Philippians 3:12-21


In 3:1-11 Paul had warned his hearers about the enemies of the Gospel, especially those who trusted in the flesh. He admits that he was one of their number at one time, one who could boast of more fleshly prerogatives than anyone else. But when he became a Christian, all of this became worthless in his sight. He had the righteousness of Christ by faith and had the resurrection as his prospect. But lest he might have given the wrong impression he writes the words which began in verse 12.

Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

What is meant by the "all this"? The resurrection from the dead mentioned in verse 11. After it follows the same thought in different words. "I have been perfected."  He denies that he has obtained it or had already been perfected. He still lives in this vale of tears and is fraught with much imperfection.  "But" introduces an athletic metaphor, that of the runner. RSV reads this clause:  "but I press on to make it my own."  Exactly.

Of himself he cannot claim perfection. But such has already been done to him by Christ Jesus.  "I press on" is an instance of sanctification.  "That for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" is justification. Christ's apprehending of Paul is total. Paul's apprehending of perfection is imperfect. Paul's apprehending is based on Christ's apprehending. By the way, Paul is expressing expectation, not doubt.

Philippians 3:13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,

Note how frank and candid Paul is with his hearers. In verses 12-14, as at Galatians 2:18-21, Paul speaks in the first person for all Christians. Verses 13-14 are a grand passage on repentance. Note the juxtaposition of emphatic "I" and reflexive "myself" the first the subject of the sentence, the second the subject of the indirect statement. Paul, on his own, had not yet attained enduring results.

"But one thing I do."  Actually it involves two things which are indicated by "forgetting" and "straining." Note that adverbs can become nouns if used with articles.

"Giving it his utmost."  TEV reads:  "I do my best to reach etc."  Like the Olympic runner who gives it his all. Some think that Paul is forgetting the items mentioned in verses 4-7. Others think that it is more than this, like Romans 7:14-24. It is both. A Christian forgets all his sins and imperfections because Christ has forgiven them. He looks ahead only. A runner who constantly looks back is in danger of losing the race.

Philippians 3:14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

This verse explains the last four words (in Greek) of verse 13.  "Press on" is repeated from verse 11.

Rienecker: 'The goal' is a mark on which to fix the eye, goal. Paul is evidently referring to the finish line of a foot race.

A "prize" is awarded the winner at the games. The point of comparison is the strenuous effort both for the athlete and for the Christian. At Romans 8:37 Paul said:  "we are more than conquerors."  In athletics only one person or one team wins. In Christianity all win.

By the way,  "has called" is derived from a word which means "umpire."  God has already judged in Paul's favor. That is a wonderful thought.

TEV makes the last part of this verse appositional:  ". . . the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."  AAT is slightly different:  ". . . . the heavenly prize to which God has called us in Christ Jesus."  It is difficult to classify these genitives. It seems that adjectival is the best. The prize is the call.

Note that the translations above consider  "has called" active voice. We think that is correct. And it would seem that "goal" denotes the destination, not the origin, of the call.  "In Christ Jesus" reminds us that the call is possible only because of what Christ Jesus has done for us. It is the very antithesis of what we read in verses 5-6.

Philippians 3:15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

A Greek word, not translated here, meaning "therefore" points this verse back to at least verse 12. Verses 12-14 contain the basic truths about justification, sanctification and glorification. In verse 12 we have the idea of the imperfection of the life of sanctification. In verse 15 we have a corresponding adjective with the meaning of "mature."  Some Christians are mature, some are not. It has been suggested that it is synonymous here with the idea in 1 Corinthians 3:1 and Galatians 6:1. This thought is worth pursuing.

Here in verse 15 it is implied that some Christians do not keep their minds on these things as they ought. What does Paul mean? It surely has to do with a proper understanding of justification and sanctification. Perhaps some could not forget their past sins. Perhaps some had difficulty giving up their present sins. Perhaps some were grumbling and found it difficult to suffer for Jesus' sake. Or, perhaps some were fearful of the future. The mature Christians are to help the immature by the use of God's revelation and surely Paul means by the Word.

