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Here is one of those passages to which we (gladly) turn again and again, so much so that it is easy for us to miss what Paul is up to in telling his story. Using the language of commerce ("gain/loss"), he puts his past, present and future into perspective. Everything has singularly to do with Christ, who functions for us all as the great divide. In "gaining Christ" his remarkable past now looks like skybala ("street filth/dung"; NIV rubbish). Nor does Paul dwell longingly on the past, as some Christian testimonies seem to. When our first son at age six discovered the bicycle, the toy trucks in the sandbox were history.
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.