Philippians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Example of Paul
Despite the subjective element, there is nothing like telling one's own story to silence what are merely arguments on the other side. This is what Paul is now up to; but it is also more. As verse 15-16 make clear (note the crucial verb phroneo, "have this mindset"), he intends his story to be an example for the Philippians to follow, just as he did the story of Christ in 2:5-11. In his case, three crucial matters are being modeled: first, picking up the final clause of verses 3-4a, he sets his former and present life in contrast to what the "evil workers" are trying to achieve (vv. 4b-6); but, second, the middle part (vv. 7-11) reminds us of earlier moments in the letter (especially his "motto" in 1:21 and the story of Christ in 2:6-8), calling us to knowing Christ as our ultimate concern and thus to live cruciform; he concludes, third, by returning to the recurring theme of vigorous pursuit of the final prize (vv. 12-14), which in light of verses 20-21 is an obviously primary concern in this letter as well (see 1:6, 10, 22-23; 2:16).
Thus he tells his (possibly) faltering and (apparently) feuding Philippian sisters and brothers that the future does not lie in embracing the past (vv. 4-6); rather, it lies altogether in knowing Christ now, even as that means knowing "the participation in his sufferings" (vv. 7-11); and such present "knowing" of Christ means that a certain prospect still lies in the future, where also lies the ultimate prize of knowing Christ forever (vv. 12-14).
For many of us, especially those from deeply religious but essentially "observant" backgrounds, this must become our story as well, or the gospel for which Paul eventually gave his life comes to naught. The same is true for the many whose past is not religious but in "the flesh" in the form of every kind of unrighteousness. And we may not choose the parts of the story we like and leave out the rest. For the surpassing [worth] of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I not only must abandon every attempt to gain an advantage with God on the basis of giftings and achievements. But I must also be prepared to discover anew that truly knowing Christ means simultaneously knowing the power of his resurrection (the part I like) and sharing in his sufferings (the part I like less) so as to be conformed to the likeness of Christ's own death (2:8) and thus to gain the resurrection.
Little is new here, except the final assertion of blamelessness as to the law. From a sociological point of view, Paul is reiterating items that indicate "status." But the final two (and very likely, therefore, his being a Pharisee as well) indicate "achievement"; so the interest is not simply in what was given to him by birth but in what he himself did so as rightly to be designated a Hebrew of Hebrews. All of this, he will go on, amounts to nothing more than "street filth" in comparison with knowing Christ. The Philippians' own future, therefore, does not lie in Paul's religious past.
Verse 4b basically reiterates the preceding addendum to verse 3. It is at once ironical and theological. Not only can Paul play the Judaizers' game (v. 4a), but "I can play it better than they can." His credentials with regard to Jewish identity and observances are impeccable; indeed, in comparison with their grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more. In saying If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, Paul does not imply that Judaizers were present in Philippi. Rather, this is his way of giving perspective to any in Philippi who, because of present suffering, might be tempted to lean this way--thus his way of warning against Judaizing teaching for their safety (v. 1). What follows is a catalog of seven items that illustrate the foregoing assertion.
First, circumcised on the eighth day. For obvious contextual reasons, Paul leads with this particular item rather than with the next two. The Judaizers insist on Gentile circumcision; thus Paul, who through Christ and the Spirit belongs now to the circumcision, begins here: as a Jewish boy, born into a Jewish home, I was circumcised on the eighth day; that is, "I received circumcision long before any of you in Philippi had even heard about Christ and the gospel."
Second, of the people of Israel. Here is the crucial item. What the Judaizers hope to achieve by Gentile circumcision is to bring them into the privileges of belonging to God's ancient people, "Israel's race." Paul had been given this privilege by birth.
Third, of the tribe of Benjamin. The reason for this one is almost certainly for effect. Gentiles could become members only of Israel; Paul's membership was of a kind whereby he could trace his family origins. He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, that favored tribe from which came Saul, Israel's first king, of whom he is namesake; the tribe blessed by Moses as "the beloved of the LORD . . . whom the LORD loves [and who] rests between his shoulders" (Deut 33:12), in whose territory sat the Holy City itself. They were also notable because they alone had joined Judah in loyalty to the Davidic covenant. It is not difficult to hear a ring of pride in this little reminder, which then calls for the next designation.
Fourth, a Hebrew of Hebrews. This is the "swing" term, summing up the preceding three and setting the stage for the final three. Hebrews appears to be a term Jews used of themselves, especially in the Diaspora in contrast to Gentiles. Paul was in every way a "Hebrew, born of pure Hebrew stock."