"If you think differently" contextually seems to mean "if it doesn't all become clear as soon as you'd like."  We take it to mean this in view of the last part of verse 15. Through His Word and the study thereof God will eventually make clear what they do not understand at the moment. We take "you" to mean the people mentioned in the first part of the verse. Paul was always concerned about progress.  Simul justus et peccator. 

Philippians 3:16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Rienecker: The word 'only' is used at the conclusion of a section in order to bring out the main point of discussion 'just one thing more'.
Robertson: 'Only' is used at the end of an argument to single out the main point.

Look at Romans 12:15, and on verse 15 compare John 17:17-21.

Philippians 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.

Here Nestle, RSV, TEV, NIV and AAT make a major paragraph. Verse 16 spoke of following the Word. Verse 17 speaks of following examples.

"Constantly join each other in following my example."  Every pastor ought to be able to say this to his parishioners. What was the danger against which Paul was warning the Philippians? Most of the earlier commentators and some moderns take it to mean the Judaizers. Many modem commentators take it of antinomian libertines of Epicurean and materialistic tendencies. The translations reflect this difference. Both false doctrine and immoral living cause people to hate the Gospel, to be fleshly minded, to glory in what is truly shameful and to be minded only about earthly matters. Don't be quick to go beyond Judaizers here. They are dogs, evil workers, concision. They are what Paul was before conversion. Verses 18-19 easily fit Judaizers.

Again Paul calls them "brethren."  It occurs quite frequently in this Epistle.  "Watch closely."   "Live," often translated as  "walk," here and in verse 18, is Paul's frequent metaphor for conduct. He says  "We are your model."  Paul includes his fellow-workers as models for these Christians. The pastor and elders ought be models of living for the congregation.

Philippians 3:18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.

"For" is explanatory. Paul gives the reason why they need models. These false brethren are playactors, people who pose as Christians but are not.  "Those who hate the cross of Christ" means "Those who hate the Gospel." Paul is saying:  "Their way of life hates the Gospel." 

Philippians 3:19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.

All the articles in this verse, with the exception of the last one are possessive, a rare phenomenon:  "Their end is destruction; their God is their belly; their glory is in their shame."  The translations of this verse are thought-provoking: TEV:  "They are going to end up in hell because their god is their bodily desires, they are proud of what they should be ashamed of, and they think only of things that belong to this world."  NIV:  "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things." 

"Is in" means "limited to."  Their only boast is of shameful things, things which offend.  "Mind is on" means to have one's mind occupied with. It occurred twice in verse 15 of Christians. Here in verse 19 it is used of the unregenerate.  "Earthly things" does not mean that the things of this life are evil in themselves. Here it evidently means that the unregenerate are preoccupied only with the things of this world and use them for sinful purposes. For example, both the regenerate and unregenerate buy and use cars. But it makes a great deal of difference how and for what purpose they are used.

"Earthly things" here is the antithesis to the things mentioned in verses 7-15.

Philippians 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

Though "but" here corresponds to the "for" in verse 18, here it likely means "but."  Paul is drawing a contrast. Thus RSV, TEV, NIV and AAT. Note the prominent position of "citizenship."  Note that "is in" stresses existence, not location.  "In the area of the heavenly."  It isn't merely locative but describes the Christians, their thoughts and their desires.  "Eagerly await" always denotes the longing expectation of the child of God. The translations differ as to whether "Savior" or "Lord" is direct object (and which is in apposition to it) but neither does it make much difference. Cf. AAT and NIV on this point.

Philippians 3:21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

On this verse look at 1 Corinthians 15:24-27.42-44.51-54.

Lenski: 'Lowly body' is the fashion or appearance, 'glorious body' the form corresponding to the very being itself.
ICC: The new body is not identical with the present body. There is a change of 'body', but not a destruction of personal identity.

1 John 3:2 should be read at this point.

ICC: 'Power' occurs only in Paul. It is power in exercise and is used in New Testament only of superhuman power.

The fact that Jesus is able to subject all things to Himself assures us that He is able to change our bodies when we rise from the dead.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 75-77. Used with permission.

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