New Interpreters Bible on PHILIPPIANS 3:1-11

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Dan Francis | Forum Activity | Posted: Tue, Jan 24 2012 2:45 PM

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Another Sample from the New Interpreters Bible:

PHILIPPIANS 3:1-11, THE TRUE BASIS FOR CONFIDENCE

 

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COMMENTARY

3:1. Paul half apologizes for writing “the same things” to the Philippians, while assuring them that he does not find it troublesome to do so. Is he referring to what he has just written: “rejoice in the Lord”? That seems unlikely, since such a command appears to be an improbable “safeguard” for the Philippians. Markus Bockmuehl argues in his commentary that joy was frequently regarded as the source of strength (so Neh 8:10); in the other passages he cites, however, strength appears to be the source of joy, which is hardly relevant.26 The other possibility is that Paul is referring to what he is about to write—namely, his warning in v. 2. But since those he warns about have not been mentioned earlier in the letter, we must conclude that Paul is referring to warnings he has given in earlier letters or possibly by word of mouth (unless, of course, we decide that v. 1b introduces part of another letter that had already discussed these people). The fact that Paul's warnings are a safeguard suggests that he does not believe the Philippians to be in imminent danger but that he considers it wise to be issuing the warning in case the danger becomes a real one.

3:2. Since the term “safeguard” suggests that what follows is a warning, the first word of this verse, ble"pete (blepete), which would ordinarily mean “pay attention to” when used, as here, with the accusative, has been translated “watch out for/beware of.” The triple “beware” in the NRSV is perhaps too peremptory; but the tone is certainly emphatic, for the command is introduced abruptly and is given three times. The effect is heightened in Greek by the use of alliteration, with each warning being directed against something beginning with the letter K: tou;v ku;nav ...tou;v kakouv ejrga"tav ...th;n katatomh"n (tous kynas...tous kakous ergatas...ten katatomen). Those against whom Paul issues his warning are clearly Jews of some kind, though the terms he uses to describe them are totally unexpected. The epithet “dogs” was sometimes used by the Jews as a term of derision for Gentiles; dogs were scavengers and so were naturally associated with uncleanness.

Paul now applies the term to these people, thus indicating that the ones he has in mind are not, in fact, the people of God. “Evil workers/those who do evil” is equally unexpected. In the book of Psalms, it is those who do not obey the Torah who are repeatedly described as “evildoers” (e.g., Ps 5:5), while those who are faithful to the Torah are righteous (e.g., Pss 1:6; 5:12). Once again, the description is one that Jews would naturally apply to Gentiles and to non-observant Jews. The final warning, against “those who mutilate/mutilators of the flesh” is bizarre. The Greek word used here is katatomh (katatome), meaning “mutilation,” and Paul has deliberately substituted it for the word peritomh (peritome), meaning “circumcision.” The irony of his words reaches its climax here, as the Jews' proudest claim is turned on its head. Whereas circumcision was understood to be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, mutilation—making gashes in the flesh—was something done by pagan priests. Mutilation was specifically forbidden to the priests of Israel (Lev 21:5), for any kind of physical defect debarred men from being priests, since they must be holy to their God (Lev 21:18-23).27 For Paul, circumcision is worth nothing unless it is “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2:28-29).

Three times over, Paul has applied to a group of Jews terms that they would have thought appropriate only for outsiders: “dogs,” “evildoers,” “mutilation.” Taken together, his threefold description amounts to a denial of the claim of the people he has in mind to be true Jews. The people who pride themselves on being insiders are, in fact, in the position of those whom they despise. The irony of Paul's description lies in the fact that those whom he is describing are the very people who cared desperately about keeping themselves pure, about obeying the commandments of the Torah, and about preserving circumcision as the essential mark of those who belonged to Israel.

 

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 But all this is the righteousness of the law (v. 6), which Paul now regards as worthless compared with the righteousness that comes to him in Christ (v. 9). If Paul urges the Philippians to “beware of” these people, then perhaps it is lest they, too, make the mistake of supposing that it is “the righteousness of the law” that is important.

