A Life that Counts, part 1 (Philippians 3:4-6)

I want my life to count for God.  Don’t you?  I don’t want to waste the life that God has entrusted to me, in any way.  You see, we can waste our lives by pursuing the wrong path.

You might have heard it said: “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

We can waste our lives by pursuing sin, but we can also waste our lives pursuing righteousness through self-effort.  In other words, you can waste your live as an irreligious, immoral person, or as a religious, moral person.  I know, that is a paradox.

God wants to raise up men and women in his church whose lives count for His glory.  In Philippians 3:4-11 Paul uses the word “count” 3x (in vv. 7-8).  In order for our lives to count, we have to choose what really counts.

Listen to what Paul says in Philippians 3:4-11.  (Remember, he has just said that genuine believers put no confidence in the flesh, in themselves)…

4 though 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: 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.

In this passage we have Paul’s radical re-evaluation of his life and what really counts.  Because Christ graciously “arrested” him on the road to Damascus, opening his spiritual eyes to see the surpassing value of Jesus Christ, he willingly trashes all those things he formerly counted on—his pedigree and his performance—so that he may gain Christ.

Paul regards his prior privileges and achievements as spiritual rubbish in comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, and being justified (v. 9), sanctified (v. 10), and glorified (v. 11) in him.

Here is the first step in pursuing a life that counts:

People whose lives count treasure Christ above everything else.

In verse 3 Paul had told us that those who are the “true circumcision” put “no confidence in the flesh.”  That is, they don’t depend upon themselves to produce righteousness and make themselves acceptable to God.

Again, realize that Judaizers had come to Philippi, Jewish men who had come to faith in Christ but because of their own background were teaching these Gentile believers that they, too, had to become circumcised, keep the Sabbath and follow the law in order to be “fully saved,” to enter into the Abrahamic blessings.

Paul’s first response (in v. 3) was to argue that this is not so, that one enters into the fullness of salvation through faith—glorying in Christ and what He has done, rather than through one’s own righteous acts like circumcision.

Then, in verse 4, Paul takes another tack, saying that if anyone could (hypothetically that is) put confidence in the flesh, he was candidate numero uno.

though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he hasreason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:

Paul engages in a little Greek trash talk here:  Calling them “dogs” and saying “whatever you’ve got, I’ve got more; whatever you can do, I can do better.”  “Bring me your best game, all you’ve got, and I’ll slam dunk you every time.”  “You can’t match me.  I challenge anyone and I’ll knock you out every time.”

Curiously, often those who promote the idea of having confidence in the flesh are the same ones who are the least qualified to have such confidence. This is because of the principle Paul explains in Colossians 2:23 – These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

What follows is the apostle’s unparalleled description of his human achievements before he met Christ, which has been called “one of the most remarkable personal confessions that the ancient world has bequeathed to us.”

As we know, this description of his fleshly accomplishments was really a masterful setup because Paul’s boasting in his achievements paved the way for his remarkable rejection of them.

We begin in verse 4 with Paul’s self-perception when he was still Saul of Tarsus: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.”  For starters, Paul declared without any qualifications that his ground for personal boasting exceeded that of any person in Judaism!  In effect, he threw down the gauntlet, saying, “Top this if you can, you Judaizers.”

In verses 5-6 Paul chronicles seven qualities that put him at the “head of the class,” but then goes on to declare that they are “treasures of a wasted life.”

For the sake of the argument, Paul adopted the Judaizers’ attitude of confidence in the flesh.  He did this in order to show that his rejection of Jewish advantages was not because he lacked them.  Rather, he actually possessed them in superior measure.

When I preached on this passage several years ago I got seven trophies, statues that indicated that I had won something, that I was superior to others in some way.  As we look at this passage we see that Paul holds up these trophies that the Judaizers treasured (and they really were all good things).  At first, they are in the profit column, but then Paul puts them all in the “loss” column.  Early in life he had treasured them, now he dumps them in the trash.

Paul says, “I may not be an accountant, but I know what really counts.”

These seven trophies have to do with Paul’s inherited pedigree and his personal performance, things he could be (and had been) very proud of.

Paul first points out his family heritage“circumcised on the eighth day” (v. 5).

Notice that Paul speaks first of the key issue that the Judaizers were requiring of the Gentiles—to be circumcised.  He cuts to the chase and says that he has what it takes.

To be “circumcised on the eighth day” was in keeping with the stipulations of the Jewish law for every Jewish boy (Leviticus 12:3) and showed that Paul was “pure-bred.”  He was not adopted into the family, but had been a true part of the family from the beginning.

