John Mason Brown was a drama critic and speaker well known for his witty and informative lectures on theatrical topics. One of his first important appearances as a lecturer was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Brown was pleased, but also rather nervous, and his nerves were not helped when he noticed by the light of the slide projector that someone was copying his every gesture. After a time he broke off his lecture and announced with great dignity that if anyone was not enjoying the talk, he was free to leave. Nobody did, and the mimicking continued. It was another 10 minutes before Brown realized that the mimic was his own shadow!
Most of us have been victims of frightening monsters which turned out to be nothing but innocuous shadows. Many of us have worked hard at achieving goals only to realize that the promise we sought was but an insubstantial shadow. In Philippians 3 Paul warns us against falling for a shadow - the shadow of a religion that promises more than it can deliver, the shadow of a religion that pretends to show us Christ, but which is in fact a chimera that blocks our view of Christ and ultimately distracts us, with its siren call, to our own demise.
Paul writes this letter from prison, likely in Rome. He begins with robust statements of thanksgiving for the Philippians and their “partnership in the gospel” (1:5). The letter exudes appreciation for their spirit, and exhortation to emulate the humility of Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider it necessary to grasp at all the trappings and accoutrements of divinity to which He had indisputable claim (2:6). Paul’s concern for the welfare of the Philippians is palpable and his burning desire is for their continued growth to maturity. He has invested himself into this church and he is eager to see that investment return dividends, not for himself, but for the Philippian believers.
In chapter 3 we are given a profound insight into the nature of this development which Paul longs for them to experience. “Finally”, he says “rejoice in the Lord.” This is evidently a recurring theme with Paul, because he freely allows that he is repeating himself, but he expresses his hope that this redundancy will prove beneficial to his listeners.
So he wants his Philippi an believers to rejoice in the Lord, but his elaboration as to how this should occur takes a surprising turn. Immediately on the heels of this injunction to “rejoice in the Lord” Paul issues a warning: “Watch out for the dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” Evidently one of Paul’s primary concerns regarding the Philippians joy is the threat posed by certain “men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh”. The concern clearly runs very deep with Paul, yet calling these people dogs seems strong language. What is it that has Paul so incensed? On the face of it this seems to be an issue regarding circumcision, but Paul himself has been all over the place on this circumcision thing. In his earlier days he would have been mortified had he not been circumcised, so how is it that he now considers proponents of circumcision to be dogs? What’s more, the very next line has Paul making the claim that “it is we who are the circumcision.” Paul seems to be saying there is a real circumcision, but what these people are chasing is only a shadow.
Circumcision, you will recall, had been a distinguishing mark for as long as the Israelites had been a people. If you are circumcised you’re in, if you’re not you’re out. It was how the chosen people had marked their uniqueness as the people of God. It was a reminder, a very physical and indelible permanent reminder to them that they were chosen, called out to be a special people for God. They were in, everybody else was out.
But circumcision was more than an arbitrary mark to set themselves apart. It was done in explicit obedience to the God who had called them out in the first place. Circumcision was the sign given to them by Yahweh himself, and Yahweh instructed them to be careful to observe this practice as an everlasting covenant.
9 Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
So there you have it. God himself told them to do this, so why is Paul getting all bent out of shape over what is clearly a simple matter of obedience? How can Paul call people dogs for doing what God had instructed them to do? Is it really possible that the very people who are most devout in their insistence on obedience are in fact chasing shadows?
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
Nobody, but nobody, would out-circumcise Paul. If there were markers to distinguish true believers, Paul had them all. He was a Believer among believers.
But if this is about markers, how do we translate this into our own time? By what marks do we know which side we are on? How do we separate the sheep from the goats? There could be many interpretations, but how’s this: Baptized at 14, an adherent of the Christian religion, a Protestant, an evangelical, denominationally affiliated as a Mennonite (or insert your favorite non/denomination), saved by faith not by works, a holy passion to know God, I faithfully memorize scripture and pray before all meals.
But Paul goes on:
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” What? All this good stuff is loss?? What’s with you today Paul? First you derisively call those who obey God “dogs”, now everything we have been taught to value and cherish in our heritage is to be considered loss? What is going on?
Keep in mind that Paul is not simply saying that all these things are bad. Read Romans for a glimpse of how Paul feels about his heritage, about circumcision, and about the law. In Romans 2 Paul talks about the Jews and the law and he says “Circumcision has value if you observe the law.” Clearly circumcision is not a bad thing in Paul’s view. When Paul talks about the futility of seeking righteousness by keeping the law, he says (7:12) “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good”. These words are not to be taken lightly. Paul has an astonishningly high view of the law and places great value in keeping the law. In chapter 9 Paul expresses the great sorrow and unceasing anguish of his heart for his people and their heedless squandering of the incredible blessings that are theirs as God’s chosen people. In fact, he could wish himself accursed for the sake of his people. Not for moment can we allow ourselves to think that Paul has anything but the utmost respect and enduring appreciation for these things which he now counts as loss for the sake of Christ. Paul enjoins obedience to God and to scripture frequently, and many of these things which he now considers loss, circumcision is one example, are done in obedience to divine instructions. So how does obedience become an occasion of loss?
