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A Radical Conversion
If Jesus retold the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, who would be the characters today? The Pharisee could be a student at the classical Christian school or a successful business man or a very industrious housewife––the defining trait is someone who trusts in their own righteousness. The apostle Paul fit the description of parable’s Pharisee and he had quite a bit that he could put his trust in––his parents, his history, his education, his career success, his spiritual zeal. Paul summed up all of this as “my own righteousness” (Phil. 3:9).Then Paul had a radical conversion, but not the kind of conversion we often think of. Paul was saved from his own righteousness. In Philippians 3, Paul tells about the great discovery that he can and must abandon all his self-righteousness because he gained that which is so much more excellent and valuable in Christ Jesus––who saves him from his self-righteousness.
Beware of Confidence in the Flesh (Phil. 1:1-3)
Paul sets the context of the whole discussion in Philippians 3:1, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe.” What will prevent Christians rejoicing in the Lord? The very real danger of your righteousness. And so in verse 2 Paul warns, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!” Paul is warning about Judaizers––Jewish Christians who accepted Jesus as the Christ but then required that the way to follow Christ was to obey the Jewish ceremonial law. Judaizers would say, “Alright Gentiles, if you want to be a Christian, then you must become a Jew and keep all the Jewish Law. And first up, circumcision.” They make salvation dependent on Christ plus some of your work. Christ pluscircumcision. Christ plusthe Law. Christ plusthis work of the flesh. But this is anti-gospel, a perversion of the gospel. Salvation is Christ plus nothing. (Gal. 2:16).
Confidence in the Flesh (vs. 4-6)
Paul knows all about having confidence in the flesh. Paul’s been there, done, that, and got the “confidence in the flesh” tee-shirt. And so he goes on a confidence in the flesh rant in verses 4-6, “We have no confidence in the flesh, thoughI also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so…” Paul had an armful of accomplishments and accolades and privileges he could hold up and show off. Paul is like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son or, alternatively titled, “The Parable of the Self-Righteous Son––who didn’t enjoy any of his dad’s gifts and his brothers celebration because his arms were so full of his own self-righteousness, and he had a bad attitude.”
Lose Everything to Gain Christ (vs. 7-11)
What does Paul do with all of this confidence in the flesh? Verse 7, “But what things were gain for me, these things I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (vs. 7-8). All the gain that he had––benefits of his birth, privileges from his parents, his promising career as a Pharisee––he counts them as loss. Why? Because he has found something so much more extremely valuable––the supremacy, the excellency of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. In comparison to Christ and his perfect righteousness, everything once prized and privileged seems a cheap imitation. It like realizing you prized soccer trophy from the U-6 season is not real gold but spray painted plastic––worthless.
But for Paul, these old confidences are not merely shown be be worthless compared to Christ, they are now revoltingto him. He scoops up all his old confidence, walks outside and throws them in hedog-do garbage can. Paul came to understand that his self-righteousness has no profit and zero ability to actually make him righteous before God. So his aim is “That I may knowHim and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (vs. 10-11)
Joy of Losing All Self-Righteousness
What does this passage mean for us? How do we apply it? Consider who you are if Jesus told a parable. Are you the self-righteous Pharisee? Are you the tax collector who really was sinful? The sullen older brother? Or the rebellious younger brother? All of these have different stories but the same need––Christ and his righteousness. Paul has discovered the great joy of losing all his attempts at self-righteousness because he has gained Christ. This is really good news. Your response should be what Paul told us to do at the beginning––Rejoice in the Lord. There’s really relief and joy in discovering you can lose and must lose all self-righteousness––because Jesus is your righteousness.
But what is the alternative? Rejoice in yourself. From my experience, there’s not much joy in self-righteousness. If anything, self-righteousness is a cruel master. Either you will be arrogant or you will despair. Arrogant like the Pharisee who prayed aloud “thank God that I’m so much better than all of these other sinners.” Or you despair under such a crushing burden of righteousness that you can never achieve.
So what should you do if you are the Pharisee or the older brother? Humble yourself like that tax collector and pray “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Return to your Father like the young son. And rejoice that Jesus is your righteousness.