Paul Does Not Trust His Flesh

Nathanael Winkler

In the first verses of chapter 3, Paul warns of false teachers who have come into the church. He calls them dogs, evildoers and such who cause division. Instead of edifying the church and leading people to Christ, they caused rifts. Paul warns of the legalism that the Judaizers promote. They preached that faith in Jesus alone is not enough, but that we have various tasks to fulfill; for instance, circumcision and keeping the feasts of the Lord. Paul says in verse 3 that we are the circumcision, which does not mean we have to be circumcised. We belong to God if His Spirit is in us and we serve Him. By “flesh,” Paul means everything that I have achieved through my own efforts, causing me to think I am better before God. Those who are in the Spirit do not boast of their works, but in Jesus Christ alone. We cannot earn grace through our own efforts. Jesus has already done everything for us.

In verse 4, Paul begins with a testimony concerning his conversion. He speaks of what he used to be, and from verse 8 on of what he has become. Paul states in verses 4-6 that he could be proud of many things: “Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more.” The false teachers wanted to bring confidence in the flesh to the church. For instance, they wanted the Gentiles who were converted to be circumcised. Paul answered the Judaizers and told them that he could trust in the flesh more than all the others.

In verse 7 Paul said, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” For Paul, everything he lists in verses 5 and 6 was counted as “loss.” In verse 8, he even calls it “dung.” If we look at this list, there are things we could admire. But all these things are nothing in comparison to what we have in Jesus Christ: the knowledge of Christ, the justice of God, the power of His resurrection, communion with His suffering, the hope to be with Him one day.

From the perspective of the flesh, Paul could be proud that he had been circumcised on the eighth day. Not all Jews kept this commandment. We can read this in old works, among others Flavius Josephus. There were many Jews who had adopted the Gentile way of life and were even ashamed of the act of circumcision. We know, for instance, that Timothy was not circumcised although he was of partial Jewish descent. Paul could say with pride, “I am circumcised.” He was circumcised on the eighth day, just as God had already commanded Abraham (Genesis 17:12). It was an outward sign of belonging to the people of Israel.

Paul was “of the stock of Israel” (Phil. 3:5). He did not come from any other nation; he was not Swiss, German or American. The people of Israel were the people to whom God gave the law and whom He chose. God also revealed Himself through the people of Israel. And yet in the end, Paul said that he counted his descent as loss and dung. Was his descent bad? Many Christians think they would like to be part of the people of Israel, and some begin to search their family tree. Where Christ is concerned, however, this is all nothing.

Paul had a family tree. He was able to say that he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. We must not forget that Paul did not grow up in Israel. He had grown up in exile (the Diaspora), probably until he was 12 years of age. Many Jews in the Diaspora did not know what their origin was or to what tribe they belonged.

Moreover, the tribe of Benjamin is something special. They were known as zealots and warriors. The first king of Israel, King Saul, came from this tribe. Jerusalem was located within the tribe of Benjamin’s domain. Which tribe remained faithful to the tribe of Judah? It was the tribe of Benjamin. Paul could therefore say with pride that he came from the tribe of Benjamin.

Why is this something special? We read in Acts 21:39-40, “But Paul said, I am a man, which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto this people. And when he had given him license, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spoke unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying…” What language did the Jews use at that time? Aramaic. Most of the Jews that lived in the land no longer spoke the Hebrew language. The few words that Jesus spoke on the cross were Aramaic. But here Paul spoke Hebrew. This event in the book of Acts probably amazed the people. Paul really could say that he was a Hebrew of the Hebrews.

Pharisee was a title and an important position in the society of that time. It was not easy to be a Pharisee. In Acts 22:3 we read, “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.” Already from his youth Paul had resided in Jerusalem. He was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel and learned the law there. Thus, we see how Paul had obtained his understanding of the law.

This also shows us the change that a born-again person has to experience. Let us be honest: could he not be proud of this? He was a Pharisee with all his heart. The Pharisees were a kind of cult within Judaism. They were those who took the law most seriously. The present Rabbinic Judaism comes from the Pharisees’ influence of that time.

Paul could testify, “If ever someone had zeal as a Jew, it was me.” We read in Acts 22:4-5: “And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.”

Paul had been zealous for Judaism, as it was understood by the Pharisees, and wanted to punish any who went in a different direction. As a Pharisee, Paul was without fault: he kept to all the multiple rules and regulations, and did whatever was required of him.

But in verse 7 Paul says: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.” Any Jew would say to Paul: “You would throw away your family, your career and your social position in order to belong to Jesus?” To Paul, what he gained through Jesus Christ was greater than all else.

I think that in verse 7 Paul describes what happened on the road to Damascus. In his Pharisaic zeal, he had planned to trap believing Jews and take them to Jerusalem. But on the way he meets our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 9). Paul suddenly sees himself for who he was. We read in Acts 9:5-9: “And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest… And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.”

Paul was blind for three days. During this time, he probably fully realized that it wasn’t his strength, his works or his achievements that would save him. He understood that Jesus wanted to save him. Because of his blindness, he had to be led by the hand to even find his way into the city. This circumstance was very humbling to Paul and helped to bring about his conversion. Everything Paul had achieved in his flesh, everything he had been proud of in his past was no longer of any value to him compared to what he had received through Jesus Christ. We should all think about our lives from this perspective. Paul let go of his career, his family and all of his friends. All of this Paul gave up for the sake of Christ.

What are you still holding on to? Are there things in your life that separate you from God? Perhaps it is your bank account. You have accumulated enough for some security, since no one knows what the future holds. Or you have achieved a certain social position, which sometimes requires a little sin and compromise, but you don’t want to give it up. There could be many other things that stand between you and God.

Christ wants all of you for Himself. Paul could sincerely testify that Christ had become everything to him, that nothing could come between them any longer. Has Christ grown to be all and everything to you? Can you say about your life that you consider your past as rubbish, because your eyes are fastened on only one goal: Jesus Christ?

Midnight Call - 04/2018

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