Lent 5 • Philippians 3:(4b–7) 8–14 • March 17, 2013
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
Paul’s “putting out of mind the course already covered and straining toward the goal that lies ahead” (Phil 3:13), warns today’s preacher not to forget that the race is not over. Philippians 3:4b–14 offers its own beautiful way to convey that warning, with an emphasis on the present straining toward the future. This is a necessary reminder for all Lenten pilgrims, so that neither the 40 days nor the 3 become nothing more than a celebration of the past. I suggest we summarize the contrasts in the text as three pairs. For a cryptic title, I propose “2KX3.”
“2KR” has become a symbol around here for the doctrine of two kinds of righteousness. The contrast of competing righteousnesses lies at the heart of our pericope, but looking toward the beginning and toward the conclusion, we find two other examples of “two kinds” of something, thus my title: “2 Kinds Times 3.”
Two Kinds of Confidence
We should not misread verses 4b–8 as a statement of how wrong Paul once was. The first four things Paul lists are things not of his choosing, given him by birth, and therefore by God. That these are good gifts, even spiritual advantages, Paul will acknowledge elsewhere (e.g. Rom 3). In 3:3 Paul refers to the saints as the “real circumcision.” Even though the persecution of the church cannot be regarded as a God-given advantage, Paul still values and encourages zeal that leads to action.
Paul uses some of his strongest—and most offensive—language to show that he has not simply found something to “frost the confidence cake.” All that old confidence is discarded, not augmented, not improved. There are two kinds of confidence; the difference between them is Christ. Not only Paul’s misguided zeal and his wrongly defined righteousness, but even his noble birth and membership in the covenant, all this is rejected as a basis for confidence. There is nothing in himself, by birth or by effort that can allow Paul to stand confidently and claim to be right before God. All that “stuff” is now worthless when it comes to true confidence before God.
The knowledge of Christ, Paul’s “personal acquaintance” with his Lord Jesus Christ, surpasses all other causes for confidence. No longer is Paul confident because he has given his best for God; he now knows that God has given his best for Paul in Christ Jesus.
Two Kinds of Righteousness
Verses 9–11 trace the contrast between Paul’s two kinds of righteousness, one based on conformity to the law and another based on faith in Christ. The latter is not simply the best and “Christian” example of the former. The contrasts are clear: “my own” vs. “from God,” and “from the law” but “firmly founded on faith—a faith in Christ.”
Two Kinds of Pursuit
The third contrasted pair will save us from living in our “salvation history” past. Before Paul finishes with this new righteousness, he is already speaking of the resurrection—and how he longs for it. The “straining forward” of the whole pericope (a straining forward throughout Philippians) is clearly and powerfully expressed in verses 12–14.
Why two pursuits? Paul here uses the same verb he had used for his persecution of the Christians. Formerly, he was “pursuing” them with all his might, hoping to purify Israel and show himself to be a faithful servant of the God of the covenant. Now, he is “pursuing”—with everything he is and has—the goal of full knowledge of Christ, of the experience of the power of his resurrection, through participation with Christ in his sufferings. Paul does not pause to look back to see how far he has come, to find confidence in all that his forefathers have accomplished, to gauge how close he is by how much he has already run; all his energy, all his concentration, all his hope has but one goal: Christ. For the sake of Christ. Because of Christ. In Christ. To gain Christ. The goal is Christ.