Who were the people Paul is attacking here? Clearly it was some group who claimed to be Jewish. But were they Jewish by birth, or were they Gentile converts? And were they also Christians? It is sometimes suggested that Paul was referring to Jews who had rejected the gospel and were opposing the claims of Gentile Christians to belong to the people of God. Why, then, should he think it necessary to warn the Philippians against them? The answer could be that the Jewish community was persecuting the Christians in Philippi; Paul's own imprisonment had almost certainly come about because of the opposition of Jews in Jerusalem. His warning here, then, might echo the injunction in 1:27 to stand firm in the the face of opposition. But as we have already seen, there seem to have been very few Jews in Philippi! The argument in this chapter seems to suppose a more subtle danger, that of putting confidence “in the flesh.” Moreover, Paul himself had once opposed the gospel and persecuted the Christian community (v. 6); yet, in describing his own life as a Jew in vv. 4-6 he does not refer to himself as a dog, as a worker of evil, or as belonging to the mutilation! On the contrary, he includes his devotion to the Torah among his former assets.

It is important to note that Paul's bitter attack here is not on Judaism per se. His argument in vv. 4-11 suggests that he probably had in mind a group of Christian Jews who disagreed with him about the terms on which one could belong to the people of God and were insisting that Gentile Christians become Jewish proselytes. This is supported by the reference to this group as “the mutilation,” which suggests that Paul has in mind those who were actively pursuing a policy of circumcising converts.

These Judaizers might, of course, be Gentile Christians who, with all the enthusiasm of converts, assumed that it was necessary to accept all the practices of Judaism. It is sometimes argued that Paul's description of his own inherited privileges rules this interpretation out, since he is comparing his own credentials with those of fellow Jews. Since he is insisting that he had many of these privileges by birth and race, however, his argument would have added poignancy if it were directed against Gentile Judaizers who regard as essential the very things Paul has abandoned.

The meaning of the passage is not greatly affected by our decision on this point, since the focus of Paul's argument quickly shifts to his own experience. Nothing more is said about these people (unless vv. 18-19 are a reference to the same group), which suggests that Paul's words are indeed intended as a safeguard against possible danger rather than as a warning against an imminent threat to the Philippian community such as that which confronted the Galatians.

3:3-4. In contrast to those whose claims he has ridiculed, Paul declares: “For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in/by the Spirit of God” (v. 3). The belief that true circumcision is not a literal one (Rom 2:28-29) is found in Jer 4:4 and 9:26 (cf. 1QS 5:5); for Paul it is faith, not circumcision, that is essential (Rom 4:9-12). The verb “to serve” (latreu;w latreuo) is usually used of priestly service in the Temple; here that service is no longer offered by the priests but by all God's people. There are variant readings here, one of which is given in the NRSV note, but the text is almost certainly correct. The idea of a new spiritual worship is set out in John 4:23-24. The fact that the Spirit had been poured out on those who were not circumcised is a key element in Paul's argument with the “Judaizers” (Gal 3:1-5, 14; cf. Acts 10:44-8; 11:15-18).

The “we” are now identified further as those who “boast/glory” in Christ Jesus, a description that encompasses all Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles. By contrast, others “put/have...confidence in the flesh.” The two verbs used here are almost synonymous in meaning, though “boasting” (kauca;omai kauchaomai) perhaps goes a little beyond “having confidence” (pei;qw peitho). It is because they have confidence in Christ that believers may justly boast of what God has done for them. Jews would certainly not have regarded boasting in the law as putting confidence in the flesh. For Paul, however, the law operates in the sphere of flesh and is ineffectual because of the weakness of the flesh (see Romans 7:1). There is 

 

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 added irony, of course, in the fact that the rite of circumcision is literally carried out in the flesh.

