Must We Count All as Loss to Follow Christ? (Philippians 3)
This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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4though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, 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 9and 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—10that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
All As Loss
Saul the non-Christian put his confidence in the flesh. Paul imagines a contest with the false teachers in which they compare reasons for confidence in the flesh. Paul says he would win.
Picturing life as a ledger with two columns, gains and losses, Paul focuses first on the gains—the things that would give him confidence at the final judgment. Paul’s boast had two bases: (1) his pedigree (Phil. 3:5) and (2) his performance (Phil. 3:5–6). Paul mentions four things he inherited from birth: First, he was physically circumcised at the time prescribed in Leviticus 12:3, “on the eighth day.” Second, he was included in the line of God’s people, belonging to the “people of Israel.” Third, he could trace his lineage specifically to the tribe of Benjamin (perhaps he was named after King Saul). Fourth, he could distance himself from other Jews as a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” This probably refers to the difference between a Hebrew tied to the homeland in language and culture and a diaspora Jew who had lost touch with various aspects of Hebrew language and culture.1
Paul’s second category in describing his pre-conversion confidence in the flesh is a list of three things he had personally attained instead of inheriting. First, Paul voluntarily joined the strictest religious sect, the Pharisees. They applied the ritual purity laws to all of life, not merely to life in the temple. Second, Paul was zealous as a persecutor of the church. This zeal was part of his confidence in things that would commend him to God. Phinehas, after all, was commended for his zeal in killing an unfaithful Israelite (Num. 25:7–8, 11, 13), and Paul, persecutor of “unfaithful Israelites,” expected similar commendation. Paul was the fulfillment of what Jesus said in John 16:2–3:
They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.
Third, pre-conversion Paul believed he was living an exemplary life in terms of the righteous requirements of the law.
ESV Expository Commentary
With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.
Conversion meant that the ledger of Paul’s life radically changed. The first thing Paul did was take all the things from verses 4–6 that he once regarded as gain and put them on the loss side of the ledger.
Starting in verse 7, these next four verses are one long sentence in Greek. Paul now goes far beyond merely regarding the things he mentioned in verses 4–6 as loss. He moves all things to the loss column until one thing remains as gain: Christ. The plus side of Paul’s ledger is now pure. Paul has already said that he puts no confidence in the flesh but instead completely glories in Christ Jesus (v. 3). He now states his case clearly again: he will place confidence for justification or right standing before God in nothing except Christ.
Paul next takes an even more radical step. He goes so far as to say that all things are not just “loss” but “rubbish” (skybalon) compared to Christ. Skybalon refers to “useless or undesirable material subject to disposal.”2 It has a range of meaning from garbage to dung.
We should be careful to note here that Paul is not denigrating or devaluing everything in creation, which God created good. He is not tearing down everything as worthless; rather, he is glorying in Christ (cf. Phil. 3:3) and lifting him higher than all created things as the One who has “surpassing worth” (Phil. 3:8) or value. Christ is in a class all by himself. Jesus did something similar when he strikingly put himself above all other allegiances to self or family: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
One can view the relationship between Christ and his creation from two different angles. The complementary angle says that the good things of this world do not compete with Christ for first place—they simply cause us to adore him more because he is the source of all beauty and goodness. The comparative angle says that, in comparison with Christ, the nations are as a drop in the bucket or dust on the scales (Isa. 40:15). All the good things in the world are as nothing compared to him.
Paul speaks from this second vantage point in Philippians 3:8 when he counts everything as loss “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The knowledge of Christ in view here is personal knowledge. Paul does not just know of Christ the way we know of people from ancient history. Believers know Jesus intimately and personally. Paul celebrates the fact that Christ has worth that surpasses everything else. He would not trade his personal relationship with Christ for anyone or anything. Paul’s loss column reads everything; his gain column now reads Christ.
To Be Found in Christ
Philippians 3:9 introduces a second purpose clause. Paul counts everything as loss in order not only to gain Christ but also to “be found in him.” To be “found” in Christ conveys the language of trusting and taking refuge in something to save. On the day of judgment, some will face the wrath of God and the Lamb, and they will try to be hidden from him by calling for the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them (Luke 23:30). Paul will not try to be hidden from Christ because he will be hidden in him.
Paul uses the participle “having” (echōn) to describe the condition in which he desires to be found on the last day. He sees it as a contrast between two different types of righteousness, one that he rejects and one that he embraces. The rest of Phil. 3:9 is a chiasm that contrasts these two types of righteousness:3
that [is] from the Law
but that [righteousness which is] through faith in Christ
the [righteousness that is] from God
on the basis of faith
This chiasm reinforces the contrast between confidence in the flesh (my own righteousness, from works)4 and confidence in Christ (faith in Christ). Therefore, the center of the chiasm is the righteousness through faith in Christ: such faith should be embraced and all other righteousness rejected. Pre-conversion Saul put confidence in a personal righteousness consisting of his own moral performance in obedience to the law. Paul’s conversion came by embracing the righteousness of Jesus, not earned by works but received as a gift by faith. The righteousness a holy God demands of us, he gives to us in Christ.
