← Back to Study Guides
Growing in Christ | How to Find Yourself
May 21, 2023
4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, 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 rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst
To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships
To participate in God’s mission to the world
O God, the king of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: We beseech you, leave us not desolate but send your Holy Spirit to comfort us, and exalt us to where our Savior Christ has gone before, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forevermore. Amen.
Responsive Prayer—Psalm 148
1Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
3Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
4Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5Let them praise the name of the LORD!
For he commanded and they were created.
6And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
7Praise the LORD from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
8Fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
10Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!
11Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12Young men and maidens together,
old men and children!
13Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.
14He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to him.
Praise the LORD!
Summary and Connection
In our discussion last week, we focused on the doctrine of our union with Christ. As we have learned, our union with Christ is the foundation of all our spiritual experience and spiritual blessings. As we grow in our experiential knowledge of our union with Christ, we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to live the fullest version of ourselves as God has ordained for us (Ephesians 1:3-14). Our union with Christ, in other words, is the source of our spiritual growth.
This week we will learn about the dynamics of our union with Christ from Paul’s personal experience. What are the implications of our union with Christ in relation to our past, present, and future? Does union with Christ imply substituting or losing our identity? How do I find my individual identity in my union with Christ? We find the answers to these questions and more in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In this passage Paul talks about his personal life—his past, his salvation experience, and his radical transformation, thereby giving us a glimpse of the dynamics of his union with Christ.
The theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians (3:4-11) could be summarized in two words: joy and thanksgiving. What makes this latter fascinating is the fact that Paul wrote this letter from prison, probably around AD 60. In Philippians 3, Paul expresses his concerns over the infiltration of the Jewish Christians into the predominantly Gentile church. In verse 2, Paul warns, “Look out for the dogs, for those who mutilate the flesh.” In a twist of irony, Paul addresses the Jewish teachers (who, in their ethnic pride, referred to Gentiles as dogs) as crazed dogs who were bent on mutilating the flesh by circumcision. These Jewish Christians, or the Judaizers, made their way into the church and were preaching a false gospel. The Judaizers, based on their ethnic and nationalistic identity, claimed traditional and religious superiority, even over Paul. These false teachers were claiming that in order to be identified with the people of God, and to experience the privileges of the community of God, the Gentile Christians had to be circumcised. In other words, they were formulating a false gospel: faith in Jesus plus circumcision and law keeping equals justification, sanctification, and eternal life. Paul outrightly refutes their claim by sharing his personal testimony: Paul focuses on his past: boasting in self-righteousness, and his present: boasting in the righteousness from God.
Paul’s Past: Boasting in self-righteousness
Paul was aware of the lure of the Judaizers among the Gentile Christians. The Judaizers promoted the false gospel with utmost zeal and commitment. Paul was also aware of the susceptible nature of the Gentile Christians—they were young in faith, and the claims of religious exclusivity, and ‘high moral code’ were particularly attractive to poorly instructed Christians from a pagan background. Paul cared for the Philippians like a father, and he did not want them to be deceived by an impression of superior spirituality. Paul tackles the issue by exposing the vacuous nature of righteousness that is rooted in moral performance and external law keeping. In verse 3 Paul calls the Gentile Christians the true circumcision, as they were cut off from the world, and were spiritually united with Christ. For the Judaizers, circumcision was the gateway to physical and national identity. They presented circumcision as a badge of honor. However, Paul warns the Philippians about the danger of putting their confidence in the flesh—national, ethnic, and physical identity. Paul contrasts the transient nature of the confidence in the flesh—decay and death, with the eternal nature of their spiritual identity and confidence in Jesus—their righteousness. Paul doesn’t stop there. He presents his own past as the case study to show the inadequacy of high-moral code and boasting in self-righteousness. Paul lists out seven reasons for ‘confidence in the flesh’ from his own life. Four of them were inherited birthrights—circumcised on the eighth day, Israelite, from the tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of Hebrews, and three referred to his personal accomplishments—Pharisee, persecutor of the church, and blameless under the Mosaic law. By listing out his family upbringing, and moral exemplary life, Paul shows the Philippians that it is possible to have a past like his, and yet still be a sinner, as his life was devoid of the most important person who alone could redeem him—Jesus Christ.
