Desperate Joy in Philippians 3:1-16
Thus far in his epistle to the Philippians, Paul has modeled joy for his audience by his greeting, thanksgiving, and prayer (1:1-11), by his reaction to preachers with poor motives (1:12-18), and by his tranquility in the face of death (1:19-26). He has instructed the Philippians to be joyfully united (1:27-30) and to be joyfully humble (2:1-11). He has told them to rejoice as they “work out” their salvation (2:12-18) not only because Timothy is coming to them soon (2:19-24) but also because Epaphroditus (2:25-30) is delivering this letter to them, and in it Paul commands them to do so (2:18). Joy has thus pervaded Philippians, first in the example of Paul (1:1-26) and then in Paul’s commands to the Philippians (1:27-2:30). This final section of Philippians (3:1-4:23) maintains the theme of joy by describing various attributes and practical expressions of joy.
The first subsection in these last two chapters of Philippians runs from 3:1-16. We may outline these verses as follows:
- Desperate joy is on guard against deception (vv. 1-2).
- Desperate joy counts all things as rubbish in comparison to Christ (vv. 3-11).
- Desperate joy strains forward toward the goal of heaven (vv. 12-16).
Desperate Joy and the False Teachers’ Deception
Christians who have desperate joy are on guard against deception from false teachers (vv. 1-2). Paul commands the Philippians in v. 1 to “rejoice in the Lord”: that is the central command not only of these verses but of Philippians as a whole. And this joy is “safe for you,” the Philippians and us. This begs the question: How is joy in the Lord safe? What does joy in the Lord keep us safe from? Joy in the Lord keeps us safe from “dogs,” “evildoers,” “those who mutilate the flesh.”
True joy is desperate: it desperately guards against the deception of false teachers. They are false teachers because what they teach is false. In these verses, Paul specifically has in mind false teachers who insisted that people must keep parts of the Mosaic law in addition to believing in Christ in order to be saved. They “mutilate the flesh” by forcing circumcision on Gentiles who had not been circumcised in accordance with the Old Testament law concerning circumcision. And Paul says to watch out for these people!
We don’t see people today who say you have to be circumcised in order to be saved, but we do still see people who argue that we must do something in order to be saved. We must go to church, we must walk an aisle, we must pray a prayer, we must give X amount to the poor, we must read X amount of the Bible each day, etc. And if we do enough of these things to outweigh the bad things we do, we’ll go to heaven! … Or so these false teachers’ argument goes. But these are our modern day flesh-mutilators. And if we are to rejoice in the Lord, we cannot rejoice in our own capacity for “good works.” Desperate joy desperately guards against the deception of false teachers.
Desperate Joy and Christ’s Supremacy
But Paul does not only tell us what do to (look out for the dogs) but why we should do so: “we are the circumcision” (v. 3). By trusting in circumcision to save them, the false teachers were under condemnation; but by trusting Christ to save, believers are made the true circumcision and given eternal salvation! And notice how Paul describes believers, who “are the circumcision”: they
- “worship by the Spirit of God and
- glory in Christ Jesus and
- put no confidence in the flesh.”
“This is what joy in the Lord looks like!” Paul is saying. He’s saying that joy in the Lord is desperate: it worships by the empowering of the Holy Spirit; it glories in Christ Jesus; and it puts no confidence in the flesh. In other words, Christians who have desperate joy long for Christ above all else.
Paul demonstrates this by his own example in verses 4-11. Paul could claim confidence in the flesh more than “anyone else,” even the false teachers (v. 4). Paul was
- “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;
- as to zeal, a persecutor of the church;
- as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (vv. 5-6).
But Paul did not boast in these things, nor did he trust these things to save him, as the false teachers did. Rather, Paul “counted as loss for the sake of Christ” all these things he has listed in addition to “whatever gain [he] had” (v. 7). He did this at the moment of his conversion. When Paul trusted Christ to save him, he counted all these seemingly good things as loss for Christ’s sake. But this attitude continues in Paul: he continues to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 8). Although he has “suffered the loss of all things,” he “count[s] them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 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” (vv. 8-9). Silva’s comment on Paul’s word choice of “rubbish” is excellent: “a specific reference to excrement is not uncommon and the KJV rendering ‘dung’ is both appropriate and probable” (157). Paul’s joy is desperate joy: it longs for Christ so desperately that all other things–even the best earthly achievements–are dung in comparison.
And Paul is kind enough to give us the reason why he is so desperately enthralled by Christ: Paul wants to “know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection”; Paul even goes so far as to say that he wants to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (v. 10). These are extreme words from an extreme man for an extreme reason: “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (v. 11). Paul desperately longs for Christ. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1). That is Paul’s confession; is it ours?
Desperate joy desperately longs for Christ. Paul exemplifies this truth for us. Are we rejoicing in the Lord, desperately longing to know him–not only in the power of his resurrection but also in the suffering and death that inevitably precede it? Desperate joy desperately longs for Christ and esteems him above all else.
Desperate Joy and Your Actions
In both Philippians 3:17 and 4:9, Paul commands his readers to follow his example. So as we examine Paul’s actions in verses 12-16, we can apply Paul’s actions to ourselves. In verses 12-16, we see that desperate joy desperately strives toward heaven.
In verse 12, Paul insists that he has not “already obtained this,” referring to the resurrection from the dead that he had mentioned in verse 11. He insists that he is not “already perfect.” Since Paul has not yet reached perfection (and won’t until he dies and goes to heaven), he “presses on” to make the resurrection his own “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ’s saving grace motivates Paul’s active, obedient desperate joy. Paul “forget[s] what lies behind and strain[s] forward to what lies ahead” (v. 13). Paul is pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). And this attitude/action of Paul applies to us today: “Let those of us who are mature think this way” (v. 15). And again, it’s all by God’s grace: “if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” In short, our responsibility as Christians who desperately rejoice in the Lord is to “hold true to what we have attained” (v. 16).
Are we, like Paul, consumed by this joy that desperately strains toward heaven? Are we growing in holiness “because Christ Jesus has [already!] made [us] his own,” or are we just going through the motions of uninvolved church attendance, insincere prayer, and reading the Bible just to be reading it? Is our joy desperate? Do we desperately guard against being deceived by false teachers? Do we desperately prize Christ above all else? Do we desperately persevere toward the goal of heaven? May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with our spirit (Phil. 4:23) so that we will have this desperate joy that his Holy Spirit commands through Paul in these verses.