Formations 01.01.2017: Good and Best

Philippians 3:1-8

The Atlantic City Ballet performing “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: COURTESY OF ATLANTIC CITY BALLET

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you were willing to give up almost anything to achieve it? You may know parents who scrimped and saved to send their children to college. You may know stories of athletes or artists who spend hour after hour perfecting their skills, sacrificing weekends and time with friends in pursuit of excellence.

Phyllis Papa and her dancers understand what this is like. Papa has been the director of the Atlantic City (New Jersey) Ballet since she founded the company in 1982. The Atlantic City Ballet has recently finished a busy holiday performance schedule that included rehearsals from 9 AM to 3 PM every day for three weeks prior to show time.

Atlantic City Ballet’s dancers hail from twelve different countries, including places in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. “They leave everything behind,” Papas says, “their homes, their families to come here for their career.” Despite the hardship, the distance from family, and, for some, challenging language and cultural barriers, they willingly work hard in an unfamiliar place in pursuit of their dream.

I suspect the Apostle Paul could identify. As our text this week reveals, he had plenty to boast of religiously. He was raised in a family where God and God’s laws were honored and where he was encouraged to pursue righteousness. In a similar passage in Galatians 1:14, the Apostle states that he advanced beyond his peers in his religiosity.

And yet, he was willing to leave all this behind for the sake of “the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Compared to gaining Christ, however, all of these assets and achievements seemed like “sewer trash.”

Note that Paul never denigrates the Jewish religion as such, neither here nor in any of his letters. He didn’t find the faith of his upbringing deficient in any way, nor did he struggle with guilt over his sins. But when he encountered Christ, all of these things were put in a different perspective.

Achieving the best is worth it, even if it means giving up something good.

Source: Liz Dennerlein, “On Stage with the Atlantic City Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker,’” app.com, 12 Dec 2016 .

Discussion

• When have you sacrificed something good to achieve something better?
• How does knowing Christ challenge your priorities about the things you hold dear?
• How does your religious upbringing compare or contrast with Paul’s?
• How can we be grateful for our (cultural, spiritual, etc.) heritage without idolizing it?

Reference Shelf

Bitter Warnings

[Philippians] is more than an expression of Paul’s gratitude. It contains bitter warnings against opponents who are not identified—though they are described. In 3:2 Paul abruptly directs his attention to some people who are bent on destroying his apostolic work. Exactly who these people were is debated. But it seems that they were Jewish Christians who dogged the apostle’s footsteps and tried to impose a series of Jewish rituals on his gentile congregations. This is the reason why he so vehemently denounces them…. After a powerful statement of his understanding of what it means to be a Christian (3:8-14), he returns to sound another warning against opponents. The opponents described in 3:18, 19 are most likely Jewish, and they may be the same as the people described in 3:2. However, several scholars are convinced that these descriptions better fit a body of professed Christians whom the later church called Gnostics. They claimed to possess a religious knowledge of a secret kind which enabled them to treat physical appetites with indulgence and excess. Paul therefore calls them the enemies of the cross (3:18) and exposes what he regards as false teaching and practice.

Ralph P. Martin, “Philippians, Letter to the,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 684–85.

A New Orientation

Paul’s fine pedigree and superlative performance in Judaism notwithstanding, he came to regard that which he had previously counted as gain (kerdos) to be loss (zemia). This re-evaluation, which may be rightly described as a conversion, occurred “for the sake of Christ” (3:7). Paul further unpacks his “spiritual paradigm shift” in 3:8. Not only did Paul continue to count whatever he had gained as loss because of Christ, he also continually regarded all things (panta) to be loss (zemia). Were one to ask why, Paul offers this explanation: “Because
 of the surpassing (hyperechon) [value] of the
 knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In Philippians
 2:9 Paul describes Jesus as “super exalted” (hyperypsoun). Here, he maintains that a personal,
experiential knowledge of Christ is of surpassing gain (cf. 1:9; 3:10). Later in the letter he will depict the peace of God as that which surpasses (hyperechein) all understanding (4:7). According to the apostle, Jesus Christ, the highly exalted one, offers a life of surpassing worth and peace. Resultantly, he regarded no cost too great and no price too high for the sake of Christ.

Having stated that he counted whatever gains were his in Judaism as loss because of Christ and that he continued to count all things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ (3:7-8a), Paul indicates in 3:8 that because of Christ Jesus his Lord he had lost (ezemiothen) all things (ta panta). He does not specify what these things were, but at the very least he would have lost his standing in Judaism upon his conversion. The apostle might also have suffered relational and financial losses. Far from regretting or pining over his losses, however, he scorns them, regarding them as skybala—“undesirable material that is subject to disposal: refuse, garbage, excrement, crud.” If we think this assessment is extreme, Paul would have thought that a wholesale, radical response was part and parcel of gaining Christ (cf. Phil 1:21; 1 Cor 9:26-27). To rehearse 3:7-8, then, Paul states that he regards any previous gains and all present things as loss, indeed dung, because of Christ Jesus his Lord and the surpassing value of knowing and gaining him.

Todd D. Still, Philippians & Philemon, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 105–06.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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