Updated: Sep 29, 2021
How focused are you on knowing and following Jesus?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philippians 3:8-21
In this week's passage, Paul contrasts two goals: the heavenward goal of being like Jesus, and the earthward goal of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. Paul has done what he can to model the "upward calling", and he warns them against those who would get in the way of that calling. At the end of Paul's road is Jesus, and he needs to other motivation.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Things You Used to Be Proud Of
Is there something you used to be really good at, and were really proud of, and looking back maybe wasn't such a big deal after all? I'm talking about the kid who was able to belch the entire alphabet and did it every opportunity. (And in full disclosure, I was secretly envious.) Or the girl who was really good at the back handspring and did it all the time. (Again, secretly envious.)
Did you have one of those "skills"?
For me, it was a few random things. For starters, I could quote movies (like the Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy). I loved to outdo others in quoting movies, and I would make a thing of it. (Kinda still do.)
I was in the math club in high school (because of course I was), and at one point I got pretty good at multiplying 3-digit numbers together in my head. I was extremely proud of that.
But the big thing was song lyrics. It didn't matter whose car I was in or what station they were listening to -- I could sing along with the radio. It didn't matter the station, I could sing along. And I was going to. In fact, I discovered later on that it was really annoying to the people I was around, but I was sure proud of it. (Kinda still am.)
How about you? What's your skill that at one point you used to be really proud of? Can you still demonstrate it?
Here's the transition and point of this exercise: we all have things from our past that we are proud of. And as we get older, we start to realize that parts of it were more important than others. I started with some silly examples, but you can see how this could get serious really quick. Hold off on the serious -- we will talk about that during the lesson itself.
In our passage, Paul looks back on his life and considers all of the things he used to be really proud of and realizes that they weren't important at all. Of course, he's talking about extremely serious matters -- religious opinion, law-keeping, the people he persecuted -- and we will too.
This Week's Big Idea: Religious Extremism
For reasons I don't fully understand, religious extremism has become an off-limits topic (maybe for political reasons.) But I think it's a helpful topic for understanding this week's passage. Paul had been a Jewish extremist, but Jesus got ahold of him and changed his life -- redirecting his zeal for good.
[Note: the definitions I'm about to use are not fully agreed upon, so please take this with a grain of salt. For example, I recently read an article that vehemently argues my definition of extremism is too simple.]
"Extremists" are the members of a religious group who are willing to use aggression and/or violence to promote their religion. Paul was a Jewish extremist, even taking great pride in how he had violently persecuted Christians (see v. 6).
According to the thinking of the world, extremism is a product of fundamentalism. In other words, the more committed you are to a belief or practice, the more willing you are to defend it or promote it using any tool, including violence. It's certainly possible that Paul the extremist Jew grew out of Paul the fundamentalist Jew. *My* definition of fundamentalism is being extremely strict and literal in one's approach to his religion, and Paul was that.
[Yet another note: in some of the articles I read on the topic, I noticed a lumping together of extremists and fundamentalists. That's really not helpful. "Fundamentalists" are the members of a religious group who take the strictest, most literal approach to their religion. In some religions, such a strict approach may lead toward extremism, but that is not always the case. These are two different groups. Just because Paul the Jew was both fundamentalist and extremist doesn't mean that everyone is.]
The solution, on the part of the world, is to eliminate anyone who takes his religion at all seriously. If no one is serious about religion, then we can end all religious violence.
That's a terrifying perspective (not the least of which is how fundamentalist and extremist it is for its non-religion).
According to news stories (past and present) about violent religious persecution, we know that there are extremists who claim Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, Buddhism, and many more religions. The problem is not their commitment to their religion; the problem is their religion. (Yes, that's a terribly politically incorrect thing to say. It's also God's truth.)
The simplest way to illustrate this is to look at the difference between Paul the Jew and Paul the Christ-follower. Paul the Jew was interested in stomping out the opposition and controlling behavior. Paul the Christ-follower is interested in the eternal destination of people's souls. And you cannot coerce a true conversion.
Christianity -- true Christianity empowered by the Holy Spirit and driven by Jesus Christ -- can never use the tools of the world like aggression (or heaven forbid violence) to promote our vision of our religion to the outside world or within our churches. Peter, who learned some very hard lessons about aggression, said this:
1 Pet 2: 21 For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; 23 when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree; so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Paul discovered, and we will read about this this week, that the power to change the world lay not in forcing people to change but the gospel of Jesus Christ -- the power of salvation to change someone from in the inside.
