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Note of the Day – October 25 (Phil 3:8-10)

Philippians 3:8-10

Another important occurrence of the words gnw=si$ (“knowledge”) and ginw/skw (“know”) is Philippians 3:8-10. Verses 7-11 are central to the discussion in chapter 3, where Paul establishes an autobiographical illustration to exhort the believers in the Philippian churches to endure in the face of persecution. The harsh language he uses to describe (at least some of) his Jewish opponents in verse 2, is, we may say, regrettable. While altogether typical of the polemical style of the time, it is ultimately unnecessary for the point he is making. Nevertheless, it is in referring to Jewish (and Jewish Christian) opponents, that Paul unleashes some of his most severe rhetorical outbursts (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16; Gal 5:7-12; 6:12-14; 2 Cor 11:1-12:13). Beginning with the issue of circumcision (v. 3), so important to the early disputes among Jewish Christians (Acts 15:1ff; 21:21; Gal 2; 5:1-12; 6:12-16; Rom 2:25-29; 4:9-12; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Col 2:11), he extends the symbolism by use of the word flesh (sa/rc), which is set in contrast with the Spirit (pneu=ma), as often in Paul’s letters (Rom 7:14; 8:3-4ff, 12-13; 1 Cor 3:1ff; 6:16-17; 15:39, 44-46; Gal 3:3; 4:29-31; 5:16-25; 6:8). In verse 4, he describes his (Jewish) religious experience, prior to his conversion, and the religious status which he achieved, as being of the flesh—”and (indeed) I am (one) holding persuasion [i.e. confidence/assurance] in the flesh [e)n sarki/]”—using the same kind of rhetorical “boasting” as he does in 1 Cor 11-12. Here, too, Paul engages in exaggeration or hyperbole:

“If any other (person) considers (himself) to have persuasion [i.e. confidence] in the flesh, I rather (have even) more: cut around [i.e. circumcised] (on the) eighth (day), coming to be (born) out of Israel, of the offspring of Benjamin, a Hebrew out of Hebrews, a Pharisee according to the Law, pursuing [i.e. persecuting] the congregation [e)kklhsi/a] (of Christ) according to (my) burning (zeal), coming to be without fault according to the justice/righteousness [dikaiosu/nh] th(at is) in the Law” (vv. 4b-6)

He boasts of achieving a nearly perfect fulfillment of the religious “righteousness” as it was understood in the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). That this was of the flesh (and not the Spirit) is clear from that the fact that he vigorously persecuted the early Christians (cf. Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-22), fulfilling the same conflict expressed in Gal 4:29: “but just as (it was) then (that) the (one) coming to be (born) according to the flesh pursued [i.e. persecuted] the (one born) according to the Spirit, so also (it is this way) now”. This fleshly religious achievement Paul ultimately rejects or devalues in verses 7-10, utilizing the language of commerce—profit/gain (ke/rdo$) and damage/loss (zhmi/a):

“[But] the (thing)s which were profit for me, those (same thing)s through (the) Anointed {Christ} I have (since) brought out as damage(d) [i.e. regarded as loss]” (v. 7)

The word zhmi/a fundamentally means something like “disadvantage”—i.e., the religious experience and status which Paul thought was to his advantage actually is to one’s harm or disadvantage in Christ (cf. Gal 5:2-4). Again, he widens the scope of his statement, from the things related to religion to all things (pa/nta); note the parallelism:

  • “these things [tau=ta] I have brought out [h%ghmai] as damage/loss [zhmi/an] through Christ [dia\ to\n Xristo/n]” (v. 7)
  • “all things [pa/nta] I (now) bring out [h(gou=mai] to be damaged/lost [zhmi/an] through…of Christ [dia\ to\Xristou=]” (v. 8)

The last two expressions are parallel, but, perhaps, not exactly equivalent:

dia\ to\n Xristo/n (“through the Anointed”)—the perfect verbal form h%gmai (“I have brought [out]”, i.e. in my mind, “I have considered/regarded”) suggests Paul’s conversion experience, similar to the believer’s response to the Gospel message, something which took place in the past but continues on into the present. Thus I would take the expression “through Christ” as encapsulating and summarizing the Gospel message (of Christ) and its effect on the believer.

dia\ to\ u(pere/xon th=$ gnw/sew$ Xristou= )Ihsou= tou= kuri/ou mou (“through the overriding [greatness] of the knowledge of [the] Anointed Yeshua my Lord”)—the very length of this expression suggests knowledge, i.e. the believer (Paul) comes to understand the greatness of Jesus and who he is (the Anointed One and [my] Lord). For a similar genitive chain (also using the word gnw=si$, “knowledge”, cf. 2 Cor 4:6 and my note on this verse). The verb u(pere/xw literally means “holding (oneself) over”, often in the more abstract sense of something being above, i.e. excellent, superior, etc. I have tried to preserve the literal meaning of the participle here with the translation “overriding (greatness)”, but the basic idea is that the knowledge of Christ far surpasses all other things we may come to know or experience. Just what does Paul mean by the “knowledge of Christ”? He clarifies this in the remainder of verse 8 and 9, which functions virtually as an exposition of the Gospel:

