Study Notes from Philippians by Dr. David Nelson

Philippians 3:1-11: Profit and Loss

By Dr. David Nelson

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul shared how his sufferings resulted in the advance of the gospel. He wrote to exhort the church to solve their internal problems so that they could bond together as one man for the advance of the gospel. Churches today need to work together for the advance of the gospel even in the midst of suffering and hardships.

3Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

2Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. [1]

With the word “Finally,” Paul shifts gears to a new section in the letter. The word “finally” (Gr. to loipon) according to Arndt means “as far as the rest is concerned, beyond that, in addition, finally.”[2] Paul is not finishing his letter, but transitioning to a new, but related topic. Thus, the first two chapters have centered along the same theme, selfless humility serving together as one man for the advance of the gospel.

Here, Paul shared his story with them that true spirituality does not consist in one’s personal accomplishments, but true spirituality focuses on Christ’s accomplishment on the cross for salvation and on becoming more like Christ in one’s life. By forfeiting all his privileges and religious accomplishments, Paul profited from Christ’s righteousness and discovered his new purpose in life which is to know Christ and become like Christ. By forfeiting all our privileges, works, and personal accomplishments for a right standing with God, we profit from Christ’s work on the cross and we gain a new mission in life, i.e. knowing and becoming more like Jesus Christ. We can glorify our own personal heritage, accomplishments, or attainments but be bankrupt in God’s sight. As Jesus told his disciples, “what profits a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Mt. 16:16)

Paul encouraged them to rejoice in the Lord always. They needed to turn their focus off their problems and look to the Lord. He did not mind writing to them the things he had taught before. It was not a burden to him to address these things again (3:1). What he had warned them about was the false teachers, the Judaizers. In pejorative and emphatic fashion, he warned them about the “dogs,” the “evil workers,” and “the mutilators.” “Dog” was a derogatory term describing the activity of the Judaizers. Like wandering dogs through the streets looking for something to devour and destroy, the Judaizers did the same with Gentiles interested in salvation in Christ. Dogs were unclean animals and were used to describe Gentiles outside God’s covenant people, so Jewish teachers reading this may be offended by Paul’s words. However, Jesus had also rebuked the Pharisees because they led people astray and thus, would face greater judgment (cf. Matt. 23). He also described the false teachers as evil workers and the mutilators. Jewish teachers would see their works as good works intended to bring themselves closer to God, but in fact, they were missing God’s grace.

“Mutilators” (Gr. katatomē) is a word similar to circumcision (Gr. peritomē). In the minds of the Judaizers, they were leading people to do a good thing by being circumcised, but in reality they were leading people astray and mutilating them. Circumcision was a cutting the flesh around a man’s foreskin as a sign of the covenant relationship between Israel and God. The Judaizers insisted on circumcision for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5) and this became a source of pride of their special relationship with God. They could not see Gentiles believing in Christ and not being circumcised. The one point the Judaizers missed is that in doing so, they obligated those they circumcised to obey the entire Mosaic covenant as a means of salvation. Faith in Christ and Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross was in effect nullified (cf. Gal. 2:15-21). In other words, they were leading Gentiles to become Jews first (cf. Gal. 2:14). This was the issue of debate in Acts 15. The outcome of this discussion was that they would not obligate Gentiles to observe circumcision in believing in Christ but they did want them to be sensitive to the scruples of Jewish people who lived in every city of the Roman Empire so as not to offend them from hearing the gospel of grace through Jesus (Acts 15:19-21).

The emphasis of this passage starts in 3:3. The true circumcision are those 1) who serve (Gr. latreuō, means to “serve” and is used of service to God by priests, prophets, apostles, and others cf. Rom. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:3) by the power of the Holy Spirit, 2) who boast in the work of Jesus Christ (cf. Jer. 9:23-24), and 3) who do not trust in their own personal efforts and accomplishments for their relationship with God. In the OT, God was not just looking for an outward act of circumcision, but circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; Ezek. 44:4). The final phrase is literally “put no confidence in the flesh.” In this letter, Paul is confident in God to finish the work he began in the Philippian believers (1:6). He has confidence he will soon be released from prison (1:25). Here, the true people of God put no confidence in the flesh. The “flesh” (Gr. sarx) is a reference to human efforts that people place their trust in for a right standing with God.

