mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing

Study Notes – Philippians 3 7-14

We are studying Philippians 3:7-14 for Sunday, February 3. This is the continuation, and really the culmination, of Paul’s exposition of the mind of Christ in the earlier chapters of this letter to the church in Philippi. It illustrates, as I read it, just how we are to understand the message of chapter 2 and the Christ hymn as it applies to our own situation – at least, it illustrates how Paul understands that message as it applies to his situation.

Here are my [kind of long this time] notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are finishing up our reading of Philippians. If we were reading this in one sitting – perhaps sitting in church having this letter read to our whole little assembly by someone who could do that – we would have just finished hearing Paul’s discussion of the mind of Christ and his encouragement of good behavior that follows that.

Now, it seems, Paul is turning to another matter: how we ought to think about people who might show up suggesting that we be more scrupulous about following formal Jewish covenantal practices. This doesn’t seem to be a current big issue in the church in Philippi, the way it was for the church in Galatia as evidenced by the letter to the Galatians. But maybe the same people who have been touring Galatia will decide to travel over to Macedonia, you never know. At least – maybe that’s why Paul includes this warning here. Maybe this is a hot button issue in the early church that the Philippians will know about and Paul is trying to get his two cents in. Or maybe he has another reason.

In any event, the lead up to our text for Sunday is a little warning in v.2 to “beware of the dogs, beware of the evil-workers, beware of the ‘mutilators of the flesh.’” It’s a little polished gem of rhetoric here, with its triple repetition, and its play on the word for circumcision in Greek (literally, “around-cut” in Greek, as well as the Latin from which English just borrows it). That word play just completely fails in English, because we don’t have a similarly-formed word with a neat alternative meaning the way Greek has katatomē, which is translated “mutilators of the flesh” and which literally means something like “‘according-to’ cut.”

I’m making a big deal out of this mainly because it seems to me that in verses 5-6 (still part of the context of our text) Paul keeps playing on this particular word-play, by listing all of his genuine Israelite credentials and finishing that list up with how “according to” the law he was a Pharisee and “according to” zeal he persecuted the church and “according to” righteousness he was blameless. He was looking good according to the “according to” people.

Those proof-text-ers of the ancient world.

And then, starting in verse 7, he throws it all away. For something better.

CLOSER READING: As I read it, verses 7-14 mirror the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, both in form and in content. That mirroring is meaningful and intentional, I suspect – because I don’t think this kind of rhetoric normally happens by accident.

Here’s the evidence: first, the emphatic use of the verb regard in verses 7 and 8 – Paul regarding all his high-spiritual-status-markers as nothing, as less than nothing, in fact. This is the same verb he used in Philippians 2:6 to describe how Jesus regarded his equality with God.

We might miss the parallel here because we don’t have the same emotional and theological attitude towards Paul’s pure-blood credentials that the citizens of the ancient world would have had. But in 3:5-6, he’s really laying out a huge, well-established set of claims to being about as godly a human being as a person could be. A born and certified member of the covenant community, being circumcised on the eighth day; a pure-blood, not a half-breed or a Hellenist or a proselyte; a royal – because don’t forget that the tribe of Benjamin gave Israel its first king – and someone whose family cared enough to keep track of their ancestry; from the right seminary and with the right CV and with an impeccable reputation and the certification to back that up.

If a person could be guaranteed to be one of God’s people, according to the “according to” people, then Paul would be that person.

So now in v7, Paul doesn’t regard all this picture-perfect patrimony as gain – in the same way that Jesus didn’t regard his equality with God as a prize, booty, capital.

Instead, he regards it as loss, he undergoes loss, he looks at everything as loss – another triple repetition. One to make us think he regards it as something to be invalidated, as something to be rid of, as something to be emptied?

As something to be eliminated, literally: the word translated in English as “rubbish” is a Greek word that means excrement in straightforward contexts, and can mean “refuse” or “leavings” kind of by extension. There has been a lot of research on this particular word, because people want to get the emotional tone of the language Paul uses here just right. It seems clear that it’s not exactly vulgar language, but it is strong language and it is meant to indicate disgust – he’s not just “dropping” all those supposedly wonderful credentials, he’s throwing them out with disgust.