Fifth, in regard to the law, a Pharisee. This is in keeping with the data recorded in Acts 23:6-9 and 26:5 and with Paul's own word in Galatians 1:14, that he had advanced in Judaism far beyond his contemporaries, being "extremely zealous for the traditions of [his] ancestors." The reason for mentioning this feature of his history is at least threefold: (1) It defines his relationship to the law in a very specific way, as belonging to the Jewish sect devoted to its study and codification. (2) Any Jewish Christians who came to Philippi to promote circumcision on the part of Gentiles would most likely also belong to this sect (cf. Mt 23:15 and Acts 15:5). (3) It gives the framework for understanding the next two items.
Sixth, as for zeal, persecuting the church. Paul was not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill Pharisee. Emulating prophetic zeal for God, he had demonstrated his own most surely by his untiring dedication to stamping out the nascent Christian movement, probably related to his conviction that God had especially cursed Jesus by having him hanged (Gal 3:13; Deut 21:23). In their own way his Judaizing opponents are also persecuting the church; but Paul surpasses them even here. In light of his and the Philippians' present suffering for Christ, the fact that he himself once stood on the other side on this issue suggests a bit of irony as well. How easy it is for the religious to confuse zeal for their own cause with zeal for God, which explains both the bombing of abortion clinics and the confusion of "the American way of life" with the gospel.
Seventh, as for righteousness in the law, faultless. This brings the catalog to its climax. But it is also the item that has generated long debates among later readers, since it seems to contradict what Paul says elsewhere about his ability to keep the law (Rom 7:14-24). The key to the present usage lies at three points--the term righteousness, the qualifier "in the law" (NIV legalistic) and the word faultless--which together indicate that he is referring to Torah observance understood as observable conduct.
The key to the use of faultless lies with its sacrificial overtones (cf. Phil 2:15). Paul has no "blemishes" on his record as far as lawkeeping is concerned, which means that he scrupulously adhered to the Pharisaic interpretation of the law, with its finely honed regulations for sabbath observance, food laws and ritual cleanliness. This means further that righteousness in this context does not refer to right standing with God, but precisely as he qualifies it, that righteousness which is "in the law." Here he is probably referring especially to matters of "food and drink" and "the observance of days," since, along with circumcision, these are the items regularly singled out whenever discussion of Torah observance emerges in his letters.
Both the narrative that follows (vv. 8-9) and Romans 14:17 make it clear, however, that for Paul true righteousness goes infinitely beyond these matters; indeed, the kingdom of God has nothing at all to do with "food and drink" but with righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. What makes the present kind of righteousness worthless is that it generates "confidence in the flesh"; it is "a righteousness of my own" (v. 9)--my own achievement, based on lawkeeping (v. 9), which stands in stark contrast to the "righteousness that comes from God" predicated on faith. But the concern for righteousness in the present passage is not first with "right standing" but with "right living" (see on 1:11).
Paul's point, of course, is not his sinlessness but his being without fault in the kind of righteousness the Judaizers are into by insisting on circumcision. This has nothing to do with righteousness at all, is his point. He has excelled here and found it empty and meaningless; hence he insists for the Philippians' benefit that there is "no future in it."
And there is still no future in it, even though pride of religion continues to persist in a whole variety of forms in contemporary Christianity. There are those who still define righteousness in terms of "food and drink and the observance of days," who thus still maintain distinctions between "clean and unclean," although variously defined. To be able to claim that one does not indulge in such "sins" is a badge of honor in many circles. Likewise for those who define righteousness in terms of "church"--rites, sacraments, forms--rather than in terms of knowing Christ.
Paul has not given up his heritage, nor is he against "form" of various kinds. What for him is "refuse" is to put confidence in them, as if righteousness had anything to do with such. And if that seems too strong for some readers, at least that gives one an opportunity to sense the passion fellow Israelites would have felt toward Paul. Our problem in hearing this text lies with our ability to distance ourselves too easily from their passions, which Paul is treading on in this passage with characteristic single-mindedness. None of these things has anything at all to do with knowing Christ, he will go on to say.
