Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

Philippians 3:3-6 Devotional

Philippians 3:3-6 Devotional

Philippians 3:3-6. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put 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; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Reflection. It would be very easy to make this devotional about justification by faith alone (see these posts on Romans and Galatians). After all, Paul refers to both “confidence in the flesh” (3:3, 4) and “righteousness based on the law” (3:6). However, Paul concludes that he had no righteousness of his own through the law but “the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” in Christ (3:9). It would be unfortunate to miss this great truth—one of the jewels of the Reformation. On the other hand, it would be equally regrettable to force this chapter of Philippians into the faith versus works distinction (see 2:12-13). Such an approach would miss other important details.

For starters, Paul hints at the historical context in his odd claim, “it is we who are the circumcision” (3:3). As we saw last week, Philippians was written to safeguard Christian joy (3:1), protecting the believers from certain “mutilators of the flesh” (3:2). Thus I offered the tentative conclusion that Paul was aware of false teaching or practise that threatened the Philippians’ faith. This group of false teachers has been labelled the ‘circumcision party’—would you vote for them? Anyway. They seemed to be advocating for either circumcision of Gentile converts or more broadly placing all Christian believers under the full weight of Jewish, Old Testament law.

This is why Paul emphasises confidence in the flesh together with his own circumcision, Israelite heritage or ethnicity, law keeping, and the prized designation of Pharisee (3:5). He also zealously previously persecuted Christians, which he saw as commensurate with righteousness and not incompatible with the law (3:6). Even though Paul is using this CV to set up a contrast with faith (3:7-9), we should not skip over his odd description of believers.

After calling Christians the “circumcision,” Paul goes on, “it is we…who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh (3:3). Thus while Paul is making little of all confidence birthed from the flesh - which ranges from ethnicity to ethics - he is positively portraying true Christian faith. In other words, faith is not simply the empty handed trust in Christ but extends to service of God by the Spirit. This will not surprise anyone who’s been following these devotionals or reading Philippians. For selfless service, in many ways, sums up the epistle. But what might it mean to “boast in Christ Jesus” (similarly 1:26; 2:16)?

We might say a few things, which you can to tease out further. Boasting cannot mean pride. Simply consider what we read either side of 3:3, service of others and having no confidence in oneself. Boasting in Christ therefore excludes bragging about your accomplishments, accolades and achievements. Rather, it makes much of Christ. Paradoxically then, proper Christian boasting involves humility.

Of course, that is far easier said than done. Pride is typically deep rooted and elusive. Perhaps this explains Paul’s seemingly excessive list of credentials (3:5-6). He had more than most to fuel proud boasts. Many people would have coveted his ancestry, upbringing, religious fervour and success. But Paul’s boast was Christ Jesus. Is he yours? I know that I am regularly tempted to ‘supplement’ Christ with my own human triumphs and strengths. When I halfheartedly boast in Christ I do two things: firstly, I reveal my insecurity in Christ; secondly, I subtly try to make more of myself and my own “reasons” for confidence in the flesh.

Finally, the ‘humble brag’ can be heard in many conversations and seen pasted all over social media. This 21st century phrase describes self-deprecating statements designed to draw attention to something the speaker is actually proud about. For example: the woman who repeatedly remarks about her figure or weight despite possessing a body that could make it onto the cover of Women’s Health. But that isn’t what Paul is doing. Here is evidence of someone who genuinely boasts in Christ—and therefore nothing else. To boast in Christ surely means thinking little of all our achievements and making little of them too. The person who boasts in Christ proudly belongs to him. They find their identity and purpose in Christ. Thus they do not fear failing to succeed in the eyes of the world.

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