Christ our object of saving joy.
Until we give up, until we declare “spiritual bankruptcy,” we aimlessly fight for something that we’ll never win.
Paul begins this third chapter by calling upon his Philippian brothers and sisters to “rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1). His “finally” suggests that he is nearing the end of his letter. And yet, he continues to explode into the rapturous joy that’s found in our beloved Christ — almost as if this entire third chapter is an inspired tangent, which, though unplanned, came about by consequence of the Spirit’s moving upon him. “Friends,” he says, “rejoice in the Lord. Find your truest, deepest sense of hope and belonging in the crucified Christ.” This was, perhaps, a well-worn message both for Paul’s pen and the Philippians’ ears, it being fundamental to apostolic doctrine. Paul ensures them, however, that repeatedly writing such things is far from “grievous.” He wasn’t irked or irritated in rehearsing the message of joy that’s found in Christ alone. And, indeed, for this church it was most suitable to their case.
Just as it was “safe” for the Philippians to hear the good news of Christ’s joy which is given to us in his life, death, and resurrection, so, too, is it safe for us to hear of it over and over and over. We, similarly, are surrounded by those whom Paul calls “dogs” and “evil workers” (Phil. 3:2). These, to be sure, were those who were insisting on “new” interpretations and applications of the apostles’ doctrine, adding to their words and Christ’s the necessity of following all the Mosaic rites and rituals in order to be genuine members of the Lord’s covenant promises. About such, Paul says, “beware!” “Watch out for these doctrinal vermin!”
Again, for this church body to be vigilant of propagators of falsehood, they are encouraged to “rejoice in the Lord.” He was to be their singular focus. He alone was to be their aim and object of worship and rejoicing; nothing else was to interfere with their delight in the good news of who Christ was and what Christ had done and what Christ had promised to do. No, not even what they themselves could ever accomplish or attain. “For we are the circumcision,” Paul writes, “which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). This was a direct rebuttal to the pervading distortion of the gospel in that day which insisted that believers circumcise their bodies in order to have a share in God’s covenant blessings. These he lumps in with those dogs as “the concision,” which is a word which literally means “mutilation.” According to Paul, that these false teachers were literally imposing this physical demand upon would-be believers was akin to vandalization of one’s body.
This, I don’t doubt, stirred in Paul no small amount of frustration. Again, such is why it’s so noteworthy that he claims “we are the circumcision” — not because of deeds done or ceremonies performed but, as he’ll unpack soon, because of our union with Christ Jesus through the Spirit by faith. Those who repent and believe are brought into the covenant family of God. Notwithstanding what “the concision” says, he and everyone who believes in Christ Jesus are part of “the circumcision” right now, apart from any venture, however virtuous or pious (Rom. 2:28–29). And to prove his point, Paul inserts his own personal testimony, in which he tabulates all of the pedestals on which he could have found “confidence in the flesh.”
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. (Phil. 3:4–7)
If anyone had something upon which to hang their hats when eternity came knocking, Paul had more. His résumé of fleshly merit was better than everyone else’s, belonging to the proudest pedigree of Hebrew ancestry and following the strictest of schools of Jewish spirituality. By rights, he should have “confidence in the flesh.” He had every reason to do so — and yet, he says, all those things “I counted loss for Christ” (Phil. 3:7). Notwithstanding how advantageous some of those things were, or appeared to be, they were actually damaging his union with the Lord Jesus. Here again, I think, Paul has “the concision” in mind. Those who were the most explicit in their heterodox conviction that spiritual life could be inaugurated by physical effort were desecrating that which the gospel instituted — namely, union with Christ by faith alone (Phil. 3:9). Indeed, their hope had come to settle for nothing but rubbish, nothing “but dung” (Phil. 3:8).
In this, I think we’re made to understand the fruits of Paul’s Damascus road experience (Acts 9:1–9). By which, I mean, that when Saul of Tarsus came face-to-face with the glory of the resurrected Lord, the brilliance and supposed impeccability of his own résumé was revealed for what it truly was: excrement, refuse. The righteousness which gave him identity and purpose and meaning was shown to be nothing but a dirty dish towel (Isa. 64:6). And, by the same token, the all-surpassing worthy and beauty and glory of Christ was shown to him in his fullness and majesty. Such is why he testifies that nothing else really counts, nothing else is truly beneficial for his soul, save “for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus [his] Lord” (Phil. 3:8). The infinitely superior value of union with Christ makes everything else pale in comparison. And not just pale, but stink.