Paul had not received circumcision in his thirteenth year, as Ishmaelites did, nor later in life, as many Gentiles did who converted to Judaism (e.g., Acts 16:3).  Not even Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, was circumcised the “eighth day,” but Paul was.

Paul was not a late convert to Judaism, but had been a Jew all his life.  He had come from a pious Jewish family, and had undoubtedly enjoyed encouragement in the “things of God” (religious training) from his parents all his life.

Second, Paul touted his social status as “of the people of Israel” (v. 5), or more exactly “of the race of Israel.”  This meant that in addition to not being a proselyte he couldn’t possibly be a child of proselytes.

Racially he was a pure-blooded Israelite.  Paul was a pure Jew by race and descent.

Israel and Israelite were inside terms by which Jews referred to their own nation.  Others might call them “Jews,” but only they called themselves “the children of Israel.”  Paul was a total insider.

Paul continues highlighting his social status by saying he was “of the tribe of Benjamin.”

The tribe of Benjamin was significant for several reasons:

  • Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.  Benjamin was the only son born in the Promised Land (cf. Genesis 35:16-18).
  • The tribe of Benjamin always held the post of honor in the army, a fact that gave rise to the battle cry, “Behind you, O Benjamin!” (Judges 5:14; Hosea 5:8).
  • And the tribe of Benjamin was the only tribe to remain faithful to Judah and the house of David after the death of Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 12:21). The tribe of Benjamin went into exile with the tribe of Judah and returned from exile with Judah to resettle Jerusalem (cf. Nehemiah 11:7-9, 31-36). Benjamin remained at the core of spirituality.
  • King Saul, Israel’s first king, was a Benjaminite (cf. 1 Samuel 9:1, 2). And the Apostle Paul’s given name was Saul (cf. Acts 7:58; 13:9).
  • It was also the tribe that had the city of Jerusalem within its boundaries (Judges 1:21).

Thus Paul’s heritage radiated insider pride.

J. S. Howson notes:

“How little was it imagined that, as Benjamin was the youngest and most honoured of the Patriarchs, so this … child of Benjamin [Paul] should be associated with the twelve servants of the Messiah of God, the last and most illustrious of the Apostles!”

A fourth aspect of Paul’s inherited pedigree is that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews.”  This likely means that Paul was brought up as a strict Jew and had pure-blood stock.  Henry Alford and John Eadie believed that Paul also meant that he was a pure-blooded Jew: that all of his ancestors were Jews.

Though Paul had been born outside the Holy Land in Tarsus, he was a “Hebrew,” and his parents were “Hebrews” before him.  “Hebrew of Hebrews” also indicates that he spoke Hebrew and Aramaic (cf. Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14).  Paul spoke Hebrew or Aramaic when so many Diaspora Jews knew only Greek, and he prayed and read the Scriptures in Hebrew (cf. Acts 6:1, 2).

Though Paul was born in Cilicia, his parents made sure that he had the best education in Jerusalem under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel (cf. Acts 26:4, 5; Galatians 1:14).  Paul was a private school insider.

It may be that Paul is also using “Hebrew of Hebrews” in similar fashion to “King of kings and Lord of lords,” indicating that Paul is the Hebrew par excellence, the highest of the Hebrews.

So these four expressions are advantages that Paul had received simply by the good fortune of his birth and upbringing, but there were also accomplishments he had achieved through sweat and hard work.

So we see that the apostle had impeccable credentials before he ever lifted a hand!  In effect, regarding prestige his upbringing was not unlike that of our New England blue bloods whose genealogies and education and position have been established facts for generations.

But Paul didn’t rest on his ancestry or name, as do so many of the privileged.  His track record was phenomenal, as we see in his trio of achievements.

Paul lists three things that were his by personal choice and conviction, all reasons why he might have confidence in the flesh more so than anyone else.

Paul first turns to the level of expertise he had achieved in the Torah.  “as to the law, a Pharisee.”

Now, we don’t think very highly of the Pharisee’s because they were consistently Jesus’ opponents throughout the Gospels and appeared to be persnickety, hard-hearted snobs.

However, in first century Israel, Pharisees were highly regarded.  These were the experts in the law, well respected for their knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures.  They were also very strict in obeying the Law.  The most ardent Pharisees scrupulously avoided even accidental violations of the Law and did more than they were commanded to do.  Most of the Jews regarded the Pharisees as being the very best Jews.