  1. That he is “my Lord” (ku/rio$ mou)—for Paul, as for most Christians, this has a two-fold meaning: (a) he is Lord in the basic sense of “master, guide, teacher, etc”, and (b) he is identified with God (YHWH), the Lord (see esp. Phil 2:9-10).
  2. I have experienced the loss/damage/disadvantage of all (other) things through him—cf. verse 7; not only have all things (outside of Christ) become lost/damaged for Paul, he actually considers them to be sku/balon, a somewhat obscure word which can refer to scraps to be thrown out, food for animals, rotten food, even excrement—perhaps “garbage” is a good modern equivalent. This is a bit of rhetorical exaggeration, to be sure, but the point of it is clear.
  3. That I might gain Christ, and/or profit from him—continuing the language of profit/loss; the verb here could be understood in two different aspects: (a) gaining the blessing and benefit from knowing Christ (as a believer), and (b) gaining the experience of knowing Christ in full, at the end-time. Presumably, Paul has the latter primarily in mind.
  4. That I might be found in him—parallel to the previous phrase, drawing upon the familiar (Pauline) idiom of being “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|); according to this expression, believers are united with Christ in three aspects: (1) through the presence of the Spirit, (2) the symbolism of baptism, and (3) the communal experience of believers together (the “body of Christ”). However, it is the eschatological sense which Paul again has in mind here, perhaps drawing upon the idea expressed in Col 3:1-4.
  5. Holding the justice/righteousness of God—here we have the familiar Pauline contrast between the righteousness of God and the righteousness that comes through observing the Law. In his earlier religious experience, Paul had something of the latter, but not the former (cf. Rom 10:1-4 which well expands upon the statement here). The expression e)k qeou= specifies that true righteousness is that which comes from God (lit. out of him). It comes only by way of faith/trust (pi/sti$) in Christ, another fundamental Pauline teaching, which he expresses here two ways: “through [dia/] (the) trust” and “upon [e)pi/] the trust”.

The syntactical relation of verse 10 with the previous verses is not entirely clear. It begins with the articular infinitive tou= gnw=nai (“the knowing [of], to know”), which I prefer to view as epexegetical with verse 8a, forming an inclusive parallel:

  • “through the overriding (greatness) of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (8a)
    —”through whom…” (8b)
    —”and I…in him…through faith…” (9)
  • “the knowing (of) him…” (10a)

What follows in vv. 10-11 reflects a somewhat different sense of “knowing” Christ; if the knowledge in vv. 8-9 relates fundamentally to the message of the Gospel, that in vv. 10-11 is symbolic of the believer’s union with Christ—i.e., participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is clearly expressed at the start of v. 10: “knowing him and the power of his standing up [i.e. resurrection] (from the dead)”. The logic here is as straightforward as it is profound:

  • to know the power of his resurrection, which is experienced by:
    —sharing in his sufferings (“the common [shar]ing [koinwni/a] of his sufferings”)
    —being (con)formed to his death (“being shaped together with his death”)
  • to come into the resurrection from the dead

By sharing in the suffering and death of Christ—symbolized in baptism, and experienced throughout the Christian life with its share of trials and persecution—one has the promise of sharing in his resurrection at the end-time. This eschatological sense is parallel with the expressions in vv. 8b-9a, marked by use of the subjunctive:

  • “that I might gain Christ” (8b)
    “and might be found in him” (9a)
  • “if (some)how I might come down into the resurrection…” (11)

I have here translated the verb katanta/w (“come down [against]”) quite literally, in order to preserve the idea of participating in the death (and burial) of Jesus. It also carries the sense of coming to meet someone, or to meet/arrive at a goal, etc. The eschatological context is clear enough—the believer rises to meet Christ at the end-time (1 Thess 4:16-17; Col 3:1-4).

One final aspect of knowledge, not stated in vv. 7-11, but implied throughout the passage, is that one comes to know Christ (and God the Father) through the Spirit. The contrast between the flesh and the Spirit is central to Paul’s discussion (cf. above), though the Spirit (pneu=ma) is only mentioned directly at the start, in verse 3. That the presence of the Spirit is central, and parallel with the believer’s knowledge of Christ, I demonstrate with a chiastic outline:

  • “For we are the circumcision
    —”the (one)s doing service for God in the Spirit
    —”and speaking (out) loud [i.e. rejoicing/’boasting’] in Christ Jesus
  • “and not having been persuaded [i.e. having confidence] in (the) flesh

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