride. It confirms the real nature of salvation, which prompts the one participating it to find their solitary boast in the Lord Jesus Christ.
RELIGIOUS PEDIGREE IS SUPERIOR FLESH
“Although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin”(NASB). Here is a spiritual perspective that is clarifying–one that reveals the utter depravity of “the flesh,” or everything that springs from Adam. If having confidence in the flesh was right, Paul says he could have boasted more than anyone else. Although doctors of the law have declared Paul was a very educated man (something the Word of God does not affirm), the Apostle makes absolutely no reference to any such distinction. He does not cite his educational credentials, status in Tarsus, or other forms of erudition.
He first mentions fleshly distinctions over which he had no power, concerning which he himself had no input whatsoever. His reference confirms that, from Abraham to Jesus, the Divine focus was on a particular people–the Jews. This time of favor began with Abraham, to whom the promise of blessing was given. It was accented when Israel was delivered from Egypt and became a covenanted people.
“Circumcised the eighth day.” This requirement is traced back to God’s promise to Abraham. “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations” (Gen 17:12). John the Baptist was circumcised on “the eighth day” (Lk 1:59). The Holy Child Jesus was also circumcised when He was eight days old (Lk 2:21). Here is a fleshly distinction that was a requirement, not an attainment! It was a “sign” and a“seal” of something God accomplished, not man (Rom 4:11). It was a fleshly mark that associated the individual with the Living God. Paul had the mark, yet refused to put confidence in it. It was still “of the flesh.”
“Of the nation of Israel.” God’s exclusive dealings were with these people. As it is written, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Rom 9:4-5, NIV). When it comes to “flesh,” Israel is this world’s most distinguished people. All other fleshly distinctions rank beneath theirs. Apart from Christ, there is no advantage in being white, American, educated, talented, or otherwise. Being part of a political, social, or scholastic community does not give the individual anything in which to boast–even in the flesh! Paul had the distinction of being “of Israel,” yet refused to put trust in it. It was “flesh.”
“Of the tribe of Benjamin.” Israelites could trace their lineage back to the twelve sons of Jacob. They were the ones who received the blessing (Gen 49). Their progenies are called “the twelve tribes of Israel” (Gen 49:28; Ex 24:4; Matt 19:28). As touching the flesh, this was a high honor–to be a member of one of those“tribes.” King Saul was from this tribe (1 Sam 9:21). Now Paul reminds us he was also of that tribe. In Romans 11:1, he makes the same statement. To be of one of the “twelve tribes of Israel” highlighted ones birth into a favored status. This was a people to whom God revealed Himself.
Yet, in Christ we are elevated out of the flesh, which has been renounced by God. Not even the most elevated fleshly status can be trusted!
ATTAINMENTS, ZEAL, AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
“ . . . a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee, concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (NKJV). Now we come to attainment–something involving the conscious effort of the person. Remember, he is showing the worthlessness of the flesh–of everything man is or does by nature. We will find that Paul was no ordinary Jew. He excelled in every way, yet saw it now as worthless.
“A Hebrew of Hebrews.” The first reference to a “Hebrew” is found in Genesis 14:13: “Abram the Hebrew.” This, therefore, is the most ancient term for the favored people of Israel, and is how they came to known by others (Gen 39:14; 41:12; Ex 1:15; Jer 34:9). But Paul was no ordinary Hebrew. He excelled as a member of the chosen race. He stood out among Hebrews as king Saul stood above his peers (1 Sam 9:2). It is one thing to be part of some favored people. It is quite another thing to stand out among them, excelling in the things that identified them as belonging to God.
“A Pharisee.” The Pharisees were a group of people especially zealous for righteousness. They separated themselves for, what they conceived to be, the work of the Lord. Elsewhere Paul said his father was also a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He said the Pharisees were “the strictest sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5). Over twenty years after he was converted, when standing before Ananias the high priest, Paul said, “I am a Pharisee”(Acts 23:6). Even in this unique body of people, Paul had excelled.