Paul’s life was radically transformed on the road to Damascus where he encountered the risen Christ. The incident left Paul temporarily blind, but his spiritual eyes were opened. Paul sees the utter worthlessness of putting the confidence in law keeping and self-righteousness. He adds all his past accomplishments up, and he concludes that they were loss. In fact, he goes so far to say that everything is a loss compared to Christ. In verse 8, Paul uses the word “rubbish,” which in Greek means “excrement.” For Paul, compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, all was garbage.
Paul’s Present: Boasting in the Righteousness from God
Paul’s life was seized by Christ. He was consumed by Christ’s glory. He had yielded up everything for Christ. For Paul, no knowledge could compare with the knowledge of Jesus (verses 7-8). Paul’s union with Christ shaped the course of his faith in three aspects of his spiritual growth.
1. Justification: In verse 9, Paul says he was “found in Christ.” He no longer approached God based on his own achievements but as the one who is covered in the righteousness of Jesus (3:9, and 2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, God declared Paul as righteous because of his union with Christ. It is vital for us to grasp the implication of such justification. Justification is a legal or forensic term. It is an act of God’s free grace, wherein God pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, based on the work of Christ on our behalf. It is a declaration, and not a process. We receive it by faith in Jesus, and not earn it by living a good life. It depends on what Jesus has done for us, and not on what we have done to merit salvation. Furthermore, it is full and final. It is full because it gives us Jesus’ perfect righteousness, and it is final because it does not depend on our keeping the law, but on the finished work of Jesus on the cross on our behalf.
2. Sanctification: In verse 10, Paul expresses his overwhelming desire to know Christ. Our union with Christ informs our sanctification in that it develops into a living communion with Jesus in his death and resurrection. Suffering is one of the chief means God uses to conform us to the likeness of Jesus. Our partaking in Jesus’ sufferings and resurrection is the central element of Christian experience: it is as we live in the power of Christ’s resurrection that he leads us on to the fellowship of sharing his sufferings. As we partake in Christ’s sufferings, we are conformed to his likeness in our thoughts, words, and actions.
3. Glorification: Paul shares his deepest longing—to experience salvation and union with Christ in its fullest and richest form. He calls the glorified state of being in the presence of Christ as the “resurrection from the dead” (verse 11). Thus, the true mark of a Christian’s spiritual growth is their growing desire to know Christ and to be known by Christ. The only way for the Philippians to find their true identity is by putting their confidence in Jesus, and not self, and boasting in Christ—their righteousness, and not self-righteousness..
1. Looking at the Bible
What does the text say? What according to you is the theme of this passage?
- In verse 4 Paul writes, “if anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” What does Paul mean by, ‘confidence in the flesh?’
- In verses 4-7, Paul lays out seven reasons he could have confidence in the flesh. What reasons would Paul have for confidence in the flesh? What do we learn about the law from Paul’s past? Is the law bad in and of itself?
- In this passage, Paul expresses his deepest desires and longings three times—to be found in Christ (verse 9), to know Christ and share in his sufferings and death (verse 10), and to attain the resurrection of the dead (verse 11). How does Paul’s description of his union with Christ point us to three vital aspects of spiritual growth? (Hint: refer to the summary and connection)
2. Looking at Jesus
At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.
- How does the work of grace in the life of Paul point us to Jesus?
3. Looking at Our Hearts
The following are personal application questions based on the stages of growth in Christian faith.
- How does the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus differ from the righteousness that we might try to earn?
- What things are you hesitant to lose or count as rubbish for the sake of Christ? Why? How do you see yourself putting confidence in your achievements?
- Contemplate on how you approach God—do you approach God as if you are always trying, but never measuring up, or with self-righteous pride? How does the gospel transform the way you approach God?
- How might your life look differently if you were to believe by faith that Christ’s righteousness is sufficient for you in each moment of life? How would that faith impact your spiritual growth?
4. Looking at Our World
- How does this passage compel us to live as instruments of God in a city that counts everything the world has to offer as profit and what God offers in the gospel as worthless?
God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.
