Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bible Study on Philippians 3:4-14

Paul writes Philippians while he is prison.

Generally speaking, his letter is one full of thanksgiving, gratitude and joy.

Paul and the Philippians were friends. 

Acts 16 recounts the founding of the Philippian church by Paul and his co-workers, including Timothy.

After Paul left Philippians, he and the community continued to have a strong relationship, supporting their mutual ministries.

Philippians sent workers to assist him in Thessalonica and Corinth (Phil 4:15–18; 2 Cor 11:8–9).

Paul and his coworkers appear to have returned to Philippi periodically (2 Cor 1:16; 2:13; 7:5; Acts 20:3; Phil 2:19–24).

The Christians in Philippi may have been burdened with poverty, but still, they were generous toward Paul, contributing to Paul's collection of relief funds for the Jerusalem church (2 Cor 8:1–5).

          When the Philippians hear about Paul being in prison, they sent a man named Epaphroditus, to encourage Paul and to care for his needs.

Unfortunately, in carrying out his task, Epaphroditus falls very sick and nearly dies.  He recovers, but it is decided that he needs to return to Philippi (2:25–30).

When he returns, he carries with him a thank you note – everyone writes thank you notes. 

I’m laughing at my daughter in law – she is struggling to get through her thank you notes these days.  Lots of gifts, and a baby that demands a lot of attention.  But it is the one thing we cannot do by email or telephone – even today, we write thank you notes. 
But of course, Paul is a preacher and he uses this as an opportunity to teach.

Philippians 3:4b-14
3:4b If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:

3:5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;
3:6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Lots of things going on here – but all of them add up to one thing – Paul has credentials.

Credential #1 He had been circumcised when he was eight days old. That comes from the Old Testament.  God told Abraham in Genesis 17:12: ‘every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.’  This was later repeated and became permanent Jewish Law in Leviticus 12:3.

This means he is a true Jew.  He is not an Ishmaelite, as they were circumcised in their thirteenth year (Genesis 17:25) – nor was he a convert who had come late into the Jewish faith, as that would have meant he would have been circumcised as an adult.

Credential #2 He was of the race of Israel. When the Jews wanted to boast about their special relationship with God, they would use the word “Israelite.”  True, they were children of Abraham, but Abraham had a couple of sons, and they felt Israel, who earlier had been called Jacob, was the “pure” son of Abraham.  You may remember that impatient for a son, Sarah gave her husband permission to have sex with her handmaid, Hagar.  Her son was Ishmael, and those descendents were the Ishmaelites.  By calling himself an Israelite, Paul stressed the purity of his descent.

          Credential #3: He was of the tribe of Benjamin. Not only was he born a Jew, and not only was he a pure Jew, he belonged to the most elite of the 12 tribes of Israel – the tribe of Benjamin. 

Benjamin was the child of Rachel, the much-beloved favorite wife of Jacob.

Of all the sons of Israel, only Benjamin was born in the promised land (Genesis 35:17–18).

Saul - the first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin (1 Samuel 9:1–2).

When the Kingdom of Israel split north and south under Rehoboam, ten of the tribes went with Jeroboam, but only Benjamin remained faithful with Judah (1 Kings 12:21).

After the Jews returned from the exile, the new nation that was reformed from the ashes was built from only two of the tribes - Benjamin and Judah (Ezra 4:1).

What would the equivalent of this be today?  Maybe the claim that a person is not only an American, but also descended from those who came over on the Mayflower. 

Credential #4:  He was a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents.  The history of the world saw the scattering of the Jews into every corner of the globe.  They were in every town and village.  There were tens of thousands in the City of Rome.  In ancient Alexandria, there were a million!

Many of these Jews became assimilated into the cultures of the places they moved into, but many did not.  Many kept themselves separated from others by being faithful to their faith, religion and culture, AND by continuing to speak their language.  They learned Greek because it was a necessity, but they spoke Hebrew at home because it kept them a separate people.

Paul had been born in Tarsus, which was a Gentile city, but he AND his parents spoke Hebrew.