“Concerning zeal.” When it came to enthusiasm, Paul again surpassed his fellows. Convinced the followers of Jesus were not God’s people, he zealously involved himself in “persecuting the church.” To him, it was not simply a matter of a war of ideas. He did everything he could to stop what he thought was an intrusion in the spiritual community. Scripture says of him,“But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:3, NASB). With an unrelenting spirit, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Christ,” he sought letters from the high priest to pursue them in every synagogue (Acts 9:1). Of those terrible days Paul said, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons”(Acts 22:4). No mediocrity was found in this man.
“Concerning righteousness.” Paul was not only zealous for the nation of Israel, but for personal acceptance with God. He was a Pharisee, and was zealous, but he was not a mere institutional man. From the time he was“a youth,” Paul was noted for being committed (Acts 26:4). When it came to“the righteousness of the Law,”he was “blameless.” By this he means at least two things. First, no one could effectively charge he lived contrary to the Law. Second, his own conscience did no condemn him. Speaking of that period of his life, before the significance of the commandment burst upon him, Paul said, “I was alive once” (Rom 7:9). Such righteousness was not recognized by God, but was the very best that was possible apart from Christ.
If confidence in the flesh were possible, these things would justify it. In Christ, however, all such confidence is destroyed. Flesh is to be crucified!
GAIN TO ME, LOSS FOR CHRIST
“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ”(KJV). It is essential to note the things that were “gain” to Paul were not health, wealth, social status, academic achievements, or political successes. Everything he mentions had to do with revealed religion. He was born into a God-chosen nation. From the very first, his parents presented him to the Lord in obedience. His chosen vocation was a spiritual one. He excelled in that pursuit. He personally gave himself to the zealous opposition of those he perceived to be the enemies of God’s chosen people. He also engaged in an unrelenting pursuit of personal righteousness, as defined by God’s Law.
If it were possible for “flesh” to be approved by God, surely Paul would have gained such approbation. At once we see how utterly foolish it is to claim superiority upon the basis of social, political, or philosophical excellence. It is unfortunate that such measures of superiority have penetrated the church. Men are actually held out as possessing “gain” because of achievements wholly unrelated to revealed religion. They are honored for things that have little or nothing to do with obeying God or pursuing righteousness. If flesh cannot boast at the level of Jewish superiority, it certainly cannot be the basis for confidence at even lesser levels.
When Paul says “WERE gain to me,” he views himself when apart from Christ. It is another way of sayingself-centered. Coming into Christ brings a whole new definition of “gain” or benefit. Paul here refers to temporal, NOT eternal, gain. Jesus spoke of this kind of “gain.” “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matt 16:26). Salvation adjusts our ideas of gain, profit, and advantage.
“I counted loss for Christ.” Moses also had the perspective Paul reveals in this text. It is said of him,“Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt” (Heb 11:26). By saying “I counted,” Paul refers to his personal evaluation of the circumstance. His determination to gain Christ involved judgment and a decision. He was faced with the temporary gains of the flesh, or the gain of eternal life. Once seen, he judged matters relating to the flesh as worthless.
The word “LOSS” is an especially strong one. It means Paul let these things go, refusing to allow them to capture his attention. It also means he saw they were competitive, and damaging to the soul. In other words,Christ could not be possessed while retaining a hold on those “things.” To gain Christ, all fleshly emphasis and distinctions must be forfeited. It is only to the degree this takes place that the individual is capable of appropriating Jesus.
This perspective is not common in churches with whom I have been affiliated. I fear the world is courted more than Jesus, and appearance is valued more than spiritual substance. Scarcely can a religious person of renown be found that is not distinguished by the flesh. Such a stance excludes one from Divine fellowship, robbing the soul of gaining Christ Jesus. A fellowship with Christ simply cannot be had while a priority is placed on “the flesh.” Confidence in flesh cannot exist simultaneously with faith in Christ. They are opposed to each other, and aggressively so. If a person is to gain Christ, a judgment will have to be made concerning temporary gain.