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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Philippians 3



Other Authors
Verses 1-21

Chapter 3


3:1 As for what remains, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. It is no trouble to me to write the same things to you, and for you it is safe.

Paul sets down two very important things.

(i) He sets down what we might call the indestructibility of Christian joy. He must have felt that he had been setting a high challenge before the Philippian Church. For them there was the possibility of the same kind of persecution, and even the same kind of death, as threatened himself. From one point of view it looked as if Christianity was a grim job. But in it and beyond it all there was joy. "Your joy," said Jesus, "no one will take from you" (John 16:22).

There is a certain indestructibility in Christian joy; and it is so, because Christian joy is in the Lord. Its basis is that the Christian lives for ever in the presence of Jesus Christ. He can lose all things, and he can lose all people, but he can never lose Christ. And, therefore, even in circumstances where joy would seem to be impossible and there seem to be nothing but pain and discomfort, Christian joy remains, because not all the threats and terrors and discomforts of life can separate the Christian from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord (Romans 8:35-39).

In 1756 a letter came to John Wesley from a father who had a prodigal son. When the revival swept England the son was in York jail. "It pleased God," wrote the father, "not to cut him off in his sins. He gave him time to repent; and not only so, but a heart to repent." The lad was condemned to death for his misdeeds; and the father's letter goes on: "His peace increased daily, till on Saturday, the day he was to die, he came out of the condemned-room, clothed in his shroud, and went into the cart. As he went on, the cheerfulness and composure of his countenance were amazing to all the spectators." The lad had found a joy which not even the scaffold could take away.

It often happens that men can stand the great sorrows and the great trials of life but are undone by what are almost minor inconveniences. But this Christian joy enables a man to accept even them with a smile. John Nelson was one of Wesley's most famous early preachers. He and Wesley carried out a mission in Cornwall, near Land's End, and Nelson tells about it. "All that time, Mr. Wesley and I lay on the floor: he had my greatcoat for a pillow, and I had Burkitt's notes on the New Testament for mine. After being here near three weeks, one morning about three o'clock Mr. Wesley turned over, and, finding me awake, clapped me on the side, saying: 'Brother Nelson, let us be of good cheer: I have one whole side yet, for the skin is off but on one side!'" They had little enough even to eat. One morning Wesley had preached with great effect: "As we returned, Mr. Wesley stopped his horse to pick the blackberries, saying: 'Brother Nelson, we ought to be thankful that there are plenty blackberries; for this is the best country I ever saw for getting a stomach, but the worst I ever saw for getting food!'" Christian joy made Wesley able to accept the great blows of life, and also to greet the lesser discomforts with a jest. If the Christian really walks with Christ, he walks with joy.

(ii) Here also Paul sets down what we might call the necessity of repetition. He says that he proposes to write things to them that he has written before. This is interesting, for it must mean that Paul had written other letters to the Philippians which have not survived. This is nothing to be surprised at. Paul was writing letters from A.D. 48 to A.D. 64, sixteen years, but we possess only thirteen. Unless there were long periods when he never put pen to paper there must have been many more letters which are now lost.

Like any good teacher, Paul was never afraid of repetition. It may well be that one of our faults is our desire for novelty. The great saving truths of Christianity do not change; and we cannot hear them too often. We do not tire of the foods which are the essentials of life. We expect to eat bread and to drink water every day; and we must listen again and again to the truth which is the bread and the water of life. No teacher must find it a trouble to go over and over again the great basic truths of the Christian faith; for that is the way to ensure the safety of his hearers. We may enjoy the "fancy things" at meat times, but it is the basic foods on which we live. Preaching and teaching and studying the side-issues may be attractive, and these have their place, but the fundamental truths can neither be spoken nor heard too often for the safety of our souls.