In revising the balance sheet in this way, Paul again writes an especially complex sentence (vv. 8-11), whose various parts and relationships are nonetheless discernible. The renunciation in verse 7 sets forth the leading themes of the whole--the "loss/gain" metaphor and its reason, "because of Christ." This is then elaborated in the long sentence of verses 8-11 in several ways: (1) the loss of whatever was to my profit ( vv. 4-6) is expanded to everything, which is now considered skybala (v. 8); (2) "because of Christ" is expanded to the surpassing [worth] of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (v. 8); (3) in the great reversal Christ is now Paul's gain; this means to be found in him, and thus to find true righteousness which is based on faith, vis-à-vis the "faultless" righteousness of verse 6 which is based on law and is nothing more than a righteousness of my own (v. 9); (4) the ultimate purpose of all this (repeating from v. 8) is to know Christ, now spelled out as simultaneously knowing the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings, which has a cruciform lifestyle as its present goal and resurrection as its final goal (vv. 10-11).
Paul thus covers a lot of ground in this sentence-turned-paragraph. But the essential matters are two. (1) The theme of righteousness is triggered by the warning in verse 2: "faultless righteousness" found in or based on the law (vv. 6, 9) is utter trash in comparison with that "found in Christ," which comes from God and is based on faith. Paul thus moves subtly from behavioral righteousness, of a kind whereby one hopes to gain advantage with God (v. 6), to positional righteousness, which God gives through Christ and is available to faith alone. (2) "Knowing Christ" relationally is the aim of everything; it entails knowing both the (present) power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, thus being conformed to his death so as to realize the future resurrection from the dead.
As the narrative unfolds, the theme of righteousness gives way to that of knowing Christ, suggesting that the former exists primarily as grounds for the latter. This also suggests that the real emphasis of verses 1-4a is less on warning as such and more on the Philippians' "continually rejoicing in the Lord" because their experience of Christ and the Spirit has removed them forever from Torah observance. Because of the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith, we now know God through knowing Christ--which also means to embrace, not disavow, the attendant suffering.
1. Renouncing false boasting (3:7). With bold contrasts Paul renounces his former advantages, both "gifts" and "achievements," as grounds for boasting. For the sake of Christ (more likely "because of Christ"), Paul declares, whatever was to my profit I now consider loss. But this is said with flair. In two nicely balanced lines, "whatever things" and "these things" occupy the emphatic first position while the contrasting "gains" and "loss" occupy the emphatic final position. Thus:
Whatever thingswerefor megains,
these very thingsI considerbecause of Christloss
"Gains" (plural) harks back to 1:21, "to die is [to] gain [Christ]." Paul now plays on the metaphor. His former gains are collectively a loss because of his ultimate gain, Christ himself.
Still in view is the warning against the Judaizers. While he cannot renounce--nor does he wish to--what was given to him by birth (circumcision, heritage and the like), he does renounce them as grounds for boasting. But as verse 9 makes clear, he is especially renouncing "righteousness that is in the law," even though his is "faultless."
2. Knowing Christ now (3:8a). With an emphatic "not only so, but what is more," Paul explains the "how so" of verse 7. He begins with a thesis sentence that reiterates verse 7b in grand and expansive language: I consider everything a loss--not just the advantages enumerated in verses 5-6 but "all things"--"because of" (not compared to, NIV) the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. This is a reprise on the theme struck in 1:21, "for to me, to live is Christ." Knowing Christ Jesus my Lord so far surpasses all other things in value that their net worth is zero. Everything that others might consider to have value in the present age--religious advantages, status, material benefits, honor, comforts--these appear to Paul as total loss in light of Christ.
As verse 10 will clarify, knowing Christ does not mean to have head knowledge about him but to know him personally and relationally. Paul has thus taken up the Old Testament theme of knowing God and applied it to Christ. It means to know him as child and parent know each other, or wife and husband--knowledge based on personal experience and intimate relationship--and thus to know Christ's character intimately. In Jeremiah 9:23-24 those who "boast" in the Lord (see comment on v. 3) do so precisely because they "understand and know me," which is then spelled out in terms of God's "kindness, justice and righteousness." It is this kind of knowing of Christ that Paul will spell out in verses 10-11, where he echoes the Christ story of 2:6-11.
But in the present expansive language (the surpassing worth of knowing), the object of knowing is not simply "Christ," nor even "Christ Jesus," but Christ Jesus my Lord. Here is both intimacy and devotion. Ordinarily Paul says "our Lord Jesus Christ"; only here does he reverse the order and substitute my for "our." The reason for such devotion and longing rings forth clearly in Galatians 2:20, "who loved me and gave himself for me." This is not simply coming to know the deity--it is that, of course--but knowing the One whose love has transformed the former persecutor of the church into Christ's "love slave," whose lifelong ambition is to know him in return, and to love him by loving his people. There is something unfortunate about a cerebral Christianity that "knows" but does not know in this way, as though without such knowing one could truly be in Paul's train.