[Added 01.30.19: The first version of this post was missing a couple links relevant to the skubalon question. Here they are: the four part series by koine greek that’s interesting and instructive – but be prepared for a lot of Greek – and Daniel B. Wallace’s summary word study at]

I relate to it like this: I have a couple of diplomas framed and hanging on the wall of my office. But if I once thought that education was the thing most worth having in life, the thing that really makes a person acceptable and fulfilled, and then had seen with agonizing clarity the error of that way of thinking, had seen the futility of relying on education to secure my value as a person or to prove I’ve done something with my life, so that getting those educational credentials did nothing but hold me back from all that really matters in life, and the credentials themselves represent nothing but a completely wrong-headed waste of a couple of decades of my precious life striving for something that didn’t even matter … then I might feel like throwing them over the cliff behind the house, which is what we do with the grass clippings and the over-ripe bananas and the dead voles our cat leaves us on the patio.

I suspect this is how artists and writers feel when they turn on their own work and burn it.

Or how Thomas Aquinas felt when he reportedly said, shortly before he died, “All that I have written seems like straw.” That would have included the Summa Theologica, one of the greatest works of theology of all time. Fortunately for us, we still have that straw.

Which is a good reminder: it would be a bad mistake for us to take Paul’s remarks here as a denigration of Judaism, whether in the abstract, or as someone else’s religion.

Christians have taken them that way, as we know, over the centuries.

We know how that history ends up, too – monstrously badly. I think we are entitled to use that knowledge in reading this passage, to keep us from making that same mistake again.

Our history of denigrating Judaism is probably what keeps us from recognizing Philippians 3:4-6 for what it is in the first place: an obvious jaw-dropping statement of high status, akin to mentioning “after all, I’m a Supreme Court Justice.”

So the point is not that Judaism per se is a bad thing.

The point is not even that Paul himself has “stopped being Jewish” in any way. [The “new scholarship” on Paul has been revising our thinking along these lines for awhile now. A very readable summary along those lines is Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul Was Not a Christian.]

The point is that Paul has a different paradigm in mind about what matters in life now: the paradigm of Christ. So his old way of thinking about his identity, excellent as that is, even with all the status, power, prestige and privilege that identity commands, doesn’t accord with that new paradigm, so it has to go.

Notice how verses 10-11 mirror Philippians 2:8-9: as Jesus was obedient to the demands of his humanity, even unto death, so Paul wants to become like Christ, sharing the demands of that likeness, even the sufferings and the death – and then even, he hopes, the [exaltation of the] resurrection from the dead.

Skipping over verse 9 – there’s a translation issue there, the phrase translated faith in Christ is a tricky grammatical form that has to be interpreted in context – but we don’t really have enough context here to tell us exactly how Paul means it. The issue is exactly the same one we would have in English with the phrase “for the love of God.” Does “the love of God” mean the love we have for God, or does it mean the love that belongs to God, the love God possesses, hopefully for us? So, does “the faith of Christ” – which is literally what it says – mean “the faith that has Christ as its object” or does it mean “the faith that belonged to Christ, that Christ had or has”?

As you can imagine, since how we read this could conceivably have profound theological implications, there has been a lot of … discussion about it over the centuries.

But let’s face it: it’s not as if this is really an either-or. We believe Jesus had faith in God; and the Christian faith that has the faithful-unto-death Jesus as its object also always has the God in which Jesus had faith and to whom Jesus was faithful – according to about 17 centuries of Christian theology, anyway – as its object. So whether Paul meant one of those things or the other, or perhaps both of those things since we never really have one without the other, Christians have gone along with Paul in wanting to affirm that the righteousness that comes through faith of Christ(’s) is the righteousness we really want.

In v12, the verb translated press on is the same one Paul used in v6 when he talked about persecuting the church.

Notice that the verb in v12 translated “has made me his own” can also mean something like “has taken hold of” or “has grasped.” It is related to the verb that occurs in Greek in v7 – where Jesus “takes on” the form of a servant, after having let go of that equality with God that was not something to be grasped. So, instead of holding on to equality with God, Jesus has taken hold of Paul … has taken hold of us.

Notice what Jesus regarded as worth taking hold of.

Christ rescuing Adam and Eve from hell as shown in heroic iconic style

Maybe just a coincidence, but this verb, this “has taken hold of” that Christ has done that is the reason Paul is thinking what he’s thinking and doing what he’s doing, has that same Greek prefix that popped up earlier in the word play in v2 and the litany in v6, only here it’s attached to a context that has transformed it into something inestimably valuable.

Since the prize in v14 seems to be the call itself, the call of God in Christ Jesus, which is the destination of this having been taken hold of by Christ.

Except that I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all.

I think it’s Paul, the absolutely BRILLIANT writer, still making the point, on purpose, about what his identity as a person taken hold of by Christ means to him. A point he wants to communicate, using every rhetorical tool he has in hand, to the Philippians.

And to any other people Christ Jesus has taken hold of.

And to us.

mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing

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