Those who mock earthly privileges are usually people who do not themselves have any. This is not true in Paul's case, however, since he has every reason to boast in the privileges that have come to him by birth and upbringing—except his overwhelming conviction that such privileges are worthless by comparison with those that have come to him “in Christ.” What he now thinks about his former boast that he was a Jew is expressed in the phrase “to have confidence in the flesh,” which he uses three times in vv. 3-4. The Greek word sa"rx (sarx), here translated “flesh,” is used of humanity in its weakness. It denotes what is physical, external, visible, and temporal, in contrast to the spiritual, internal, invisible, and eternal. Flesh is not in itself sinful, though it can easily fall prey to sin. It represents everything that we would call “human” or “worldly.” The contrast Paul makes here between having confidence “in the flesh” and boasting “in Christ” is similar to that expressed in Isa 31:3: “The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh, and not spirit.” The significant point to notice is that as a Christian, Paul regards all the privileges given by God to Israel as belonging to this sphere of “flesh”; those who belong to Christ, on the other hand, worship in/by the Spirit of God.”

In human terms, then, Paul had every reason to be confident—more so than others. By “I have more,” Paul perhaps meant simply that he had the best possible credentials that any Jew could have; but it is possible that the “anyone else” refers in particular to those Gentiles who had succumbed to the teaching of Judaizers and become proselytes. Paul himself had been circumcised on the eighth day, as the law required (Lev 12:3), because he was an Israelite by race (v. 5), and not a proselyte. The translation “of the people of Israel” in the NRSV and the NIV is misleading. The Greek word ge;nov (genos) implies racial descent, and Paul means that he was Jewish by birth. Paul had taken pride in the fact that he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin—perhaps because Benjamin was one of Jacob's favorite sons and because the tribe had later remained faithful to the house of David. His claims are summed up in the phrase “a Hebrew of Hebrews”: He is a Hebrew, born of pure Hebrew stock. It is possible that the phrase implies a knowledge of the Hebrew language, which few Jews any longer spoke.

3:5-6. In addition to these inherited privileges, Paul had excelled in everything Jewish. He had been a member of the small sect of the Pharisees, who were faithful and sincere upholders of the law. Pharisees were renowned for their strict adherence to the law, and spelled out the implications of every regulation in the law in an attempt to avoid any accidental infringement. They also believed that the levitical rules of purity for the priests should be applied to all Jews, since the whole nation should be holy to God. Paul's summary of his own credentials adds further irony to his description in v. 2 of a group of Jews as “dogs,” “workers of evil,” and “the mutilation”: To Pharisees above all others, such people had no claim to belong to Israel. Paul's zeal for the law had been evidenced by his persecution of the church (v. 6; cf. Gal 1:13). And because he had lived in accordance with Pharisaic standards, he had been blameless in terms of what the law demanded. The NIV's “legalistic righteousness” is unfortunate. Paul is not caricaturing his previous life as a religion of legalism; on the contrary, he is listing it among the privileges he once possessed. But this was the righteousness specified in the law, not the righteousness of God (Rom 10:3), and being blameless according to its precepts was not sufficient (cf. Mark 10:20-21 and par.). The NRSV's triple “as to” in vv. 5-6 reflects well the rhythm of the Greek.

3:7-9. Paul now uses the image of a profit-and-loss account to compare the advantages he enjoyed as a Jew with those that have come to him as a result of his being in Christ. The things that he had once regarded as assets he now writes off as a loss for the sake of Christ (v. 7). After this initial contrast between the two sides of the ledger, the next few lines reiterate and amplify this idea of his overwhelming gain in Christ (the amplifications are in italics):

He regards everything as loss for the surpassing value/greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord; for the sake of Jesus Christ, indeed, he has lost all things and regards them as rubbish, in order that he might gain Christ and be found in him.

The core statement is repeated, with slight variations, three times over: “These/all things I con-

 

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 sider loss/I have lost for the sake of Christ [Jesus my Lord].” A similar comparison between what was once regarded as valuable and the overwhelming value of what is now on offer is found in the parable of the pearl of great price (Matt 13:45-46).