THE EVIL TEACHERS (Philippians 3:2-3)

3:2-3 Be on your guard against the dogs; be on your guard against the evil workers; be on your guard against the party of mutilation; for we are the truly circumcised, we who worship in the Spirit of God; we whose proud boast is in Jesus Christ, we who place no confidence in merely human things.

Quite suddenly Paul's accent changes to that of warning. Wherever he taught, the Jews followed him and tried to undo his teaching. It was the teaching of Paul that we are saved by grace alone, that salvation is the free gift of God, that we can never earn it but can only humbly and adoringly accept what God has offered to us; and, further, that the offer of God is to all men of all nations and that none is excluded. It was the teaching of these Jews that, if a man wished to be saved, he must earn credit in the sight of God by countless deeds of the law; and, further that salvation belonged to the Jews and to no one else, and that, before God could have any use for him, a man must be circumcised and, as it were, become a Jew. Here Paul rounds upon these Jewish teachers who were seeking to undo his work. He calls them three things, carefully chosen to throw their claims back upon themselves.

(i) "Beware of the dogs," he says. With us the dog is a well-loved animal, but it was not so in the East in the time of Jesus. The dogs were the pariah dogs, roaming the streets, sometimes in packs, hunting amidst the garbage dumps and snapping and snarling at all whom they met. J. B. Lightfoot speaks of "the dogs which prowl about eastern cities, without a home and without an owner, feeding on the refuse and filth of the streets, quarrelling among themselves, and attacking the passer-by."

In the Bible the dog always stands for that than which nothing can be lower. When Saul is seeking to take his life, David's demand is: "After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! after a flea!" (1 Samuel 24:14, compare 2 Kings 8:13; Psalms 22:16; Psalms 22:20). In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, part of the torture of Lazarus is that the street dogs annoy him by licking his sores (Luke 16:21). In Deuteronomy the Law brings together the price of a dog and the hire of a whore, and declares that neither must be offered to God (Deuteronomy 23:18). In Revelation the word dog stands for those who are so impure that they are debarred from the Holy City (Revelation 22:15). That which is holy must never be given to dogs (Matthew 7:6). It is the same in Greek thought; the dog stands for everything that is shamelessly unclean.

It was by this name that the Jews called the Gentiles. There is a Rabbinic saying, "The nations of the world are like dogs." So this is Paul's answer to the Jewish teachers. He says to them, "In your proud self-righteousness, you call other men dogs; but it is you who are dogs, because you shamelessly pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ." He takes the very name the Jewish teachers would have applied to the impure and to the Gentiles and flings it back at themselves. A man must always have a care that he is not himself guilty of the sins of which he accuses others.

(ii) He calls them evil workers, workers of evil things. The Jews would be quite sure that they were workers of righteousness. It was their view that to keep the Law's countless rules and regulations was to work righteousness. But Paul was certain that the only kind of righteousness there is comes from casting oneself freely upon the grace of God. The effect of their teaching was to take men further away from God instead of to bring them nearer to him. They thought they were working good, but in fact they were working evil. Every teacher must be more anxious to listen to God than to propagate his own opinions or he, too, will run the risk of being a worker of evil, even when he thinks that he is a worker of righteousness.

THE ONLY TRUE CIRCUMCISION (Philippians 3:2-3 continued)

(iii) Lastly, he calls them, the party of mutilation. There is a pun in the Greek which is not transferable to English. There are two Greek verbs which are very like each other. Peritemnein (Greek #4059) means to circumcise; katatemnein means to mutilate, as in Leviticus 21:5, which describes forbidden self-mutilation, such as castration. Paul says, "You Jews think that you are circumcised; in point of fact, you are only mutilated."

