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Bible Commentaries
Philippians 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verse 1

The introductory charge to rejoice in the Lord 3:1

Having created joy in his readers by referring to the sterling examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus, Paul warned them about certain other people who professed to be servants of God. He introduced this section of his epistle with a transitional statement. "Finally" (Gr. to loipon) introduces such a statement here as well as elsewhere (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16; 1 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:1; Galatians 6:17). Usually this word does not mark a conclusion so much as a transition on the way to a conclusion. [Note: Moule, p. 56.] It introduces what remains to be said. [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 291.] Anyone who has listened to much preaching knows that Christian communicators still often say "finally" long before the message ends.

The apostle’s primary exhortation here was that his readers should rejoice in the Lord. Paul, a prisoner, besought free people to be joyful. We might have expected it to be the other way around. They might rejoice in Epaphroditus’ return, or in his recovery, or in Paul’s prospect of release and return to Philippi. All of these were legitimate though less important reasons for rejoicing. We have noticed the consistent emphasis on joy and rejoicing that has marked this letter so far (Philippians 1:3-4; Philippians 1:18; Philippians 1:25; Philippians 2:1-2; Philippians 2:17-19; Philippians 2:28-29; cf. Philippians 4:1; Philippians 4:4; Philippians 4:10; Philippians 4:18). Joy is the prevailing mood of Philippians, but I do not think that it is its major theme. Paul gave the importance of rejoicing special emphasis here. Regardless of circumstances the Christian can and should always rejoice in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the basis of true joy and the sphere in which it thrives. [Note: Hawthorne, p. 124.]

False teachers can rob Christians of joy. Paul proceeded to deal with this threat in the rest of this chapter. He introduced his comments by assuring his readers that he did not regard the need to warn them as a burden even though he had already instructed them on this subject. Paul may have been alluding to what he had just written about unbelievers who opposed the Philippians’ witness (Philippians 1:27-30). He may have been referring to previous instruction he had given them in person or in writing. Further exhortation would be an additional safeguard against their capitulating because of this evil influence.

Verse 1

2. Walking in steadfastness 3:1-4:1

Paul now turned to the second major quality that he introduced in Philippians 1:27-30, namely, steadfastness in the face of opposition to the gospel (cf. Philippians 1:7; Philippians 1:28). He had introduced the idea of joy in the face of opposition earlier (Philippians 1:19; Philippians 1:28-30; Philippians 2:17-18). He would discuss how to face overt persecution later (Philippians 4:4-9).

There were two main sources of opposition that the Philippians faced as they sought to have fellowship with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel. Paul dealt with both of these. However, he began with a charge to rejoice in the Lord and ended this section with a summary exhortation.

Verse 2

Jesus and other prophets used the term "dogs" to refer to opponents of God’s truth (Matthew 7:6; cf. Deuteronomy 23:18; 1 Samuel 17:43; 1 Samuel 24:14; Proverbs 26:11; Isaiah 56:10-11). The Jews habitually referred to Gentiles contemptuously as dogs (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). In ancient times many dogs were unclean, wild, vicious animals that threatened the safety of everyone.

"Paul now hurls this term of contempt back ’on the heads of its authors’ . . ., for to Paul the Jews were the real pariahs that defile the holy community, the Christian church, with their erroneous teaching." [Note: Ibid., p. 125. Cf. R. Jewett, "Conflicting Movements in the Early Church as Reflected in Philippians," Novum Testamentum 12 (1970):386; and Martin, p. 137.]

"This metaphor is full of ’bite,’ . . . Paul thus reverses the epithet; by trying to make Gentiles ’clean’ through circumcision, the Judaizers are unclean ’dogs.’" [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 295.]

The phrase "evil workers" (NABS) stresses the evil character of their labors. However "false circumcision" (NASB) or "mutilators of the flesh" (NIV, cf. Galatians 5:12) gives us the most insight into exactly whom Paul had in mind. [Note: See René A. López, "A Study of Pauline Passages with Vice Lists," Bibliotheca Sacra 168:671 (July-September 2011):301-16.]

These were evidently the Judaizers that plagued Paul and his converts throughout his ministry. O’Brien gave six options that scholars have suggested concerning the identity of this group, and he defended their being different from the opponents whom Paul mentioned in Philippians 1:14-17. [Note: P. T. O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians, pp. 101-6.] They taught that people could only enter the church through the vestibule of Judaism, and that once inside they needed to submit to the Mosaic Law. This was the so-called "Galatian heresy" that Paul dealt with extensively in his epistle to the Galatians. They emphasized circumcision because it was the rite that brought a person into Judaism, which they viewed as a prerequisite to justification (cf. Acts 15:1). False circumcision refers to circumcision for the wrong reasons, namely, circumcision contrary to the revelation of God in Scripture.

