Leave It On The Dung Heap (Phil 3:1-11)

Updated: Aug 26




Today we’re in what may be the trickiest part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul is capable of writing material that will severely challenge us. He is certainly capable of setting a very high moral standard, urging us to live transformed lives! But he’s also capable of very deep and challenging thought. He dives into deep theological waters and asks us to join him there. And so, we try. But sometimes he goes down so deep and so fast that we lose sight of him. Paul was a brilliant writer, a zealous student of Scripture, and a relentless follower of Jesus. If you want to learn how to dive deep, hang out with Paul for a while. He’ll take you in way over your head, sometimes frustratingly so. Peter the apostle said this about Paul in 2Peter 3:16, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand…” Philippians 3:1-11, I think, is one of these “hard to understand” places.


Philippians 3:1–11 (NIV84)

3 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.

2 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If anyone else thinks he has 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 legalistic righteousness, faultless.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.


I’ve spent the week trying to unpack what Paul is saying here. Again and again, I’ve dove into the deep waters after Paul, straining to keep up with him. And I’ve spent a fair bit of time just trying to catch my breath. But he just keeps diving – and going deeper! “There’s some pearls down here – come have a look!” And so, in I go again; I get a bit of a glimpse at what’s there, but I can’t stay for long. Paul seems to be able to stay down there for a week at a time!


So, today, my challenge is to give you a few handfuls of what I found; something to encourage you; something to challenge you; and something that will keep you diving for treasure yourself. Philippians 3:1-11 is a difficult and challenging text but it’s well worth the effort. Life itself is frequently like that.


“But why does it have to be so difficult?”


“Life, or Paul’s letters?”


Life can be very difficult, can’t it? Our Psalm for this past week was Psalm 69. It starts with this line: “Save me O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths where there is no foothold.” That’s a difficult spot to be in; one slip away from going under.


Here’s what I think: When you write real letters of hope and encouragement from that place, from the place where life is exceedingly difficult, you will write exceedingly difficult letters. We should expect that a letter that is meant to speak to us in the depths of our greatest trials will profoundly challenge us.

Paul writes from prison, not from a seaside resort. He is not living a life of ease; his life is hanging in the balance. And he’s not writing to a church that’s experiencing life as a picnic either. The Philippian church is struggling; they’re under attack and they’re in real danger of fracturing. Paul, who first brought them the good news of Jesus, declaring him to be both Lord and Christ, is now locked up in prison.


“But I thought Jesus was Lord?”


The Philippian’s faith in the sovereignty of Jesus is being challenged by this circumstance. And it’s not just Paul’s circumstances that are challenging; the Philippians are in the midst of a great trial themselves.


“If Jesus is Lord, why this?? What happened to victory? If Jesus won, why are we losing? Why are the bad guys calling all the shots and making our lives miserable? I thought Jesus conquered evil.”


In that place, where our faith hangs in the balance the tempters whisper seems like a roar. “It’s all a lie!” he tells us. “There is no victory down the path of Jesus!!”


And now Paul, from prison writes to overthrow this lie. “Don’t forget who you are!” says Paul. “Don’t forget whose you are!” Our gospel is not a gospel about skipping from one mountain top experience to another! Our gospel was not birthed from a place of ease; it was born out of the deep waters of severe trial. And as a consequence, if there is ever a time when our gospel ought to speak directly to our circumstances it will be in the midst of our deepest trials. We were born for this, folks! We follow the crucified and risen Savior! And so, when our lives begin to look like his it’s not time to abandon ship! Our great trials are not a sign of defeat but of victory.


Folks, it is in the midst of very difficult circumstances where you discover what you really believe. The trials of life will tell you just how much you love the cross. Paul is urging the Philippians to not only love it, but to embrace it and sing about it! Our text begins on this note of celebration.


Philippians 3:1 (NIV84)

3 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!


This is not, “Finally… and now here are my closing remarks…” This is, “Summing it all up my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!”


 

This cruciform intersection is where Paul finds himself,

it’s the same intersection the Philippians find themselves at as well.

Perhaps this is the intersection you find yourself at.

 

Don’t forget where we’ve been in this letter already. The glorious Christ Hymn we find in 2:6-11 is foundational for the whole. And in that Hymn the story of Jesus is rehearsed. In that Hymn Jesus empties himself, lets go of all his heavenly privilege, takes on the form of humanity, and humbles himself in obedience to the point of death, even death on a cross. This cruciform intersection is where Paul finds himself, it’s the same intersection the Philippians find themselves at as well. Perhaps this is the intersection you find yourself at. The cross is the place in our lives when we find ourselves most vulnerable, where our obedience to our Father has landed us in the most unexpected place, a place where death overshadows us, where evil taunts us and where pain is very real. And it’s in that place where our will finds itself at war within us. This is our Garden of Gethsemane and Paul has a single word of encouragement for us in that place,


“Rejoice!”


“Rejoice?”


“Yes, rejoice! Don’t you see where you are? In your great trial you are identifying with the cross of Christ, and on the other side of the cross is resurrection!”