Pharisaism was a lay movement that had its beginnings when the Jews returned from exile.  The movement solidified during the Maccabean times, and by the first century the Pharisees were the most impressive and respected group in Israel.  According to Josephus they numbered about 6,000 —an elite denomination within Israel.

Pharisee means “separated one.” The Pharisees distanced themselves from unclean persons and ate only with observant Jews.

Paul’s ancestors were Pharisees, as he told the Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 23:6).  However, Paul’s Pharisaism was a matter of choice and deep conviction as he voluntarily bound himself to keep the hundreds of commandments of the oral law.

Paul, a son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6), and a disciple of the great Pharisee, Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3), chose to be a Pharisee himself and set himself to be the most earnest of the earnest observers of the Jewish Law (Gal 1:14).

“Pharisee’ for Paul was not a term of reproach, but a title of honor, a claim to ‘the highest degree of faithfulness and sincerity in the fulfilment [sic] of duty to God as prescribed by the divine Torah” (Beare).

But Paul was not only a Bible scholar and really good person, he was also zealous for his faith—“as for zeal, persecuting the church.”

As to religious commitment, Paul was no nominal person with mild interest and involvement or an ivory tower theologian with no connection to real life, but rather he was very zealous for his religion.  He was passionate, so passionate that he was involved in stamping out any other rival religion.

Christ followers posed the biggest threat to Judaism.  In the earliest phase it was made up entirely of Jews who had turned from Judaism to faith in Christ.

We see Paul (still Saul at this point), at the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7.  Then we read in Acts 8…

Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of his execution.  And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Paul orchestrated a terror campaign against the church and had achieved a growing infamy as a Pharisaic terrorist.  He saw himself as a latter-day Phinehas in his zeal for the Law (cf. Numbers 25:6-8) and was highly esteemed by his people for his actions.

Most significantly, Jesus’ opening words to Paul on the Damascus Road mentioned Paul’s persecutions (cf. Acts 9:4, 5; 22:7, 8; 26:14, 15). “Why are you persecuting me, Saul?”

John Walvoord notes:

“The implication is that the Judaizers who were persecuting him were weaklings in comparison to what Paul had done when he persecuted the church.

Paul’s observation that the Jews of his day have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2) had been true of his own life before God confronted him on the road to Damascus.

Finally, Paul points to his superior moral lifestyle, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

When it came to keeping the law, you could never point a finger at Paul.  He was “blameless.”  “Ten commandments?  No sweat!”

Like the rich young ruler, Paul could claim he had kept all the commandments from his youth up—and really mean it.  Of course, Paul would later realize that that was a very superficial view of the law, that in reality it goes deeper to the heart where none of us can claim innocence.

What an amazing accomplishment and claim.  Paul was a spiritual athlete in a category by himself. What focus the man must have had — what confidence — what self-possession — what discipline — what an iron will!

No living soul could gainsay Paul’s fourfold insider credentials. No one could excel his threefold performance.  His seven-fold superiority put him in a class of his own.

Paul’s claim, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” was no empty boast.

Listen well, anyone who still wants to claim moral superiority or who puts confidence in the flesh to try to please God.  Listen to what this spiritual superman has to say.

You see, all of these were good things.

But what we have to realize is that it can be good things that actually keep us from God.  When we believe we are good enough, we don’t need a Savior or his salvation.  Paul would have to “lose his religion, to gain his salvation.”

Warren Wiersbe said it like this:

“Like most ‘religious’ people today, Paul had enough morality to keep him out of trouble, but not enough righteousness to get him into heaven!  It was not bad things that kept Paul away from Jesus—it was good things! He had to lose his ‘religion’ to find salvation.

All of the fleshly things in which he formerly placed his confidence he had looked upon as his “assets.” He now sees that they were really liabilities, so far as salvation is concerned.

This is a huge thing to realize.  Paul is saying it is quite possible to do ALL of these things, and to LOSE it all, to have “Wasted” written across your life.

You can come from a great family, grow up going to church, have long passages of the Bible memorized, be vigorously involved in church ministries, in missions, in evangelizing the lost, have a spotless record legally and morally, and still come up with a BIG FAT ZERO!

Paul had competed and won every race.  Yet his victories did not really satisfy his heart or bring peace to his soul.

If this doesn’t count, what does?  One thing and one thing only.  What counts is having Jesus Christ.  He is the only trophy, the only treasure, that really counts and having Him is what makes my life and your life count.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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