Verses 2-4

The Judaizing danger 3:2-4a

Paul proceeded to deal with a significant group of antagonists that the Philippians faced.

Verse 3

The Philippians and Paul, and all true believers, belong to a different camp, that of the true circumcision. Paul was referring to the circumcision of the heart that happens when a person trusts in Jesus Christ. The alternative is trusting in self and in rite-keeping for salvation (Romans 2:25-29; Colossians 2:11; Colossians 2:13; cf. Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 44:7). The true circumcision refers to believers in the church, not that the church is the "new Israel." [Note: For refutation of the covenant view that the "true circumcision" refers to the church as the new Israel, see Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, pp. 202-5.]

Paul used two Greek verbs that are very similar. Peritemnein means to circumcise, and katatemnein means to mutilate. Peritemnein describes the sacred sign and work of circumcision, but katatemnain, as in Leviticus 21:5, describes forbidden self-mutilation, such as castration and the like. So Paul says, You Jews think that you are circumcised, but really you are only mutilated. [Note: Barclay, p. 68.]

Paul used three terms to describe the false teachers (Philippians 3:2). He used three others to characterize the true circumcision. We worship (Gr. latreuein) God in the Spirit. The alternative is going through certain physical rituals (cf. John 4:23-24). Probably Paul meant that the Holy Spirit initiates worship with the result that love and service follow (cf. John 14:17). [Note: Hawthorne, p. 127.] Those who rely on rites and ceremonies to make themselves acceptable to God do not have the Spirit of God. They are not believers in the gospel.

Second, we glory in Christ Jesus. That is, we look to Him as the one who makes us acceptable to God rather than looking to works (cf. Jeremiah 9:23-24; 1 Corinthians 1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17). We focus on Him and find our satisfaction in Him because He is our Savior.

Third, we put no confidence in the flesh to make us acceptable to God. The New Testament writers used the term "flesh" (Gr. sarx) in one literal and in two metaphorical senses. Literally it refers to our bodies (Luke 24:39; et al.). Figuratively it refers to all that we were in Adam (before our salvation; Romans 7:5; Romans 8:9; et al.) and to our human nature (cf. Galatians 2:20; Galatians 5:17; et al.). Here Paul probably meant our human nature, what we can do without divine enablement, naturally. We do not have confidence that anything we do to our bodies, or anything we do, will make us acceptable to God but realize that trusting in Jesus Christ is what is necessary. We have no confidence in what we are by nature to make us acceptable to God. We understand that we cannot save ourselves, and we acknowledge that God must save us.

Verse 4

For the sake of the argument Paul adopted the Judaizers’ attitude of confidence in the flesh. He did this to show that his rejection of Jewish advantages was not because he lacked them. Paul used the same approach in 2 Corinthians 11:26 to 2 Corinthians 12:12. He cited seven advantages, the first four being things he inherited and the last three things he chose by conviction.

Verses 4-6

Paul’s privileged position 3:4b-6

Verse 5

Circumcision of the flesh was one thing that the Judaizers trusted in for acceptance by God. Paul had been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, as the Law of Moses prescribed (Leviticus 12:3; cf. Genesis 17:12). He had not received circumcision in his thirteenth year, as Ishmaelites did, nor later in life, as many Gentiles did who converted to Judaism (e.g., Acts 16:3). [Note: Robertson, 4:452.]

Second, Paul was an Israelite by birth, not a Gentile proselyte to Judaism. He was a pure Jew by race and descent. When the Jews wanted to stress their special relationship to God in its most unique sense, they used the word "Israelite" to describe themselves. [Note: Barclay, p. 72.]

Furthermore, third, he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who was born in the Promised Land. The tribe of Benjamin provided many noble warriors throughout Israel’s history (cf. Hosea 5:8). Israel’s first lawful king came from the tribe of Benjamin. Jerusalem and the temple stood within Benjamin’s territory. This tribe alone, beside Judah, remained loyal to David’s house when the monarchy divided in 931 B.C. The feast of Purim celebrated the salvation of the Jews by a Benjamite, Mordecai. After the Exile, Benjamin and Judah formed the core of the restoration community. Of course, this tribe’s history was not without its shame as well (e.g., Saul’s failures, the Gibeans’ atrocity that led to the civil war that almost wiped this tribe out, etc.). Nevertheless Paul could legitimately take pride in his Benjamite heritage.

