Chucking it all away for Christ – Thursday 31st Week in ordinary time – Philippians 3:3-8a
To get to the heart of our text we need to place it in context. It seems like the letter to the Philippians is winding down and Paul is done and dusted with his message. Why else would he say in 3:1 “FINALLY, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me, and is safe for you.” One can see now an extraordinary break in the letter to the Philippians and this is where the text becomes problematic.
Paul who is winding down his letters suddenly takes off and pens some very strong words. “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” (3:2) It seems that as Paul was ending his letter, news came in from Philippi. The false teachers who had followed Paul in his ministry everywhere, sowing descension and doubt, had reached Philippi. They were luring the Philippians away from the true faith. There were the Judaizers, who favoured a strict understanding of Jewish Christianity who had begun poisoning the minds of the Philippians. Paul lashes out at them and says look out for the dogs!
For a Jew a dog was everything that was shamelessly unclean. It was by this name that the Jews called the Gentiles. It was the Jews who said the nations of the world are like dogs. So, this is Paul’s answer to the Jewish teachers. He says as it were to them, in your proud righteousness you call others dogs but in reality, it is you who are dogs, because you shamelessly pervert the gospel of Jesus. Instead of propagating the word of God, these self-styled teachers were propagating their own evil ideas.
Paul deprives these perverters of the Gospel the privilege of even using the term circumcision and rather says they mutilate the flesh. Peritemnein means to circumcise but Paul puns on the word and says katatemnein, which translates as castration and was forbidden in the Old Testament.
The text of today begins with verse 3 in which Paul explains himself. Circumcision which was a sign of their special relationship with God. Due to the false teaching, this sign of circumcision had become only a sign in the flesh. But if a person is to share a special relationship with God, something far more is needed than a mark in his body. Circumcision has no meaning in itself. It was the circumcision of the heart that God longed for. Christian worship is not a thing of ritual only but of the heart. While the Jew placed his confidence in the physical sign of circumcision, The Christian places his confidence in Christ alone.
Paul has just attacked the Jewish teachers and insisted that it is the Christian, not the Jew, who are the covenant people. His opponents might be tempted to say that Paul does not know what it means to be a Jew. So, he sets out to present his credentials. Paul had been circumcised on the eighth day. He was of the race of Israel and of the tribe of Benjamin. Paul then goes on to give his achievements in the Jewish faith. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents and was trained as a Pharisee. He was a persecutor: this is Paul’s ultimate credential and as far as righteousness which the law could produce, he was blameless
Now in verse 7 he uses the language of book keeping; of loss and gain. All these things Paul might have claimed to set down on the credit side of the balance; but when he met Christ, he wrote them off as nothing more than bad debts. “Indeed, 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 refuse, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:8)
But he goes one step ahead and says that he now counts all this as “rubbish” (verse 8). The Greek translation of the word rubbish reads as skybala; which means either rubbish or excrement. In either case something that is disposed off, irrevocably.