View Study Guide Notes
Question 1: As we have learned from the summary, in this passage Paul tackles the Judaizers who were promoting a false gospel among the Gentile Christians in Philippi. The Judaizers, based on their ethnic and nationalistic identity, claimed traditional and religious superiority, even over Paul. These false teachers were claiming that in order to be identified with the people of God, and experience the privileges of the community of God, the Gentile Christians had to be circumcised. In other words, they were formulating a false gospel: faith in Jesus plus circumcision and law keeping equals justification, sanctification, and eternal life.
For Paul, to put ‘confidence in the flesh,’ meant to approach God on the merit of righteousness based on the religious, ethnic, or national identity. The Judaizers put their confidence in circumcision—a badge of honor that separated them from other nations. Thus, they promoted this physical act of mutilation as the gateway to be included in the family of God. Paul rejects the false gospel by exposing the utter inadequacy of putting the confidence in flesh. For Paul the word ‘flesh’ (sarx in Greek) is a technical term that means meat, body, and sinful nature. Flesh is corruptible—as sinful nature it corrupts our relationship with God and as a physical entity it is prone to corruption—decay and death. Hence, it is utterly foolish to seek identity in the flesh and put confidence in the flesh, as it corrupts our relationship with God, and it is transient—prone to decay and death.
Paul presents his own past to show the inadequacy of family upbringing, pedigree of high moral code, and religious achievements. He enumerates seven reasons he could have confidence in the flesh. Four of them were inherited birthrights, and three referred to his personal accomplishments. As we look at Paul’s life, we learn that if one’s salvation and justification in the presence of God depended on one’s family history and religious pedigree, no one could surpass Paul. He had a pristine family history. He was circumcised on the eighth day; he was of the people of Israel—a pure and true descendent of the great Patriarch Abraham. As a member of the tribe of Benjamin, the privileges of the blessings of Abraham belonged to him as a birthright. He had an impeccable religious pedigree. He studied under the rabbi Gamaliel. He had adopted the lifestyle of a Pharisee, deeply committed to pure religion. He was zealous for God, he persecuted the enemies of God, and as far as the observance of the law was concerned, he was blameless. Paul had all the reasons to put the confidence in the flesh.
We gain three vital insights from Paul’s past:
1. Paul’s utmost dedication and commitment to the law of God: It is vital for us to understand that God does not despise the law or the ones who commit their lives to uphold the law. In the story of the rich young ruler in Mark 10, we read that Jesus loved the young ruler for his dedication to the law. The rich young ruler was not a hypocrite who claimed to keep the commandments; however, he only saw the law as a series of external regulations to earn righteousness. Similarly, Paul’s zeal, although commendable, was misdirected. He saw the law as mere external regulations, as the means to merit salvation and earn justification from God. He had to encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus to be exposed to his own sinfulness, the inadequacy of the law to redeem him from his bondage to sin, and his desperate need for the righteousness of God.
2. The role of the law of God in Christian’s life: The law of God plays a crucial role in the spiritual growth of a Christian. According to John Calvin, there are three uses of the law:
i) The civil use: The law serves as a force to restrain sin.
ii) The pedagogical use: The law shows people their sin, their utter inadequacy in meriting their own salvation, and points them to mercy and grace outside of themselves—in Jesus. The law is used for the confrontation and refutation of sin and for the purpose of pointing the way to Christ.
iii) The normative use: This use of the law is for those who trust in Christ and have been saved through faith apart from works. The law acts as a norm of conduct, or a guide, freely accepted and joyfully obeyed by those in whom the grace of God works the good.
3. The inadequacy of family upbringing, moral and religious pedigree as the means to attain salvation, and merit justification in the sight of God.
For the third question refer summary and connection—Paul’s present: boasting in the righteousness from God.
Question 2: This brief passage beautifully captures Paul’s life before and after conversion. Paul’s life was radically transformed on the road to Damascus. Paul encounters the risen Christ, and this encounter changes the trajectory of Paul’s life. Such was the impact on Paul’s life that he rejected everything he once counted as profitable—his family history, religious pedigree, and moral uprightness—as garbage. Paul was seized by Jesus. Paul was consumed by the glory of Jesus. To know Christ and to proclaim Christ became the express ambition of Paul’s life.