Fourth, a "Hebrew of Hebrews" means that Paul’s parents brought him up as a strict Jew observing Jewish customs, unlike many Hellenistic Jews (cf. Acts 6:1). Specifically he learned the Hebrew language and studied the Old Testament in the original tongue, not like so many other Jews of the Diaspora who could only speak and read Aramaic (cf. Acts 22:2).

Fifth, Paul had chosen to join the party of the Pharisees, the most orthodox of the sects within Judaism in his day. The Pharisees were punctilious in their observance of the Mosaic Law. This, by the way, is the only occurrence of the word "Pharisee" outside the Gospels and Acts.

"Not content merely to obey the Law of Moses, the Pharisees bound themselves also to observe every one of the myriad of commandments contained in the oral Law, the interpretive traditions of the Scribes. The most ardent of the Pharisees scrupulously avoided even accidental violations of the Law and did more than they were commanded to do . . . . Paul, a son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6), and a disciple of the great Pharisee, Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; Acts 22:3), chose to be a Pharisee himself and set himself to be the most earnest of the earnest observers of the Jewish Law (Galatians 1:14). ’Pharisee’ for Paul was not a term of reproach, but a title of honor, a claim to ’the highest degree of faithfulness and sincerity in the fulfilment [sic] of duty to God as prescribed by the divine Torah’ (Beare)." [Note: Hawthorne, pp. 133-34.]

Verse 6

Sixth, he had been a zealous promoter of Judaism even to the point of persecuting Christians to death. He had been an outstanding Pharisee.

Seventh, Paul’s obedience to the Law of Moses, as it regulated external behavior, had been without blame (Gr. amemptos, cf. Philippians 2:15). He was very conscientious about what the Law required and "omitted no observance however trivial". [Note: Lightfoot, p. 148.]

"Like most ’religious’ people today, Paul had enough morality to keep him out of trouble, but not enough righteousness to get him into heaven! It was not bad things that kept Paul away from Jesus-it was good things! He had to lose his ’religion’ to find salvation." [Note: Wiersbe, The Bible . . ., 2:84.]

Verse 7

Paul’s self-humbling 3:7

Paul formerly regarded all these things that he possessed and others as contributing to God’s acceptance of him. Yet he had come to learn on the Damascus road and since then that such fleshly "advantages" did not improve his position with God. Rather they constituted hindrances because the more of them that Paul had the more convinced he was that God would accept him for his works’ sake. Each of his fleshly advantages strengthened his false hope of salvation.

"While Christ did not consider God-likeness to accrue to his own advantage, but ’made himself nothing,’ so Paul now considers his former ’gain’ as ’loss’ for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. As Christ was ’found’ in ’human likeness,’ Paul is now ’found in Christ,’ knowing whom means to be ’conformed’ (echoing the morphe of a slave, Philippians 2:7) to his death (Philippians 2:8). Finally, as Christ’s humiliation was followed by God’s ’glorious’ vindication of him, so present ’suffering’ for Christ’s sake will be followed by ’glory’ in the form of resurrection. As he has appealed to the Philippians to do, Paul thus exemplifies Christ’s ’mindset,’ embracing suffering and death. This is what it means ’to know Christ,’ to be ’found in him’ by means of his gift of righteousness; and as he was raised and exalted to the highest place, so Paul and the Philippian believers, because they are now ’conformed to Christ’ in his death, will also be ’conformed’ to his glory." [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 315.]

Verse 8

Paul had regarded his advantages over other people as what put him in an especially good position with God. However, he had come to realize that absolutely nothing apart from Jesus Christ’s work on the cross was of any value in his gaining God’s acceptance. No good works improve our standing before God. They are all like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Consequently Paul came to regard them as "rubbish." From then on he continued to take this view of things.

The Greek word translated "rubbish" (skybalon) occurs only here in the New Testament. Its derivation is uncertain, but it appears to have referred to excrement, food gone bad, scraps left over after a meal, and refuse. In extrabiblical Greek it describes a half-eaten corpse and lumps of manure. [Note: Hawthorne, p. 139.] Thus Paul meant that his former advantages were not only worthless but strongly offensive and potentially dangerous.

What he had learned to value was Christ Jesus his Lord. Consequently coming to know Christ, entering into a deeper and fuller appreciation of His person and work, was of primary importance to Paul. This knowledge (Gr. gnosis) is the kind that one obtains only by personal relationship. It is different from the knowledge we gain through objective academic study (Gr. oida), though information is part of our growing personal knowledge of Christ. To gain this fuller knowledge of Christ Paul had let everything else in life go. To use the language of Philippians 2:6, Paul did not regard anything else in life worthy of retaining. All he wanted was a fuller and deeper experiential appreciation of his Savior.

