Circumstances and people can rob us of joy, but so can things; and it is this “thief” that Paul deals with in Philippians 3. It is easy for us to get wrapped up in “things,” not only the tangible things we can see, but also the intangibles; such as, reputation, fame, and achievement. Jesus warns us that our lives do not consist in the abundance of things we possess (Lk. 12:15). Quantity is no assurance of quality. Many people who have the things money can buy have lost the things money cannot buy. We can be snared by both tangibles and intangibles, and as a result lose our joy.
The key word in Philippians 3:1–11 is count (vv. 7–8). It means to evaluate and assess. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. Yet, few people sit down to weigh seriously the values that control their decisions and directions. Many people are slaves of “things” and as a result do not experience real Christian joy.
In Paul’s case, the “things” he was living for before he knew Christ seemed to be very commendable: a righteous life, obedience to the Law, and the defense of the religion of his fathers. But none of these things satisfied him or gave him acceptance with God.
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.
One day, Saul of Tarsus, the rabbi, met Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and on that day Saul’s values changed (Acts 9:1–31). When Saul (now Paul) opened his books to evaluate his wealth, he discovered that apart from Jesus Christ, everything he lived for was rubbish. He explains in this section there are only two kinds of righteousness (or spiritual wealth)—works righteousness and faith righteousness—and only faith righteousness is acceptable to God.
Works Righteousness (Phil. 3:1–6)
1. The exhortation (vv. 1–3)
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things ‘again’ is no trouble to me and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the ‘true’ circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
Paul has warned the believers at Philippi before, but now he warns them again. To whom is he referring in this warning? Paul is referring to a group of false teachers called “Judaizers”. He uses three terms to describe them.
Dogs. The orthodox Jew would call the Gentile a “dog,” but here Paul calls orthodox Jews “dogs”! These Judaizers snapped at Paul’s heels and followed him from place to place “barking” their false doctrines. They were troublemakers and carriers of dangerous infection.
Evil workers. These men taught the sinner was saved by faith plus good works, especially the works of the Law. But Ephesians 2:8–10 and Titus 3:3–7 make it clear that nobody can be saved by doing good works, even religious works. A Christian’s good works are the result of his faith, not the basis for his salvation.
The false circumcision. The Judaizers taught circumcision was essential to salvation (Acts 15:1; Gal. 6:12–18), but Paul states circumcision of itself is only a mutilation! The true Christian has experienced a spiritual circumcision in Christ (Col. 2:11) and does not need any fleshly operations. Circumcision, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, tithing, or any other religious practice cannot save a person from his sins. Only faith in Jesus Christ can do that.
In contrast to these false Christians, Paul describes true Christians, the “true circumcision” (see Rom. 2:25–29 for a parallel).
He worships God in the Spirit. He does not depend on his own good works which are only of the flesh (Jn. 4:19–24).
He glories (boasts) in Jesus Christ. People who depend on religion are usually boasting about what they have done. The true Christian has nothing of which to boast (Eph. 2:8–10). His boast is only in Christ! In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus gives a parable that describes these two opposite attitudes.
He has no confidence in the flesh. The popular religious philosophy of today is, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” It was also popular in Paul’s day, but it is just as wrong today as it was then. By “the flesh,” Paul means “the old nature” that we received at birth. The Bible has nothing good to say about “flesh,” and yet most people depend entirely on what they themselves can do to please God. Flesh only corrupts God’s way on earth (Gen. 6:12). It profits nothing as far as spiritual life is concerned (Jn. 6:63). It has nothing good in it (Rom. 7:18). No wonder we should put no confidence in the flesh!
A lady was arguing with her pastor about this matter of faith and works. “I think that getting to heaven is like rowing a boat,” she said. “One oar is faith and the other is works. If you use both, you get there. If you use only one, you go around in circles.”
‘’There is only one thing wrong with your illustration,” replied the pastor. “Nobody is going to heaven in a rowboat!”
2. The example (vv. 4–6)
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, blameless.
Paul was not speaking from an ivory tower; he personally knew the futility of trying to attain salvation by means of good works. As a young student, he had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, the great rabbi (Acts 22:3). His career as a Jewish religious leader was a promising one (Gal. 1:13–14) and yet Paul gave it all up—to become a hated member of the “Christian sect” and a preacher of the Gospel! Actually, the Judaizers were compromising in order to avoid persecution (Gal. 6:12–13), while Paul was being true to Christ’s message of grace and as a result was suffering persecution. In this intensely autobiographical section, Paul examines his own life. He becomes an “auditor” who opens the books to see what wealth he has and he discovers that he is bankrupt!
At this point we might ask: “How could a sincere man like Saul of Tarsus (Paul) be so wrong?” The answer is: he was using the wrong measuring stick! Like the rich young ruler (Mk. 10:17–22) and the Pharisee in Christ’s parable (Lk. 18:10–14), Saul of Tarsus was looking at the outside and not the inside. He was comparing himself with standards set by men, not by God. As far as obeying outwardly the demands of the Law, he was a success, but he did not stop to consider the inward sins he was committing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear there are sinful attitudes and appetites as well as sinful actions (Matt. 5:21–48).
When he looked at himself or looked at others, Saul of Tarsus considered himself to be righteous. But one day he saw himself as compared with Jesus Christ! It was then that he changed his evaluations and values, and abandoned “works righteousness” for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In Part 2, we will take a closer look at this “faith righteousness” in verses 7-11.