This blog continues my translation of the letter to Philippians, with a brief commentary.
Look out for those dogs, those wicked workmen, those EXcisers-for we’re the true CIRCUMcisers, who worship in the spirit of God, who boast in Messiah Jesus, and have no faith in flesh and blood -even though I might put faith in my flesh and blood. If anyone imagines he can put faith in his flesh and blood, I can put more: an eighth day circumcision, of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benyamin, a Hebrew born of the Hebrews; with regard to the Law, a Pharisee; with regard to commitment, an active persecutor of the Assembly; with regard to legal rightness, a perfect person! But whatever was to my profit, I now reckon as loss, for the sake of Messiah. In fact I’m ready to reckon everything as loss, compared with the extraordinary privilege of knowing Messiah Jesus, my Lord, for whom I’ve been completely bankrupted. I reckon it all as rubbish, so that I may profit from him. May I be found in him, not with my own rightness from the law, but, through the trustworthiness of Messiah, with God’s rightness from trust; so that I may know him, the power of his resurrection and the partnership of his sufferings, reconfiguring myself to his death in order to arrive somehow at the resurrection of the dead. Not that I’ve already grasped this or reached perfection, but I pursue it, in order to take a firm grasp of that for which Messiah Jesus took a firm grasp of me. Brothers and sisters, I don’t imagine I’ve grasped it, but one thing I do-forgetting what’s behind me and stretching for what’s ahead: I strain towards the mark, for the prize to which God has called me in Messiah.”
Paul never stops his battle against those emissaries of Jesus who saw trust in Jesus as an extension of Jewish religion, demanding that gentile converts should be circumcised. In his eyes they are making the crucial mistake of turning trust in Jesus into a religion, that is, a means by which God’s favour could be obtained. There is simply no need for this, according to Paul, as God’s favour is already offered freely to all in Jesus. The follower of Messiah, such as Paul, has no need for credits gained through the Jewish religion. Paul does not run in order to gain God’s approval; beginning with God’s approval he runs to gain his own perfection which is his reshaping in the image of Jesus. Once he had imagined his religious account as being hugely in credit through his meticulous obedience to the Torah, now he joyfully admits that following Jesus has made him bankrupt of religious currency. Once he saw his religion as treasure, now he sees it as rubbish. (A fuller treatment of Jewish religion by Paul is found in Romans 9-11, where he gives it more honour than he does here)
He describes the benefit of trusting in God as rightness. Many modern scholars, following Luther, interpret this as “being declared right by God”, that is, as a merciful judgement of God, which gives an advance of trust to a sinful person. This is not a negligible view, but I think the rightness means real rightness of character and living, made possible by identification with Jesus Messiah and wholehearted trust in his way. We learn elsewhere in Paul that this identification is enabled by God in Jesus identifying with sinners in his life and death. Paul needs no religion to find God; God has come to everyone in Jesus in such a way that those who trust in this arrival enter into active partnership with God, in the righting of themselves and of all creatures. This partnership is the context of Paul’s frequent distinction between the “already” and the “not yet” of discipleship. Already Jesus has grasped Paul, but Paul has not yet fully grasped the perfection which Jesus offers.
In particular this partnership means that Paul must reconfigure his life to Jesus’ readiness for death before he can share the new life of the risen Messiah. Paul indicates that this is a process which requires discipline on his part. It is not simply something given.
The interpretation of Paul has been made a battle ground by inter- denominational arguments about Law and Gospel. I suggest,as a disciple of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that Paul’s polemic against the Law should be seen as equivalent to Bonhoeffer’s against “religion”. Already in Paul we can see the religionless faith which Bonhoeffer proposed as particularly appropriate to the modern era.