Paul's Pursuit of Christ


Philippians 3:1-21


Unlike most of Paul's other letters, Philippians is highly personal. As such, other than the general theme of excellence, Philippians does not have one major theme unifying the letter. For example, in Romans the righteousness of God dominates the letter, while in Ephesians the exaltation of Jesus to the status as Messiah unifies the letter. Philippians, on the other hand, jumps from topic to topic just like any other informal letter might. In this particular passage Paul deals with threats from the teachings of false teachers who will probably descend upon the Philippian congregation and try to draw them away from the truth of Christianity.

Once more as we approach this letter, we see that the Philippian church is not beset with problems. Rather we find that there are several different issues on the horizon which could trouble the church if it is not prepared. In this chapter Paul discusses the three different approaches to life: legalism, licentiousness, and the pursuit of Christ. Although Paul is going to deal specifically with Jewish legalism, legalism can take on many forms, such as, Southern Baptist legalism. The second approach is basically doing whatever I want to do, while the third approach is the one Paul promotes.


The first group of false teachers from Judaism would especially appeal to the Philippians for 2 reasons. First, whereas Rome did not sanction every religion, Rome did sanction Judaism as a legal religion. This meant that the Jews could worship in safety. Other religions did not fare so well, especially those who seemed to threaten Roman rule. The Judaizers would point out the legal status of their religion and assure the Philippian Christians that they would escape persecution if they adopted the Jewish version of Christianity. Second, what the Jewish version of Christianity had to offer appealed to people's egos. Jewish version of Christianity offered credentials that would impress any man. Paul knew that these would be hard for the Philippians to resist and so launches a full-scale attack against the Judaizers.

Paul first instructs the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. People are going to rejoice in something or in someone. In the case of the Judaizers, they are going to rejoice in their human qualifications and achievements. Paul though says that for the Christian the place to find ultimate joy should be in one's relationship with Jesus. He then tells them that, although he is going to repeat some teachings he has delivered to them in the past, this does not present a problem for him. Furthermore, his repeating these instructions will actually safeguard them. He is not interested in administering medicine to a patient who has been made sick with destructive teachings; he wants to give them some preventative medicine that will keep them from getting sick.

Next Paul launches a brutal attack against the Judaizers. They are "dogs," "evil workers," and "the false mutilation." In the first century dogs were not considered man's best friend. They were scavengers roaming wildly in the streets. They would gobble up crumbs left in the trash or on the street. If they were in a pack, they would pounce upon a baby or small child and tear it to bits. In Paul's case the Judaizers had been gobbling up everything Paul had said in order to criticize him; they had been nipping at his heels continually, trying to discredit his ministry. He has had his fill of them.

Second, he calls them "evil workers." This is strange in light of the fact that they tried to keep the Law of Moses. Paul though went to great lengths in Rom. 7:7-25 to show that legalism actually leads to further rebellion and not to righteous behavior. Whenever our sinful nature encounters Law, it wants to rebel. Although the Judaizers promoted the Law, they were actually committing evil acts.

Third, he calls them "the false mutilation." The NASB unfortunately translates this as "the false circumcision." Paul here though uses a word meaning "mutilation" instead of the typical word for "circumcision." The Jews would have recoiled in horror at the very idea of mutilation. Mutilation was practiced by pagan cults, not by the people of God. Paul though is reducing the Jewish attitude towards circumcision, that is, its obsession with cutting off just a portion of the male genitalia, to pagan mutilation. (This is not the first time he equated this style of Judaism with paganism; see also Gal. 4: ).

Notice that Paul is characterizing the Judaizers as "dogs," etc., only after many long years of dealing with the them. Many times in our dealings with people hostile to Christianity, we immediately write them off, or stigmatize them. We write them off way too quickly. Paul, on the other hand, has earned this right since he has dealt with them for such a long time.

Instead of going over to the Judaizers who were "dogs," "evil workers," and "the false mutilation," the Philippian Christians should remain true to Christ because in doing so, they were the "true circumcision who worship in the Spirit of God, and glory in the Messiah Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh." They were the true circumcision in the sense that their hearts were circumcised, not their sex organs. According to the prophets circumcision in the flesh was always meant to symbolize the softening of the heart in its relationship to God. That the Philippians, as opposed to the Judaizers, had. Moreover, the Spirit of God animated their religion. God had promised that one day the Spirit would usher in His kingdom. Now that the Philippians had God's Spirit living in them and guiding them in worship proved that they were bona fide members of God's kingdom, as opposed to the Judaizers who did not have God's Spirit within them. Third, their glory and boasting was in the Messiah Jesus and not in any human achievements or status. They were confident before God because they trusted in what Jesus had done for them on the cross rather than for what they had done in trying to obey the Law.