What is the point of this? According to Jewish belief, circumcision was ordained upon Israel as sign and symbol that they were the people with whom God had entered into a special relationship. The story of the beginning of that sign is in Genesis 17:9-10. When God entered into his special covenant with Abraham, circumcision was laid down as its eternal sign. Now, circumcision is only a sign in the flesh, something done to a man's body. But if a man is to be in special relationship with God, something far more is needed than a mark in his body. He must have a certain kind of mind and heart and character. This is where at least some of the Jews made the mistake. They regarded circumcision in itself as being enough to set them apart specially for God. Long, long before this, the great teachers and the great prophets had seen that circumcision of the flesh is by itself not nearly enough and that there was needed a spiritual circumcision. In Leviticus the sacred law-giver says that the uncircumcised hearts of Israel must be humbled to accept the punishment of God (Leviticus 26:41). The summons of the writer of Deuteronomy is: "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn" (Deuteronomy 10:16). He says that the Lord will circumcise their hearts to make them love him (Deuteronomy 30:6). Jeremiah speaks of the uncircumcised ear, the ear that will not hear the word of God (Jeremiah 6:10). The writer of Exodus speaks of uncircumcised lips (Exodus 6:12).

So what Paul says is, "If you have nothing to show but circumcision of the flesh, you are not really circumcised--you are only mutilated. Real circumcision is devotion of heart and mind and life to God."

Therefore, says Paul, it is the Christians who are the truly circumcised. They are circumcised, not with the outward mark in the flesh, but with that inner circumcision of which the great law-givers and teachers and prophets spoke. What then are the signs of that real circumcision? Paul sets out three.

(i) We worship in the Spirit of God; or, we worship God in the Spirit. Christian worship is not a thing of ritual or of the observation of details of the Law; it is a thing of the heart. It is perfectly possible for a man to go through an elaborate liturgy and yet have a heart that is far away from God. It is perfectly possible for him to observe all the outward observances of religion and yet have hatred and bitterness and pride in his heart. The true Christian worships God, not with outward forms and observances, but with the true devotion and the real sincerity of his heart. His worship is love of God and service of men.

(ii) Our only boast is in Jesus Christ. The only boast of the Christian is not in what he has done for himself but in what Christ has done for him. His only pride is that he is a man for whom Christ died.

In the Cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o'er the wrecks of Time;

All the light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime.

(iii) We place no confidence in merely human things. The Jew placed his confidence in the physical badge of circumcision and in the performance of the duties of the Law. The Christian places his confidence only in the mercy of God and in the love of Jesus Christ. The Jew in essence trusted himself ; the Christian in essence trusts God.

The real circumcision is not a mark in the flesh; it is that true worship, that true glory, and that true confidence in the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

THE PRIVILEGES OF PAUL (Philippians 3:4-7)

3:4-7 And yet it remains true that I have every ground of confidence from the human point of view. If anyone has reason to think that he has grounds for confidence in his human heritage and attainments, I have more. I was circumcised when I was eight days old: I am of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin: I am a Hebrew, born of Hebrew parents. As far as the Law goes, I was a Pharisee: as for zeal, I was a persecutor of the Churches: as for the righteousness which is in the Law, I was beyond blame. But such things as I could humanly reckon as profits, I came to the conclusion were all loss for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Paul has just attacked the Jewish teachers and insisted that it is the Christians, not the Jews, who are the truly circumcised and covenant people. His opponents might have attempted to say, "But you are a Christian and do not know what you are talking about; you do not know what it is to be a Jew." So Paul sets out his credentials, not in order to boast but to show that he had enjoyed every privilege which a Jew could enjoy and had risen to every attainment to which a Jew could rise. He knew what it was to be a Jew in the highest sense of the term, and had deliberately abandoned it all for the sake of Jesus Christ. Every phrase in this catalogue of Paul's privileges has its special meaning; let us look at each one.

(i) He had been circumcised when he was eight days old. It had been the commandment of God to Abraham: "He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you" (Genesis 17:12); and that commandment had been repeated as a permanent law of Israel (Leviticus 12:3). By this claim Paul makes it clear that he is not an Ishmaelite, for the Ishmaelites were circumcised in their thirteenth year (Genesis 17:25), nor a proselyte who had come late into the Jewish faith and been circumcised in manhood. He stresses the fact that he had been born into the Jewish faith and had known its privileges and observed its ceremonies since his birth.