"You and I know about many people, even people who lived centuries ago, but we know personally very few." [Note: Wiersbe, The Bible . . ., 2:86.]

Verses 8-11

Paul’s greater goal 3:8-11

Verse 9

Paul’s vision turned again to the future and the judgment seat of Christ. He had made his choices in life since his conversion because of the essential value of getting to know Christ better and because God would evaluate his life one day. On that day Paul wanted to be found "in Him," namely, standing in the merit of Christ rather than in his own merit. His own merit rested on his own righteousness as the Mosaic Law defined it. The merit of Christ is His righteousness that God credits to the believer’s account when we place our trust in Him (cf. Romans 3:20-23). This righteousness comes to us "through faith" in Christ, and it comes to us "on the basis of" (or "by," NIV) "faith" from God.

"’Faith’ is the very opposite of human works; it is the reception of God’s work by those who acknowledge the futility of their own efforts to attain righteousness." [Note: Kent, p. 141.]

We could say that we reach heaven not by walking up a set of stairs but by riding an elevator.

Verse 10

This verse resumes the thought of knowing Christ in Philippians 3:8. The tense of the Greek infinitive tou gnonai ("to know") is aorist, probably an ingressive aorist, which sums up the action of the verb at the point where it begins.

"It suggests that for Paul just the coming to know Christ outweighs all other values, that for him the significance of Christ, ’in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3), is so vast that even to begin to know him is more important than anything else in all the world." [Note: Hawthorne, p. 143.]

Compare the implication of intimate, complete knowledge in the clause "the man [Adam] knew his wife, Eve" (Genesis 4:1).

"I’ll never forget a letter I read from a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, where I serve as chancellor. He wrote of his gratitude for his years at our fine institution. What troubled me was that he also lamented that when he arrived, he was deeply in love with Jesus Christ; but when he left, he had fallen more in love with the biblical text. For all the right reasons, our professors did their best to teach him the Scriptures, but he left loving the Bible more than he loved His [sic] Savior. To use Paul’s words, ’the serpent seduced him.’ After a few tough years in ministry, he came to realize that he needed to love Christ. I don’t remember his using these precise words, but he admitted that he had to look intently at his schedule, to face the truth of his drift, and to carve out time to get back to a simple devotion to Christ." [Note: Charles R. Swindoll, So, You Want to Be Like Christ? p. 40. This whole book deals with Philippians 3:10.]

Among all the other things that Paul wanted to learn in His relationship with Christ, he mentioned first the power of Christ’s resurrection. Paul probably did not mean that he wanted to experience resurrection supernaturally as Jesus Christ had done. He knew that if he died he would experience such a resurrection. He probably meant that he wanted the power that resurrected His Savior and was within himself because of the indwelling Christ to manifest itself in his life for God’s glory (cf. Romans 6:4; Colossians 3:1; Ephesians 2:5-6).

Paul also wanted to grow in his experiential knowledge of the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. He did not mean that by suffering in the service of His Lord he could add to the merit of Christ’s sufferings. Such an idea is completely foreign to biblical teaching (cf. Hebrews 10:14). Rather he saw suffering for the sake of Christ as only fair since the Savior had suffered so much for him. The Christian who suffers because of his or her faithful testimony for Christ can enter into Jesus’ feelings when He suffered for faithfully obeying His Father. There is a fellowship in that kind of suffering (cf. Romans 6:8; Galatians 2:19-20). A believer who never suffers for the Lord’s sake cannot do that.

The last phrase in this verse modifies the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. Complete dedication to the will of God, which resulted in Jesus’ sufferings and which will result in the believer’s suffering, means death ultimately. It means death to one’s own agenda for life (Romans 6:4-11), and it may result in physical death. Death is a grim prospect, but Paul did not have a morbid, unhealthy fascination with suffering and death for its own sake. He so loved Jesus Christ that he wished to share all aspects of His life, to know Him as intimately as he could. He even was willing to follow Him into the valley of the shadow of death.

"Christian life is cruciform in character; God’s people, even as they live presently through the power made available through Christ’s resurrection, are as their Lord forever marked by the cross." [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., pp. 334-35.]

Verse 11

This verse does not contain a purpose clause, as the NASB translation "in order that" implies. A better translation would be "if somehow" (NASB margin) or "and so, somehow" (NIV). It expresses expectation.

