I find it strange that some of Christendom’s favourite memory verses also tend to be misunderstood. My favourite example is John 3:16, because it is perhaps the world’s #1 Bible verse™, and also because the mistake is a benign one. Few translations are willing to break with the tradition of rendering it, ‘For God so loved the world…,’ but this archaic construction drives us to read it as ‘for God loved the world so much‘. In fact, we would do better to translate it, ‘For so God loved the world…,’ because it is actually talking about the way in which God has loved us, not the extent. Fortunately both points are well established elsewhere, so it’s not important.
Because the greatest Bible passages get so over-quoted, we tend to glaze over when they’re read, and their impact is diluted or lost entirely. Philippians yields its fair share of these, and it’s a shame, because the one in chapter 3:1-11 is a cracker.
In chapter 3 of Philippians, Paul’s tone changes, which prompts scholars to justify their salaries and speculate that the book is actually a composite of two letters, a nice one and a nasty one, or that Paul must have received some bad news about his recipients before writing this chapter. Neither of those reasons seem plausible or necessary, seeing as Paul’s vitriol is aimed at his life-long troublers: those known as ‘The Circumcision’. They tended to follow him around spoiling his gospel and making trouble for him, and were perhaps even the cause of his imprisonment at the time of writing. That would make me a bit snippy. In response, chapter 3 addresses this trouble with one of the more striking presentations of the doctrine of grace in all of scripture.
It’s all about qualifications. What is it that gains God’s acceptance? The Circumcision evidently insisted that God’s people needed to keep God’s law, including the basic qualification of circumcision into Israel. Paul answers them in two astonishing ways.
Firstly, he refuses to call them The Circumcision, he calls them The Mutilation (a literal translation of v2). Perhaps he’s being ironic and a bit mean, but their demand for cutting as a qualification is a vile distortion of the true means of entry to God’s people. In verse 3, he claims that it is those who worship by the Spirit, including the ‘unclean’ Romans to whom he was writing, who are truly the circumcised, and (very paradoxically) they are the true circumcision because they do not put confidence in the flesh.
Secondly, and just in case people thought he was merely being factious, Paul makes an example of himself. He’s not attacking the circumcision because they’re his enemies, but because he was one of them and they’re wrong. If it’s qualifications you want, he says, how about this for privilege! Paul lists an impressive series of qualifications that would serve to demonstrate just how high up the ladder he actually was. He had the right badge, the right tribe, the right parentage and language, the right training, lots of zeal, and no legal demerits against his name. He wasn’t just on their side, he was their leader. (And now the memory verse):
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What 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… (3:7-8)
We tend to be over-familiar with this verse, I think, and I’m certainly used to reading Paul as saying, ‘I used to be a somebody, but I realised that it was all unimportant, so I gave it up for Jesus’. Maybe we like the verse this way, because it’s the go-to text for the conversion story of anybody who was successful in the eyes of the world, but realised their need for Christ.
But this isn’t what Paul means, and I’m pleased, because it means that this passage is actually an essential reminder for all of us, not just the ex-successes. Firstly, the qualifications that he lists are spiritual qualifications, not business credentials. Secondly, he doesn’t say that he considers them to be useless or vain. He says that they are loss. He’s not listing business credentials, but he is using business language. The things that appeared to be in Paul’s religious ‘profits’ column of the ledger (or trial balance – I forget; I’m horrible at accounting) were actually losses. They got in the way. They didn’t help to commend him to God; they only served to disqualify him!
For the people eager to hold up their spiritual qualifications, whether the Pharisee or the bishop or the miracle healer or the tongues-speaker, Paul has a delightful word for those spiritual trophies. He calls them skubala, by all accounts best translated as something impolite and dungy; let’s go with ‘turds’. If you think you’re on the inside track because you’re circumcised or a preacher or God’s prophet for your church, hold onto those turds with a loose hand. When we begin to presume upon a fitness or a righteousness of our own, we are in danger of not holding onto Christ.
Why the danger? Why are our merits ‘loss’? They are loss because they make us believe that we can achieve the impossible: we think that acceptance before God is something that we can deserve. We can’t. And what’s worse, at great personal expense, God is busy trying to give it to us for free, and we keep saying, ‘Don’t worry; I’ve got this.’ Jesus once urged us to become like infants: statusless, helpless creatures who have to receive or die. It’s only by losing all of our merits that we see clearly to receive by faith what God is offering as a gift.
I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and 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.