(ii) He was of the race of Israel. When the Jews wished to stress their special relationship to God in its most unique sense it was the word Israelite that they used. Israel was the name which had been specially given to Jacob by God after his wrestling with him (Genesis 32:28). It was to Israel that they in the most special sense traced their heritage. In point of fact the Ishmaelites could trace their descent to Abraham, for Ishmael was Abraham's son by Hagar; the Edomites could trace their descent to Isaac, for Esau, the founder of the Edomite nation, was Isaac's son; but it was the Israelites alone who could trace their descent to Jacob, whom God had called by the name of Israel. By calling himself an Israelite, Paul stressed the absolute purity of his descent.

(iii) He was of the tribe of Benjamin. That is to say, he was not only an Israelite; he belonged to the elite of Israel. The tribe of Benjamin had a special place in the aristocracy of Israel. Benjamin was the child of Rachel, the well-loved wife of Jacob, and of all the twelve patriarchs he alone had been born in the Promised Land (Genesis 35:17-18). It was from the tribe of Benjamin that the first king of Israel had come (1 Samuel 9:1-2), and it was no doubt from that very king that Paul had been given his original name of Saul. When, under Rehoboam, the kingdom had been split up, ten of the tribes went off with Jeroboam and Benjamin was the only tribe which remained faithful with Judah (1 Kings 12:21). When they returned from the exile, it was from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah that the nucleus of the reborn nation was formed (Ezra 4:1). The tribe of Benjamin had the place of honour in Israel's battle-line, so that the battle-cry of Israel was: "After thee, O Benjamin!" ( 5:14; Hosea 5:8). The great feast of Purim, which was observed every year with such rejoicing, commemorated the deliverance of which the Book of Esther tells, and the central figure of that story was Mordecai, a Benjaminite. When Paul stated that he was of the tribe of Benjamin, it was a claim that he was not simply an Israelite but that he belonged to the highest aristocracy of Israel. It would be the equivalent in England of saying that he came over with the Normans or in America that he traced his descent to the Pilgrim fathers.

So, then, Paul claims that from his birth he was a God-fearing, Law-observing Jew; that his lineage was as pure as Jewish lineage could be; and that he belonged to the most aristocratic tribe of the Jews.

THE ATTAINMENTS OF PAUL (Philippians 3:4-7 continued)

So far Paul has been stating the privileges which came to him by birth; now he goes on to state his achievements in the Jewish faith.

(i) He was a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. This is not the same as to say that he was a true Israelite. The point is this. The history of the Jews had dispersed them all over the world. In every town and in every city and in every country there were Jews. There were tens of thousands of them in Rome; and in Alexandria there were more than a million. They stubbornly refused to be assimilated to the nations amongst whom they lived; they retained faithfully their own religion and their own customs and their own laws. But it frequently happened that they forgot their own language. They became Greek-speaking of necessity because they lived and moved in a Greek environment. A Hebrew was a Jew who was not only of pure racial descent but who had deliberately, and often laboriously, retained the Hebrew tongue. Such a Jew would speak the language of the country in which he lived but also the Hebrew which was his ancestral language.

Paul claims not only to be a pure-blooded Jew but one who still spoke Hebrew. He had been born in the Gentile city of Tarsus, but he had come to Jerusalem to be educated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and was able, for instance, when the time came, to speak to the mob in Jerusalem in their own tongue (Acts 21:40).

(ii) As far as the Law went, he was a trained Pharisee. This is a claim that Paul makes more than once (Acts 22:3; Acts 23:6; Acts 26:5). There were not very many Pharisees, never more than six thousand, but they were the spiritual athletes of Judaism. Their very name means The Separated Ones. They had separated themselves off from all common life and from all common tasks in order to make it the one aim of their lives to keep every smallest detail of the Law. Paul claims that not only was he a Jew who had retained his ancestral religion, but he had also devoted his whole life to its most rigorous observance. No man knew better from personal experience what Jewish religion was at its highest and most demanding.