The Christ Hymn doesn’t end at the cross! The Christ Hymn ends with Jesus exalted and given the name above every other name – Lord/ YHWH! And now for the first time in the letter Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord!” This means “Rejoice in light of the fact that Jesus has achieved victory through the cross; that through the cross he has been declared Lord. And you are identified with him!”


Rejoice is a command here. When your life looks cruciform it’s time to celebrate! So get on with it! Brothers and sisters, Jesus has blazed the trail ahead of us and has taught us that victory is found through the cross. He has called us to come die with him, and so when death draws near, persevere! Paul is encouraging the Philippians to celebrate the gift they have been given. He’s been doing this since 1:29. “For it has been graciously given to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer on his behalf.”


Phil 1:29 is a simple text as far as vocabulary is concerned, isn’t it? You don’t need a university degree to read it; but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand! It’s difficult because it’s so profound!


“You mean, Paul, that I should look at my suffering through the lens of the cross of Christ? You mean that I should see my suffering as identified with his, and that therefore in light of how his story turned out I should rejoice in advance?”


“Yes!!!! That’s what I mean!”


“But that borders on insanity Paul!”


“I know, and that’s the glory of the gospel of the cross!”


A man beaten and crucified, a weak and vulnerable, humble and kind human being achieves victory through the horrors of a crucifixion! And we sing about that week after week don’t we? So, when our lives look cross shaped we ought to write a song to sing about that too! Rejoice in the name of the Lord! Rejoice in your trials because Lord Jesus is Sovereign!


This is how 3:1-11 opens, and it closes with Paul expressing his yearning to fully embrace this cross and resurrection shaped gospel. This is no accident.


Philippians 3:10–11 (NIV84)

10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.


One of the pearls I have returned to the surface with, in this dive with Paul, is that throughout the text this is the point he is driving towards. The difficult task of sorting through who the dogs, the evil workers, and the mutilators are can distract us from this point. Knowing who they are will assist us on the quest, but we haven’t got to where we’re going once we’ve figured that out.


 

Paul upstages them by insisting that the uncircumcised Gentile Philippians are “the circumcision"

 

The dogs, as I see it, are Jewish Christians who are harassing the Gentile believers in Jesus, insisting that they must first become Jewish before they qualify as legitimate Christians. Paul will have none of this and goes into full assault mode by calling these Jewish agitators “the mutilation”. They might normally be identified as “the circumcision party” but Paul pulls out all the stops, playing on the imagery of circumcision and identifies them instead as “the mutilation” – those who hack and cut with the knife! And at the very same time, Paul upstages them by insisting that the uncircumcised Gentile Philippians are “the circumcision”. This is thick with irony! “We,” in other words, “are the people of God, not they!” The waters are deep here as we seek to think with Paul, but the point of this whole section is not to understand this one detail. This detail is used by Paul to make his larger point – that knowing Christ outstrips all other pursuits. Paul is eager that the Philippians not be derailed on this one quest – “knowing Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”


The hot button issue in Paul’s day – an issue that surfaces again and again in his letters and takes center stage for a time in the book of Acts as well – is the issue of Gentile believers in Jesus. Do they have to first embrace the Jewish faith? Do they need to keep the Law of Moses? And all of that can be summed up in the language of circumcision. Do they have to be circumcised? This is not our hot button issue. We don’t have church splits over this. We’re all of Gentile background and as a rule don’t give this any thought.


“Of course, Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses to be faithful Christians!”


But this is a perspective we have inherited without ever having fought the war over it. We have our cliché answers to this question, but we haven’t been forced to think through it all like the early church did.


Here’s the issue: Just a few generations before Jesus’ arrival on the scene, Jewish believers died rather than profane the Sabbath. They died rather than refuse to circumcise their children. (I’m thinking of the circumstance of the Maccabean revolt.) And now the Jewish Messiah shows up and we’re going to abandon the Law of Moses, throwing it out on the dung heap, treating it as if it is of no value! And Paul says, “Exactly!”


How could Paul say that? Right here in the center of this section Paul takes all his former pride of Jewishness and dismisses it as skubala. That’s the Greek word he uses. It’s what you might step in in the cow pasture, what you might find in the dirtiest corners of the street; it’s filth, refuse. Peterson in The Message calls it ‘dog dung’. Paul takes all his former privileges, which he experienced as he sought to live out his life honorably as a faithful Jew under the Law of Moses… he takes all of that and throws it on the dung heap. What????

Listen church, we will grossly misunderstand Paul’s point if we hear him saying in these words that the whole system of the Law of Moses was a colossal disaster from the start and now in Jesus we have a better system. We will be derailed from Paul’s argument if we don’t see, as he did, that the Law of Moses was good and holy and just (Romans 7:12). Paul would not say that Jews before Jesus were fools for dying rather than disobeying the Law of Moses. We must see the Law as something good and God given with the express purpose to bless the people of Israel if we’re to embrace Paul’s larger argument.

