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: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ, (vv. 4-7)
Paul’s own experience comes in aptly to enforce the expression used in verse 3, as to which we have been speaking. He had learned experimentally the utter unprofitableness of the flesh. Looked at from a human standpoint, he had far more to glory in before he was converted to Christ than any of the “concision” among the Philippians could possibly have even afterward. If any had ground for confidence in the flesh, or thought he had, Paul could say, “I more.” For they, to whom he wrote, were Gentiles according to natural birth, and, therefore, strangers to the covenants of promise, aliens, and without the true God in the world.
But it was otherwise with the apostle. He was born within the circle of the covenant. He bore upon his body the mark that he was within the sphere of the Abrahamic promise—he was circumcised on the eighth day and, thus, marked off from the Gentile world. Nor were his parents “proselytes of the gate,” as Gentiles were called who had forsaken idolatry, and, turning to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had come within the blessings of the covenant through this rite. He, Paul, was of the stock of Israel. For generations back his family had belonged to the covenant people. Then, too, he was descended, not from a bond-woman but from the favorite wife of Jacob. Moreover, when the ten tribes revolted and turned away from the house of David, the particular tribe from which he sprung, that of Benjamin, had remained true to Jehovah’s center and loyal to the true kingly line. For though Benjamin had failed grievously in the days of the Judges, so that they were like to have been exterminated out of Israel, yet afterward, through enabling grace, they remained steadfast in the face of grave departure and, thus, won for themselves an immortal name. To be a Benjamite was something in which the flesh might well pride itself.
And as to positive religious conviction, Saul of Tarsus had been a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was no mere Jew by birth, as some who are indifferent to their Hebrew faith. To the very core of his being he was a follower of the first Hebrew, Abraham himself. As touching the law, he was in practice, faith, and name, a Pharisee. Of the various Jewish sects existing in his day, the Pharisees were the most intensely orthodox and clung most tenaciously not only to the revealed Word of God, but to a vast body of human traditions that had been handed down from their forefathers, and had become in their eyes as sacred as the written Word itself. It is true that our Lord describes many of them as hypocrites, but on the other hand, when He wishes to emphasize the need of positive righteousness, He says, “Except your righteousness… exceed [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” He would not have thus spoken if it were not well known that the Pharisees insisted on obedience to the law of God; and Paul himself said, on another occasion, “After the most straitest sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee.” He lived what he professed, and that was Judaism of the strictest kind.
His zeal for the traditions of the elders was seen in the fact that he was a relentless persecutor of the newly born assembly of God. “Exceedingly mad against them,” as he himself confessed, he “persecuted them unto strange cities,” and even “compelled them to blaspheme.” Yet there is no evidence that he was naturally a man of fierce and implacable disposition. In fact, the words of the glorified Lord, “It is hard for thee to kick against the [goads],” would seem to imply the contrary.1 What he did, he did from a stern sense of duty, not as the fulfillment of his natural desires. Touching the righteousness which the law demanded, he was outwardly blameless. He tells us in Romans 7 that of all the commandments there was only one which really convicted him of sin, and the violation of that one commandment there was no external way of detecting. Who that looked upon the stalwart champion of Jewish orthodoxy could see the covetousness that was in his heart? His outward life gave no evidence of it. Therefore he could speak of himself as blameless.
But when this religious bigot, this stern unyielding champion of what he believed to be the truth of God, was brought into contact with the glorified Christ—that never-to-be-forgotten day on the Damascus turnpike—he realized in one moment the fact declared by the prophet that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (emphasis added). And these things which were gain to him—these things on which he had been building his hopes for eternity—these things which gave him a standing before the eyes of his fellows and caused them to look upon him with admiration, he now saw in their true light—as utterly worthless and polluted garments, unfit to cover him before the eyes of a holy God and deserving only to be cast away. Therefore he exclaims, “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.”
Let it be carefully noted that he did not count them loss merely for Christianity. In other words, he was not simply exchanging one religion for another; it was not one system of rites and ceremonies giving place to a superior system; or one set of doctrines, rules, and regulations making way for a better one. Often this has been all that conversion has meant. Many people have thought that “changing their religion” was all that God required of them. But it was otherwise with Saul. He had come into actual contact with a divine Person, the once crucified, but now glorified, Christ of God. He had been won by that Person forever, and for His sake he counted all else but loss. If any fall short of this, they are missing entirely the point here emphasized. Christ, and Christ alone, meets every need of the soul. His work has satisfied God, and it satisfies the one who trusts in Him. By resting in Christ, confidence in the flesh is forever at an end. All confidence is in Him who died and rose again, and who “ever liveth to make intercession for [us].”
1 Does not the expression imply, however, that Saul had fought against the testimonies to his conscience?—such as Stephen’s, whose face they saw “shining as an angel’s” while testifying before the council of the Jews, yet to whose death Saul gave his vote, keeping the garments of those that stoned him. And how many other appeals to his conscience, if not to his heart, there must have been as he beat and dragged men and women to prison, compelling them to blaspheme Jesus, if possible! (Editor)