The world is going to get more and more aggressive against born-again Christians, and the temptation may grow to use those same methods in our defense. -OR- we are going to become so numb to those tactics that we find ourselves using them within our churches. May that never be! Let's remember (as Paul has repeatedly prayed for in this letter already) what's really important: people and their eternal destinations.
Eph 6: 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. 13 For this reason take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand.
Where We Are in Philippians
We skipped a few verses from last week's passage -- some great ones! (they're quick to read -- please read them) Having given us the ultimate example of Jesus Christ, Paul told the church that they could not argue and complain but instead should sacrifice and serve like Jesus did. Paul then gave them Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of this kind of attitude. (I love how Paul is able to take common sections about "my affairs" and "your affairs" and "comings and goings" and turn them all into important life lessons.)
Paul's thinking about the positive examples of Jesus and Timothy and Epaphroditus made him also think about the very non-Christian negative examples of the Jewish fundamentalists who were apparently threatening the church in Philippi (which made him think about his own past as such a fundamentalist extremist), and that contrast is going to dominate the next chapter or so.
The great pitfall of fundamentalism (or extremism) is the belief that one may be able to keep the rules of a religion in such a way as to impress their god. Judaizers had confidence in themselves (their "flesh") and their abilities. Paul, having encountered Jesus, realized that such self-confidence was ridiculous. Paul no longer had confidence in himself, but only in Jesus.
Here's where we pick up in the outline:
III. Paul warns the Philippians (3:1-4:1)
a. Legalism (3:1-3)
b. Self-confidence (3:4-11)
c. Satisfaction (3:12-16)
d. Opposition (3:17-4:1)
IV. Paul shares his heart with the Philippians (4:2-20)
a. Be reconciled with one another (4:2-3)
b. Don’t be anxious about anything (4:4-7)
c. Keep your thoughts on Jesus (4:8-9)
d. Be content in your circumstances (4:10-13)
e. Stay generous (4:14-20)
V. Closing (4:21-23)
Our passage covers parts of b. c. and d., so we get a pretty good cross-section of what Paul's warning looks like to this church. Importantly, Paul always redirects to Jesus.
Part 1: Righteousness Gained (Philippians 3:8-11)
8 More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them as dung, so that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ ("faith of Christ")—the righteousness from God ("righteousness of God") based on faith. 10 My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, 11 assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.
This is coming out of the section in which Paul told the church how proud he had once been of his background -- how "good he was at Judaism". But when he met Jesus, when he learned what Jesus had done for him, his own acts seemed pathetically worthless.
There are several ways of illustrating this, some of which could be fun, depending on what your group is into. Let someone who is an admittedly bad artist draw something. Then, let someone else play the role of Rembrandt or Monet. Then, have the bad artist try to convince "Rembrandt" that his art is just as good, if not better. It would sound so silly that it could be funny. You could do the same thing with a bad singer in your group, a bad basketball player, a bad mathematician, whatever.
That's exactly what a self-righteous person is doing with God -- trying to convince God that his "good deeds" are just as good as Jesus'. That's no longer ridiculous -- that's blasphemous.
The old saying "if God has a refrigerator, your picture is on it" is absolutely true, but not because God is impressed with your art skills, but because God loves you (just as your parent or grandparent may have displayed your pictures).
The song lyric "The greatest thing in all my life is knowing You" comes from this verse (as well as a bunch of other songs). But even that doesn't quite capture the awe in Paul's words. Compared with knowing Jesus, everything else Paul once had (and lost) is like cow poo or pig slop (that word was used as slang for excrement and also as refuse thrown out to the wild animals, like dogs).
This is important to catch: Paul isn't saying "all things" in absolute terms; Paul is talking about his life before Christ, or all of his self-righteous deeds before Jesus. He had quite literally "lost" all of those things (specifically what he had mentioned in vv. 4-6): his place in the Jewish community, his role as a leader in Jerusalem, everything he had worked for as a zealous Jew. But when he looks back now, it's so different: what he lost was garbage; what he gained was Christ. This reminds me of the story of the dad who wanted to replace his daughter's costume jewelry with an actual pearl necklace, but only if she gave up the costume jewelry first (and she was sentimentally attached to it).