Paul doesn’t regard the privileges he had as something to take advantage of. In doing so, he imitates his Savior. Jesus didn’t regard the privilege he had—equality with God—as something to exploit. Rather, he takes on the role of a servant, to die on the cross (Philippians 2). In Jesus, Paul discovered the true meaning of identity and righteousness—to be found in Christ. In Jesus, Paul found the light of the world, the means of salvation. That is why Paul could confidently say that he wanted nothing but to know Christ and to be found in Christ. Paul shows us that to boast in the righteousness of God is a matter of identity and status: God regards all Christians as being ‘in Christ.’ It is also a matter of personal knowledge: not just knowing about Jesus but knowing him as a person. And thirdly, it is a matter of conformity of life: To be a Christian is to be committed to the patterns of behavior that characterize the life of Jesus.
Most importantly, Paul’s life points to Jesus’ work on the cross. Paul’s past as a religious Jew was all about moral superiority, and ethnic and religious pride. Paul endorsed the religion that only regarded the people who were circumcised and who strictly followed the Mosaic law as members of God’s covenant community. However, after his conversion experience, Paul, a Jew, no longer put his faith in his own righteousness, but in the finished work of Christ. Paul proclaimed the gospel, particularly to the Gentiles who were considered as dogs by the Jewish people. Paul recognized that as Christians we all share in Jesus’ faithfulness and righteousness. For Paul, the gospel was the great leveler. Author N.T. Wright makes an insightful observation: “Our belief that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord of the world, and our loyalty to him, are the sign and badge that we have a credit balance consisting simply of him, over against all the debits we could ever have from anywhere else…Justification isn’t just about how someone becomes a Christian. It is about the status that they possess, and continue to possess, as full members of God’s people, no matter who their parents were or what their moral, cultural, religious background may have been.”
Question 3: The righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus gives us immense peace, rest, hope, and assurance. The righteousness of God points us to our justification by God. We are justified by the work of Christ on our behalf, and not by our efforts. Because we locate our justification—identity, self-worth, and security in Jesus, we can experience and exercise the freedom in Christ when we acknowledge that we mess up, and that we often fall short of God’s glory by sinning. Because we have been offered forgiveness in Christ, we willingly, and regularly repent and joyfully receive the lavish grace. As one commentator aptly puts it, “once we grasp that significance of this good news and the fact that the Lord clothes us in the righteousness of Christ through faith, there is within us a hunger to know the Lord more deeply, to understand the power of resurrection, and even a willingness to share in his suffering.”
In contrast, our efforts at earning righteousness robs us of peace, rest, hope, and assurance. Because we attempt to earn and maintain our justification—identity, self-worth, and security—by our good works, we are insecure and restless, constantly comparing and contrasting our performance with others to feel validated by God. If our good standing with God is contingent on our good works for God, we don’t obey God out of love for who he is, but only obey God for what he can offer. A religion rooted in self-righteousness can only offer God as useful, but a faith rooted in Jesus offers God as beautiful.
Questions 2, 3, and 4 are personal application questions.
Question 4: This passage emphasizes the words of Jesus in Mark 8: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.” Paul had everything, and he firmly believed that his status was profitable both here on earth, and in eternity. However, his encounter with Christ opened his spiritual eyes, and he, for the first time, saw all his pedigree and accomplishments for what they truly were—means to earn salvation, and merit God’s justification.
We live in a culture that firmly believes in concepts of justice, mercy, and equality. You might know a number of non-Christian friends who are generous with their money, and who strive hard to establish justice, mercy, and equality. These efforts no doubt are commendable; however, they are utterly inadequate when it comes to the matter of one’s standing with God. As Christians we believe our lives are united with Christ, and we locate our righteousness, identity, self-worth, and justification in Christ. With the confidence in our unshakeable union with Christ, we can freely and faithfully work for the glory of God wherever he has placed us. We will not use our work, or our relationships, as means to justify our existence, but rather as the opportunities to glorify God for what he has done for us in Christ. As we display the ongoing transformative work of the gospel in and through our lives, God will use us as his instruments to draw many to himself.