Like a composer giving his theme yet another variation, Paul repeats once more: for whose sake I have lost all things [and] consider them rubbish. The first item is straight repetition. The second catches us by surprise; but it also helps us to see the depth of feeling Paul had for those who would "advantage" his Gentile converts with what is so utterly worthless. The word skybala is well attested as a vulgarity, referring to excrement (hence the KJV's "dung"); it is also well attested to denote "refuse," especially of the kind that was thrown out for dogs to forage through. Although it could possibly mean "dung" here, more likely Paul is taking a parting shot at the "dogs" in verse 2. "Street filth" might capture both the ambiguity and the vulgarity. It is hard to imagine a more pejorative epithet for status and achievement! Paul sees them as total loss, indeed as foul-smelling street garbage fit only for dogs.
3. Being found in him (3:8b-9). At this point Paul's sentence becomes a bit convoluted. In the form of two purpose clauses (vv. 8b-9, 10-11), he goes on to express the twofold goal/result of his having lost all things. The first is penultimate, his final word on "boasting in Christ Jesus" over against "confidence in the flesh" as that finds expression in the "faultless righteousness found in the law." The second is ultimate, returning to the theme of knowing Christ by spelling out what that means in our present "already/not yet" existence.
He begins by completing (and thus discarding) the commercial metaphor, that I may gain Christ. Thus verse 7 is turned on its head: what was gain is now considered loss because of true gain, Christ himself. Implied is that gaining Christ requires the loss of all former things; to be rich in Christ means to be rich in him alone, not in him plus other gains. On the other hand, neither is there any sense of calculation, as though Paul were setting about to gain eternal life and eventually settled on Christ as the means to that end. The "gain" comes first, and comes in such a way that the rest falls away as trash.
To gain Christ is immediately interpreted as being found in him, which is further interpreted as not having a righteousness of my own. To be found in him implies divine initiative, to have a God-given righteousness in contrast to the righteousness of verse 6, which served as grounds for self-confidence. As to when Paul expects this "gaining" and "being found" to take place, the answer lies with his "already but not yet" perspective (cf. vv. 10-11 that follow). The first point of reference is almost certainly future, looking to the "day of Christ" mentioned in 1:6, 10 and 2:16. This fits the future orientation both of the immediate context (vv. 11-14) and of the letter as a whole (see on 1:6). On the other hand, the participle, having . . . righteousness, is oriented toward the present. He expects to gain Christ and be found in him then precisely because he is already in him now.
Someone once described the further elaboration of being found in him as a "little meteorite from Romans that has fallen into this letter." It is also a piece of art: a (typical) "not/but" contrast of the two kinds of "righteousness," in three parts:not having my own righteousness
that comes from the law,
but that which is through faith in Christ
which is then repeated in another phrase with the same three parts, the first two "lines" serving as counterpoints to the former phrase, and ending again on the note of faith:
that comes from God,
which is based on faith
Although the contrast is clearly with verse 6, the intervening gain/loss metaphors have moved Paul from a focus on behavioral righteousness to positional righteousness, and thus back to verse 3 ("boasting in Christ Jesus and putting no confidence in the flesh"). The reason that even "faultless" Torah observance is rubbish is that it means having a righteousness of my own. Because it comes from the law ( "predicated on observance of the law"), it gives me grounds for "boasting in the flesh," in human achievement. Which is why it is no means to righteousness at all. It makes an end run around Christ Jesus and puts confidence in a symbol, mere flesh, rather than in the reality. One is thus righteous neither in the sense of being rightly related to God nor in the sense of living rightly as an expression of that relationship.
True "behavioral righteousness" will issue in a cruciform lifestyle (v. 10; see note on 1:11); to get there one must first receive the righteousness that comes from God. Truly Christian life "boasts in Christ Jesus," predicated on a relationship with God that comes through faith in Christ--which in Paul is always shorthand for "by grace through faith." Some think this phrase means "through Christ's own faithfulness" in our behalf, that is, through his faithful obedience that led to death (2:8); however, the contrasts in verse 3 (boasting in Christ versus confidence in the flesh) that this clause is bringing to conclusion, plus Paul's constant insistence that we must believe in ( have faith in trust) Christ for our salvation (see 1:29), gives the nod to the traditional understanding in this case.
