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What does Philippians tell us about the life of the Apostle Paul?

Author: Bible Society, 18 June 2024

Paul is the Christian apostle who spread the gospel of Jesus after his radical conversion. He planted church communities across Asia Minor and Europe, raised people from the dead, and was jailed for Jesus. But this is the Christian Paul. What about before that?

To draw the Philippian church away from confidence in the flesh, Paul gives them his miniature autobiography (Philippians 3.3–6). If anyone was able to boast in themselves, he says, it would have been him. Before he was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul (also known by his Jewish name, Saul) was ticking a lot of boxes.

Paul's heritage

First, he establishes his Jewish credentials to the Philippians by referencing both his descent from the tribe of Benjamin and his circumcision. He wasn’t from some random family of unknown origin. He was a Benjamite, circumcised eight days after his birth, as was the custom. He was, as he says in verse 5, ‘a Hebrew of Hebrews’.

As for his circumcision, this Jewish tradition wasn’t just a rite of passage for the Hebrews, but a sign of their covenant with God. It was a physical act of such importance that one of the prominent debates of Paul’s time was whether Gentiles also needed to be circumcised in order to be saved. Many Jews believed it was necessary – their law commanded it.

While Paul would go on to say that circumcision was no longer necessary for salvation, and instead teach about a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2.25–29), he notes his circumcision to the Philippians because it confirmed his Jewish heritage and was another way in which he had perfectly followed the law.

Paul, the Pharisee 

Not only was Paul a Pharisee (verse 5), we know from historical texts that he studied at the school of Gamaliel, one of the most well-known teachers of Jewish law at that time. This prestigious education would have meant he was honoured and respected in his circles. He would have known the Torah like the back of his hand, and according to verse 6, was ‘faultless’ when it came to following its 613 commands.  

Later on, this self-sufficient righteousness would become the exact thing Paul would preach against. With Christ, we’re saved by grace through our faith in him. But back then, keeping the law was what Paul’s righteousness relied upon.

We spoke about this on The Rooted Podcast recently.You can check out the latest series of The Rooted Podcast if you want to learn even more about Paul and his letter to the Philippians. 

‘Zeal for your house consumes me … ’

Next, Paul tells the Philippians, ‘I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church’ (verse 6). Can you imagine using violence as a way to love and honour God? Paul did. He was even present at the genesis of Christian martyrdom, when Stephen was stoned for Christ (Acts 7.54–60). Perhaps he was influenced by King David, who slaughtered the Lord’s enemies, and wrote in the Psalms, ‘Zeal for your house consumes me … ’ (Psalms 69.9, NIV). 

This deluded zeal paints a picture of what self-reliance and self-righteousness lead to: death. But to those who persecuted the church alongside Paul, his determination to go to extremes for God was heroic. He wasn’t a half-hearted, lukewarm follower of God. He was zealous.

Living for Christ

All of this, Pauls tells the Philippians, would give him reason to have great confidence in himself. But like Christ, who sought to give away his power, Paul demonstrates humility by acknowledging that whatever status or prestige his former life granted him is now worthless: ‘I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done’ (verse 7). Now, he just wants to know Jesus. 

Paul’s mindset is convicting. It causes us to consider the reality of our own lives. Are we insistent on holding tightly to power and prestige? What things do we value above knowing Christ?

To learn more about the life of Paul and his letter to the Philippians, tune in to The Rooted Podcast, available on all major streaming platforms. 

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