The rest of this passage is a discussion about confidence in Christ and putting no confidence in the flesh. True circumcision (the mark of the true people of God) occurs through trusting in the work of Christ and not trusting in one’s religious efforts or accomplishments. Salvation and the Christian life is not about one’s own personal efforts or works, but is a relationship with God through grace that has come through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

There are two truths that Paul shared about true spirituality. These two truths are still important for us to know and to follow today.

First, true spirituality is about losing our personal pride and accomplishments for the work of Christ (3:4-6).

Our basis of our trust is not in our own heritage and personal accomplishments, but it is through Jesus Christ and His righteousness. This is how a person comes to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

If anyone could boast in their heritage and personal accomplishments, Paul could. The first four items in the list refers to Paul’s privileges. The last three refer to his accomplishments. He was circumcised on the eighth day (not as a Gentile convert). He was born a true Israelite (not a convert), of the tribe of Benjamin (the only son born in Canaan). He was born a true Hebrew (trained by his parents to speak Hebrew and follow Jewish customs). In reference to the Mosaic Law, he was trained as a Pharisee under Gamaliel. Pharisees separated from anything or anyone that would render them ceremonially unclean and they endeavored to live a life of holiness. His zeal for what he believed resulted in persecuting the Church of Jesus Christ, believing that he was obeying God (cf. Gal. 1:13-14). As to a righteous standing with God through following the Law, he was blameless (3:4-6). Paul believed that he was blameless in terms of fulfilling the legal requirements of the Law as the basis of his right standing with God. But he was sincerely wrong.

Our standing with God is not based upon our religious or personal heritage or our accomplishments or religious works. We are all born sinners, separated from God.

Second, true spirituality is based upon knowing Christ and becoming like Jesus Christ – 3:7-11

But whatever gain he had in all these matters, he realized that they amounted to nothing. In fact, for the sake of Christ, he counted them as a loss (3:7). In view of Christ and His work on the cross for a right standing with God, all of Paul’s personal achievements and privileges that he trusted in amounted to nothing.

Thus, Paul continues a theme of the letter. We gain by losing. Those who God honors are those who selflessly humble themselves in service to God and to others. To be first, we must be last. To be the greatest, we must be a servant. In God’s kingdom, all we consider in this life important is rubbish. Everything is the opposite.

In contrast to Paul’s list describing his heritage and accomplishments as gain, he has considered them as loss on account of Christ (3:7). The word “considered” (Gr. hēgēmai, also in 2:4) is in the perfect tense, indicating that the change of Paul’s thinking started on the Damascus Road and continues to the time he is writing this letter. This was no brief and momentary decision, but a lifelong decision Paul made that radically changed his life. Before they were “gain” or “profit” (Gr. kerdos) but now they are loss. “Loss” is from Gr. zēmia which is anything that brings damage or disadvantage (BDAG). The very heritage and activities that he thought were advantageous, were found to be a disadvantage. The difference? Jesus Christ revealed Himself to Paul and revealed to him that he was persecuting Christ and doing the very opposite of God’s will.

In addition (3:8), he now considers (present tense) all things (not just past heritage and accomplishments) as a loss because of the surpassing worth of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ his Lord. The words “Christ Jesus my Lord” are a very personal statement as Paul emphasizes Jesus as his Lord. O’Brien noted that “the wonder of this knowledge of Christ Jesus as his Lord is so great and the relationship is so intensely personal that he focuses upon it in his testimony.”[3] In comparison to knowing Christ, everything is a loss. “Know” is not a conceptual knowledge but a relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship is described as having surpassing worth compared to everything else in life.