And now that Paul knows Jesus, he just wants to know Jesus more and also make Jesus known to others. Paul wants to be rich in Jesus and in nothing else. If we think we are rich in something other than what we have by the grace of God, we might get proud in that. We might boast in that. And then we are just one step away from being a Judaizer. Paul never wants that for himself ever again, and he warns us of that same destructive end.
This means one thing to Paul: he wants only the righteousness of God, not a righteousness of his own (see below for more about this phrase). Paul wants to be "found in Christ". There are lots of ways to look at this; here's the one I use for this passage: when God looks at Paul, Paul wants God to see Jesus and only Jesus. On the one hand, this is the foundation of salvation: "20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God.” 21 He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor 5:20-21) But on the other hand, Paul is making a very practical appeal that when we call attention to ourselves, we are calling attention away from Jesus. The only boast Paul wants to make is Jesus so when God looks at his life, He sees Jesus.
Now, it might look like Paul is taking a works-based approach to his salvation (i.e. he's not "sure" that he will be resurrected, so he really wants to impress God). No, definitely not! Paul has no doubts about his future. His salvation is based on faith -- a faith that comes from God and is in God. Paul is very clearly speaking only of salvation by faith. So, he knows his future is secure -- but he doesn't know how it will come about. Only God knows the future. This is simply Paul's continued humility before God. (I've heard some argue that Paul is saying that if Jesus returns before he dies, he won't be resurrected but instead "transformed" (see v. 21), which could be what Paul means.)
Finally, let's dwell on the unpleasantries. Paul desires to know Christ's sufferings and death. That's his goal. Why would he desire such a thing? It's morbidly simple: you can't be resurrected if you don't die. (You know the great line: "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.") Paul's greatest desire -- to know Christ fully -- lies on the other side of his death, and so he won't shy away from that. Paul is not saying that he enjoys suffering! But he is saying that he understands what Jesus accomplished through His suffering, and if Paul can suffer so as to point people to Jesus, then he wants to do that. (Gordon Fee said, "Through our suffering the significance of Christ's suffering is manifested to the world.") Paul understood well what Jesus meant by "A disciple is not above his teacher, or a slave above his master." (Matt 10:24)
In summary, Paul looked at his past and saw a lot of self-righteousness, a lot of desire to attract attention to himself and his effort to impress God. Now, he no longer wants anything of the sort. He wants to live only for Jesus. He wants to do only the things Jesus did. He wants to speak the words Jesus would have spoken. And that's a great mindset for us.
Aside: "The Righteousness of God" and "The Faith of Christ"
Entire books have been written about these phrases: "the righteousness of God" and "the faith of Christ". That why I noted them in the translation.
Does it mean a righteousness that comes from God (as our translation takes it)? The righteousness that belongs to God? Righteousness as defined by God?
When Paul uses the Greek word for righteousness as a verb, he almost always means "justify" as in declared right with God. But when he uses it as a noun, as it is here, he means "righteousness" as in the state of being in a right relationship with God. In the Old Testament, this would refer to living within the terms of the old covenant. But the terms of the new covenant simply are to have faith in Christ. So -- when Paul says he wants to have "the righteousness of God", he means that he desires to have a right relationship with God which can only be initiated by God.
That kind of righteousness can only come from "the faith of Christ". What does that mean? Christ's faith in God? Our faith in Christ? The faith that is about Christ? Christ's faithfulness? Fun with prepositions! I think that context is the key here. This is in a section about self-righteousness, or acts that Paul wanted to take on to be made right with God. Well, the ultimate act ("work") is a non-work: having faith in Christ. This whole section is about Jesus, so it only makes sense that the faith is also about Jesus. (And of course, we can only have faith in Jesus because He Himself was faithful to God, so Paul probably used this phrase precisely because it had so many possible meanings.)
So, quite simply, these two very powerful phrases taken together mean that Paul wants to be in a right relationship with God based on faith in Christ alone.
Part 2: Sanctification Begun (Philippians 3:12-14)
12 Not that I have already reached the goal or am already perfect, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, 14 I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.
Now things really start to take off. At this point, Paul is just really excited about his topic, and so his words keep getting more and more animated.
