Sermon on Philippians 3:4-14

My sermon from this past Sunday (October 8, 2017) is below the fold. My text was Philippians 3:4-14. I didn’t have an official title for this sermon, but its come to be known as “The Dung Sermon.”

INTRODUCTION

Today I’m going to be preaching on Paul’s letter to the Philippians 3:4-14. I don’t often preach on Paul because Paul can be difficult to understand. Paul can be hard to follow. But his insights, when we take the time to understand him, are well worth the effort. And so I want to go through today’s passage verse by verse and see what insights we can find.

 

VERSE BY VERSE

We begin in verse 4b.

4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:

Now, part of what’s going on here is that Paul is in the midst of a theological debate. Maybe you could even say a theological fight. Sometimes, I read Paul’s letters, and I think he moved from debate to just a plain, all-out verbal fight.

And this first verse brings up the question of what he means by flesh. This Common English Bible translates the flesh as “physical advantages.” These should be understood mostly as the kind of advantages you’re born into, the benefits of your birth.

Paul notes that some people are looking to physical things such as the advantages of their birth or the external observance of the law. And Paul says if you’re going to go that route, I can go one better.

 

5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

He was “circumcised on the eighth day” just as the law prescribed. He was “a member of the people of Israel” physically descended from Abraham. He was “of the tribe of Benjamin,” one of the most well-regarded of the twelve tribes. He was in short “a Hebrew born of Hebrews” and thus raised in the faith of Israel. He says “as to the law a Pharisee” which means he diligently followed the law God had given to Israel through Moses. “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” He took his faith so seriously that he went after those who he thought were perverting it (the Christians whom he would later refer to as brothers and sisters in Christ). And then he concludes with the phrase “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” That may trip us up. Paul was not overcome by guilt before his conversion.

Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, dealt with a lot of guilt before his theological breakthrough of justification by faith. Wesley struggled with much the same thing. But that was not Paul’s experience. In fact, Paul can say, “as to the observance of the law I was blameless. I was without fault.”

He saw himself as without fault in his previous life, and so he was also unashamed of his previous life. He can happily name his place among the descendants of Abraham. He did not see that as a bad thing because it wasn’t. But nonetheless, he left it all behind.

 

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Paul did not see his previous life as something to run away from. He saw his accomplishments under the law as a credit to his name. That’s what he means when he uses the term “whatever gains I had.” He saw the way he lived under the law as a credit to his name. But now having gained Jesus, he moves all those things from the gains/profit column to the loss column.

He sees them as less than worthless. He counts them as loss. The very things he had seen in his previous life as things to his credit he now sees as debits, as of less than no consequence because he has something far better. It’s not that what he had before was bad. It is that having Christ is far better. He has left behind the good for the great.

Now that is not usually the case when we hear conversion stories. Often good conversion stories begin with how messed up a person’s life was. How they found themselves lying face down in the gutter and it was Jesus who helped them get their life straightened out. Paul’s conversion story doesn’t go like that. Paul’s life was straightened out already. He had a good life. He had a lot of things in the credit column. But Paul left even those good things behind in order to take up Jesus Christ.

The law was a good gift of God to the descendants of Abraham. Jesus Christ was an even better gift to all people. And if this is true of Paul and his life under the God-given Mosaic Law, how much more is it true of us and of all the worldly ways we try to distinguish ourselves?

This passage reminds us that whatever credits we may possess are as nothing compared to what we all have in Jesus Christ. Verse eight makes that point quite explicitly.

 

8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9a and be found in him,

I had several debates with myself about which translation of the Bible to use and here is one of those places that sparked a debate. The NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translates a key Greek word as rubbish. Paul says “I regard them (everything else), as rubbish.” In the CEB (Common English Bible) translation, Paul says “what I lost I think of as sewer trash.” This is closer to the original meaning, but not quite there. The KJV (King James Version) probably comes closest to the original Greek with the word “dung.”

Everything else, from our follies and our foibles to our greatest gains and achievements, are like dung when compared to Christ. And so Paul left everything else behind in order to gain Christ.

It reminds me of Jesus’s parable of a merchant who sold everything to buy a pearl of great price. In the same way, Paul had been willing to lose everything else in order to gain Christ.

As one commentator put it, “to the rich in Christ means to be rich in him alone.” [1] And all of us can be rich in Christ. Christ freely offers himself to us. This should be a comfort to us every time we’re struck by the unfairness of life. If you’re struck by the injustice of someone else who seems to treat people poorly but always seems to come out ahead; If you’re struck by the unfairness that someone who hasn’t worked half as hard as you have somehow accumulated more wealth; if you don’t seem to be getting the results you deserve while someone else gets things they never even thought to ask for and so life seems unfair; then remember this: to be rich in Christ means to be rich in Christ alone. And Christ offers himself freely to us.

