Exploring the Scripture
In the verses just before today’s passage, Paul criticizes Christian leaders who insist that Gentiles must be circumcised before becoming Christians. They were teaching the need for specific religious credentials to be acceptable to God. Paul uses his own life as an example of how unimportant those religious credentials are.
In this autobiographical passage, we have a rare personal glimpse into Paul’s faith journey from his pen. With remarkable brevity, he summarizes his privileged life, his unblemished religious background, his misplaced zeal, and his transformation:
- He was circumcised by his parents on the eighth day following Jewish law, the mark “in the flesh” of a Jew, inheritor of the covenant of Abraham.
- He belonged to the tribe of Benjamin, named for the beloved youngest son of Jacob, who took no part in selling his older brother Joseph into slavery. Paul’s inclusion of his tribe in this brief account shows his pride in belonging and affirms that he continues to see himself as a Jew.
- He was born into a Hebrew-speaking family and claimed Hebrew as his native tongue.
- He chose to join the Pharisee sect, committed to strict adherence to the multitude of Jewish laws governing daily life, thought, faith, and action. Although his choice required meticulous discipline in every part of daily life, it also gave status, privilege, and honor.
- His zeal for law and Jewish faith led him to persecute actively the Jewish Christians, to cleanse the Jewish faith of heresy.
- In doing so, he considered himself righteous, blameless and fully justified.
His zeal and self-righteousness become a statement of confession and repentance as he writes of the joy he has found through living “in Christ.” Like Jesus, in Philippians 2:5-11, Paul discarded his cherished credentials as “rubbish” to claim Christ Jesus as Lord.
Paul set before the Philippians two ways of defining righteousness. In his previous life, he considered himself righteous because he kept the law—righteousness dependent on his effort, obedience, and achievements. In contrast, the righteousness he now values is a gift given by God. It is not grounded in past accomplishments but based on present trust and future fulfillment. It comes simply by reaching out to make Christ his own. It is possible only because Christ has already claimed Paul as Christ’s own. He cannot take credit for his faith because it, too, is a gift from God.
Paul highlighted the process of becoming more Christlike rather than reaching a completed goal. He has not arrived and is not perfect in faith. He continues to press on “toward the prize” instead of reveling in the progress he has already made. Using imagery well-known to the Gentile Christians of Philippi, he speaks as if he were in a footrace, with the prize (or trophy) being “the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.” For this calling, Paul gave up his past privileges and entered a new life in Christ.
Project Zion Podcast
Co-hosts Karin Peter and Blake Smith consider how this week's scripture connects to our lives today.
- Paul’s early faith journey and zeal led him to an encounter with the living Christ, which transformed his faith and the purpose of his life.
- Paul willingly gave up all he was, all he had, and all he once valued, to witness of Jesus Christ.
- Righteousness defined by legal observance fails because of the righteousness which God gives to those who claim life in Christ as their top priority.
- A Christian is always becoming—becoming more faithful, becoming more trusting, and becoming more Christ-like.
Questions to Consider
- How have your own life experiences and faith journey equipped you to be a witness for Jesus Christ?
- What further transformation would be necessary for you to be an “apostle”—one who is commissioned as a witness and sent to others to share the Good News?
- What does it mean to “gain Christ and be found in him?”
- What images would you use to contrast legal righteousness with God’s righteousness in today’s world?
- How is your congregation or faith group moving away from the past and becoming more Christ-like?