Briefly review setting (MAP). Paul seems to be concluding his letter in 3:1 (read) – we will defer this until he comes back to it in 4:4ff.
Perhaps because of news that just came to him, Paul suddenly warns (“Beware!”) the Philippian Christians of some bad dudes (read 3:2). Who are these guys – gang leaders? Drug-dealers? Serial killers? No, they were Jewish Bible teachers who claimed to believe in Jesus. But Paul scathingly denounces them and their teaching as antithetical to Christianity.
They are “dogs.” Jewish religionists often called Gentiles “dogs.” Paul turns the tables on them.
They are “evil workers.” Jewish religionists often called pagan witches/priests “workers of evil.” Paul turns the tables on them.
They are the “false circumcision.” This is literally “the castration.” These men insisted that Gentile Christians become Jewish (including physical circumcision) to belong to God. Paul sarcastically calls them “castrators” to emphasize the harm they are inflicting on those who follow them. In another passage, he says that they should castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12)!
Paul not only emphatically rejects them and their teaching; he also emphatically affirms that he and the Philippians do genuinely belong to God (read 3:3).
Circumcision in the Old Testament was a symbolic act that marked Jewish males as members of God’s people (the nation of Israel). It also reminded them of their need for a deeper circumcision – to have heart transplants so that they could love and serve God from their hearts by the power His Spirit (Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:26,27) – which God promised to provide through His Messiah.
Paul says that he and the Philippian Christians are the “true circumcision” – because they glory/boast in Jesus as the Messiah, and because they serve God by His Spirit, rather than putting “confidence in the flesh” (boasting in their national descent).
Identity & its basis
These terms (“we are . . .;” “boast;” “confidence in”) all relate to the issue of identity – specifically, to the basis of our identity. Circumcision was not a hygiene practice; it was an identity-marker for these false teachers. Paul is saying: “They are taking their identity from their national descent, religious observances, moral performance, etc.” To take your identity from something (or someone) means that you define yourself by it, that you derive your validation, worth, status from it (“I am somebody because . . .”).
Humans are insatiable identity-seekers. For humans, life is an identity project. Other animals (even the high primates) don’t seem to suffer from identity angst or crises like humans do. But this is one of the great themes of human history and art and literature: “Who am I?” “Do I matter?” “Is my existence justified?”
And (except for psychopaths), we are unable to self-generate identity. We need to be validated by someone or something outside of ourselves. That’s why we talk about “taking our identity from . . .”
According to the Bible, there are ultimately only two bases for your identity:
PLAN A: You can you seek God’s or people’s validation through your comparative accomplishments and affiliations. Paul calls this “putting confidence in the flesh.” “Flesh” here doesn’t mean physical body; it refers to fallen humans’ inclination toward PLAN A. The Old Testament calls it “making a name for yourself.”
Many cultures seek God’s validation through religious affiliation or performance (see Lk. 18:9-12 for an example of this). That’s what like these false teachers were doing and advocating. EXAMPLES: grew up in church; family members as pastors, etc.; baptism, confirmation, church membership; don’t smoke, curse, steal, womanize, etc.; have a growing church/ministry. All other world religions advocate identity through PLAN A.
In our culture, most people seek people’s validation through secular affiliations and accomplishments. In the movie “Chariots of Fire,” Harold Abrahamson (an Olympic sprinter) describes to his girlfriend what the upcoming race is: “I’ll raise my eyes and look down that corridor . . . with ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence” (SLIDE). You can see how his athletic performance is more than recreation or even a job – it is the basis of his identity. You might think: “How sad!” – but maybe this is the way you view your degrees, your job title, your, salary, your children’s performance, your social standing, your physical appearance, the fact that you are a vegan, or are an American, or a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian. Maybe this is the significance of your gender or race or sexual orientation, or certain cultural preferences, or that you are a recovering addict or cancer survivor. Most of these are legitimate in their (smaller) places – but when they become your resume for your identity, and when you advocate this to others, you are doing what these false teachers did.
The only alternative is to let God bestow His validation on you through Christ. Paul calls this “boasting in Christ.” The Old Testament calls it “being called by the name of the Lord.” We will look at this radical alternative more closely in a few minutes, but first let’s look at how Paul refutes the first identity-base . . .
Read 3:4-6. Paul refutes the false teachers’ identity deception autobiographically. They could not accuse Paul of “sour grapes.” He was not a Jewish religionist wanna-be; he was a greater success than any of them. Check out his resume:
He had an impeccable PEDIGREE:
“Circumcised the 8th day” – He had been circumcised on the right day (Lev. 12:3).
“Of the nation of Israel” – He was a pure-bred Jew, a member of the chosen nation.