Thus Paul warns the Philippians once more against the Judaizers who would forever try to make them "religious." There is simply no future in it. But his greater concern is with their current behavior, in two directions: (a) that their love for one another may increase (1:9), as they learn in humility to consider the needs of others to be more important than their own (2:3-4)--just as Christ demonstrated by his death on the cross (2:6-8)--and (b) that they learn to "rejoice in the Lord" even in the midst of their present suffering (2:17-18; cf. 3:1, 10-11), so that, conformed to Christ in his death (v. 10), they might also be conformed to him in his resurrection (v. 21)--just as Paul models in his story.
4. What knowing Christ means (3:10-11). With a final purpose clause, Paul concludes his long sentence (from v. 8) by returning to the theme of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, now offering the primary reason for rehearsing his story. In keeping with his Old Testament roots, knowing Christ is the ultimate goal of being in right relationship with God; and knowing Christ is both "already" and "not yet." Through the righteousness Christ has effected we know him now, both the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings; the ultimate prize, to have present knowledge of him fully realized, awaits resurrection (and/or transformation; vv. 20-21). This, then, is the decisive word over against those who would bring the Philippians under the old covenant. Obedience under that covenant could issue in blameless Torah observance, but it lacked the necessary power to enable God's people truly to know him and thus bear his likeness by living cruciform (becoming like him in his death), which is true righteousness in the "right living" sense.
To understand the details of this remarkable passage, we need to note two things about its structure. First, Paul almost certainly does not intend that we know three things: Christ, the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings. Rather, the second two spell out what knowing Christ entails. Second, Paul follows that up with two further clauses which pick up the first two in reverse order (thus creating a chiasmus, A B B' A' ), emphasizing in turn Christ's resurrection and sufferings and how Paul participates in both of them. Thus:
so that I may know him
A both the power of his resurrection
B and sharing in his sufferings
B' being conformed to his death
A' if somehow I might attain the resurrection from the dead
In turn these lines point to Christ's resurrection (line A), as the means whereby Paul is enabled to endure suffering (B), and to Paul's resurrection as the eschatological fruit of such suffering (A' ), as the latter is a portrayal of the Crucified One (B' ).
A. To know Christ begins with the power of his resurrection, the power that comes to believers on the basis of Christ's resurrection. This is the reality that radically altered the early Christians' understanding of present existence--as both "already" and "not yet." Paul's reasons for starting here are two, related to the concerns of the rest of the appeal. First, the primary focus in what follows is the future, hence the connection between the two A lines: the power inherent in Christ's resurrection guarantees our own resurrection. Second, Paul's urging the Philippians to "rejoice in the Lord" in the context of suffering (2:17-18) makes sense only in light of the resurrection of Christ. Without the power--and guarantee--inherent in Christ's resurrection, present suffering can be both harsh and senseless.
Paul is no triumphalist (all glory without pain), but neither does he know anything of the rather gloomy stoicism that is often exhibited in historic Christianity, where the lot of the believer is basically to "slug it out in the trenches" with little or no sense of Christ's presence and power. The power of Christ's resurrection was the greater reality for him. So certain was Paul that it had happened--accosted and claimed by the Risen Lord on the Damascus Road as he had been--and that Christ's resurrection guaranteed his own, that he could throw himself into the present with a kind of holy abandon, full of rejoicing and thanksgiving; and that not because he enjoyed suffering, but because Christ's resurrection had given him a unique perspective on present suffering (spelled out in the next two lines), as well as an empowering presence whereby the suffering was transformed into intimate fellowship with Christ himself.
B. Paul next speaks to one of his main concerns regarding the Philippians' "affairs," sharing in his sufferings, which must be read in light of 1:29-30 and 2:17-18. This is the simultaneous flip side of the first line; and here is where the example of Christ (2:6-8) and Paul's example meet--and press the Philippians toward having a single mindset in the midst of present difficulties.
With this word we come to the heart of Paul's understanding both of his relationship with Christ and of the nature of existence in the "already/not yet." Suffering on behalf of Christ is the ordinary lot of believers (1:29). With the present phrase we get some theological insight into what that means. First, Christ's resurrection and present exaltation is the direct result of his having suffered for us to the point of death on a cross (2:6-11); by analogy, the way to resurrection for his followers also leads down the path of suffering. Second, sharing in his sufferings is the clue to everything. While our sufferings do not have the saving significance of Christ's, they are nonetheless intimately related to his. Through our suffering the significance of Christ's death is manifested to the world, which is why in 1:29-30 Paul describes such suffering as "on behalf of Christ." Paul is here reflecting the teaching of our Lord, that those who follow Christ will likewise have to "bear the cross" on behalf of others.
