Paul encouraged his Philippian brothers to “rejoice in the Lord.” This would be a joy resulting from their being at one with the Son of God as their Lord who loved them and continued to be their helper. (3:1)
Although the apostle wrote to the Philippians the same things he likely had mentioned while with them, this did not trouble him. He regarded the reminders as a safeguard for his beloved fellow believers, especially as there were those who were bent on undermining their faith. (3:1)
Paul urged the Philippians to watch out for the “dogs,” “workers of evil,” and the “mutilation.” As a term of contempt, “dogs” would have been descriptive of persons who acted like filthy, ferocious, promiscuous, wild scavenger dogs. “Workers of evil” could include those who were morally corrupt or who through false teaching harmed others. Those whom the apostle linked to “mutilation” apparently insisted on circumcision as being needful for salvation and perverted the truth of the evangel, which revealed faith in God’s Son to be the basis for an approved standing with God. Their wrong view of circumcision made it nothing more than an act of mutilation. (Compare Galatians 5:7-12; 6:12-16.) It may be that Paul referred to the same group of false teachers as “dogs,” “workers of evil,” and the “mutilation.” If so, he applied to them the very term of contempt (“dogs”) they used when speaking of uncircumcised persons. (3:2)
Circumcision had significance when it served as a sign of the covenant relationship with God the true Israelite enjoyed. Otherwise, it did not count with the Most High. (Compare Jeremiah 9:24, 25) On the other hand, disciples of God’s beloved Son enjoyed an approved relationship with his Father. Therefore, as Paul wrote, “we are of the circumcision” (God’s approved people who had been inwardly transformed to reflect the reality of which circumcision was but an outward sign in the flesh). In the case of Christ’s disciples, the spirit directs or guides their service to God, their boasting or taking pride is “in Christ Jesus” (being at one with him as their head), and they do not rely on the flesh or any fleshly distinction setting them apart from others. (3:3)
Paul, however, did have a basis for confidence or reliance on the flesh or fleshly distinction and, in fact, much more so than others who thought they could rely on the flesh. He was not a proselyte but had been circumcised on the eighth day (as the law directed). He belonged to the people of Israel and was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. This made him a descendant of the only son of Jacob born in the land of Israel and a member of the tribe that provided Israel’s first king, and the only tribe that remained loyal to Judah and the royal line of David. Both his parents were Hebrews, he being a “Hebrew from Hebrews.” As to the law, he lived the life of a Pharisee, the “strictest sect” of Judaism. (Acts 26:5) As to zeal for Judaism and the cherished traditions, he persecuted the church or congregation of Christ’s disciples, for he blindly considered them to be in opposition to what he valued as a Pharisee. (Compare Acts 26:9-11; Galatians 1:13, 14; 1 Timothy 1:13.) From the standpoint of righteousness associated with the law, Paul lived the life of an exemplary Jew, proving himself to be blameless. (3:4-6)
At one time, he had regarded his privileges and distinctions as “gains” and trusted in his own efforts to attain a righteous standing before God. These “gains,” however, he came to consider as “loss” because of Christ. Nothing in which he formerly took pride had brought him closer to Christ but had hindered him from attaining the inestimable honor of belonging to Christ, and that was a great loss. To the apostle, the most precious possession was knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, having an intimate relationship with him. Paul regarded as loss everything that diverted the focus from the superior value of knowing God’s Son. To gain Christ, he considered as “refuse” or “garbage” everything he had lost but had once highly valued. Paul ardently desired to be found in Christ, inseparably attached to him as a member of his body, and in possession of the righteousness based on faith in Christ and granted by God on the basis of this faith. He did not want his own righteousness dependent upon observing the law, as he knew that flawless keeping of the law was an impossibility for him as a sinful human. (3:7-9; compare Galatians 2:15, 16.)
