Paul spends much of the early part of Philippians chapter three detailing the externals that will never lead us to salvation. He then calls attention to his own earthly, cultural, fleshly qualifications for holiness and salvation: circumcised in accordance with the Law; born of the tribe of Benjamin (the tribe of the first king of Israel AND the only tribe to remain faithful to the house of David when the kingdom split); offspring of a non-mixed marriage (no-half Jews); a member of the most strict sect of orthodox Jews; dedicated more than others to the Jewish faith, even to the point of persecuting the church.
Permit me to paraphrase the peripatetic Paul:
“Salvation? Holiness? If we must use the traditional measures and achievement, then I qualify easily. I hail from the right country and can trace my lineage back through a particularly famous family tree. I speak the proper language as my mother tongue and speak it among the right people. We remain, after all, the only Chosen People in the world. Within my faith, I am part of the right denomination and obey both the Scriptures and the extra-biblical stuff our leaders place on us. People don’t come any more well-prepared for salvation than I.”
Then he launches into the well-known “I consider all these things to be garbage.” In comparison to knowing Christ, everything is a loss. Everything is manure (some translations say “dung). Compared to salvation, his qualifications become rags and rotten vegetables. Regardless of the glories and joys he has received, everything pales in comparison to the honor of knowing Christ. However, he adds something subtle in verses 8-9.
“I have lost all those things (qualifications), and now I know they are worthless trash. This allows me to have Christ and to belong to him…” The very philosophy of trash-worthiness gives Paul access to Christ. The apostle does not simply believe, “I’ve compared earthly spiritual achievements to knowing Christ, and knowing Christ is better.” No, Paul says that his attitude towards earthly things (“Toss that rubbish!”) forms an integral portion what gives him access to Christ. Without this perspective, Paul could not have had Christ and belonged to Him.
Interestingly, Paul’s inadequate qualifications for eternal life rested heavily on his Jewish identity. Circumcision and the Law (moral, civil, ceremonial). Genetic purity and language abilities. National and tribal citizenship. Sure, an aspect of spirituality wove its way through Paul’s nationalism, but the link between Jewish nationalism and spiritualism birthed that particular quirk.
Fascinatingly, for matters of salvation Paul’s national and spiritual identity served as mere offal. Consider this again – for matters of spiritual import, the greatest writing, traveling, preaching missionary in church history considered his own national and spiritual identity to be as useful as a bucket of yesterday’s fish. Jewish identity included more than limitless buffets, Walmart, standing during the national anthem, and singing songs to the flag on Yom Kippur. Dietary rules and dictates on hairstyles abounded. Genetic cleanliness mattered. Entering the wrong houses and eating with bad folks remained off-limits. Peruse the Old Testament for a more complete listing, but Paul said, “These things that are a part of my very national and spiritual identity are spiritual trash and I must treat them as such if I wish to know Christ.”
The lesson I believe we should take away from this, though, is that no one – not Paul, not the Jews, not the circumcised, not the Baptists, neither the old nor the young, not ethnic groups, not Calvinists, not Traditionalists, not the King James Version users, not men, not women, not the rich nor the poor – has an inside line to God based on those characteristics. No one. There is an active non-existence of any trait or quirk that certifies any human being as being more ready than another for entrance into the kingdom of God. What’s more, the characteristics we hold most dear must occupy a place on the midden heap if we crave passage through the pearly gates.
In light of the recent events in the social/sporting world in the US, this lesson seems timely. Since a Christian view of the world is what we are called to have, any attempt to claim that one group occupies a place of supremacy over another in the eyes of God flies in the face of what Paul is saying here. “I have lost all those things, and now I know they are worthless trash. This allows me to have Christ and to belong to him…” In spiritual matters, these things are dung. Manure. Offal. Biological waste products.
The implications extend deep into our lives. Ethnocentric approaches to missions are out. Racism must die a humiliating death; ditto for all forms of sexism. Using pulpits and preaching points for celebrations of national heritage should go. Denominational snobbery needs to find a place to retire. You folks are smart, so fill in the blanks yourselves.