Paul's skillful use of repetition and expansion emphasizes the point he is making. The noun “gain” (ke"rdov kerdos, v. 7) is echoed by the verb “to gain” (kerdai;nw kerdaino, v. 8), the verb “regard/consider” (hJge"omai hegeomai) is used three times, as is the name “Christ”; the noun “loss” (zhmi;a zemia) occurs twice, followed by the verb “to lose” (zhmio"w zemioo); the adjective pa"nta (panta) is used twice, a fact that is obscured by English translations that switch from “everything” to “all things.” The triple statement of the same theme (clearer in the NRSV than in the NIV) builds up to a climax that leaves us in no doubt that the gain of being “in Christ” far outweighs the value of everything Paul once possessed. The fact that on the third occasion he uses a passive verb (ejzhmiw"qhn ezemiothen), “I have lost/suffered the loss,” may indicate that he has been forcibly stripped of his privileges by his fellow Jews, who now disown him. Nevertheless, Paul's point is that he has willingly abandoned things that he no longer values. The word he now uses to describe them, sku;bala (skybala), is in fact more contemptuous than the translation “rubbish” suggests, for it means literally “excrement” or “refuse.” That Paul now regards his former privileges in this way has already been demonstrated by his language in v. 2.

The things that Paul now prizes are “knowing Christ Jesus” (v. 8), being “found in him” (v. 9), and having the righteousness that comes “from God.” What does Paul understand by “knowing Christ”? Some commentators have suggested that Paul is here influenced by the language of Gnosticism, but it seems more likely that the influence (if there was any) was in the other direction. It is far more probable that his words are rooted in the OT understanding of religion as the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is based on God's self-revelation to the people and is, therefore, both an acknowledgment of what God has done and a recognition of God's claims upon the people. To know God is thus to honor God and to obey God's will; it is not simply to have knowledge of “facts” about God but to enter into a personal relationship. Here, however, Paul speaks about knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. This phrase immediately reminds us of the passage in the previous chapter in which Paul described how Christ Jesus acted in such a way that he was acknowledged as universal Lord. We have seen that this passage was an account of the unfolding of Christ's character, and hence also a revelation of the nature of God, and that it led into the demand for an appropriate response, in obedience, from the Philippians (2:12-13). The Christ whom Paul desires to know is the Christ who emptied himself and was obedient to death: To know him is to be like him. Precisely what it means to know Christ Jesus as Lord was spelled out in 2:1-15, and pointing us back to that passage is Paul's threefold use of the verb he used in 2:6 of Christ, “consider/regard” (hegeomai), which he now uses of himself. Just as Christ considered the privileges that belonged to equality with God as something he should not exploit, and therefore abandoned them, so also Paul has now abandoned all the privileges that belonged to him as a Jew, because he does not consider them of value in comparison with knowing Christ. For Paul, therefore, to know Christ as Lord means to acknowledge his actions as the self-revelation of God and to recognize Christ's claims by adopting the same pattern for his own life.

These ideas are spelled out even more clearly in the third statement of Paul's theme in vv. 8-9. He has abandoned his old privileges in order to gain Christ and to be found in him. It is probably no accident that the word euJreqw' (heuretho, “be found”) echoes the participle used of Christ in 2:7: Christ was found in human form, and Paul is now found in Christ. This is an experience Paul already enjoys; there is, therefore, no need to assume, as some commentators have done, that Paul must be thinking of being found in Christ on the last day.

Paul now expresses the contrast in a new way: He has abandoned his own righteousness, a righteousness he described in vv. 5-6 as being “from the law,” for that which comes “through faith in Christ” (v. 9). This new righteousness, which denotes a right relationship with Christ, is “from God” and is “based on/by faith.” Paul has more to say about the righteousness he shares as a result 

 

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 of being in Christ than about the old righteousness he has abandoned, but it is worth noting which phrases here are balanced against each other. The obvious example is the contrast between the righteousness that is “from the law” and that which is “from God.” The contrast is a familiar one in Pauline literature. In Rom 8:3, for example, he sums up his argument (set out in the preceding chapters) that the law could not bring true righteousness, by declaring that what the law could not do God has now done: God has sent the Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, with the result that men and women are declared righteous in him. The contrast in that passage between the law and God is not meant to suggest that the law is evil. Paul has spent the whole of Romans 7:1 arguing that the law (given by God!) is good, but that it is ineffectual because of the weakness of the flesh. We see echoes of this argument in Philippians in the description of Christ's incarnation (2:7), in the reference to the flesh (3:3-4), and in the contrast between the righteousness that comes from the law and that which comes from God.