(iii) As far as zeal went, he had been a persecutor of the Church. To a Jew zeal was the greatest quality in the religious life. Phinehas had saved the people from the wrath of God, and been given an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God (Numbers 25:11-13). It is the cry of the Psalmist: "Zeal for thy house has consumed me." (Psalms 69:9). A burning zeal for God was the hall-mark of Jewish religion. Paul had been so zealous a Jew that he had tried to wipe out the opponents of Judaism. That was a thing which he never forgot. Again and again he speaks of it (Acts 22:2-21; Acts 26:4-23; 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; Galatians 1:13). He was never ashamed to confess his shame and to tell men that once he had hated the Christ whom now he loved and sought to obliterate the Church which now he served. It is Paul's claim that he knew Judaism at its most intense and even fanatical heat.

(iv) As for the righteousness which the Law could produce, he was blameless. The word is amemptos (Greek #273), and J. B. Lightfoot remarks that the verb memphesthai (Greek #3201), from which it comes, means to blame for sins of omission. Paul claims that there was no demand of the Law which he did not fulfil.

So Paul states his attainments. He was so loyal a Jew that he had never lost the Hebrew speech; he was not only a religious Jew, he was a member of their strictest and the most self-disciplined sect; he had had in his heart a burning zeal for what he had thought was the cause of God; and he had a record in Judaism in which no man could mark a fault.

All these things Paul might have claimed to set down on the credit side of the balance; but when he met Christ, he wrote them off as nothing more than bad debts. The things that he had believed to be his glories were in fact quite useless. All human achievement had to be laid aside, in order that he might accept the free grace of Christ. He had to divest himself of every human claim of honour that he might accept in complete humility the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

So Paul proves to these Jews that he has the right to speak. He is not condemning Judaism from the outside. He had experienced it at its highest point; and he knew that it was nothing compared with the joy which Christ had given. He knew that the only way to peace was to abandon the way of human achievement and accept the way of grace.


3:8-9 Yes, and I still count all things loss, because of the all-surpassing value of what it means to know Jesus Christ, my Lord. For his sake I have had to undergo a total abandonment of all things, and I count them as nothing better than filth fit for the refuse heap, that I may make Christ my own, and that it may be clear to all that I am in him, not because of any righteousness of my own, that righteousness whose source is the Law, but because of the righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, the righteousness whose source is God and whose basis is faith.

Paul has just said that he came to the conclusion that all his Jewish privileges and attainments were nothing but a total loss. But, it might be argued, that was a snap decision, perhaps later to be regretted and reversed. So here he says, "I came to that conclusion--and I still think so. It was not a decision made in a moment of impulse, but one by which I still stand fast."

In this passage the key-word is righteousness. Dikaiosune (Greek #1343) is always difficult to translate in Paul's letters. The trouble is not that of seeing its meaning; the trouble is that of finding one English word which covers all it includes. Let us then try to see what Paul thinks about when he speaks about righteousness.

The great basic problem of life is to find fellowship with God and to be at peace and in friendship with him. The way to that fellowship is through righteousness, through the kind of life and spirit and attitude to himself which God desires. Because of that, righteousness nearly always for Paul has the meaning of a right relationship with God. Remembering that, we try to paraphrase this passage and to set down, not so much what Paul says, as what was in his mind.