“Of the tribe of Benjamin” – He knew his tribal origin, which many Jews by this time had lost knowledge of. Benjamin was one of the two southern tribes which had been more faithful than the other ten of the northern kingdom.
“A Hebrew of Hebrews” – This probably means that he was a “Hebraic” Jew – he grew up in a strictly orthodox home where Hebrew was spoken and the Old Testament Law was strictly observed, unlike most Diaspora Jewish homes. It may also mean that he was fluent in the Hebrew language (the original language of the Old Testament), though it was largely a dead language by Paul’s day.
He also had impeccable PERFORMANCE RECORD:
“As to the Law, a Pharisee” – This was the strictest sect of Judaism, only 6000+ being rigorous enough to make their ranks. In addition, Paul tells us elsewhere that he was educated by Gamaliel, the greatest religious scholar of his day (Acts 22:3), and that he was one of the most zealous of all Pharisees (Gal. 1:14).
“As to zeal, a persecutor of the church” – He was consistent with his religious convictions. If Pharisaism was true, then Christianity must be false and dangerous, so he moved to eliminate it in accordance with his religion.
“As to the righteousness which is in the Law, blameless” – Paul measured up to the external standards of ethical righteousness demanded by Pharisaism; no human could reproach him for his ethical life.
In other words, Paul was the “golden boy” of first-century Judaism. He was at the top of the heap for this identity-base. It is difficult to explain why he gave all of this up unless he found another identity-base that was way better . . .
Read 3:7-9a. Paul says that his new identity (“in Christ” – spiritually identified with Christ) completely outclasses his old identity. He emphasizes this in several different ways:
His new identity has “surpassing value” compared to his old identity (huperecho – see Phil. 4:7 for same word).
Using an accounting analogy, although his resume was previously reckoned as “gain” (kerdos – wealth), now in comparison to his new identity he reckons it as “loss” (zemia – as in “damages written off as a loss”).
He claims that his new identity has exposed all the items of his former resume as “dung” (skubalon – animal excrement; things worthless and detestable). This doesn’t mean that all of the items on his resume were evil; it means that their value as an identity is dung compared to his new identity.
And this wasn’t just a passing perception at his conversion; it has stood the test of time. He has both already given it up (perfect tense in 3:7), and he continues to do this (present tense in 3:8). If anything, this perspective has grown over the years.
What makes this new identity so superior? Two facets form the heart of Christianity:
It bestows upon him total and permanent right standing before God, completely apart from any religious or secular performance. Imagine starting each day knowing that God Himself regards you as His beloved son or daughter, with the very same approval with which He regards His Son Jesus (Matt. 3:17). That no success or failure today can alter this standing in the slightest. That you can move through the day not for people’s or your own approval, but from God’s approval. This produces a psychological poise and stability that is just the opposite of the angst that comes from “being on trial” for your identity every day.
It gives him personal access to Jesus as the Messiah, so that he can know Him relationally (3:8). Paul is not referring just to the personal encounter that he had with the rise Jesus when he was converted. He is referring to ongoing and increasing relational intimacy with Jesus through His Spirit. Imagine experiencing ongoing affirmation of Jesus’ love (Rom. 5:5; 8:15), increasing intimacy of communication with Him (Rom. 8:26,27), and increasing personal empowerment by Him (3:10a). This produces a confidence to face life’s difficulties and challenges and disappointments that is just the opposite of living by your own or other people’s resources.
Best of all, it is a free gift that he received by simply putting his faith in Jesus as Messiah (3:9). All this is available to everyone who receives Christ (Jn. 1:12)! Are you weary of your old identity? Instead of just pursuing a different version of the same old identity, why not receive Christ and have God bestow on you this new identity? Like Paul, you will never regret this decision!
A one-time gift to receive – but a daily decision to affirm
Do you have this new identity – but still live largely out of your old identity? That’s what Paul is trying to prevent the Philippians from reverting to. This is the foundational ongoing decision in your Christian life, requiring a virtually daily affirmation because:
We are all daily susceptible to identity amnesia. Like Leonard Shelby, the main character in the 2000 movie “Memento,” we tend to awake each day forgetting who we are. So like him, we need to “tattoo” ourselves with the truth about who God says we are and begin each day by affirming this before Him to ourselves.
We all live in a world that daily seduces us back to PLAN A. It will keep presenting us with new and different PLAN A projects. It will use our memories, people’s statements to us, family and peer pressure, etc. to keep us deceived and imprisoned. So we need to ask God daily to help us discern these seductions, and to affirm in faith (like Paul) that they are dung compared to our new identity in Christ.
NEXT WEEK: Phil. 3:10b-17 – “Growing in Our New Identity in Christ”