In contrast to the righteousness Paul calls his own (cf. also Rom 10:3), based on his own endeavors, he sets that which is “through faith in Christ.” The precise meaning of the phrase pi;stiv Cristou' (pistis Christou), here translated “faith in Christ,” is much disputed. The noun pistis is broader in meaning than our English word “faith,” and it can also mean the faithfulness that is the basis of faith. However, the chief problem is that in Greek we have a genitive that may be either subjective or objective; it could mean, therefore, either the faith (or faithfulness) that was Christ's or our faith in Christ. The traditional English translation is the one given in the NRSV and the NIV, but the alternative is given in the NRSV note. Which is the correct interpretation here? Opinion is sharply divided, and for an informed judgment one needs to consider all the passages where Paul uses the phrase (the other examples are found at Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16 [twice], 20; 3:22; and, in some MSS, 3:26). In Philippians, we should note that at the end of the verse Paul spells out the fact that the righteousness he has in Christ comes to him through faith: Is he simply repeating himself? This final phrase—“based on/by faith”—is not balanced by any comparable phrase about the righteousness that comes from the law, and it is difficult to explain why Paul should think it necessary to repeat the reference to faith if he has already said that the righteousness from God comes to us through our faith in Christ. Moreover, we expect the righteousness that is opposed to what he terms his own righteousness to be that which belongs to Christ himself—the righteousness pronounced by God on one who has faith or is faithful (cf. Paul's comment about the faith of Abraham in Rom 4:3) and now shared by those who are “found in him.” This righteousness would then be understood as being “from God” but through the faithfulness of Christ (the preposition dia [dia, “through”], used with the genitive, has an instrumental sense). Finally, we should note that it is appropriate if Paul has Christ's own faith or faithfulness in mind here, in view of what was said in 2:6-11 about Christ's self-emptying and obedience (the result of faith!) and consequent vindication. For all these reasons, it seems likely that the genitive is subjective and that Paul is thinking here of the righteousness that is shared by those in Christ because of the faithfulness of Christ himself.28

3:10-11. Verse 10 introduces another purpose clause, though its precise relationship to what Paul has been saying is not clear. However we explain the grammar, this verse picks up and expands the idea of “knowing Christ,” which was mentioned in v. 8. Paul's aim is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” We are surprised to find Paul mentioning Christ's resurrection before his sufferings and death, but he links our righteousness (v. 9) with Christ's resurrection elsewhere (Rom 4:25). The term used in Romans is dikai;wsiv (dikaiosis), meaning “vindication,” rather than dikaiosu;nh (dikaiosyne), “righteousness” (as in v. 9), which suggests that there is a sense in which believers share in the vindication of Christ at his resurrection; see also Rom 5:18, where Christ's obedience (cf. Phil 2:8) leads to acquittal and to life for all. Belief in the resurrection of the body was a distinctively Jewish idea.

 

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 It was taken over into Christianity, but was now understood to be dependent on the resurrection of Christ.

Christ's resurrection is described elsewhere as the result of an act of divine power (Rom 1:4). Here, it is seen as itself the source of power in the lives of believers. Those who are in Christ share his faith, his righteousness, and his resurrection—but only if they are prepared to share also in “his sufferings.” Paul uses once again the word koinwni;a (koinonia), meaning “sharing/fellowship,” which he used in 1:5 (cf. 2:1 and 4:15, and in particular 1:7 and 4:14, where compounds of the word are used with reference to suffering). This is an experience that has already begun for Paul and the Philippians! Christians must be ready to become “like [Christ] in his death” (cf. Rom 8:17). The verb meaning “becoming like” (summorfo;w symmorphoo), provides another echo of 2:6-7 (morfh morphe), as does qa;natov (thanatos), “death,” as though to remind us once again that being in Christ means following his example. Being conformed to Christ's death is an ongoing process in the life of the believer (cf. 2 Cor 4:10-12), but attaining “the resurrection from the dead” clearly lies in the future—even though Christians already know the power of Christ's resurrection (worked by God) in their lives! Now we realize that Paul mentions Christ's resurrection before his death because he is describing Christian experience. It is the power of Christ's resurrection that is at work in Paul's life, even in the midst of suffering, and that provides the assurance of his own future resurrection.