Paul wanted to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” In this context, the apostle’s knowing Christ appears to mean more than just enjoying an approved relationship with him. It involves actually sharing in what the Son of God experienced. The power of Christ’s resurrection could signify Paul’s experiencing the same kind of resurrection as did Christ Jesus or the working of the same power within him that was involved in Jesus’ being raised from the dead. (Compare Ephesians 1:18-20.) Part of his “knowing” Christ would be through “sharing in his sufferings,” being submitted to the same kind of sufferings Christ experienced from the world alienated from God. Jesus Christ finished his earthly course in faithfulness to his Father, and Paul wanted his own death to be like Christ’s, so that he might attain to the resurrection of the dead. (3:10, 11)
Paul did not identify what he had not as yet received, but the context shows that he was referring to the object of his faith and hope or to being with Christ and enjoying life in the state of absolute sinlessness. The apostle had not as yet been perfected, as the righteousness he possessed on the basis of faith in Christ had been reckoned or imputed to him. The state of flawlessly reflecting the image of God in attitude, word, and deed would prove to be a future possession. In his defense before Agrippa, Paul indicated that Christ had laid hold of him when on his way to Damascus and stated his purpose for doing so as being to “serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me [or, according to other ancient manuscripts, the things that you have seen] and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles — to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:16, 17, NRSV) Ultimately, Christ’s taking hold of Paul was for the purpose of his being united with him in glory. (3:12)
In response to Christ’s having taken hold of him, Paul began his “race,” finally to be united with Christ in the heavens. Like a runner, the apostle did not consider himself as having attained the final goal. He did not rely on past privileges and attainments, becoming complacent. Instead of looking to the past, he forgot about what lay behind him and looked ahead to the future, continuing to exert himself with all the strength he could muster and with his eyes focused on the prize. Single-mindedly, he pursued his course for the “prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” God in Christ or through his Son had directed the call to Paul to participate in the heavenly inheritance or all the joys and blessings to be shared in association with his Son. (3:13, 14)
In the case of those who had attained the level of maturity as disciples of God’s Son that he had, the apostle admonished them to be of the same mind about diligently pursuing the prize of the “upward call of God in Christ.” Regarding all who had not as yet come to have this attitude and thought differently in certain respects, the apostle confidently expressed that God would reveal to them the right way of thinking. In the case of all, Paul encouraged them to conduct themselves in harmony with the advancement they had made, not falling short of their individual level of progress. (3:15, 16) He had set an example worthy of imitation and, therefore, could encourage his beloved Philippian brothers to join in imitating him and to take note of others whose walk or conduct corresponded to his. (3:17)
Sadly, not all whom the apostle knew continued to walk or conduct themselves in a divinely approved manner. Many of whom he had often spoken in the past he “now” spoke of accompanied by weeping, for they were walking or conducting themselves as enemies of the very purpose for which Christ had died a shameful death. Christ’s death provided the basis for forgiveness of sins to those who accepted it in faith, a faith that would be evident from their ceasing to live a life of sin. Those whom Paul mentioned with tears, however, disowned the Son of God through their corrupt way of life. Their end would be destruction or ruin. This would mean losing out on all the joys and blessings associated with being loyal disciples of God’s Son. Their god proved to be their “belly” or their corrupt fleshly desire, as they gave in to their craving in full submission as if it were a god. They should have been ashamed of themselves and their course of life, but they gloried in or boasted about their wayward way as if it had been honorable. Their minds were focused on earthly things or the activities of persons alienated from God and to whom his “upward call” was completely foreign and unknown. (3:18, 19)
For disciples of God’s Son, it would be inconsistent with their hope to focus primarily on things that are earthly, perishable, or transitory. As possessors of heavenly citizenship, their home is a heavenly one, and it is from the heavens that they eagerly await the glorious return of their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will refashion the “body of lowliness” or the corruptible, mortal body marred by sin to be like his glorious, sinless, incorruptible, immortal body. Believers can be confident of this, for the Son of God has the power to subject everything to himself. (3:20, 21)
In 3:3, the oldest extant Greek manuscript (P46) reads “in spirit serve,” whereas later manuscripts read either “in [the] spirit of God serve” or “in [the] spirit serve God.”
In 3:8, the Greek word (skybalon) for “refuse” or “garbage” is plural. It is a crass expression that can apply to manure, excrement, or any type of refuse or garbage.
In 3:11, the Greek word for resurrection is exanástasis, not anástasis, as in the previous verse. Possibly the prefix is to be understood as indicating that the individual is raised up “out” from among the dead and thus is brought to a fullness of life, whereas the word without the prefix focuses on being raised up from lying prone in death.
In 3:17, the change from first person singular (“me”) to first person plural (“us”) may indicate that Paul was including his loyal companions. There is also a possibility that he simply switched to the editorial first person plural pronoun.