Philippians 3:1a: This part of verse one continues the thought of the previous section. Paul is encouraging joy. With the next section, we seem to have a radical shift in tone, leading some to argue that perhaps this letter is a compilation of more than one correspondence.
Philippians 3:1b-16: Paul writes to remind the Philippians of things he has said before. One wonders if, because he has said some of these things before, his tone is harsher this time around.
As in the churches in Galatia, the Christian community in Philippi is being troubled by teachers who seem to be promoting the idea that Gentile Christians who really want to find themselves in God’s grace must essentially become Jewish, circumcision and all. Paul uses word play and insulting terms to characterize these teachers as “dogs” (a deeply insulting term), and as “evil workers” (a play on the Greek word for missionary). The phrase “mutilate the flesh” is a play on the term for circumcision, leading us to believe that the troublesome teaches are zealous Jewish Christians whose understanding of the Christian faith Paul finds false. It may be the case that they are evangelizing Jews rather than Jewish Christians, but evangelizing Jews who probably had a distorted picture of Judaism with an excessive emphasis on circumcision. Today we find it hard to believe this would be very compelling, but in the first century, apparently it was. Circumcision does not seem like a great recruitment strategy.
Paul asserts that circumcision does not matter and that God’s Spirit has already touched the lives of the Philippian Christians. They should have no confidence in the flesh. Here Paul is referring in particular to circumcision, but also to human effort more broadly conceived. Outward credentials are not what matters most, but rather in working of the Spirit in people’s lives. Perhaps some of the troublesome teachers brought with them their learning credentials. Paul puts his own Jewish credentials up against anyone else’s. The church can be rather status conscious today – people who have theological degrees, or who have completed certain spiritual growth programs, or who have gone on certain kinds of mission experiences, may choose to tout these kinds of accomplishments in inappropriate ways. What matters is the on-going work of God’s Spirit in human life. What matters is knowing Christ and becoming Christ-like, developing a Christ-mind and Christ-heart. It is not that these other things have no worth or value, only that their value needs to be kept in perspective. What matters most is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” This is not Christian masochism. When we open our hearts to the world, we will know its suffering. We also know the healing power of God’s love to make a difference in a suffering and hurting world. Of course, sometimes bringing healing to a hurting world can get us into trouble, and there is that suffering to account for as well. Paul ended up in prison.
Paul does not want to proclaim that he has achieved this Christ-mind, this Christ-heart, but he is on the path, on the road, on the journey. He is giving it all he has, all his energy, and he invites the Philippians to do the same.
Philippians 3:17-21: Paul not only invites them to give all their energy, he more specifically invites them to imitate his life. He has shared his story so that they might gain lessons for living in Christ from it.
Here he again takes on some who have warped the Christian faith as Paul understands it. There is not much agreement about who these persons are. The language used suggests that they are not the Jewish Christians from the first part of the chapter. This group may be people who have gone the very opposite direction. The Jewish Christians wanted to impose laws and rules to secure one’s relationship with God. This group seems to be saying that because we are so certain of our relationship with God, anything goes. Instead of struggling, and pressing on toward the goal, they seem to think that Christian freedom is a license to do almost anything. They are persons who “represent indulgence of the body as an expression of the new life in Christ” (People’s New Testament Commentary). They don’t seem to realize that desire run rampant is a new form of bondage, an insight shared between Christian faith and Buddhism. Paul does not denigrate the body, however. He wants to put the body and human desire at the service of a different way of life – the way of God’s kingdom, the way of Jesus Christ. Paul’s language is contra-imperial – citizenship is not with Rome, but in God’s realm, Jesus and not Caesar is Lord and Savior. In the Jesus way, our bodies and desires are to be used in the work of transformation.