The introductory “if somehow” in v. 11 seems to introduce an element of doubt, but Paul can hardly be dubious about whether those who are in Christ will share his resurrection. The phrase is intended, rather, to remind the Philippians that Christians have not yet arrived at their final destination. Christ's resurrection has already occurred, but their own lies in the future, and it is necessary to go on “being conformed” to Christ's obedience and death if they are to attain the resurrection. The fact that their righteousness is “from God” does not absolve them from moral endeavor, for the goal still lies ahead—a theme Paul elaborates on in vv. 12-16.

REFLECTIONS

  1. At first sight, Paul's bitter attack on those whom he characterizes as “dogs” (3:2) does not seem very promising material for Christian exposition. We need to remember, however, that behind the sarcasm, what he is denouncing is the attitude that claims exclusive rights to divine favor and bars the great majority of men and women from fellowship with God. The language Paul uses is a parody of the terms that were used by devout Jews to distinguish between themselves and outsiders, and the terms he hurls at this group echo those that they would have used of those people who in their view were excluded from God's people. To them, Gentile “dogs” and those who did not observe the law—doers of evil—were outside God's covenant, the essential mark of which was circumcision. In contrast to their claim that they alone were God's holy people, Paul maintains that the true people of God consist of all who worship by the Spirit of God (3:3). It is the presence of God's Spirit, therefore, that is now the essential mark of God's people—the Spirit who was at work in Jesus and who was poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike when they believed the gospel—and through that Spirit they are now able to worship God sincerely. What Paul is offering us, therefore, is an inclusive model of the people of God rather than an exclusive one. No one need be kept out, for this community is open to all.

Unfortunately, the early Christians quickly succumbed to the temptation to adopt the exclusive model for themselves. They soon came to regard Jews as dogs.29 All too quickly the conviction of a few that they alone were the elect of God infected, in turn, various sections of the Christian community, each of which claimed that their particular beliefs and practices

 

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 were the essential hallmarks of the church, and that others, therefore, were not true believers. Far too often, religious people imagine that they “know” the mind of the Lord and suppose that God shares their prejudices and beliefs! The result is that they try to keep God to themselves and imagine that the privilege of belonging to God (a privilege meant for the entire human race) makes them superior to other people. In relationships with people from other denominations and of other faiths, it is very easy for Christians to suppose that their own prejudices and preferences represent God's will and that those of other people are inferior. If Paul were alive today, might he not condemn many of us for claiming exclusive understanding of the divine will and for forgetting that all who worship God by the Spirit belong to God's people? While the presence of the Spirit should mean unity, it does not mean uniformity, for the Spirit's gifts are many and varied (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 12:1), and members of the Christian community are very different. But through the same Spirit, all may worship God.

As time passed and the Letter to the Philippians, along with Paul's other letters, was accepted as Scripture and became part of what we now know as the New Testament, the original circumstances in which Paul was writing were forgotten. Readers forgot that his purpose in this passage was to defend the rights of Gentiles to be Christians against a majority in the church who assumed that it was necessary to first become a Jew in order to be a Christian. The result was that Paul's words took on a very different meaning; taken out of their original context, they appeared to be a condemnation of all Jews. Tragically, this misunderstanding encouraged the growth of anti-Semitism in the church, and Paul's words were interpreted as anti-Jewish polemic. We need to be very careful when reading Scripture! It is so easy to misunderstand it and to assume that we can simply read it without considering what it meant to its original readers and why its authors were writing as they did. Precisely because it is so difficult to recover the original situation, many people today concentrate simply on the text as we have it. In this passage, we see clearly how, by doing that, one might assume that Paul was endorsing bigotry and exclusion, when, in fact, these were the attitudes he was attacking.