Once more, stick with Paul’s initial point. The “dogs” and “evil workers” and “concision” are now exposed to be the swine that they truly are, reveling in and reeking of the manure of their own fleshly righteousness. For Paul, that life has been entirely left behind. Nothing else matters, except that he “wins” Christ and is “found in him” (Phil. 3:8–9). The only résumé that counts is the one that Christ gives him. “Not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law,” he declares, “but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). This, you see, is what that brief phrase “rejoice in the Lord” fully constitutes. In it is contained the best news anyone could ever hope for — namely, that the righteousness which opens heaven’s doors was won by heaven’s Prince, the Son of God himself, Christ Jesus. So exclaims Rev. Alexander Maclaren:
To seek after a righteousness which is “my own,” is to seek what we shall never find, and what, if found, would crumble beneath us. To seek the righteousness which is from God, is to seek what He is waiting to bestow, and what the blessed receivers blessedly know is more than they dreamed of. (14:1.333)
Christ as the object of the Christian’s joy means that other avenues of confidence are revealed to be wobbly at best and waste at the very least. As Paul here evidences and explains, there is nothing in this life that could ever be accomplished or attained in order to live in confidence in the face of eternity. And this, he affirms, not from a theoretical vantage point but from an experiential stance, as one who had tried it. He had given a go at schooling himself and disciplining himself into the kingdom. He had learned that for “however zealous they may be in going about to establish their own righteousness, men discover that what has seemed a white and flawless robe is only as filthy rags, in the searching light of the great white throne” (158). But for all his fervent religiosity, he was still a worthless, miserable sinner who deserved condemnation and desperately needed redemption. He didn’t deserve mercy, but he got it anyway — and such is what confounds and catalyzes the faith of the apostle Paul.
He proceeds to summarize his thematic premise by simply stating that all other thoroughfares which vie for his attention and affection cannot compare in the slightest to knowing Christ and “the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). For Paul, knowing Christ was all. Knowing Christ was a fathomless well from which endless draughts of grace could be retrieved. And that’s the thing: he’d be swilling from that well till Christ came back to snatch him back up in “the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11). Which is to say, there is no point of “arrival” in the Christian life. In fact, that’s exactly what Paul says:
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12–14)
Paul doesn’t want anyone to mistake his words: he hadn’t by any means “figured out” the Christian life, so as to blaze the trail for “Christian perfectionism.” That’s not at all what he was inferring or even intending to infer. In fact, as he himself says, the exact opposite was true. He hasn’t “apprehended” or seized anything of his own accord by which he can rest assured of eternity. That assurance was given to him as abruptly as Christ found him on that road to Damascus. And, indeed, that good news has now apprehended him, such that his former life has been left behind in the refuse pile in order that he might fully and freely live according to the “high calling of God” given to him “in Christ Jesus.”
The apostle’s consummate realization was that he had learned to distrust himself, which, I’d say, is one of the most indispensable elements to our faith. “Self-distrust is a part of faith,” comments Alexander Maclaren (14:1.326). Integral to your possession of saving faith is the frank realization that you cannot ever save yourself. Putting confidence in yourself, in your flesh, is a fool’s errand, sure to guarantee your doom. But our hearts are so prideful that we continually resort to trusting in ourselves. In fact, that’s one of the longest and hardest lessons we’ll ever learn — namely, as the late Philadelphia minister Donald G. Barnhouse says, “that everything that God does for us is by grace. Man is so eager to have some credit for his blessings that it is difficult for him to admit his utter spiritual bankruptcy” (3:3.111). That we will not do. That we cannot do. But until we give up, until we declare “spiritual bankruptcy,” we aimlessly fight for something that we’ll never win. This is the “great fight” for our faith. So writes F. B. Meyer:
When a man wakes up suddenly to see that in God’s sight all that counts for nothing; when Christ comes to him and casts the X-rays upon his inner life; when he sees the glory of the Great White Throne compared with the linen he has been washing for years with such arduous punctiliousness; when he sees that what he thought to be white and clean is only as filthy as rags to the Son of God, there comes the greatest fight of his life. Many a man would be prepared to give up his church, to renounce his sacraments, to step out from his high family, with its pedigree, and from the blamelessness of his earlier life; many a man would be prepared to sacrifice his reputation for earnestness: but when it comes to saying that his righteousness is but filthy rags; that the boat he has been constructing will not carry him across the mighty deluge of waters; that the tower he has built upon the reef will not resist the autumn storm, in counting even his blamelessness as loss and dross — yea as dung — then there comes the greatest fight. (157)
Sometimes — most times — it takes a “Damascus experience” in order for us to finally admit that our works are rubbish. We’re so eager to make our works count and so reluctant to admit our “utter spiritual bankruptcy,” which, sadly, is the one thing that obstructs our pursuit of “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Trust in ourselves is the greatest (worst) impediment to “pressing toward the mark.” And such is why from now till the end of all things, Christ is our object of saving joy. Such is his rightful place in our hearts and minds and souls. May we, then, ever look “unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). May we forever keep as the aim of our lives the everlasting object of our joy, Christ Jesus the Lord.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vols. 1–4 (Philadelphia: Evangelical Foundation, 1963).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
F. B. Meyer, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952).