Paul was, in his own words, “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; with respect to the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; with respect to the righteousness which is by the law, blameless” (Phil 3:5). These were Paul’s credentials; facts about himself that got him to where he was. If you were a Pharisee in Paul’s day, you wouldn’t mind having a resume that read something like his because it will take you places, as it did Paul. Paul was an up and coming Pharisee. Trained by the best: Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). By the time of Acts, Paul already possessed a high level of authority, enough to send those who believed in Jesus to prison. Acts 8 tells us that he was present at the execution of Stephen, apparently presiding over it and approving it.
From Jerusalem, Paul set off for the city of Damascus to persecute the believers there. But his journey was divinely interrupted by a confrontation with the Lord Jesus Himself. In that encounter, Paul realized that Jesus was indeed the Christ and the Son of God, and in persecuting the church he was really persecuting Him (Acts 9:5). He was eventually converted to become a follower of Jesus Christ. Over time, as Christ revealed more and more Himself to him, Paul decided to “count everything as loss – not in comparison to – but because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:8 ESV). He was willing to suffer “the loss of all things and count them as rubbish” in order that he may gain Christ.
The Greek word used here, zemia, apart from meaning “loss” also means ‘detriment” and “damage”. In order words, what used to be desirable and positive and advantageous to him, Paul now considers them a loss, damaging and detrimental, and plainly rubbish, and he couldn’t wait to be rid of them. These credentials might have served Paul well in the past but now that he was in Christ and called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, they could very well be a stumbling block, a hindrance to him. Here’s what I mean:
If Paul, for example, had held on tightly to his identity as a Hebrew of the Hebrews, he would not have been able to be “all things to all people” just to save some (1 Cor 9:22). As a Hebrew (or Jew), he would have built-up a cultural bias against anyone who was not a Jew. He would have had no desire to meet with a Gentile, much less to preach the gospel to them. (Remember how the Pharisees were shocked out of their socks when they saw Jesus eating with sinners?) But realizing that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” but that all are one in Christ, Paul crucified his identity as a Hebrew and assumed a new identity (Gal 3:28). Hence and thereafter, he would only refer to himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:1; Eph 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1).
Paul was also zealous for the Lord – and so was Israel – but it was “without knowledge” (Rom 10:2). His unfounded and unguided fleshly zeal drove him to persecute the Church and, inadvertently, Christ Himself (see Acts 9:4). Zeal is good; but unless it has its source and sustenance in the Holy Spirit, it will prove destructive more than anything else. If Paul’s zeal was not crucified, the work of God would be in jeopardy.
Paul also crucified the righteousness he had according to the law because he remembered what Isaiah, “all our righteousness is like filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). He, instead, saw himself as the greatest sinner (see 1 Tim 1:15) and the “least of all the saints” (Eph 3:8 ESV). If this self-righteousness had remained in Paul, it would destroy him in no time because pride comes before destruction.
Because of his credentials, Paul had reason to have “confidence in the flesh” – more than anyone else (Phil 3:4). But after knowing Christ, his confidence shifted to the grace of God. He himself admits: “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10 ESV). And if he must boast, he will boast only of his weaknesses (2 Cor 12:9). In the same way, we should not boast or have confidence in our own qualifications and accomplishments and experiences. This does not mean that we should not obtain an education or excel in our work. By all means, do that. But as you do, “humble yourself under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6), acknowled that “apart from Him you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and He will exalt you (in due time) above the rest, as He did to Daniel of old (I will mention him again later).
May the Lord show you where your confidence lie. May He give you the grace to surrender them in exchange for the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection?
This article is part of my teaching The Normal Christian Birth. Contact me if you wish to receive the full teaching.
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