          Credential #5:  He was a trained Pharisee.   Paul repeats this fact more than once (Acts 22:3, 23:6, 26:5). The Pharisees made up a small group – Josephus estimates there were never more than 6,000 in the times of the New Testament.  The name means “Separated Ones” – and they separated themselves from common life and work in order to devote themselves to keeping even the smallest detail of the Law.  What Paul is saying here is that he is not only a pure Jew by birth, but also by actions of his life.

          Credential #6:  And this is a strange one – he had zeal, so much so that he was a persecutor of the Church. Zeal was considered a great quality of religious life.  Today we might phrase it as “passionate for God.”   The Psalmist said ‘It is zeal for your house that has consumed me’ (Psalm 69:9).

Paul had so much zeal that he tried to destroy all opposition to Judaism.  I think he never forgot that – on one hand being proud that he “did his duty” in fighting Christianity, and at the same time struggling with the guilt  He brings it up many times (Acts 22:2–21, 26:4–23; 1 Corinthians 15:8–10; Galatians 1:13).

          Credential #7:  He is perfect.  A bit arrogant perhaps, but as far as Paul is concerned, he was blameless under the law.

So Paul lays out his creditials:
1.      Natural born, life-long Jew.
2.     Pure breed Jew.
3.     From the best Jewish tribe
4.     From a family that kept up with the language and the traditions.
5.     A trained Pharisee devoted to the Jewish Law
6.     He had zeal for the Law
7.     He was blameless in his obedience to the Law.

3:7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.
3:8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

          After putting his credentials before us, Paul says that all of this is meaningless compared to knowing Christ.

          It’s important to understand that Paul uses harsh language here.

          Look at verse 8:

          The New Revised Standard Version says this:
More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

            The Common English Bible translation has this:
But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ.

          The Darby translation says: 
But surely I count also all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all, and count them to be filth, that I may gain Christ;

            The King James Version says: 
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,

            The Message, which is a translation and paraphrase, puts it this way:
7-9 The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.
          When I read this I remember what my high school coach used to say when he caught one of us using certain profanity:

          “You have something in your mouth I wouldn’t have on the bottom of my shoe.”

          What Paul is saying – and he is saying in the strongest possible terms – is that everything, except knowing Christ, is absolutely worthless.  It’s not trash – trash can be reclaimed and reused.  It’s not dung – that can become fertilizer. 

          Dog dung – that’s stuff that nobody has any use for.

          All of Paul’s credentials – everything he counted as of value – worthless compared to his opportunity to know and serve Christ.

3:8 b   For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,

3:11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul hangs onto this concept of how supreme the value of knowing Christ is for him.

He uses a Greek word here – ginoskein, which means a personal knowledge.

It is not just an intellectual knowledge.

It is not just the knowledge of certain facts.

It is the personal experience of another person.

When I was a teenager, my family had a tour of the White House – I’m not even sure if people can do that today.  But we were walking through a part of the White House and we were suddenly ordered to stop and stand along the wall.  For several minutes nothing happened, but all of a sudden Vice President Hubert Humphrey walked by, shook a couple of people’s hands, and then continued on his way through the hallway.

I couldn’t wait to get home and brag about that.  I told my best friend, “I know the Vice President.”  To which my friend said, “So what?  He doesn’t know you.”

This knowledge is personal, and intimate.

Paul has no desire to know ABOUT Christ, he wants to personally know him.

3:12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

3:13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,

3:14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul has a wonderful statement here - He is forgetting the things which are behind. All those credentials and everything he has accomplished – he is forgetting that and pressing on toward the goal.

The word he uses for straining forward is an athletic term:  (epekteinomenos) and it calls to mind a very vivid image of a racer going hard for the finishing line. Picture if you will the runner who is drenched with sweat with the second and third place runners right behind him.  He strains to make it across the line. 

That is Paul – and that is us.  No matter where we are in our faith – we need to keep moving forward, we need to keep straining to the future with Christ.