 

Paul’s point is not, “I used to believe in legalism

– a system where I earned my salvation with God,

but now I don’t believe that anymore.”

 

Paul’s point is not, “I used to believe in legalism – a system where I earned my salvation with God, but now I don’t believe that anymore.” The NIV84’s translation of verse 6 is unfortunate and unhelpful because it plays into this idea, “as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” We tend to hear that as if the former Paul believed in some kind of a “works righteousness” system where he tried to earn his salvation by law keeping. That’s a mistake. The point is that Paul is talking about how a faithful Jew sought to live his life in obedience to God under the Law. And any Jew who knew anything, knew that they didn’t earn their way out of Egypt, it was a gift from the Lord. The Law was given to a saved people as a way to live in light of their rescue and redemption from the slavery of Egypt. And Paul tells us what that looked like in his life in verses 5 and 6.


Philippians 3:5–6 (NIV84)

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 legalistic righteousness (which is better translated ‘righteousness in the law’), faultless.


In other words, Paul is saying that he lived out his former life faithfully and zealously as a Jew, in obedience to the covenant made with God at Sinai. He is not claiming that he never sinned. He is claiming that he lived his life in holy obedience to the Mosaic covenant. But now Paul throws that all on the trash heap!


We must hear Paul as saying that he has thrown what was a profound and glorious privilege on the trash heap. Why would he do that? Verse 8, “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus!” Paul is not saying, “That Jewish system was an evil, legalistic, earn-your-own-salvation system in comparison to the Christian system that is based on grace.” He is saying that there was a way of living that honored God in light of his glorious rescue of Israel out of Egyptian bondage (that way was the Law), but now there has been a much grander and more glorious rescue operation by God – that which has been accomplished in and through Jesus Christ. And in light of that rescue, and the life we are called to live in response to that rescue, the former life which we, as Jews, were called to at Sinai is fit for the dung heap. And that, my brothers and sisters, is an astounding thing for a Jew, like Paul, to say!!


Therefore, the point of Paul’s rhetoric about ‘the Law’ versus what is found ‘in Christ’ (vs 9) is that once you see this, you will freely leave all your former privileges in the gutter as you run after Christ.


Turning the Law into an evil system of works righteousness turns Paul’s argument on its head. No, it was a glorious privilege to keep the Law; it was the perfect and God given response for Israel to embrace in light of her deliverance from Pharaoh – the Exodus. But in light of the much grander, complete-human-family-Exodus accomplished at the cross of Christ through the overthrow of Evil itself, Sinai, and the Law given there, is nothing in comparison.


We will not live as if the cross of Christ did not accomplish this glorious redemption! No, we will live our lives in faithful response to the cross of Christ. This will define everything about us, we will take our marching orders from the cross; our lives will be shaped by the cross through and through. With all of our effort we will embrace our salvation. And what that means is what we find in verses 10-11.


Philippians 3:10–11 (NIV84)

10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.


In the Greek verse 10 is not a new sentence. In fact, it is one long sentence from verse 8 down through verse 11. Paul is saying, “Whatever my former privileges were ‘in the Law’ I consider them loss now in light of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. In fact, I count everything as loss in light of knowing Jesus. For his sake I’ve lost it all, thrown it on the dung heap of life so that I might gain Christ and be found ‘in him’, not having my way of life defined by ‘the Law’ but by the faithfulness of Christ, by God’s rescue operation in Jesus that I embrace by faith, so that I might fully know Christ and the power of his resurrection, the sharing in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, striving in every way to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

 

Paul’s point is that we not let anything derail us from knowing Christ.

 

And that ought to take us back to the beginning of this section – “Rejoice in the Lord!” Paul’s point is that we not let anything derail us from knowing Christ. And knowing Christ is not merely about knowing some facts about Jesus, it is about embracing his life as our own. It’s about embracing the cross in the hope of resurrection. It’s about dying in order to find life. It’s the upside down, counter intuitive way of life that leaves the world shaking their head at us – a people who sing when they should be crying.


Brothers and sisters, “Beware of the dogs!” Our dogs are not the same as those Paul was talking about. The dogs that threaten to undo us are the things that are not necessarily evil in and of themselves. They are former privileges, old ways of doing life, old ways of existing and being that may have had their place in our life before Christ but now they just get in the way. Cast off your old ways of doing life; I don’t care how glorious they were or how well they served you; leave them behind; throw them on the dung heap and give your all to knowing Christ.


The Philippians knew privilege as Roman citizens. It gave them a certain status – and a certain posture towards life. As Roman citizens Caesar was the hero, the savior, the one you turned to in times of great trial. Paul is “tongue in cheek” telling the Gentile believers to throw that privilege on the dung heap. That’s not who you are any more!


We need to do the same, brothers and sisters. There is a way to do life that is perfectly acceptable in our society, but that “perfectly acceptable” way of doing life will only get in the way once you give your allegiance to Jesus. “Throw it on the dung heap!”

Do that, brothers and sisters, and you’ll find yourself singing, like Paul, in the strangest of circumstances, your life utterly redefined by the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.






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