I've heard this passage explained like this: our future doesn't lie in our past (our efforts at self-righteousness), but our future lies in our future (being taken ahold of by Christ). Paul wants to make it clear that he is not offering back-door boasting (a "humble brag") -- he wants the Christians in Philippi (and by extension us) to have the same goal that he has because he believes it to be the best goal.
So, what goal is that? What is Paul's goal? Read chapter 3 again.
Interestingly, Paul doesn't use the word "goal" in verse 12; he saves that word for verse 14. "Reached the goal" is just "have already taken". And the word "already perfect" is better translated "already been made complete". The whole verse is a giant wordplay on "taken". A wooden translation would be "Not that I have already taken or have already been completed, but I strive to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of me". It's a complicated sentence, to say the least, but it's made simpler by the fact that the second half restates and reinforces the first.
What is Paul's goal? It's "the prize", or the end of the road: to be made complete in Jesus Christ. It is a goal that Jesus has already accomplished on the cross, but Paul will not enjoy it in full until after his death. Paul is not suggesting that he can be made perfect/complete in this life (that was actually one of the original doctrines of Methodism, and that's how it became foundational for the holiness movement and its offspring, Pentecostalism). But that is his goal and desire, and he knows that he will reach it if he continues to pursue his relationship with Jesus. (See below for more of this idea of "already but not yet".)
The future is not in the past, so Paul puts his past behind him and fixes his eyes on Jesus. That's a beautiful idea that should be so encouraging for all of us. We are not defined by our past. We are defined by our relationship with Jesus. And Jesus happens to be infinitely gracious and compassionate.
So here's the exercise. What are your goals right now? It was recently "performance evaluation" time at church, and we talked about goals and milestones and the stuff of a workplace. Goals are important. Go to the internet, and you'll find thousands of pages about the importance of goals (goals give you direction, goals help you make decisions, goal motivate you, etc.). What are your goals?
How many of those goals have to do with your relationship with Jesus? Take those goals that are on your heart and rewrite them in terms of Jesus. Do you want to read more? Add the Bible to that list. Do you want to have a better relationship with your kids? Also help them build their relationship with Jesus. Do you want a promotion? Ask yourself if that will take you closer to or further away from Jesus.
Paul has a goal of "pursuing Jesus" every day of his life, and he wants us to have that goal, too.
Aside: "Already but Not Yet"
There's a now-common phrase among Bible scholars to describe Paul's attitude in these verses. Paul knows Jesus, but he also wants to know Jesus. Paul is in Jesus, but he hopes to be found in Jesus. He is saved, but he is also still working out his salvation. It's the beautiful tension of "already but not yet". "Already" gives us hope and assurance. All of these amazing blessings -- we already have them from God in Jesus. But on its own, "already" can eventually lead to entitlement or taking for granted. "Not yet" gives us motivation and urgency. It's that goal that sets our direction and makes us hungry to keep on. But on its own, "not yet" can eventually lead to discouragement and disappointment.
In Jesus, in Christianity, we somehow have the perfect mixture of both.
From the perspective of salvation, you could say that our "already" is our justification -- we are now right with God in Jesus. And our "not yet" is our sanctification -- we are being made more and more like Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
What other examples might you think of our "already but not yet"?
Part 3: Warning Issued (Philippians 3:15-19)
15 Therefore, let all of us who are mature think this way. And if you think differently about anything, God will reveal this also to you. 16 In any case, we should live up to whatever truth we have attained. 17 Join in imitating me, brothers and sisters, and pay careful attention to those who live according to the example you have in us. 18 For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame; and they are focused on earthly things.
[Goodness, I'm just about out of space already. This is a very dense passage -- make sure you pace yourself to get through all four parts of it!]
In today's hyper-sensitive world, Paul would come across as condescending. That's really beside the point. Does Paul have the right goal and perspective in parts 1 & 2 of this lesson? Yes. How do we know? Because we can study and see that a Christian should be focused on following Jesus and making Him known to the world!
[By the way, if any of you think differently, I pray that God reveals that to you, too. 😉]
But Paul's audience is hearing some of this for the first time. They grew up in a world that looked down on suffering and on humility. They probably bristled at the idea that they should set aside their own desires and follow Jesus.