He says, "All my life I have been trying to get into a right relationship with God. I tried to find it by strict adherence to the Jewish Law; but I found the Law and all its ways worse than useless to achieve that end. I found it no better than skubala (Greek #4657)." Skubala has two meanings. In common language it was popularly derived from kusi (compare Greek #2965) ballomena (Greek #906), which means that which is thrown to the dogs; and in medical language it means excrement, (dung, as the King James Version translates it). So, then, Paul is saying, "I found the Law and all its ways of no more use than the refuse thrown on the garbage heap to help me to get into a right relationship with God. So I gave up trying to create a goodness of my own; I came to God in humble faith, as Jesus told me to do, and I found that fellowship I had sought so long."

Paul had discovered that a right relationship with God is based not on Law but on faith in Jesus Christ. It is not achieved by any man but given by God; not won by works but accepted in trust.

So he says, "Out of my experience I tell you that the Jewish way is wrong and futile. You will never get into a right relationship with God by your own efforts in keeping the Law. You can get into a right relationship with God only by taking Jesus Christ at his word, and by accepting what God himself offers to you."

The basic thought of this passage is the uselessness of Law and the sufficiency of knowing Christ and accepting the offer of God's grace. The very language Paul uses to describe the Law--excrement--shows the utter disgust for the Law which his own frustrated efforts to live by it had brought him; and the joy that shines through the passage shows how triumphantly adequate he found the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

WHAT IT MEANS TO KNOW CHRIST (Philippians 3:10-11)

3:10-11 My object is to know him, and I mean by that, to know the power of his Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, while I continue to be made like him in his death, if by any chance I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.

Paul has already spoken of the surpassing value of the knowledge of Christ. To that thought he now returns and defines more closely what he means. It is important to note the verb which he uses for to know. It is part of the verb ginoskein (Greek #1097), which almost always indicates personal knowledge. It is not simply intellectual knowledge, the knowledge of certain facts or even principles. It is the personal experience of another person. We may see the depth of this word from a fact of Old Testament usage. The Old Testament uses to know of sexual intercourse. "Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain" (Genesis 4:1). In Hebrew the verb is yada' (Hebrew #3045) and in Greek it is translated by ginoskein (Greek #1097). This verb indicates the most intimate knowledge of another person. It is not Paul's aim to know about Christ, but personally to know him. To know Christ means for him certain things.

(i) It means to know the power of his Resurrection. For Paul the Resurrection was not simply a past event in history, however amazing. It was not simply something which had happened to Jesus, however important it was for him. It was a dynamic power which operated in the life of the individual Christian. We cannot know everything that Paul meant by this phrase; but the Resurrection of Christ is the great dynamic in at least three different directions.

(a) It is the guarantee of the importance of this life and of this body in which we live. It was in the body that Christ rose and it is this body which he sanctifies (1 Corinthians 6:13 ff.).

(b) It is the guarantee of the life to come (Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:14 ff.). Because he lives, we shall live also; his victory is our victory.

(c) It is the guarantee that in life and in death and beyond death the presence of the Risen Lord is always with us. It is the proof that his promise to be with us always to the end of the world is true.

The Resurrection of Christ is the guarantee that this life is worth living and that the physical body is sacred; it is the guarantee that death is not the end of life and that there is a world beyond; it is the guarantee that nothing in life or in death can separate us from him.

(ii) It means to know the fellowship of his sufferings. Again and again Paul returns to the thought that when the Christian has to suffer, he is in some strange way sharing the very suffering of Christ and is even filling up that suffering (2 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 4:10-11; Galatians 6:17; Colossians 1:24). To suffer for the faith is not a penalty, it is a privilege, for thereby we share the very work of Christ.

(iii) It means to be so united with Christ that day by day we come more to share in his death, so that finally we share in his Resurrection. To know Christ means that we share the way he walked; we share the Cross he bore; we share the death he died; and finally we share the life he lives for evermore.

To know Christ is not to be skilled in any theoretical or theological knowledge; it is to know him with such intimacy that in the end we are as united with him as we are with those whom we love on earth and that, as we share their experiences, so we also share his.