Hence knowing Christ involves sharing in his sufferings--and is a cause for constant joy, not because suffering is enjoyable but because it is certain evidence of Paul's intimate relationship with his Lord. Now the opening words "rejoice in the Lord," which reiterate the same appeal in 2:18 in the context of suffering, fall into place. The grounds for joy in the Lord lie with knowing him, as we participate in his sufferings while awaiting our glorious future.
B ' With the next phrase, becoming like him in his death, several important matters converge. The combination "being conformed" (symmorphizomenos) and "death" recall the Christ narrative in 2:6-11 and offer the linguistic ties between Paul's story and the story of Christ. Thus Christ's sufferings are not "sufferings in general" but those sufferings that culminated in his death, which was for the sake of others; no other suffering is in conformity to his. Thus, as Christ's life and suffering serve as paradigms, so also does Paul's becoming like Christ in his death. Christian life is cruciform in character; God's people, even as they live presently through the power of Christ's resurrection, are as their Lord forever marked by the cross. The heavenly Lion, one must never forget, is a slain Lamb (Rev 5:5-6).
This phrase also serves as the transition between Paul's knowing the power of Christ's resurrection in the context of present suffering and his own future resurrection, noted next. Resurrection applies only to those who have first experienced "death." Moreover, the word for "being conformed" is picked up again as an adjective in verse 21, indicating once more the closest possible ties between death and resurrection, and especially the close relationship between our present suffering (by which we are being conformed into the likeness of his death) and our future resurrection (in which our present bodies "of humiliation" will be conformed into the likeness of his present resurrected, and therefore "glorified," body).
A'. Paul now moves from knowing Christ in the present to its full realization in the future, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. The point of this final clause is easy enough: conformity to Christ's death in the present, made possible because of the power of Christ's resurrection in the present, will be followed by our own resurrection from [among] the dead at the end. But the way Paul says it is a bit puzzling: somehow seems to imply doubt.
The reason for this way of putting it seems to be twofold and interrelated. First, this hesitation is not to be understood as lack of confidence about his own--or their and our--future; rather, it emphasizes that the resurrection of believers is integrally tied to their first "being conformed to his death." Without "death" of this kind, there is no resurrection. This is another way of saying "we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). But the future itself is not in doubt--everything in Paul, including verses 12-21 that follow, refutes such a notion. What is uncertain for him is whether his certain future is to be realized by resurrection or by transformation (as implied in vv. 20-21). This matter is in God's hands, to which Paul gladly submits by this use of language.
Second, this is his way of moving toward the concern that the Philippians "stand firm" in the present (4:1; cf. 1:27) and especially not lose their clear focus on, and keen anticipation of, their certain future in Christ. Hence this last clause also serves as the direct lead-in to the final section of the narrative (vv. 12-14) and its final application (3:15--4:1). In whatever way the future is realized--through resurrection or transformation at the parousia (vv. 20-21)--the present involves knowing the power of Christ's resurrection as key to participating in Christ's sufferings. The final, complete knowing of Christ is "not yet"; neither he nor they have attained to it. Nonetheless, such a future prize is the one certain reality of present existence and is thus worth bending every effort to realize, which is what the end of the story (vv. 12-14) is all about.
Because this passage (vv. 7-11) is very popular and thus very easy to read apart from its context, it needs careful analysis; but when the analysis is over, we should return to the text and read it again and again. Here is quintessential Paul, and a quintessential expression of the New Testament view of Christian life. Such life means to be finished with one's religious past as having value before God or as a means of right relationship with God; it means to trust wholly in Christ as God's means to righteousness. But such "righteousness" has as its ultimate aim the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord; and knowing Christ means to experience the power of his resurrection for present sharing in his sufferings, as those sufferings are in "conformity with his death." The final two clauses put it in perspective: to know Christ in the present means to be "conformed to his death," so that all of Christian life is stamped with the divine imprint of the cross as we live out the gospel in the present age and await the hope of resurrection.
Like 1:21 and 2:5-11, Paul's selective personal history here once again demonstrates how totally Christ-focused he is. For him Christian life is not simply a matter of salvation and ethics; it is ultimately a matter of knowing Christ. So too with resurrection; Paul's focus is not on "everlasting life" or anything else such. The goal of the resurrection, the prize for which Paul strains every effort in the present, is Christ himself.