For some people to disparage the Judaizers in such a way would have raised some eyebrows. Who am I to criticize the Jews when I have not even tried to keep the Jewish food laws or to obey the 400+ commands found in the OT? Paul though, on the other hand, was eminently qualified to launch this attack. He knew the futility of trying to live this way. If any Jew could have ever been right with God and with Himself by keeping the Law, it would have been Paul. The fact that even he had not been able to keep the Law and come to know God proves beyond a doubt that no person can. This is the reason Paul was such a threat to the Judaism of the first century.

Paul lists his Jewish credentials: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the Law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church. Many Gentiles could claim to have been circumcised; however, he was not a proselyte, a second-class Jew, who had been circumcised late in life. He had been circumcised on the 8th day according to the Law of Moses. No fault with his circumcision. He was of the nation of the Israel, the people of God. More than that, he was of the tribe of Benjamin. Every proselyte was considered an Israelite, part of God's people; however, no Gentile proselyte could ever claim to be a member of one of the 12 tribes because only those born into those tribes could make such a claim. Moreover, he was not a member of one of the lesser tribes, such as, Naphtali, Asher, etc. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, the favorite son of Jacob. This tribe had not only produced Israel's first king who Paul (Saul) was named after, it had remained faithful to the tribe of Judah whenever the kingdom was split in two. In fact within her borders lay the city of Jerusalem, even the temple itself. Heady credentials indeed.

Paul continues to pile on the credentials. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews. Whenever we call a person "a man among men," we mean that he is really manly. In the same way, Paul was calling himself really "Hebrewy." With relationship to the Law, he was a member of the most conservative, strictest sect, the Pharisees. In fact if anybody observed him daily, that person would not be able to find any fault with the way Paul had conducted himself. From all outward appearances Paul had completely kept the Law. (It was what was going on inside him which convinced him that keeping the Law led to failure.) His opponents had claimed to have a zeal for the Law. He even had outdone them in this respect because he had even persecuted Christians, dragging them off to prison and even casting his vote against them when they were being put to death (Acts : ).

What credentials do we seek to attain?


What was Paul's response not only to the credentials the Judaizers were promoting but also to his own human credentials. For the sake of Christ he considered them as being lost. The image behind this statement is that of an accountant who writes down on one side of a ledger sheet his gains and on the other side of the ledger sheet his loses. Everything that the Judaizers listed under "gains" Paul listed under "losses": his Jewish credentials and achievements.

Paul goes even further. He doesn't count just his Jewish credentials as loss, he counts everything as loss when compared to his relationship with Jesus Christ. Even more so, when compared to the surpassing value of Jesus Christ and his relationship with Him, Paul considers everything to be rubbish, literally "dung." Everything: human relationships (parental, spousal, paternal), money, status, comfort, reputation, control. Jesus Himself stated the same principle when He said that unless a person hates his parents, children, etc., that person will not be worthy of Him. Is Christ calling us to hate these people, things, etc.? No. Rather He and Paul are saying that if you compared our love for these things with our love for Christ, our love for these things should come across as hate. It's alright to "love" money, people, etc.; however, it is so wrong to love them more than Christ. This past week several of our men's groups have been dealing with the different areas of their lives. When they refuse to give God their time, their relationships, their money, etc., it is not because they don't have enough time, energy, money, etc. It is because they have not valued Christ to the degree they should have.

Christ though is not simply calling us to give up things, people, etc. He is calling us to give these things up so that we may gain something wonderful in return, Him. In the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price, the merchant discovers the pearl which will cost him everything and yet which is far more valuable than the sum total of his possessions. Jesus is that pearl. Having Him costs us everything. Yet He is far more valuable than the sum total of our possessions. The implication is that you can't have both. You can't cling to your time and yet expect to have Christ. You can't cling to your money and expect to have Christ also. You can't cling to your relationships and expect to have Christ also. It's an either/or situation, not a both/and.

(Notice that Paul calls all the credentials of the Judaizers "dung." Earlier he had called them "dogs." Now he is calling their achievements "dung." The image is that of a pack of dungs who after defecating go back and smell their own poop.)

The result of giving up all these things for Christ is (1) to be found in Him and (2) to know Him. The idea of being found in Christ is that of 2 circles in life: call the first circle "Christ" and the second circle "without Christ." It is important that on Judgment Day that when God comes looking for me that I am found in the circle labeled "Christ." Only those in that circle are going to experience eternal life. I don't just enter that circle though on Judgment Day. My whole life should be lived within that circle. Judgment will be nothing more than the logical outcome of the life I have lived here on earth.

