Paul's encounter with the risen Christ functioned like a divine audit in his life. For all of his hard work to have "credit" with God, Christ turned these "gains" into "losses," so that Paul might have profit of such surpassing worth that the former now looked like dung to him. This opening paragraph in his story illustrates what formerly had worth with a list of seven items, six of which indicate different ways in which he "excelled." He begins with circumcision (not surprisingly, given verses 2-3), then moves on to his membership in the ancient people of God, including his tribal origins; he is a Hebrew of Hebrews, which can be demonstrated in three observable ways, concluding with the declaration "blameless, according to the righteousness found in the law." His B.C. (before Christ) credentials are both noteworthy and impeccable.
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.
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