If suffering and the temptation to become religious were causing the dimming of such vision for some in Philippi, in contemporary Western culture (and much of the rest of the world) the dimming is for different reasons, more often connected with values related to material gain. Paul's vision seems to have the better of it in every imaginable way; and a common return to "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord" could go a long way toward renewing the church for its task in the postmodern world. Our lives must be cruciform if they are to count for anything at all; but that reminder is preceded by an equally important one--the power of Christ's resurrection both enables us to live as those marked by the cross and guarantees our final glory.
So strongly does Paul feel about this divine pull that makes him run full tilt toward it, that he says it twice (vv. 12 and 13-14). Both sentences are structured alike: the main subject and verb, I press on, is preceded by a disclaimer about "not having arrived," followed by a word about what he presses toward, which is further qualified by the divine initiative (Christ has already "taken hold" of him; God has called him heavenward). The only additional item in the second sentence is the notation about disregarding (NIV forgetting) what is behind. It is the nature of such rhetoric that the second sentence reinforces or elaborates the first--and sometimes, as in this case, clarifies it as well.
There are some difficulties in interpretation, to be sure, mostly related to two phenomena: the first verb (elabon, "taken"; NIV obtained) has no object (the NIV supplies an interpretive all this); and Paul uses striking wordplays (first with katalabo [NIV take hold of], a compound of elabon which he milks for all it's worth; and second with cognates of teleios [ "reach one's goal"], which the NIV puts as perfect in verse 12 and mature in v. 15). This leads him to say some things in unusual ways, which are very difficult to transfer into English (it's like trying to tell a joke in a second language).
But kept in context, it all makes perfectly good sense. So far he has modeled for the Philippians that their own future does not lie in Paul's (now rejected) past (vv. 4-6) and that the "already/not yet" of the future lies singularly in knowing Christ, through whom we have been given present righteousness (vv. 7-11). Now he picks up the final ("not yet") thread from verse 11 and insists that the future is still future. He has not "already" gotten there, but he strains every muscle finally to do so. In context the "there," of course, is not heaven or reward as such but the final prize of knowing Christ even as Paul himself is known (1 Cor 13:12).
1. Pursuing him who took hold of Paul (3:12). The not that which begins this sentence is an idiom that qualifies something previously said so that readers will not draw the wrong inference. Along with the repeated adverb "[not] already" Paul thus offers a twin disclaimer--what not to infer about the already present future. The disclaimers emphasize that despite present realization of the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings, Paul has not yet reached the final goal. He has not already obtained ("taken/received") it, nor has he already arrived at the goal (NIV been made perfect). He will proceed to play on both of these verbs, the first immediately, the second in verse 15.
In light of what he says in verse 13 about "disregarding what is past," the implied object of obtained might be "all things"; more likely it refers to what has more immediately preceded. It must be remembered that Paul is not writing a new "paragraph"; that is our invention. This sentence follows hard on the heels of the preceding clause (v. 11). What he has obviously not obtained is that which he is pressing on to take hold of, which verse 14 makes clear is the final goal. Thus he adds, or have already "arrived at my goal." There is a sense, of course, in which perfection does happen at the end; but the root (telos) of this verb (teleioo) has the primary sense of "goal" or "aim," before it takes on secondary senses of "perfect, complete, fulfill, mature." Nothing in context implies that perfection is an issue. Since that English word conjures up all kinds of wrong connotations here, and since everything in these final sentences indicates that the eschatological prize is what Paul is pursuing with such vigor, the verb here almost certainly carries its primary sense of "reach the goal."
Since Paul has not yet "arrived," he does what he wants the Philippians to do, press on to take hold of ("seize") that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. With this wonderful wordplay he moves from not already "taking" to yet "taking hold of" the very thing/one who "took hold of" him. He will go on in the next sentence to elaborate what his own "taking hold of" means. In context the next phrase, that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me, points back at least to verses 8-9 (being found in Christ and thus having a righteousness that comes from God); but in terms of his own story, and especially the use of this strong verb, he probably intends them to hear echoes of the Damascus Road as well. A good dose of memory about one's beginnings in Christ can serve as the proper shot of adrenaline for the continuing race.
