No Confidence in the Flesh
If anyone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised 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; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 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. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Today’s epistle passage continues the series from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. And in this passage, Paul reflects on his achievements before becoming a follower of Jesus and being chosen by God as the leading missionary to the gentile world.
You might remember that before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Paul had been one of the most respected leaders in the Jewish religious establishment of his day. In today’s reading, he recites some of his qualifications. He was descended from a long line of Hebrews and a member of a prestigious tribe – the tribe of Benjamin. Paul was also a member of the Pharisees, which was a group of Jews who pledged to obey the law of God as strictly as possible.
But Paul’s credentials even went beyond what’s listed in this passage. What Paul doesn’t say here is that he was a student of the great Jewish scholar Gamaliel, so he was considered to have about the best education it was possible for a young Hebrew to get.
Paul was also a citizen of the Roman Empire, which was fairly rare for Jews of his time. The New Testament scholars say he seems to have been trained in Greco-Roman rhetoric, because his speeches and letters have the kind of structure taught in that discipline. Those speeches and letters also show that Paul had a pretty good background in Greek philosophy – good enough that he could use principles of that philosophy in his ministry among the Greeks.
On top of all that, Paul had been the leader of the Jewish persecution of the followers of Jesus. In the early years of the movement, most of those who followed Jesus were Jews, and most of them continued to observe the religious traditions of their people. Historians believe many of them went to the Jewish synagogues on Saturday and then participated in Christian worship on Sundays. Because they continued to practice the Jewish faith, the followers of Jesus were vulnerable to Jewish authorities.
Although Roman law applied throughout the area, the Romans allowed the Jewish leaders to enforce discipline within the synagogues. That meant Paul and the other Jewish leaders could throw Christians out of the synagogues, or even have them lashed or imprisoned. They could spread the word among Jewish congregations not to do business with followers of Jesus and harass them in other ways. And while the Jews weren’t technically allowed to execute people, if a Jewish mob occasionally stoned followers of Jesus, the Romans weren’t about to get too worked up about it. That’s what happened to Stephen, and while that stoning apparently wasn’t an ‘official action’ of the Jewish leadership, Paul stood by and watched the coats of the mob who killed Stephen.
So the point is that Paul was pretty much a big shot among the Jewish leaders of his day.
But now, Paul says, having encountered Jesus and become one of his most devoted disciples, he regards all those achievements of his former life as so much ‘rubbish.’ In addition to coming to a deep, personal faith in Jesus, Paul has also experienced a major change in his thinking. He no longer believes that he can accomplish ‘a righteousness of his own,’ by observing the law and following Hebrew practices and rituals. Now, Paul says, he has become convinced that his only way of being righteous in God’s eyes is by faith in Jesus.
Paul also believes that the ultimate source of Jesus’ great power is not his wisdom as a teacher (as great as that wisdom obviously was) but rather his suffering and death on the cross. And Paul expresses a longing to share in those sufferings, because that will allow him to share in Jesus’ resurrection, as well.
For those of us who are trying to follow Jesus 2,000 years later, it seems to me that Paul’s teaching – and his example – call us to embrace two ideas.
The first is that trying to achieve a level of righteousness through our own ‘religiosity’ is a waste of time. And not only a waste of time, but also dangerous. When we fall in love with our own ideas about what a righteous person should do and not do, we can end up failing to recognize real righteousness because it doesn’t match our preconceived notions. It’s important to remember that all the Jewish leaders who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion did it because they believed they were serving God and promoting righteousness. But they had come to mistake their own customs for real righteousness. That can happen among Christians, just as it did among the Jews of Jesus’ day.
The second important idea here is that as followers of Jesus, sharing in his righteousness means being willing to share in his sufferings. Almost none of us will be called to the same kind of suffering Jesus himself experienced. But if our lives don’t include any real and meaningful sacrifices for the sake of our discipleship, then we should probably ask ourselves whether God is going to regard that discipleship as real. If our discipleship doesn’t cost us anything, it’s probably not going to allow us to share in the righteousness of Jesus.
Let’s pray together: Lord, take away our desire to achieve righteousness by doing and saying religious things. Help us instead to follow Jesus more and more closely so that we can share in the true righteousness that comes only from him. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 5 and 51; Amos 5:6-15; and Luke 18:9-14.)