How am I now in Christ's circle, that is, what does it mean to be found in Christ? First by not having a righteousness of my own based on keeping the Law. Rather I claim the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The cross was the place of the Great Exchange. It was there that God took my sins and placed them upon Jesus, leading to His death. It was also at the cross though that God took Jesus' righteousness and placed it upon me, leading to life. Where you look for your righteousness determines where God is going to find you.

Second, giving up all these things means that I may now know Him, that is, be in a relationship with Him. I can live life with an awareness that Christ is pleased with me and that I can communicate with Him on a daily basis. It means that I am going to experience the life which He Himself enjoys and which I will enjoy fully when Christ returns. It is the life produced by the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Since it is the life of resurrection, it is life that is produced only after a person has died, died to himself, to his own vision of his life, to his own desires, to his own self.

This relationship with Christ is a life long pursuit. In verses 12-14 Paul compares this pursuit with that of a marathon race. Of all people Paul should have already arrived at his goal of experiencing the deep intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Yet he claims he has not; and if Paul has not, then we have not either. Rather it is a race which must be run continually if we are going to finish it.

In v. 13 he claims that in order to run the race, we must "forget what lies behind and look forward to what lies ahead." We must forget the human credentials. We must not rest on our laurels. We can look at the past only if it spurs us on to the future. Last Sunday night B. F. preached on discouragement. Based on Ps. he urged us to look at wonderful things God has done in our past so that we might be encouraged by the fact that God is goign to bless us in the future as well. That is the only reason we should look to the past. Other than for that one reason, our focus should only be upon the finishing the race.

In v. 14 Paul articulates his pursuit: "I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." First, notice the struggle involved in the race--"I press on." While it is true that I cannot do anything to save myself, it is true that there is a real struggle in the Christian life. Why? Anything worth getting is worth working for. It has behind it the parable of the Pearl of Great Price and the parable of the Treasure Hidden in the Field.

I experienced this recently with the death of my grandmother. The words I said at her funeral did not simply just drop down from the sky. They came to me only after a period of struggle and prayer to the Lord. A few weeks before she passed away, I felt like the Lord gave me a verse to base my remarks on. When she died, I had to keep going back in prayer and seek what I believed the Lord wanted me to say. When it actually came time to speak, I tried to be sensitive to the Lord because much of what I was going to say had already been said by other family members. I felt that it was only because I had struggled that when it actually came time to speak that the Lord finished giving me the words to say.

Why does God operate like this? If He didn't operate this way, then we would treat Him and His Word the same way children of today treat their toys. Most children today have so many toys that they don't value them any more. They just thrown them about. I remember one Christmas when I think that the only toy I got was a play rifle. I loved that rifle. In fact my parents have a picture of me with my cowboy hat on holding that rifle. In the same way, because a struggle is involved, what we gain means more to us.

Notice that the goal is "the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." The course we are running actually slopes upward because the goal we're striving to reach is heavenly; it is the consummation of our relationship with Christ.


There is always the danger that whenever I reject legalism as a way to live life that I will lapse into lawlessness. This is true if I am not following the second option, that is, following Jesus through His Spirit daily. The Philippian church would have been inundated by this approach to life because it lived right in the middle of a Roman colony, a little Rome. Whatever else the Romans were noted for, they were noted for their excesses. Everything had to be on a grand scale, even their immoral behavior. In the amphitheater in Caesarea there is a side room called a vomitorium. The people would gorge themselves with the local delicatessens of the day, then go thrown up in the troughs provided for them, and then go out and eat some more. The people with this attitude in Philippian might have even claimed to be Christians. They justified their immoral behavior by claiming that they were exercising their new spiritual freedom in Christ.

Paul says that no matter what these people claim they are enemies of the cross of Christ. Whatever else the cross represents, it represents dying to self and to one's sinful yearnings. Their ultimate end is destruction. Just like those who live a resurrected life right now will experience resurrection when Christ returns, so these will experience destruction on the last day since they have been destroying their bodies and souls during the present age. Their gods are their bellies in the sense that they serve their natural appetites. That is the supreme goal of their lives. (This last group probably represents modern America more than the other group. As long as we are materially blessed, we are happy. Do not ask Americans to sacrifice for the sake of freedom any more. It is simply not going to happen because we have simply gone too soft.)

Paul though says that this approach to life is unworthy of the citizen of the kingdom of God. Just like Philippi, a Roman colony, was considered an outpost of the city of Rome, so the Philippian congregation was an outpost of heaven. Just like the Roman citizens of Philippi prided themselves as being Roman citizens and wanted to act like the people in Rome, so the Philippian Christians were to pride themselves on being citizens of heaven and to act like those living in heaven even now. (This is nothing to be trifled with. The Lord of the kingdom of heaven will one day return and with His absolute power will transform these bodies into His image. This will be true only for the Christian who has honored his body.)