I remember a conversation I had years ago with a young Christian man who argued really aggressively that Christian men should be, well, aggressive in defending what they believe. Essentially, he thought that turning the other cheek was for sissies. He had fully absorbed the American "macho" culture and wanted to make Christianity fit into it, rather than the other way around. That's what Paul is talking about here. He wants Christians to change their thinking to match God's thinking.
To help, he offers himself as an example. Again, in a hyper-sensitive world, this comes across as boastful. Nope. Far from it. What is the context here? Paul's desire to follow Christ, pursue Christ. Paul is saying "imitate me as I imitate Christ" (something he directly says in 1 Cor 11:1). You see, the members of that church never met Jesus, and Paul understands that. "You might not know Jesus as He walked on the earth, but you know me, and you know that I'm trying to live like Jesus." Paul is not pointing to himself at all, but rather using himself to point to Jesus.
I had a friend from many years ago who said "we become what we know". She said that she had spent most of her life wanting not to be like her abusive mother. But because that was all she thought about, she found herself imitating her mother's behavior. In other words, whatever target we choose is the one we're going to come closest to.
Unfortunately for Paul, he knew that there were some bad actors in Macedonia who would come and try to influence the Christians in Philippi. And Paul was in prison -- he couldn't be there to counter their influence. So, all he could do is warn them.
It's a great and necessary warning -- "wolves in sheep's clothing" as Jesus would say. When I was a young Christian, I didn't have an advanced sense of discernment (to be blunt). If someone claimed to speak biblical truth, I just sort of assumed it was. If someone claimed a certain behavior to be okay for a Christian, I just sort of believed him. That was dumb on my part. I needed someone to tell me that not everyone who talks about Jesus is really talking about Jesus! I needed this kind of warning that Paul gives.
Paul gives two identifiers for such an enemy of Christ: their stomach and their earthly focus. "Stomach" probably means that they desired to satisfy their own appetites (of whatever kind). This could be a wordplay on being a "libertine", someone who rejects all laws (including food laws). But I think it's more about their desire to satisfy themselves -- riches, influence, prestige, whatever. They care about what they can get out of this life. Jesus said about this, "So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward." (Matt 6:2)
And Paul tells us where they are heading: destruction and shame. Paul had taken great pride in his Jewish extremism, but when he met Jesus, he discovered that God looked at his behavior as shameful. He thought he was building himself a gilded passage into glory, but it was actually the wide road to destruction.
As far as I'm concerned, that's still a great and simple test for us today. When we're wondering about someone's supposedly Christian leadership, we can ask a simple question: is their life and teaching working out better for them and their comfort, or God and God's glory?
Paul's warning isn't just for the Philippians to avoid that behavior -- it's also to let them know that those sorts of people are going to get in between the Philippians and their goal (Jesus). They will face opposition. Don't let that hinder or discourage! The same goes for us.
Part 4: Citizenship Assured (Philippians 3:20-21)
20 Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject everything to himself.
Save time for these verses! They are very simple, but they are lifechanging.
What is the great error of those so-called Christian leaders who seek to satisfy their earthly desires? They are not supposed to be citizens of earth anymore! They are citizens of heaven! (I am so out of space, but I strongly encourage you to poke around Augustine's The City of God, which is one of the most important early works on this topic.) Because we are citizens of heaven, we should no longer behave like citizens of the world. (This is the exact opposite of the common phrase "when in Rome, do as the Romans do".)
Here is the clearest (and most important) statement of Paul's "already but not yet" theology. Yes, we have life in Jesus Christ that we have never had before. But one day, Jesus will even transform our bodies to be like his resurrected body (we sometimes call this a "glorified body"). We will quite literally not have the earthly desires that we might currently be temped by. This gives us assurance and motivation.
First Corinthians 15 is a much fuller treatment of this topic, but you have everything you need to know right here in one verse. What will heaven be like? Well, it's not just that we will be with Jesus -- we will be like Jesus. Does that encourage you to stay the course? If not, Paul offers one last point: Jesus is going to be preeminent over everything (see last week's passage). Do you want to be for Him or against Him?
That's a lot to think about in one passage. You probably don't have time to focus on it all in one sitting. I didn't cover it all, and I even let myself go long this week! Pick the elements that connect with you the most right now and focus on them. But give yourself the challenge to come back later and cover the rest on the verses on your own time.