What is the most important thing or person in our lives? We dedicate our time and resources to what we consider to have great worth in our lives. If knowing Jesus Christ is worthwhile to us, there will be no problem in placing ourselves under His authority and arranging all our activities, resources, and time under His command and Lordship.

For the sake of Christ, Paul forfeited (past tense) all his heritage and accomplishments (“these things”) (cf. Jesus’ statement in Mt. 16:26). Paul’s decision came with a great cost. Now, he is no longer the persecutor but the one being persecuted, presently in prison. He lost status, possibly family property, among other things. He now considers (present tense) all these things as dung (Gr. skubala = “refuse,” “garbage”). This is a strong term and shows Paul’s utter distaste for anything that competes with knowing Christ.

The purpose of forfeiting his past heritage and accomplishments was twofold. The first purpose was so that (the purpose) he may gain Christ. This points to the future when Paul will stand before the Lord and be found to be in Christ. Paul desires to perfectly know Christ based upon the righteousness he already has through faith in Christ’s faithful obedience and sacrificial death. Paul does not doubt his relationship with God, but looks forward to the consummation of this relationship with Christ when he stands before God and perfectly know Christ.

Second, the purpose of this decision is to be found in Christ. Again, this looks forward to the consummation of his relationship with Christ when he stands before God. O’Brien noted, “As a believer he is already ‘in Christ’, having been united with his Lord in his death and resurrection (cf. Gal. 2:20; Col. 2:20; 3:1, 3). εὑρεθῶ, like the parallel verb κερδήσω, is an aorist subjunctive and once again suggests that Paul is looking forward to the day of Christ. The apostle’s great ambition is ‘to be found in him’ on that occasion when every knee shall bow to Jesus Christ as Lord.”[4] This means that his relationship with God be not according to his own righteousness, based upon his obedience to the Law. Instead, this righteousness is through faith in Christ’s perfect and final work of obedience on the cross. Christ died for our sins and offered His life as a sin offering on the cross. God accepted His offering by raising Him from the dead. This right standing before God is through the faithfulness of Christ in His perfect obedience and atoning death. This righteousness is a gift of God (Rom. 3:22-24), not something gained from religious works but is based upon faith.

The remaining two verses (3:10-11) further explains Paul’s statement in vs. 8 about the surpassing personal knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. This relationship involves experiencing the power of His resurrection and the participating in His sufferings. In Eph. 1:15-23, Paul prayed that the Ephesian church would understand the power of the resurrected Christ working in them (see also Eph. 3:14-21). The power of the resurrected Christ is to transform the believer into His image and to empower the believer to serve Christ in His kingdom. This relationship also involves participating in His sufferings. By participating in Christ’s sufferings, the believer experiences a closer relationship with Christ every day. The goal of these sufferings is to be conformed to Christ in His death (3:11). “Being conformed to his sufferings” further defines participating in Christ’s sufferings. By participating in Christ’s sufferings, we are conformed to His character. No suffering can separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39). Paul’s sufferings encountered in fulfilling his mission from Christ was nothing compared to the future revelation of the sons of God (Rom. 8:18). Through sufferings, believers are transformed into the image of Christ. As Paul explained in 2 Cor. 3:18, believers are being transformed from glory to glory as we gaze into the image and beauty of Christ. The beauty of His character shines the brightest in His death on the cross.

Finally, the goal of Paul’s and our being transformed into the image of Christ is the future resurrection from the dead. Paul’s words “that by any means” indicates expectation, not doubt. Paul has no doubts of being with Christ after death (cf. 1:21; 3:20-21). The journey there is uncertain, but the resurrection is settled. The verb Paul used (Gr. katantaō) indicates the goal to which one is headed. Here is our future: the resurrection from the dead where we will become fully like Christ because we will see Him as He is (1 John 3:1-3).

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Php 3:1–11.

[2] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 602.

[3] Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 389.

[4] O’Brien, p. 392.


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