Focus on Christ has been presented as the key to overcoming discouragement and strife in chapters 1 and 2; here it is the key to overcoming the attraction of false religious principles. His warning against legalism and its dependence on the flesh (vv 1-6) is the backdrop for presenting Christ as the foundation and goal of true spirituality (vv 7-17). His warning against licentiousness and its devotion to the flesh (vv 18-19) is placed in stark contrast with the true Christian attitude of waiting eagerly for our Savior and Sovereign, Who will transform our bodies as His final triumphant act of setting us free from sin and subjecting us to Himself (vv 20-21).
3:1-6 Falseness and Futility of Legalism: Confidence in the Flesh!
What is the significance of “rejoice in the Lord” at this point (v 1)? After the presentation of the greatness of Christ, and His amazing condescension and humble service and self-sacrifice for others, the believers should feel drawn in love and contemplation of the Lord. Paul longs to safeguard the saints from error, and once again uses his own example to expose the futility of any religious system that depends upon human attainment. “Beware of dogs … evil workers … the concision” (v 2)! What irony that those insisting on the Mosaic covenant rituals were placing themselves outside of true covenant relationship with God. “We are the circumcision” (v 3) boldly declares that believers in Christ constitute the true covenant people of God. True worship and service to God is now entirely spiritual, through the Holy Spirit, rather than through ceremonies and rituals. Christ alone is our boast, and our only claim upon God. The only man worthy to live, and to enter heaven in His own right, died for us. His death was credited to our account the moment we trusted in Him, and we were cleared, reconciled to God, born of His Spirit, and given access to His presence in Christ. We have therefore abandoned all “confidence in the flesh.” If anyone had reason to put confidence in Jewish religious heritage and dedicated religious life, it was Paul himself. He had been a “blameless” Jew according to the law, and the foremost in zeal against Christ (vv 4-6).
3:7-17 True Spirituality: Life in Christ, Perfection in Christ
“But …”! In one arresting moment, Paul’s evaluation was turned upside down (v 7). The unveiling of the risen Christ changed him forever. He recognized that the rituals of the law were only shadows having their fulfillment in Christ. Human merit has no value in view of the grace of Christ providing eternal life as a gift. Paul’s mature reflection as a follower of Christ only confirms his life-changing conviction that Christ is the ultimate pursuit, for Whom everything else is to be counted as loss. For Paul, “the loss of all things” had been immediate and dramatic: slandered, disowned, hated, and persecuted by fellow Jews (v 8). Our conversion circumstances may differ, but it is inevitable to lose friends, popularity, potential advancement if we pursue knowledge of Christ. Can we evaluate our successes and goals, measured by their contribution to, or detraction from, pursuit of Christ? That is their true gain or loss, since our eternal future is what is gained in Christ, and of Christ. To be “found in Him” will mean acceptance, peace, and righteousness before God forever (v 9).
Paul’s determination is to “know Him and the power of His resurrection” (v 10). In His resurrection, there is victory over sin’s slavery. Ultimately, it guarantees our own resurrection and perfection. The two-fold magnet of His grace and glory draws us to know Him and to walk in fellowship with Him, sharing His path of faithfulness and suffering. Our fear of reproach hinders us from this “being made conformable to His death.” “If by any means I might attain unto His resurrection” (v 11) is not expressing uncertainty about his future resurrection, but a longing to experience now the perfection that will be his in the future. This is the paradox of true spirituality: we are at perfect rest in Christ concerning the atonement of our sins, but we should be strenuously reaching for the ultimate goal of life beyond the power of sin. As Paul makes clear, he has not obtained this, nor is “already perfected,” yet he pursues the goal of laying hold of that for which he had been apprehended by Christ (v 12). Just as a marathon runner must overcome apathy and fatigue by refocusing on the goal and the prize, so we need to renew our focus on Christ and our future perfection with Him (vv 13-14).
Paul appeals to mature saints to maintain this mindset, sensitive to God revealing attitudes or pursuits incompatible with this (v 15), and encouraging them to continue in the same principles of life that have brought them to spiritual maturity (v 16). Paul is able to present himself as a pattern to follow, and a standard by which to evaluate other potential leaders (v 17). Can we?
3:18-21 Folly of Fleshly Freedom; Prospect of Final Freedom
In contrast to both the legalists and true spiritual Christians, Paul now earnestly warns against those who falsely claim grace and liberty in Christ. Bluntly labelled as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v 18), they idolize the physical, pursue the sensual, glory in the shameful, and acknowledge no restraint or authority. Their future is absolute loss and judgment from God (v 19). In contrast, we already belong to heaven and eagerly await our heavenly Administrator (v 20). He is coming to change our bodies, humiliated and defiled by sin, into bodies of glory like His own, so that they will no longer limit or distract from our relationship with Him, but will be a true expression of the inner spiritual perfections and beauties gained in Him (v 21). May our love and loyalty hold up while waiting!