As for myself, I can imagine Jesus looking at me when I am on one of my rants about the unfairness of life. I can almost hear Christ speaking to me saying “John, John, I have given you my self. Everything else pales in comparison. Why are you getting so hung up on things that will not matter in the end?”

 

9b not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

By righteousness, Paul means right relationship. Right relationship means that you’re in a relationship with God where God says “we’re good.”

An interesting thing happens here. In the NRSV this verse reads “through faith in Christ.”
Now the word “in” is not there in the Greek. It’s simply the two words faith and Christ.
In translating Paul’s original Greek to modern day English, the NRSV, quite reasonably, added the word “in” between faith and Christ but in the Greek, it could just as easily be translated “the faith of Christ.”

Aside: There are a lot of places in Paul’s letters where it makes more sense to say that we are saved or we are justified by the faith of Christ. All too often we turn faith into a work. We say I don’t rely on my works I rely on my faith and we immediately turn around and make that faith something that we do. That’s an error from which we’re safer when the phrase is more accurately translated “faith of Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ.”

Now that doesn’t mean there is not a place for us. Later on in the very same verse, the faith in question is unmistakably ours. The righteousness we have is because of the faith/faithfulness of Jesus Christ. We receive that righteousness through our faith in Christ. With the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are called to have a relationship with God through him, not through the law. We do this by placing our trust in, setting our hearts on, and committing ourselves to God through Jesus Christ.

 

10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,

Paul is not surprised that his faith has brought persecution. He’s not surprised that his faith has brought suffering. In fact, Paul sees his suffering as a chance to grow closer to God, as a chance to identify with Christ. But at the same time, he doesn’t forget the power of the resurrection. So often in our faith, those of us who are Christians have gone off one way or the other. We’ve either focused on the suffering of Jesus, or we’ve focused on the resurrection. We seem to want to pick one and go with it exclusively. But the truth is that in what God did in Jesus Christ the two go together. It is not either the cross or the resurrection. It’s both the cross and the resurrection.

 

11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The early Methodists had two things they tried to remember, and they’re both important. One was not to presume upon God’s grace and what that meant was don’t assume that it’s all going to be OK without any effort on your part. But at the same time, they also believed that we should have some confidence in our salvation. They said we can have that confidence because we experience salvation here and now in the relationship with God that we have in this life. That relationship is a foretaste of the salvation that is to come. We have to hold those two together and be confident, but not presumptuous.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

What Paul is actually saying is that Christ has taken hold of him. Christ has grabbed Paul. Christ has seized Paul. And just as Christ has taken hold of Paul, so in the same way, Paul wants to take hold of the Christian life. He wants to journey deeper. He wants to go further. He wants the maturity and the completeness that God has promised us in Jesus Christ. And so he presses on to make it his own because Jesus made Paul Jesus’s own.

 

13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

No matter how far we press, no matter how high up the spiritual mountain we journey, there is always more, and so we press on. We do this through the means of grace: works of piety such as prayer and the reading, hearing, and explanation of Scripture; and works of mercy such as in the care we provide for our neighbors and the loving kindness, we show one another.

And as we do this, we need to remember the prize of the heavenly call of God not only for this life, but for the life to come.

We live in what is easily the most death-denying culture in human history. We want to live forever; we lie and tell ourselves we can live forever because we are either unwilling or unable to face death. In contrast, Paul is so confident in the resurrection; so confident that there is more to come; that he can stride forward to face death head on and encourage us to join him.

 

CONCLUSION

There is a lot packed into this passage. I haven’t given you the full dose.

One commentator I read went on about this passage for 50 plus single-spaced pages. I’ve read them all. I can’t begin to share with you the depth of this passage. But more than just knowing about it, we need to let it seep into us, and we need to let it work its way into the very core of our being. And so I want you to encourage you to take the bulletin home, read this scripture throughout the week and renew within yourselves what Paul has to say here. I want to begin that here and now.

 

Philippians 3:4b-14 (NRSV)
4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Amen.


 

NOTES

[1] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 320.

 

COMMENTARIES CONSULTED

Blakley, J. Ted. A Lector’s Guide and Commentary to the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A. Wichita, Kansas: St. Marks Press, 2010.

Brueggemann, Walter, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

Craddock, Fred B. Philippians. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985.

Craddock, Fred B., John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker. Preaching through the Christian Year: Year A. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.

Murray, Robert. “Philippians.” In The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 1179-190. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Wright, N. T. “Philippians.” In Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, 83-137. Lousiville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.