Superficially this verse seems to suggest that Paul had some doubt about the certainty of his resurrection. However elsewhere in his writings he was very confident that God would resurrect him and all believers (e.g., Romans 8:11; Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 15:12-57; 2 Corinthians 4:14; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Timothy 2:18). The Bible teaches that God will resurrect all people, believers and unbelievers, if they have died (e.g., Daniel 12:2; Matthew 22:29-32; Luke 20:37-38; John 6:39-40; John 6:44; John 6:54; John 11:25; Acts 4:2; Acts 17:18; Acts 23:6; Acts 24:15; Hebrews 6:2; Revelation 20:4-6; Revelation 20:13). Consequently we must look for another explanation of this verse.

"Now, if Paul believed in one general resurrection at the end in which all people, the saved and lost, would participate, it is difficult to understand his use of this language in relation to his personal participation. There would be no question of his being a part of such a resurrection." [Note: Saucy, p. 287.]

One possibility is that Paul was thinking of his spiritual co-resurrection with Christ. [Note: W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1:86.] In the context he had been speaking of suffering and dying with Him. Yet these were evidently physical experiences, not spiritual realities. Furthermore the resurrection he said he hoped to attain was still future whereas he had already experienced spiritual resurrection with Christ to newness of life (Romans 6:1-11; Galatians 2:20).

Another view is that Paul was hoping that he would persevere faithfully in his quest to know Christ until he died. The logical progression in Paul’s thought in Philippians 3:10-11 was from suffering to death to resurrection. Perhaps he meant he wanted to experience suffering for Christ’s sake and was even willing to die for Him to arrive at his resurrection in a manner that would enable him to face His master unashamed. [Note: E.g., Hawthorne, pp. 146-47.] The problem with this view is the unusual word used for the resurrection (Gr. exanastasin, lit. out-resurrection).

The words that Paul used seem to indicate that he was thinking of a resurrection from among those who were dead. The Greek phrase is ten exanastasin ten ek nekron. The use of the preposition ek twice in the phrase, the first usage being in exanastasin, suggests a resurrection out from a group not resurrected. The NASB translators captured this idea when they rendered this phrase "the resurrection from among the dead." The NIV translators simply translated it "the resurrection from the dead."

This is a good example, by the way, of the characteristic difference between these two translations. Generally the NASB is more literal, translating a Greek word with the same English word wherever the Greek word occurs. The NIV is more paraphrastic, translating a Greek word with any number of English synonyms to make the English translation more readable.

This understanding of exanastasin would point to the resurrection of believers that will result in Christians rising from among the unbelieving dead, those who are dead in their trespasses and sins.

Paul was probably speaking of the Rapture. [Note: See John F. Walvoord, Philippians, pp. 87-88; and S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "The Out-Resurrection from the Dead," Bibliotheca Sacra 110 (1953):139-46; and Lightner, "Philippians," p. 661.] When that event takes place God will snatch Christians out from among the spiritually dead (unbelievers). This explains the unusual word Paul employed that appears only here in the Greek New Testament. But the Rapture is not an event that Christians need to strive to attain. All Christians living and dead will be caught up when it occurs. [Note: See Gerald B. Stanton, Kept from the Hour, pp. 165-77, for refutation of the partial rapture view.] Probably Paul meant that he hoped he would live to experience the Rapture, the "out-resurrection from among the dead," before he died. The verb katavtao ("attain") means to come to, to arrive at, or to attain to something. Paul evidently expected that the Rapture could happen before he died (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

Another, less likely, possibility is that Paul meant faithful Christians will experience a better resurrection than unfaithful believers.

"The out-resurrection is a special reward which only faithful believers will receive. While the exact nature of that reward is unclear here, it can generally be understood as a sort of abundance of life. All believers will be resurrected and have joy forever. Faithful believers only will obtain this out-resurrection and have abundance of joy forever. Hebrews 11:35 is instructive here. It speaks of believers who ’were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.’ All believers will be resurrected, but there is a better one for those who endure. Obviously this out-resurrection is something which is capable of many degrees depending on the measure of one’s faithfulness. Thus the degree to which we are faithful to use our talents, treasures, gifts, abilities, resources, and opportunities in life to please Him is the degree to which we will obtain this out-resurrection abundance of life." [Note: Bob Wilkin, "Philippians 3:11: Is Our Resurrection Certain?" Grace Evangelical Society Newsletter, November 1987, p. 2.]

There is no question that there will be differences of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). However there is no other Scripture that teaches a difference in the resurrection of faithful and unfaithful believers. It seems strange that if Paul wanted to distinguish between faithful and unfaithful believers here he would use the resurrection to do so. Other Scripture points to the judgment seat of Christ as the time when God will make this distinction, not the resurrection. Moreover the term "out-resurrection" seems to stress separation from others at the time of resurrection rather than separation from others following resurrection.