In Phil. 3:10, Paul introduces the third purpose of counting all things as loss: “that I may know him.” This purpose is the greatest of all. Knowing Christ includes knowing the “power of his resurrection” and also knowing what it means to “share his sufferings.”
The greatest joy this life has to offer is to know Christ. Jesus proclaims, “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jeremiah 9:23–24 says that the one who boasts should boast that he understands and knows God. The difference between knowing about Jesus and really knowing Jesus makes all the difference in this world and the next.
Knowing Christ involves knowing him in both his death and his resurrection. Paul begins by talking about the resurrection. He refers to more than the mere historical fact of the resurrection, pointing to the power of Christ’s resurrection. Paul discusses the power connected to the resurrection in a few places in his writings, but perhaps the clearest place is in Ephesians 1:19–20. There Paul stunningly says that the same immeasurable power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in believers.
But this resurrection power is experienced amid sharing in the sufferings of Christ and “becoming like him in his death.” Paul has already told the Philippians that God graciously gave them the gift of suffering (Phil. 1:29). God has ordained that we will share in the sufferings of Christ, which means becoming like him in his death. We do not suffer for the sake of suffering as though, in and of itself, suffering makes us like Jesus. Paul is referring to suffering as Jesus did: for the sake of serving others in obedience to the Father. “Becoming like” (symmorphizō) means to “to cause to be similar in form or style to something else.”5 The passive voice here probably signals a divine passive meaning—God is causing us to become like Christ in his death. Sinclair Ferguson once said in a sermon that God makes us like Jesus the same way Jesus became like Jesus: through suffering (Heb. 2:10; 5:8). Paul is not telling us to go look for ways to suffer. The message of Philippians counsels us to have the mind of Christ: go look for someone to serve for the cause of Christ and do not be deterred by suffering. Pursue Christlikeness, not misery.
Sharing in Suffering, Then Glory
Sharing in suffering must come before sharing in glory, as Paul said in Romans 8:17. Paul’s flow of thought is the same here: sharing in suffering and becoming like Jesus in his death will lead to the resurrection (Phil. 3:10–11). Paul’s great desire is to “attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:11). The phrase “by any means possible” models a measure of humility, not false certainty. Paul did leave open the possibility that he could preach to others but find himself disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24–27). The brightness of future resurrection breeds not apathy but diligent perseverance in pursuing Christ.
We love because he first loved us. We work because he works in us. We can make the resurrection and knowing Christ our own because he has made us his own.
Verse 12 counters a potential false conclusion and affirms the right conclusion in its place. Paul clarifies that he has not attained the resurrection or already arrived at the state of perfection that will come with the resurrection. Rather, he presses on to make the resurrection his own. The word translated “press on” (diōkō) is the same word Paul used earlier to describe his persecution (diōkō) of the church (3:6). Paul’s old mind-set was a single-minded pursuit of persecuting the church. The new birth brought a new mind-set: a single-minded pursuit to know Christ and attain the resurrection. Paul describes this pursuit in humble terms, giving Jesus the credit even for Paul’s pursuit of him. The underlying reason he can press on to make the resurrection his own is that Christ Jesus has already made Paul his own. The last phrase literally reads, “because I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” The Bible will not allow us to nurture a sense of independence. We love because he first loved us. We work because he works in us. We can make the resurrection and knowing Christ our own because he has made us his own.
Paul reiterates that he has not yet made the resurrection his own. He uses the same verb, “make my own” (katalambanō), which he used twice in verse 12. He continues to stress his mind-set: he does not “consider” (logizomai) that he has made the resurrection his own; indeed, he has slammed the door shut on any such notion. At this point, the reader has been rallied by the repetition to say, “I understand: you have not made it your own—so now what?” Paul answers with a razor sharp, single-minded focus: “one thing I do.” What is this one thing? To “press on” (diōkō) toward the heavenly finish line and prize (Phil. 3:14). Philippians 3:13 first explains the means by which this one thing will happen: by forgetting the things behind and by straining for the things ahead, Paul presses on toward the final goal. The second participle, “straining forward” (epekteinomai), draws on the imagery of a race in which a runner strains forward to the finish line. Pressing on in a single-minded way requires not looking back but instead leaning forward.
The rest of the verse describes the finish line and the prize that awaits us beyond it. The “goal” (skopos) of a race is the finish line, the focal point on which all runners set their sights and to which they run. The prize at the end of the race is the state of perfection that comes with the resurrection. “Prize” (brabeion) also occurs in 1 Corinthians 9:24. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” This prize has a source: “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). The call is upward in that God is directing our focus to the things above, not earthly things.
1. It is also possible that Paul is distinguishing between Hebrew- or Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews (cf. Acts 6:1).
2. BDAG, s.v. σκύβαλον
3. I first read of this chiasm in O’Brien, Philippians, 394.
4. Paul’s pre-conversion mind-set matched the mind-set of his unsaved Jewish countrymen in Romans 10:1–3. Paul prays they may be saved because they are ignorant of the righteousness from God and thus do not submit to it. In place of divine righteousness in Christ, they attempt to establish their own.
5. BDAG, s.v. συμμορφίζω.
This article is written by Jason C. Meyer and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11) edited by Iain M. Dugid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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