4 If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:4b-11 ESV
What does Paul mean by “confidence in the flesh?” Remember the context. He has just warned the believers in Philippi to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). This was a direct broadside delivered against the Judaizers, a group made up of Jewish converts to Christianity who were attempting to bring the legalism associated with the Mosaic Law into the church. They were demanding that Gentile believers first be circumcised and then agree to keep the Jewish laws, religious festivals, and sacrificial requirements. In other words, they had to become Jews before they could be considered truly saved.
So, when Paul mentions having confidence in the flesh, he is stressing the teachings of this group. They believed that their human efforts, those things done in their own strength, somehow earned them favor with God. As Jews, they put a high priority and value on the rite of circumcision. It was an outward sign of their unique relationship as God’s chosen people. And they were of the strong opinion that circumcision was necessary for any and all who would hope to enjoy the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. But for Paul, this was nothing short of another gospel. It was a false gospel. And it was to be exposed for what it was: a dangerous heresy.
The Greek word Paul used for “flesh” is sarx and, while it was often used to refer to the actual physical body, it could also be used in a metaphorical sense, to refer to human nature. The Judaizers put a lot of stock in human nature and their own human abilities, believing that they were able to keep the laws of God and live up to the holy standards of God. But Paul rejects that mindset, stating that believers were to “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3 ESV). Salvation was based on the work of Christ, not the works of men.
But Paul decides to take their argument and use it against them. He somewhat sarcastically paints a picture of what the kind of credentials that might earn someone favor with God would look like. And he uses himself as an example. Paul boldly states:
“If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more…” – Philippians 3:4 NLT
It is as if Paul is saying, “So, you think you can earn a right standing with God based on your accomplishments and status? Well, check this out!”
What follows is a laundry list of Paul’s off-the-chart credentials.
- He was a card-carrying member of the nation of Israel
- He was from the tribe of Benjamin
- He had been circumcised according to the Mosaic Law
- He was a Hebrew of Hebrews (a hard-core traditionalist)
- He had been a member of the Pharisees, an elite religious group
- He had been a passionate and zealous persecutor of the church
- He had been painstakingly dedicated to keeping the law
Look at that list and then consider who he was comparing himself with. He was placing himself in direct competition with the Judaizers. If they thought they were somehow better than everybody else because of their Jewish heritage and law-keeping ability, they had nothing on Paul. His resume made them look like third-string players trying to win a spot on the varsity squad.
But notice what Paul says next. He takes his list of accomplishments and credentials and describes them “as liabilities because of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 NLT). His relationship with Christ, based solely on faith in the work of Christ done on his behalf, made any of his so-called assets amount to nothing. They earned him no credibility with God and bought him no favor from God. Paul understood that his righteous deeds were of no value when it comes to his salvation. He firmly believed what the text in Isaiah clearly states:
We are all infected and impure with sin.
When we display our righteous deeds,
they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT
Paul’s lofty list of accomplishments and personal assets were worthless. Which is why he could say, “I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8 NLT). Rather than placing any stock in human nature or his ability to produce righteous-looking deeds, Paul saw those things as hindrances to his spiritual walk. They were liabilities. Because they were all tainted by sin. So, Paul had given them all up. He had decided to treat them like what they were: Liabilities, not assets. All so he could know Christ. And Paul gets a bit graphic in trying to describe his new relationship with those things he once held near and dear. They were like dung to him now, to be tossed aside and treated for what they were: worthless and detestable.
The bottom line for Paul was righteousness. A holy and righteous God demanded that His people live holy, righteous lives. But man’s sin nature made that impossible. And no amount of law-keeping, ritual-observing, or efforts at God-pleasing were going to make a difference. Paul states, “I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness” (Philippians 3:9 NLT). In other words, Paul’s righteousness was not based on self-effort, but on Christ’s faithfulness. Jesus died a sinner’s death to satisfy the just demands of a holy and righteous God. As Paul explained to the Corinthian believers:
For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV
And as Paul stated earlier in this letter, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). His faithfulness to do the will of His Father resulted in righteousness for us.
The Judaizers were not right before God because they had been circumcised. They were not right before God because they were Jews. They could not claim a right standing before God because they kept the law. In fact, Paul vaporized that idea in his letter to the Galatians.
So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” – Galatians 3:11 NLT
He said the same thing to the believers in Rome.
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT
We have no reason to boast. We have no ground on which to stand and from which to proclaim our own self-righteousness. Our righteousness is actually Christ’s righteousness imparted to us when we place our faith in Him. When Christ died on the cross, He paid in full the debt that was owed for sins of mankind. He died in our place, bearing the penalty we deserved. And that act justified us before God. He now sees us as righteous and just, not sinful and worthy of death. We have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. And with that thought in mind, Paul refocuses the attention of his readers on that which is really important. Not effort and earning, but the pursuit of an ongoing and always growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NLT
Paul is not talking about cognitive knowledge. He’s not suggesting a purely academic understanding of who Jesus was and is. He is describing a deep and intimate relationship that features an ever-intensifying awareness of all that Jesus Christ has done and will do for him. In the immediate context, Paul wanted to experience all the power that Christ’s resurrection had made available to him. Jesus had been raised back to life by the power of the Holy Spirit, and each and every believer has that power living within them.
But Paul knew that the resurrection power he so desired to see is most often revealed in the context of suffering. Just as Jesus had to suffer and die before He could experience the resurrection, we will find ourselves suffering so that we might experience the resurrection power of God’s Spirit in our lives. Just as Jesus experienced humiliation before His glorification, so will we. And then, Paul reminds us, it will all end in death. The ultimate form of suffering we all face is our own physical deaths. But Paul wants us to remember that there is a resurrection of the dead. Death is not the end. It is really the beginning of something greater. And Paul told the believers in Corinth what they could expect when death finally came.
For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” – I Corinthians 15:53-55 NLT
Why put confidence in the flesh? It’s of no value and will ultimately be left behind. And why put stock in our own worthiness before God? Without Christ, we have no righteousness of our own. As Paul told the Colossian believers, it all boils down to this: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 ESV).
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.