Robert Wilkin, the writer quoted above, later changed his view and adopted the "spiritual resurrection view."

"The spiritual resurrection view posits that the out-resurrection refers to the attainment of Christlike character in this life." [Note: Idem, "Raised to Run," Grace Evangelical Society News 6:8 (August 1991):2.]

However exanastasis seems to be a very unusual word to use to describe the attainment of Christ-like character.

Verse 12

Paul had said that he had not already grasped the intimate knowledge of His Savior that he sought to obtain (Philippians 3:10). He did not want his readers to understand him as saying that his conversion brought him into the intimate personal relationship with Christ that he desired. At conversion his views about what is important in life changed drastically, however. He did not believe he was perfect. There are some Christians who believe that after conversion they do not sin (cf. 1 John 1:6-10).

"The word ’perfect,’ as the Bible uses it of men, does not refer to sinless perfection. Old Testament characters described as ’perfect’ were obviously not sinless (cp. Genesis 6:9; 1 Kings 15:14; 2 Kings 20:3; 1 Chronicles 12:38; Job 1:1; Job 1:8; Psalms 37:37). Although a number of Hebrew and Greek words are translated ’perfect,’ the thought is usually either completeness in all details (Heb. tamam, Gk. katartizo), or to reach a goal or achieve a purpose (Gk. teleioo). Three stages of perfection are revealed: (1) Positional perfection, already possessed by every believer in Christ (Hebrews 10:14). (2) Relative perfection, i.e. spiritual maturity (Philippians 3:15), especially in such aspects as the will of God (Colossians 4:12), love (1 John 4:17-18), holiness (2 Corinthians 7:1), patience (James 1:4), ’every good work’ (Hebrews 13:21). Maturity is achieved progressively, as in 2 Corinthians 7:1, ’perfecting holiness,’ and Galatians 3:3, lit., ’are ye now being made perfect?’ and is accomplished through gifts of ministry bestowed ’for the perfecting of the saints’ (Ephesians 4:12). And (3) ultimate perfection, i.e. perfection in soul, spirit, and body, which Paul denies he has attained (Philippians 3:12) but which will be realized at the time of the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:11). For the Christian nothing short of the moral perfection of God is always the absolute standard of conduct, but Scripture recognizes that Christians do not attain sinless perfection in this life (cp. 1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 1:8-10)." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 1283.]

Paul realized his responsibility to pursue greater personal experiential knowledge of Christ, intimacy with Christ, conformity to Christ, and holiness. One of the reasons that God has saved us is that we might enjoy fellowship with Christ (John 15; 1 John 1:1-3). Practical sanctification does not come automatically by faith, as justification and glorification do. We must pursue it diligently by following the Lord (Philippians 3:13-15; cf. Galatians 5:16; 2 Peter 1:5-11).

"To know the incomprehensible greatness of Christ demands a lifetime of arduous inquiry." [Note: Hawthorne, p. 151.]

"A divine dissatisfaction is essential for spiritual progress." [Note: Wiersbe, The Bible . . ., 2:89.]

Verses 12-14

Paul’s persistent zeal 3:12-14

Verse 13

Again Paul disclaimed having attained conformity to Christ. He viewed his experience as similar to a runner’s. He did not look back. The apostle did not mean that he refused to remember things that had happened to him in the past. He had just reviewed some of those things. He meant that he did not rest in his heritage (Philippians 3:5-7) or in his past attainments (Philippians 3:9-12). He had abandoned the unworthy goal that he had pursued in the past. Now he had a new goal toward which he was looking and running.

"Forget those wrongs done, e.g. the persecution of the church (Philippians 3:6), and so on, whose memory could paralyze one with guilt and despair. Forget, too, those attainments so far achieved as a Christian, the recollection of which might cause one to put life into neutral and to say, ’I have arrived.’ Forget in such a way that the past, good or bad, will have no negative bearing on one’s present spiritual growth or conduct." [Note: Hawthorne, p. 153.]

Fee believed that Paul was referring to looking at the other runners in the race when he spoke of not looking back. [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 347.] I think this is less likely what he had in mind.

Verse 14

Paul’s goal (Gr. skopos, lit. goal marker, the object at the end of the course on which the runner fixes his gaze) was complete knowledge of Christ. He would receive a prize when he reached that goal. He would only reach that goal when he entered the Lord’s presence and saw Him face to face (1 John 3:2-3). Nevertheless he pursued the goal while living on the earth because he wanted to get to know the Lord as well as possible before going into the Lord’s presence.

