Connections 10.08.2017: Paul’s Credentials…and Humility

Philippians 3:4b-14

Paul’s writings can be a tough read. Like many theologians, whether someone relatively close to Paul’s era like Tertullian or someone more recent like Eugene Peterson, he seems to be learning as he goes—making statements, doubling back, almost contradicting himself at times, certain at some points and a bit unsure at others. As a Christian who is a little less theological, I find that the words of theologians are often too puzzling for me.

This passage in Philippians, though, is pretty clear. I really get the sense that Paul is hearing all kinds of rationalizations from people who have heard him talk about Jesus: “But we did this and we did that! We checked off all the boxes. Surely we’re worthy of God. Surely we have plenty of reasons to feel certain of our standing with the Lord. We don’t need another box!” Instead of browbeating them, instead of insisting that they’re still not enough, Paul identifies with them. “Oh yes,” he says. “Me too!” Paul’s got all the credentials required of a good religious Hebrew. He’s just like these folks.

And then he says something astonishing. All the credentials now mean nothing to him in light of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t tell the people that they aren’t measuring up. He doesn’t list more checkboxes for them. He doesn’t accuse them of not being enough for the Lord. Instead, he explains how Christ has completely transformed his life. What he thought was so important before—the circumcision, the tribe into which he was born, his status as a Pharisee, his vigorous persecution of what he viewed as heresy, and his self-proclaimed righteousness—has been overshadowed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Lest he appear to think he is better than these others who have the same credentials, he admits to them that he still has a long way to go. He hasn’t arrived yet. The difference is that he knows whose he is. Because of that, he can “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).

Guess what? So can you, so can I. Regardless of whether we have the “right” credentials—church attendance, Scripture memorization, an active prayer life, committed tithing, regular missions participation, and so on and so on—we too can regard them as loss when it comes to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. While these things are important and certainly have their place in the life of faith, Jesus is above all and in all, covering it with his righteousness and allowing us to keep pressing on toward the goal…just like Paul. And just like any other Christ follower throughout the centuries.

Discussion

1. If you have read the work of theologians (other than Paul), what have their writings meant to you? How have they helped or complicated your journey of faith?
2. Why do you think these writings are sometimes difficult to follow or understand? What might that say about being a Christian?
3. Why are credentials important in the faith? When might they become more important than they should be?
4. What do you think is easy to understand about Paul’s words in Philippians 3?
5. You and I have not arrived yet. What keeps us pressing “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”? What does that prize mean to you?

Reference Shelf

Paul then proceeds in 3:5-6 to offer no less than seven reasons why he, were he to choose to do so, could more convincingly than anyone else place confidence in the flesh. His decidedly Jewish list commences with four items he received and concludes with three things he achieved. We will treat each of these seven badges of Jewish pride singly, if briefly. Although Paul could unleash vitriol upon his Jewish-Christian compatriots who sought to persuade his Gentile converts to be circumcised, it is precisely with circumcision that Paul begins to construct his case that he has compelling evidence for having confidence in the flesh. If Paul came to view circumcision as a decidedly Jewish custom that had no bearing upon one’s standing before God, this would certainly have not been the view of his parents who presented him to be circumcised when he was eight days old. Saul/Paul of Tarsus, like John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth (see Luke 1:59; 2:21), was marked out as a son of the covenant by the rite of circumcision as set forth in the Scripture.

Paul continues to set forth his grounds for boasting in the flesh in 3:5 by maintaining that he was “out of the people of Israel,” “of the tribe of Benjamin,” and “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Each of these items adds further detail and luster to Paul’s Jewish pedigree. Far from a proselyte, he was an “Israelite, out of the seed of Abraham” (Rom 11:1; cf. 2 Cor 11:22). Beyond that, Paul claims to be of “the tribe of Benjamin.” We do not know Paul’s family tree or precisely how he could lay claim to such an ancestry and identity. It is clear from the Old Testament, however, that Benjamin and his tribe were held in high esteem. Moreover, Paul maintains that he was “a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Although we cannot be certain, not a few commentators suggest that this expression indicates that Paul could speak and read Hebrew (and/or perhaps Aramaic). Additionally, as fourth in a list of seven, this boast stands in the center and thereby functions as the “‘swing’ term, summing up the preceding three, and setting the stage for the final three.”

As Paul continues to catalog reasons he has to be confident in the flesh, he transitions from what he received to what he achieved in Judaism. Each of the three accomplishments he mentions is introduced by the preposition kata (generally meaning “according to” when followed by nominatives in the accusative case), resulting in syntactical parallelism. One might also note that Paul begins and ends his truncated list of personal achievements in Judaism with reference to the law (nomos).

Todd D. Still, Philippians & Philemon, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 102–03.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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