If all these things are good things, why does Paul consider them loss for the sake of Christ? It would be relatively unproblematic if he called them useless or neutral, but he does not. Paul calls them negative baggage, they are a loss, they put him at a disadvantage when he wants to know Christ. These things get in the way. But how do good things get in the way of what is best in our lives? How do these good things, these things that are intended to help us toward God, in fact become obstacles between us and God? More to the point, is this a problem unique to Paul and the Jewish people or could we suffer the same problem? Could it be that the better our religion works for us, the greater the danger that it will in fact become an obstacle between us and the God we claim to serve?
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
What did Jesus say in John 14:6? “I AM the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But if Jesus is the only way to God, then our religion is not the way. If Jesus is the only way to the Father then my beliefs and my confessions are not the way. If Jesus is the only way to God then there is no other way and any other way which is purported to be a way can only be a distraction from the one true way. That is why all these good things, which are intended to help us find God, so easily get in the way of our finding Jesus as the only way. That is why all these good things, all these markers by which we distinguish who’s in from who’s out, are a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, our only way.
Are these things bad because they distract us from Jesus? No, because they are given to us a tools, as guidelines to help us find God. In Galatians Paul calls the law a tutor who was given to lead us to Christ. The law is a good thing, and our religious heritage is a good thing, but the more we revere the law, and the more confidence we place in our religious/cultural/social heritage, the greater the danger that we will become satisfied with the tutor and abandon our quest for the God who is always here, always with us, always within us, but also always beyond our confident grasp, because God owns us, we can never own God.
7But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
No amount of law-keeping, no amount of right living, not even any right believing will be for us the righteousness that God gives. The righteousness of God comes only from God as a gift, and we appropriate it by faith, but it is not given only if we have the right kind of faith or the right kind of belief. Indubitably we experience it in proportion to our faith and our obedience, but our experience never accurately reflects what we have been given. Now we can only see through a glass darkly, then we will know fully as we are fully known by God even now. Paul seems to emphasize the radical gifted nature of this righteousness when he restates his original statement “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ” and he repeats it as “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Faith is subsequent to the gift of righteousness which is bestowed as a free gift, but living faith is how we experience God’s gift of salvation and it creates space for salvation to take root in our lives and grow to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Just a little earlier Paul told the Philippians (2:12-13)
12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
We have a role to play in the growth of salvation in our lives, but it is never an original role; it never starts with us. Our role can only ever be a parasitic response to the original grace of God in our lives “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” That is why Paul is eager to consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, for whose sake he has lost all things, because his freedom, his righteousness, his salvation is found in Christ Jesus, not in his religious heritage, not in his obedience, and not in his orthodox beliefs. (We could go into some detail here about how some of what passes for evangelical orthodoxy owes more to Greek philosophy and it’s development into the Cartesian rationalism of the “cogito, ergo sum” than it does to a robust Judeo-Christian understanding of Scripture, but the restless shifting and the glazed eyes tell me this is not the time or the place.)
Paul’s driving desire is to know Christ because it is knowing Christ that imbues his life with a character of integrity that a religious expression can only imitate weakly, and usually attempts to circumscribe. Religious expressions are often implicated in twisted attempts to make life look better than it really is. Paul wants to know Christ without regard for where it takes him, and this is a powerful indicator of how knowing Christ eclipses everything else in his life. Paul says
“10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul begins with sentiments that we can all echo whole heartedly. We all want to know Christ, we all want to know the power of his resurrection. Of course, that’s a no-brainer. But Paul knows that resurrection presupposes death. There can be no resurrection without a prior death. If we want to know the power of his resurrection, we will have to share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. Precisely what that means Paul seems not to be entirely certain saying “and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” We could talk about that for a while, but ultimately I believe this is something which we work out in life as we follow Christ’s example day by day. To know Christ is, ultimately, to live the life of Christ in our own time. We cannot understand the meaning of sharing in his death or resurrection unless we live that meaning. It is in some sense as we die to ourselves and all the markers of our religious expressions, and it is as we learn what it means to live to God alone, which can never be done as something distinguished from our mundane life, that we find ourselves truly alive for the first time. That in itself becomes a kind of resurrection.
And so our choice is clear, but that does not make the choice easy. We can choose life, the life we have come to appreciate, the life in which we are comfortable and satisfied, a religion that works for us, or we can choose resurrection life, which will inevitably mean death. This is why it is so important for Paul to know Christ. As long as you choose the life you know, death will hold a terror for you because you cannot escape the knowledge that at some point your choice for life will be rendered moot. Only when you choose Christ over life can death’s terror be mitigated, because only Christ is larger than life and death. Hence the passion to know Christ beyond any religious understanding and commitment and excessively simplistic obedience becomes the only real choice for life, for life lived in the ordinary, employing and appreciating all that is good in life, including one’s heritage, one’s religion, and one’s theology, but always remembering that these good things are stepping stones only as long as they remain utterly dispensable in the overarching quest to know Christ.