"This is a far cry from the teaching on sanctification which calls believers to ’let go and let God’. There was not much ’letting go’ about Paul, but rather an example of the truth that the regenerate believer must appropriate the sanctifying grace of God by actively obeying him." [Note: Motyer, p. 177.]

The prize would come at the end of the race, when he had attained the goal, but not before then. Therefore "the prize of the upward call" probably does not refer to the Rapture. There is another reason this is not a proper identification. The Rapture is not a reward. God will catch up (rapture) into heaven every Christian regardless of how he or she has run the race (1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). The prize probably refers to the reward faithful believers will receive at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). God has called every believer to salvation so we may obtain that prize. However only those who run the race as Paul did, namely, to gain an ever increasing experiential knowledge of Christ, will obtain it (1 Corinthians 9:24). The TNIV translation gives the sense: "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

"Each believer is on the track; each has a special lane in which to run; and each has a goal to achieve. If we reach the goal the way God has planned, then we receive a reward. If we fail, we lose the reward, but we do not lose our citizenship." [Note: Wiersbe, The Bible . . ., 2:88.]

"In keeping with the vivid imagery drawn from the Greek games that pervades this section there is still another explanation of the ’upward call’ that seems the most reasonable explanation of all. It sees in the expression tes ano kleseos ["the upward call"] an allusion to the fact that the Olympian games, which included foot-races, were organized and presided over by agonothetes, highly respected officers called Hellenodikai. ’After each event they had a herald announce the name of the victor, his father’s name and his country, and the athlete or charioteer would come and receive a palm branch at their hands’ (G. Glotz, ’Hellenodikai,’ in C. Daremberg and E. Saglio [eds.], Dictionnaire des antiqués grecques et romaines [Paris: Hachette, 1900-1963] 3,1,60-64). This is the call to which Paul is now alluding (Collange)." [Note: Hawthorne, p. 154. Collange refers to J-F. Collange, L’épître de saidn Paul aux Philippiens.]

Verse 15

In conclusion, Paul urged those who were mature among his readers to recognize that what he had said was true. He also promised that God would enlighten those who thought differently about minor matters if their attitude was right.

"The sentence is thus predicated on their mutual friendship and mutual trust, which is so secure that Paul can simply leave it in God’s hands to ’reveal’ to them what further understanding they may need on matters wherein they might not be ready fully to agree with him." [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 359.]

"Perfect" (NASB) means "mature" (NIV, Gr. teleios), not sinless. In Philippians 3:12 Paul used the same root word and claimed he was not perfect. Probably there he meant that he was not absolutely perfect or mature, and here he meant that he was relatively mature compared to the immature. [Note: See Müller, p. 125.] He may have been using "perfect" here somewhat ironically.

". . . for the time being true Christian perfection ’consists only in striving for perfection.’" [Note: Hawthorne, p. 158.]

Verses 15-17

Paul’s charge to adopt his attitude 3:15-17

Verse 16

All Christians, but especially the immature who are in view here, need to maintain a consistent life in harmony with our understanding of God’s truth. We should not wait until we have a complete knowledge of what God has revealed to put into practice what we do understand.

Verse 17

This verse is transitional. It applies equally well to what precedes and to what follows.

Paul’s advice might appear to some as egocentric. Nonetheless the reason he encouraged others to follow his example was that he was following Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1). Those who walked after Paul’s pattern of life included Timothy and Epaphroditus. In Philippians, Paul typically gave warnings and then followed them up with encouragements in the form of good examples.

"At issue throughout is living a cruciform existence, discipleship marked by the cross and evidenced by suffering on behalf of Christ." [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 363.]

Paul introduced this section with an exhortation to rejoice (Philippians 3:1) and a warning against Judaizing false teachers who would rob the readers of their joy (Philippians 3:2). He then explained his own view of the Christian life (Philippians 3:3-14) and gave a final admonition to adopt his attitude (Philippians 3:15-17). This was appropriate since his view differed radically from what the Judaizers taught, and it expressed the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11).

Paul had previously used the examples of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-11), himself (Philippians 2:17-18), Timothy (Philippians 2:19-24), and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30) to challenge his readers. In this section his own example encourages us again to make Jesus Christ the focus of our lives. Many Christians are not very effective because they try to do too many different things. Paul had one clearly defined goal in relation to Christ: to get to know His Savior better and better.

