After making reference to his circumcision, his lineage, his manner of living, and his zeal, all of which would certainly have led to an accrual of an honor, not to mention serving him well to validate any claim to be a covenant member in good standing in accordance with the works of the law and the traditions of His people (blameless in regard to the righteousness stipulated in the law), Paul offers what would be heard as a surprising reversal in the ears of his hearers. Having provided this litany of items, Paul then writes “But these assets” in the pursuit of honor and in regards to covenant participation “I have come to regard as liabilities” (3:7a). Why? He says that it is “because of Christ” (3:7b).
Speaking to what is very likely a largely Gentile congregation of Christ worshipers in this Roman colony, Paul denounces any claim to privilege related to the covenant that would stem from his Jewish, work-of-the-law-as-badges-of-covenant-rooted background, saying “more than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things---indeed, I regard them as dung---that I may gain Christ” (3:8). Rather than here focusing on the suffering of loss and the contrast with his gaining of Christ (though we will return to this), we allow our attention to be focused on the “far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” This knowledge of the Messiah, Jesus, as Lord of all, is that upon which Paul’s participation in the covenant kingdom rests. Though he could easily base his covenant status on the facts about himself that are already on offer, he pushes those aside, continuing to identify wholly with these Gentile believers, and bases his justification (for that is what he discussing, and we know this based on his introduction of circumcision and righteousness, along with what is still to come) on the confession of his knowledge that Jesus is Lord (the Gospel).
If we are not convinced that this is the point that Paul is making, we need merely go on to the next verse, as Paul highlights being “found in Him” (3:9a), which is the standard language of familial participation. We are reminded that Paul’s use of “my brothers and sisters” in verse one of this chapter informs us that he is operating with ideas about the family of God in Christ. As justification leaps to the fore, to that finding is added “not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness---a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness” (3:9b). Though Paul does not here use the words that can be translated as “justified,” this passage can be placed alongside the requisite passages from Romans three and Galatians two, as Paul sets the contrast between covenant inclusion based on the covenant marker of faith/belief in Jesus as Lord (I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness), and covenant inclusion that is based on the covenant markers of Israel (righteousness derived from the law).
When the statements are properly situated and heard alongside Paul’s clearly demonstrated mindset regarding justification and what is implied by righteousness, which is the badge of identification in the people of God rather than an infusion of a previously alien status that now precludes or supersedes the previous state of affairs and the ongoing attempts to “earn salvation” (read: go to heaven) by works (which, as we have pointed out, was itself a way of thinking foreign to Paul and his contemporaries), the fact that Paul here deals with justification by faith stands out quite readily. To further make the point that the purpose of covenant inclusion is not to escape to heaven at the end of one’s life, but to engage with this world in a manner imitative of Jesus, Paul continues on to write “My aim is to know Him, to experience the power of His Resurrection, to share in His sufferings, and to be like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11).
This “resurrection from the dead” was the hope of the people of God, as the resurrection of the righteous at the consummation of His kingdom, in a world restored and set to rights, was that to which the people of God looked as the ultimate exemplification of God’s covenant faithfulness towards His image-bearers and for His creation. What might it mean, for Paul, “to share in His sufferings, and to be like Him in His death”? To answer that question, we can look back to something that Paul has included earlier in the letter. In the second chapter, as he cites what is believed to be an early Christian hymn that would most likely have been quite familiar to the Philippian church, we hear about Jesus “who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross!” (2:6-8) If we want to find out what it may have meant for Paul to share in His sufferings and be like Christ in His death, it is here, with a divestiture of honor, an emptying out of self and status, a humbling, and an obedience to God that could result in death, that we may have our answer.
Amazingly, but not surprisingly, this sounds a lot like what Paul had described in verses seven and eight of chapter three, when, after describing his form of existence, which was one of honor in relation to his standing under the covenant and as part of God’s special, covenant people, he divests himself of that honor and lowers himself---shaming himself in the midst of a culture that equated shame with death, regarding all of those things as liabilities and even dung, and embracing the suffering and loss of all things.