27 March 2015

Philippians 3:4b-14

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (vv. 7-8)

Psalm: Psalm 132


It is difficult for me to read this passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians without thinking of the great Isaac Watts hymn, 'When I survey the wondrous cross':

When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died,
my richest gains I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride.

Hymns often evoke emotion as they set biblical texts to music. In some respects the English translation of Paul's Greek restrains the depth of the emotion and the urgency in both his words and the way he frames them. It is likely that Paul wrote this letter while under house arrest in Rome. In the third chapter he reflects on all that he lost or surrendered for a share in the suffering and resurrection of Christ.

The Philippian congregation resulted from Paul's first missionary endeavours in Europe. The majority of the people in the Philippian church were likely from a gentile, rather than Jewish, background. Such an assumption fits with the history of the city in Macedonia, north of Greece. Macedonia was a province of the Roman Empire. In the half century before Christ's birth, the Roman Emperor gave the city special legal status that privileged its citizens with many of the rights of Roman citizens. It was on the main route that brought together travelers from the west and the east. The Philippians had a variety of religious options, Roman imperial worship, Roman gods, Judaism, and a host of other religions, from which to choose.

Scholars suspect that Jewish missionaries visited the Philippian congregation in Paul's absence. These missionaries conveyed the message that circumcision and the practice of Jewish purity laws were necessary. Their preaching caused confusion among the small Christian congregation. Paul discusses his own achievements in light of his Jewish heritage, but then emphasises his loss or voluntary surrender of all things in light of his encounter with Christ. Paul writes, "For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." The wording here indicates that the "loss" is real. The imprisoned Paul has genuinely lost or surrendered what he had previously worked hard to obtain. The English word "rubbish" does not convey the sharpness of Paul's language. He views his accomplishments as having the value of excrement, rotten food, or filth.

Paul, who is no stranger to suffering, discusses his goal of sharing in the suffering of Christ. Although he is willing to face physical suffering, that is not quite what the text means when Paul writes in verses 10-11: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead". Instead, Paul is reiterating his belief that Christians are, through faith, drawn into the events of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Paul is claiming his share in Christ's suffering and all the implications that has for his present life.

To Ponder

  • What is distinctive about the 'good news' of Christianity in a society where one has so much religious choice, including rejection of religious beliefs?
  • To what extent do you think about faith as 'sharing in Christ's suffering'? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.