PRESSING ON (Philippians 3:12-16)

3:12-16 Not that I have already obtained this, or that I am already all complete but I press on to try to grasp that for which I have been grasped by Jesus Christ. Brothers, I do not count myself to have obtained; but this one thing I do--forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching out for the things which are in front, I press on towards the goal, in order that I may win the prize which God's upward calling in Christ Jesus is offering to me.

Let all of you who have graduated in the school of Christ have the same attitude of mind to life. And if anyone is otherwise minded in any way, this too God will reveal to him. Only we must always walk according to that standard which we have already reached.

Vital to the understanding of this passage is the correct interpretation of the Greek word teleios (Greek #5046) which occurs twice, rendered by the Revised Standard Version as Perfect in Philippians 3:12 and as mature in Philippians 3:15. Teleios (Greek #5046) in Greek has a variety of interrelated meanings. In by far the most of them it does not signify what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose. It means full-grown in contradistinction to undeveloped; for example, it is used of a full-grown man as opposed to an undeveloped youth. It is used to mean mature in mind and therefore means one who is qualified in a subject as opposed to a mere learner. When it is used of offerings, it means without blemish and fit to offer God. When it is used of Christians, it often means baptized persons who are full members of the Church, as opposed to those who are still under instruction. In the days of the early Church it is quite often used to describe martyrs. A martyr is said to be perfected by the sword, and the day of his death is said to be the day of his perfecting. The idea is that a man's Christian maturity cannot go beyond martyrdom.

So when Paul uses the word in Philippians 3:12, he is saying that he is not by any means a complete Christian but is for ever pressing on. Then he uses two vivid pictures.

(i) He says that he is trying to grasp that for which he has been grasped by Christ. That is a wonderful thought. Paul felt that when Christ stopped him on the Damascus Road, he had a vision and a purpose for Paul; and Paul felt that all his life he was bound to press on, lest he fail Jesus and frustrate his dream. Every man is grasped by Christ for some purpose; and, therefore, every man should all his life press on so that he may grasp that purpose for which Christ grasped him.

(ii) To that end Paul says two things. He is forgetting the things which are behind. That is to say, he will never glory in any of his achievements or use them as an excuse for relaxation. In effect Paul is saying that the Christian must forget all that he has done and remember only what he has still to do. In the Christian life there is no room for a person who desires to rest upon his laurels. He is also reaching out for the things which are in front. The word he uses for reaching out (epekteinomenos, Greek #1901) is very vivid and is used of a racer going hard for the tape. It describes him with eyes for nothing but the goal. It describes the man who is going flat out for the finish. So Paul says that in the Christian life we must forget every past achievement and remember only the goal which lies ahead.

There is no doubt that Paul is here speaking to the antinomians. They were those who denied that there was any law at all in the Christian life. They declared that they were within the grace of God and that, therefore, it did not matter what they did; God would forgive. No further discipline and no further effort were necessary. Paul is insisting that to the end of the day the Christian life is the life of an athlete pressing onwards to a goal which is always in front.

In Philippians 3:15 he again uses teleios (Greek #5046) and says that this must be the attitude of those who are teleios (Greek #5046). What he means is: "Anyone who has come to be mature in the faith and knows what Christianity is must recognize the discipline and the effort and the agony of the Christian life." He may perhaps think differently, but, if he is an honest man, God will make it plain to him that he must never relax his effort or lower his standards but must press towards the goal, until the end.

As Paul saw it, the Christian is the athlete of Christ.


3:17-21 Brothers, unite in imitating me, and keep your gaze on those who live, as you have seen us as an example. For there are many who behave in such a way--I have often spoken to you about them, and I do so now with tears--that they are enemies of the Cross of Christ. Their end is destruction: their god is their belly; that in which they glory is their shame. Men whose whole minds are earthbound! But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly await the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, for he will refashion the body which we have in this state of our humiliation and make it like his own glorious body, by the working of that power of his whereby he is able to subject all things to himself.

