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Philippians 3:4b-14

Who are you? This is a question of identity and self-worth, two concepts intricately connected in our world. How we answer this question depends on the real and/or perceived source/s behind our identity and thus behind our self-worth. It is quite natural for a number of external phenomena such as family, friends, positions, health, personal accomplishments, possessions, and other’s perceptions to become the controlling sources and thus controlling voices in our understanding of who we are. However, in Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul very carefully unpacks a greater reality concerning ones identity and self-worth. Our confidence is grounded in Christ and him alone.

Paul begins this autobiographical narrative with a select list of previous reasons for confidence in the flesh (Phil 3:4b-6), which includes both inherited and achieved merits. Many argue this list climaxes in the final statement (“as to righteousness under the law, blameless”[1]). However, a strong case can be made for the climax coming in the fourth statement (“a Hebrew born of Hebrews”). Rather than a statement about language, this declaration can be interpreted akin to “a man’s man” (cf. Gal 1:14). It is a statement of pride; it is a statement of confidence in the flesh, the very thing Paul is speaking against. Here, Paul is establishing his pre-Christian position in Judaism. He does so not to rail against Judaism or against the practice of living out Torah. Instead, Paul is providing a benchmark for worldly confidence and stature. This benchmark serves two purposes.

First, it remind the Philippians of their own social and cultural context and its standard of valuing human structures and human achievements that lead to a misplaced confidence in the flesh. Second, it provides an impressive worldly status by which to compare Paul’s subsequent demotion.

Many scholars have rightly recognized an allusion to Paul’s own conversion/call in Phil 3:4b-14 (cf. Acts 9:1-19; 22:1-21; 26:4-18; Gal 1:11-17; 1 Cor 9:1-2, 16-17; 15:1-11). Paul is sharing out of a very personal encounter with Christ which rocked his world and set him on his current path. In Phil 3:7-9, Paul outlines his willing submission to Christ, which led to a reevaluation of who he was and what was important to him. Christ had become the source of his identity and self-worth. In one respect this is not a devaluation of Paul’s previous merits, any of these merits could have valuable as long as they were kept in proper perspective. However, their value for establishing Paul’s identity or for determining his worth was zero. In fact, they were less than zero; they were a negative ten; they were rubbish when compared to “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:8).

A potential parallel to Paul’s story can be seen in Isaiah 6. There the prophet comes face to face with God in a spectacular vision whereby he recognizes his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of the people around him. The first five chapters of Isaiah help us to realize that Isaiah already understood the sinfulness of the people, but it is not until he stands in the presence of God that he is able to recognize how unworthy he too is. It is only in understanding who God is that Isaiah is able to understand who he is. Therein God because the source and measuring rod for understanding Isaiah’s own identity and calling. In the same way, for Paul it is only in comparison to Christ that one’s confidence in the flesh can be recognized and relinquished. It is only through the faithfulness of Christ that a person can take on and be transformed by the righteousness of God (Phil 3:9).

Furthermore, it is only in Christ that one can be so confident in who they are and their own self-worth that they are able to desire more and more of Christ. It is here that we are able to utter with Paul the counter-cultural, counter-intuitive words of Phil 3:10-11—“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Herein the beauty of the intimacy of relationship with Christ is brought to new heights. Paul has moved from superstar Jew, to a willing slave of Christ, to laying down of all things even his own life.

It is unfortunate that Phil 3:4b-14 precedes the Christological narrative of Philippians 2:5-11 (see Lent 6C) in the lectionary readings. In a very real way, one cannot understand Paul’s narrative autobiography without first understanding the Christological narrative—a narrative Paul patterns his life after. Just as Christ did not regard his high position and stature as something to be exploited but humbled himself and became obedient to death, so too, Paul takes on this cruciform identity and cruciform way of being in the world. Paul’s identity is shaped by who Christ is and what Christ has done. Paul does not simply acknowledge Christ’s actions, he actively lives them out in his own context, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” Paul presses “on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

In preaching this text, the preacher may want to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the significance of identity and how this influences a person’s self-worth. Paul’s words will no doubt be difficult for many in the congregation who have placed a high value on their inherited and achieved merits. The preacher must be sure to clearly articulate the profound impact Christ has on shaping who we are and the radical transformation that takes place through Christ. However, the preacher must also be careful not to discount the worldly merits remembering the impact these may have in shaping the persons current identity and self-worth. It is important to focus on Christ being the source of our confidence and identity rather than any of these other things, which may or may not be good. Second, preachers should emphasis the relational aspect of Paul’s words. It is only as Christ transforms us that we are able to lay down these earthly merits and embrace deeper relationship and deeper transformation. It is too easy to focus on the need to let go of a particular worldly procession or attitude and take on a servant attitude or action. However, this quickly begins to sound like an exchange of good or a list of dos and don’ts rather than a relationship.

[1] All biblical quotations come from the NRSV.