2. Privileges of birth and circumstance can easily lead to pride and boasting, and that is just as true in the modern world as it was for the first-century Jew. Perhaps it is surprising that Paul claims that Christians also boast—but this is a very different kind of boasting! Those who now belong to God's people are described as boasting/glorying in Christ Jesus, in contrast to those who have confidence in the flesh (3:3). Once again, Paul offers us an inclusive understanding of God's people instead of an exclusive one. Whereas the things about which Paul had once boasted (3:4-6) separated him from others, being in Christ unites all who boast in him, for they worship in the Spirit of God, relying on God alone. Thus no one can claim to be better than any other person. In the realm of what Paul calls “the flesh,” some are inevitably superior to others; but in the realm of the Spirit, in which those who are “in Christ” live, these distinctions are abolished (Gal 3:28), and the different gifts given to individuals are signs of their unity, not of division. No one group of Christians can claim that the particular gift given to them is superior to those given to others, nor can they claim that they are superior to others (1 Corinthians 12:1–14). Those who are in Christ boast in him alone, and the fact that he was born in human likeness and lived a human life as it was meant to be lived has opened up to all humans the possibility of sharing that life.

3. In this passage, Paul is spelling out some of the implications of what it means to believe. To believe in the gospel is to put one's trust in God. We need at least four terms in English—“faith,” “belief,” “trust,” “faithfulness”—to convey all the meanings of one Greek noun, pi;stiv (pistis). To trust in something or someone means to rely on them, and complete trust suggests that there is no need to rely on anything else. So if men and women come to put their trust in God, they must abandon all other props. It is easy to think of faith in very positive terms, as acceptance—acceptance of the grace of God at work in Christ—and to forget 

 

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 this other, more negative aspect of faith—the need for renunciation. Before Paul could accept Christ, he had to renounce those things on which, as a Jew, he had relied (3:7-11). Just as the rich young ruler had to renounce his wealth in order to become a disciple (Matt 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-27; Luke 18:18-26), so also Paul had to renounce the privileges that kept him from accepting the gifts that were now offered him in Christ. He does renounce them, not because they were wrong in themselves (both the law and circumcision had been given by God), but because they belong to the old era of the flesh and have been replaced by something far better: a new relationship with God, freely offered to all, and not confined to those who were able to claim to be righteous according to the law.

In spite of Paul's contrast between the righteousness of his own that he has abandoned and the righteousness that comes in Christ, it is all too easy for Christians to cling to what they regard as their own righteousness. We assume that our faithful attendance at church, our Christian conduct and adherence to moral principles, deserve some special consideration from God and constitute some special claim on God. Again and again, when disaster falls, people ask, “Why did this happen to me?” as though living an upright life ought to give them some kind of immunity from suffering. There are even some television evangelists who preach a perversion of the gospel, suggesting that God rewards believers with material goods. How seriously, then, do we take Paul's declaration that he regards his own righteousness as worthless, compared with that offered to him in Christ?

4. At his conversion, Paul renounced reliance on the law. The problem was not that the law was evil, but rather that the good could be the enemy of the best. Paul, in his zeal to keep the law of God, had persecuted Christians, a clear indication that righteousness according to the law could be opposed to the righteousness of God. Now he discovered that loving other people was more important than living according to a set of rules. Was this a lesson that had not been learned by one earnest Christian who caused his brother great pain because he thought it more important to worship in his own church on Sunday morning than to join a family lunch to celebrate his brother's eightieth birthday? It is easy to be so caught up in church activities and good works that we forget that God is worshiped and served in the ways we relate to others and in the way we live our everyday lives. It is possible to be so busy striving after what we are sure is right that we can miss more important needs. Yet we must be careful not to fall into the opposite temptation! Abandoning one's own righteousness for that of God can easily lead to the temptation to suppose that there is no need for moral endeavor or personal discipline. Paul insists that the Christian must become what he or she already is. Luther expressed the same idea somewhat differently when he said that the nature of a Christian does not lie in what he or she has become, but in what that person is becoming.

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