Verse 18

Who these enemies were becomes clear in the next verse. Here we learn that there were many of them, though they were probably not in the Philippian church or Paul would probably have addressed them differently. These individuals caused the apostle much grief because they misled Christians. Perhaps he described them as enemies of the cross because what they taught was contrary to the spirit of obedience to God that had led Jesus to the cross (cf. Philippians 3:10).

Verses 18-19

The antinomian danger 3:18-19

Another threat to the joy and spiritual development of the Philippians was people who advocated lawless living. This is, of course, the opposite extreme from what the Judaizers taught (Philippians 3:2). Paul warned his readers of this danger next. These verses give the reason for Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 3:17.

Verse 19

The context does not specify whether these people were Christians or not, but antinomianism was common among both groups in Paul’s day, as it is today. [Note: See Robert A. Pyne, "Antinomianism and Dispensationalism," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:610 (April-June 1996):141-54.] Consequently we should probably understand "destruction" in a general sense. The same Greek word (apoleia) occurs in Philippians 1:28 where it probably refers to unbelievers and eternal destruction. Nevertheless believers can experience discipline, and even premature physical death as discipline, if they continue to resist the will of God (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 11:30; 1 John 5:16).

Three characteristics mark these people (cf. Philippians 3:2-3). First, they give free rein to the satisfaction of their sensual appetites and do not restrain the flesh (cf. Romans 16:18; 1 Corinthians 6:13; Judges 1:11). Second, they find satisfaction and take pride in things that they do that should cause them shame (cf. Ephesians 5:12). Third, they involve themselves almost totally in physical and material things, things pertaining to the present enjoyment of life, to the exclusion of spiritual matters. In short, their ritualistic observances had taken God’s place in their lives. They had become idolaters.

"He [Paul] is probably describing some itinerants, whose view of the faith is such that it allows them a great deal of undisciplined self-indulgence. . . . In any case, they have not appeared heretofore in the letter, and do not appear again. They have served their immediate purpose of standing in sharp relief to Paul’s own ’walk’ and to his heavenly pursuit, so crucial to this letter, and toward which Paul now turns once more as he begins to draw this appeal to an end." [Note: Fee, Paul’s Letter . . ., p. 375.]

Verse 20

The reason we should follow Paul’s example and not that of these sensualists is that as Christians we have a citizenship in heaven as well as one on earth. Our heavenly citizenship and destiny are far more important than our brief earthly sojourn (cf. Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 11:10). The Roman citizenship the Philippians enjoyed meant a great deal to them (Acts 16:12; Acts 16:21). All believers need to learn to live as foreigners and pilgrims on this earth (Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 2:11). [Note: See John A. Witmer, "The Man with Two Countries," Bibliotheca Sacra 133:532 (October-December 1976):338-49.]

"Jews expect perfection now by keeping the Law; Christians yearn for the future at which time perfection will be achieved." [Note: Hawthorne, p. 170.]

The Greek word apekdechometha, translated "look for," is a strong compound.

"The compound emphasizes the intense yearning for the Parousia . . ." [Note: H. A. A. Kennedy, "The Epistle to the Philippians," in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 3:463.]

"The expectation of the Lord’s personal and imminent return gave joy and power to the early Christians and to the Christian communities." [Note: James Montgomery Boice, Philippians, p. 247.]

"One of the greatest incentives to holiness in the New Testament is that we might be ready for him when he returns." [Note: Motyer, p. 228.]

Furthermore it is from our heavenly kingdom that a Savior will come to deliver us out of this present evil world and take us to our home with Him above (John 14:1-2). The prospect of our Lord’s return should motivate us to live as citizens of heaven even while we are still on earth (1 John 3:2-3).

". . . Paul prefers ’justification’ to describe what has already been done in the Christian by God’s action in Christ, while he reserves ’salvation’ for what yet remains to be done (Beare; cf. Romans 5:9-10)." [Note: Hawthorne, p. 172.]

Verses 20-21

The forward look 3:20-21

Verse 21

When Christ returns for us at the Rapture He will transform our present mortal bodies into immortal bodies such as our Lord’s resurrected body. The comparison between these two bodies is striking. One is lowly, weak, and susceptible to all kinds of evil influences. The idea that it is sinful, which the AV implies by using the word "vile," is absent in the Greek word (tapeinoseos). The other new body will be glorious, more expressive of our true state as the children of God, and incorruptible. This transformation will occur whether we are alive or dead when the Lord returns (1 Corinthians 15:51-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10). This amazing change will transpire because of the same divine power by which God will eventually subject everything in the universe to Himself.

"The promise of his coming is given without date so that we may live daily preparing to meet our Lord." [Note: Motyer, p. 198.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Philippians 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/philippians-3.html. 2012.
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