2. Pursuing the final prize--knowing Christ fully (3:13-14). What could otherwise be ambiguous about verse 12--because of Paul's wordplays--is clarified by this sentence, now turning the verb "pursue" (press on) into a full-fledged metaphor from the games. The vocative "brothers [and sisters]" does not signal the beginning of something new but emphasizes what he is about to repeat. The disclaimer in this case picks up the immediately preceding language (not . . . to have taken hold of it); but before picking up the verb press on, he recalls his singular passion to know Christ from verse 8 (cf. 1:21) in terms of but one thing. There is no I do in Paul's narrative; the language is terse and stark: his whole Christian life has been one thing--the pursuit of Christ.
The metaphor itself begins with a "not/but" contrast. Pictured first is the runner whose eyes are set on the goal in such a way that he "pays no attention to" (the runner had better not forget) what is behind. This imagery always brings to my mind the famous "miracle mile" (the first time two milers ran under four minutes in the same race) run in 1954 in my present hometown (Vancouver, B.C.) by Roger Bannister and John Landy. Landy had led all the way, but coming off the final turn toward the finish line he looked over his shoulder to find out where Bannister was, only to be passed on the other side and beaten to the wire. The picture of that event has always been for me commentary enough on Paul's metaphor. In context what is behind probably refers to verses 4-6, but it would also include all other matters that might impede his singular pursuit of Christ.
The flip side of the image is the runner's straining toward what is ahead. The picture is of coming down the home stretch, leaning forward, extending oneself to break the tape. It is generally hazardous to press metaphors, and this one can be pressed in all kinds of wrong directions. Paul's purpose--both his use of this metaphor and its intent--is singular; not "perfection" is in view, but perseverance. As Paul "runs" toward the Christ who has already taken hold of him, he does so in the same focused, full-tilt way a runner does who is intent on winning. To be sure, his using such a metaphor results is one of those small inconsistencies that are created by active minds as they move quickly from one point to another. He has just recalled Christ's having "taken hold of" him, so it is clear that he does not totally disregard the past. This is imagery, pure and simple, whose meaning will be given in what follows.
The "what" that Paul presses on toward continues the athletic imagery; it is to reach the goal and thus win the prize. But no mere "celery wreath" for Paul (the ordinary prize in the games). The goal is God's eschatological conclusion of things; the prize is Christ, which in context means the final realization of knowing him. This is what Paul would gladly die to gain (1:23); this is what his whole life is about; no other reward could have any meaning for him.
What draws him on is a combination of the past and the future: that God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. This has been said by a series of Greek genitives ("of" phrases), which intend the following relationships. First, God has called us to himself, which will culminate in glory; second, that call, which began at conversion, is heavenward in terms of its final goal; third, God's call found its historical and experiential location in Christ Jesus; and fourth, at the end of the race we will gain the prize, Christ himself, the tangible evidence that the goal of God's call has been reached.
Paul tends to see all of Christian life in terms of God's calling. It begins as a call into fellowship with his Son (1 Cor 1:9), thus a call to "be saints" (1 Cor 1:2) and thereby joined to his people who are destined for glory. The present usage is unusual in looking at our calling from the perspective of its completion rather than its beginnings. This has been the aim of God's call right along, to lift us heavenward to share in his eternal Presence.Here, then, is the first note of what will be emphasized at the end of the appeal in verses 19-21: some, who are no longer walking in the way set forth by Paul, have their "minds set on earthly things," whereas Paul and the Philippians are among those whose "citizenship is [already] in heaven," from whence they await the coming of the Savior. Thus he turns immediately (vv. 15-17) to press on them the need to follow his example--with a "mature" mindset like that just described.
This singular and passionate focus on the future consummation, which Paul clearly intends as paradigmatic, often gets lost in the contemporary Western church--in an affluent age, who needs it? But Paul's voice needs to be heard anew. Part of being human is that by nature we are oriented to the future; in a day when most people have no real future to look forward to, here is a strikingly powerful Christian moment. The tragedy that attends this rather thoroughgoing loss of genuine hope is that our culture is now trying to make the present eternal. North Americans are probably the most death-denying culture in the history of the race. How else can one explain cosmetic surgery's having become a multimillion-dollar industry?
In the midst of such banal hopelessness, the believer in Christ, who recognizes Christ as the beginning and end of all things meaningful, needs to be reminded again--and to think in terms of sharing it with the world--that God's purposes for his creation are not finished until he has brought our salvation to its consummation. Indeed, to deny the consummation is to deny what is essential to any meaningful Christian faith. Paul finds life meaningful precisely because he sees the future with great clarity, and the future has to do with beginnings--the (now redeemed) realization of God's creative purposes through Christ the Lord. There is no other prize; hence nothing else counts for much except knowing Christ, both now and with clear and certain hope for the future.