Few preachers would dare to make the appeal with which Paul begins this section. J. B. Lightfoot translates it: "Vie with each other in imitating me." Most preachers begin with the serious handicap that they have to say, not, "Do as I do," but, "Do as I say." Paul could say not only, "Listen to my words," but also, "Follow my example." It is worth noting in the passing that Bengel, one of the greatest interpreters of scripture who ever lived, translates this in a different way: "Become fellow-imitators with me in imitating Jesus Christ," but it is far more likely--as nearly all other interpreters are agreed--that Paul was able to invite his friends, not simply to listen to him, but also to imitate him.

There were in the Church at Philippi men whose conduct was an open scandal and who, by their lives, showed themselves to be the enemies of the Cross of Christ. Who they were is not certain. But it is quite certain that they lived gluttonous and immoral lives and used their so-called Christianity to justify themselves. We can only guess who they may have been.

They may have been Gnostics. The Gnostics were heretics who tried to intellectualize Christianity and make a kind of philosophy out of it. They began with the principle that from the beginning of time there had always been two realities--spirit and matter. Spirit, they said, is altogether good; and matter is altogether evil. It is because the world was created out of this flawed matter that sin and evil are in it. If then, matter is essentially evil, the body is essentially evil and will remain evil whatever you do with it. Therefore, do what you like with it; since it is evil anyhow it makes no difference what you do with it. So these Gnostics taught that gluttony and adultery and homosexuality and drunkenness were of no importance because they affect only the body which is of no importance.

There was another party of Gnostics who held a different kind of doctrine. They argued that a man could not be called complete until he had experienced everything that life had to offer, both good and bad. Therefore, they said, it was a man's duty to plumb the depths of sin just as much as to scale the heights of virtue.

Within the Church there were two sets of people to whom these accusations might apply. There were those who distorted the principle of Christian liberty. They said that in Christianity all law was gone and that the Christian had liberty to do what he liked. They turned Christian liberty into unchristian licence and gloried in giving their passions full play. There were those who distorted the Christian doctrine of grace. They said that, since grace was wide enough to cover every sin, a man could sin as he liked and not worry; it would make no difference to the all-forgiving love of God.

So the people whom Paul attacks may have been the clever Gnostics who produced specious arguments to justify their sinning or they may have been misguided Christians who twisted the loveliest things into justification for the ugliest sins.

Whoever they were, Paul reminds them of one great truth: "Our citizenship," he says, "is in heaven." Here was a picture the Philippians could understand. Philippi was a Roman colony. Here and there at strategic military centres the Romans set down their colonies. In such places the citizens were mostly soldiers who had served their time--twenty-one years--and who had been rewarded with full citizenship. The great characteristic of these colonies was that, wherever they were, they remained fragments of Rome. Roman dress was worn; Roman magistrates governed; the Latin tongue was spoken; Roman justice was administered; Roman morals were observed. Even in the ends of the earth they remained unshakeably Roman. Paul says to the Philippians, "Just as the Roman colonists never forget that they belong to Rome, you must never forget that you are citizens of heaven; and your conduct must match your citizenship."

Paul finishes with the Christian hope. The Christian awaits the coming of Christ, at which everything will be changed. Here the King James Version is dangerously misleading. In Philippians 3:21 it speaks about our vile body. In modern speech that would mean that the body is an utterly evil and horrible thing; but vile in sixteenth-century English still retained the meaning of its derivation from the Latin word vilis which in fact means nothing worse than cheap, valueless. As we are just now, our bodies are subject to change and decay, illness and death, the bodies of a state of humiliation compared with the glorious state of the Risen Christ; but the day will come when we will lay aside this mortal body which we now possess and become like Jesus Christ himself. The hope of the Christian is that the day will come when his humanity will be changed into nothing less than the divinity of Christ, and when the necessary lowliness of mortality will be changed into the essential splendour of deathless life.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Philippians 3:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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Friday, October 30th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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