Having looked at the parable of the prodigal son last week—or, more accurately, the parable of our compassionate heavenly Father!—this morning’s passage provides an interesting counter-point because in it we have a stark contrast between the apostle Paul’s attitude and that of the elder son from the parable. In his comments Paul is illustrating what the oldest son’s attitude should have been. If you’ll recall, the older brother in the parable was the dutiful, conscientious one who did everything asked of him by his father. And yet when his younger brother returned home after spending his inheritance and was welcomed back with hugs, kisses, open arms, and even a party to celebrate his safe return, the eldest resented the fact that he had never been thrown even a small party despite his obedient life.
Well Paul begins with a confession—or perhaps a testimony—listing some of the many reasons he has to boast as far as his religiosity or life as a dutiful Jew is concerned. And the reason he’s doing so is because there were Jews in his day who had come to a saving faith in Christ but who felt, nonetheless, that Gentiles, or non-Jews, who similarly had come to faith in Christ should do so in a Jewish manner, by obeying Jewish customs such as circumcision. So in order to demonstrate why they are wrong—why the only thing anyone needs is to turn to Christ, period—Paul first indicates how he himself was as committed as they come when it comes to Jewish belief. Since Paul is going to disavow salvation by obedience to Jewish law, he needs to indicate why he’s in a position to make such a case.
To place one’s “confidence in the flesh” (v. 4b) as this passage begins suggests someone who is capable, disciplined, and committed to doing all that he can to follow the holy requirements and expectations of the law:
He begins by noting that he was circumcised on the eighth day. In other words he was born into the life of faith, having been marked by this sign of membership into the Jewish community soon after his birth and in accordance with Old Testament law;
In terms of his genealogy, he is a true Jew by right, an ethnic Israelite;
More specifically, Paul is from the same tribe as King Saul—the tribe of Benjamin. Some have even speculated that Paul—who was formerly known as Saul of Tarsus—may have been named after King Saul;
Paul is a true Hebrew of Hebrews—a description that again points to his Jewish pedigree. This phrase may also point to the fact that Paul spoke Aramaic, the national language of Israel in his day, despite his coming from Greek-speaking Tarsus, which was located in what is now southern Turkey. The point in all of this is that by his heritage and birth, it would have been difficult to find a more committed follower of Judaism than Paul! (v. 5)
In terms of his understanding of the law, he is a Pharisee. And Pharisees were the most prestigious and strict Jewish group that existed in Paul’s day;
But Paul is not only an impeccable Jewish when judged by his heritage, he is also an impeccable Jew when judged by his behavior. He was scrupulous in his obedience to the law:
In terms of his zeal—his energy and enthusiasm in service of his Jewish beliefs, Paul persecuted the church—those who claimed there was another way to God, the Father;
Regarding his righteousness—his behavior based on the law’s teaching—Paul states he was faultless. He followed the law to the “t” (v. 6).
As we saw with the older son in last week’s parable who told his father about the many ways he had served him so well for so long, Paul here has essentially done the same—except that Paul is a real person. One would be hard-pressed to find a more committed Jewish believer than Paul.
But unlike the elder son in the parable, in verse 7 Paul recognizes that all of these things that he had devoted himself to throughout his life, are worthless because though he had been dutiful, he never personally knew the God in whose name he was doing all of these things. Formerly he thought he could earn his way to heaven by his good deeds, but when he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul realized that all of his hard work had been for naught—at least as far as earning God’s favor was concerned.
“But whatever were gains to me” he states in verse 7 “I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” Again, this is an extraordinary statement for a prominent leader of the Jewish religious community to make. From the time Paul was born, his parents followed the prescribed rituals for raising a male, circumcising him on the eighth day as required by the law. Paul was a covenant child, a true Israelite, unlike Samaritans who compromised their faith by inter-marrying people from other nations and sometimes following their gods instead of the one true God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And as already indicated, though the tribe of Benjamin was a small tribe, it was the tribe of King Saul who preceded the reign of Israel’s most important king, King David. And, again, Paul was a Pharisee, a member and leader of the most prominent Jewish sect in Paul’s day. And Paul was so committed to his religious beliefs, that he even persecuted the church of Christ, since initially he didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah promised in the very Scriptures he had studied from the time of his childhood. Paul followed all the rules required to be a good Jews. He was faultless. He was a zealous and respected Jewish leader. If Paul had been Catholic, we would have said he was more Catholic than the Pope!
Yet all of this prestige, Paul says, was nothing when compared with knowing Jesus Christ whom he had rejected and whose followers he had persecuted. Keep in mind that Paul’s most significant encounter with Jesus Christ was after Jesus had been crucified, dead, and buried. We don’t know if their paths ever even crossed while Jesus was still living though Paul clearly did his best to persecute those who followed Jesus after he was crucified and resurrected. In the opening verses of Acts 9, Luke records for us what Paul’s initial encounter with the risen Christ was like:
1Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
As you can imagine, this encounter with the risen Christ was decisive for Paul. He recounts it in Acts 22—and then again in Acts 26. This was literally a life-changing encounter. In Acts 22 he again provides what would have been considered a stunning statement of his credentials. Before the risen Christ appeared to him, Paul recounts how he was “3a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in [Jerusalem].” He “studied under Gamaliel”—the most prominent rabbi in Paul’s day—“and was thoroughly trained in the law of [his] ancestors. [He] was…zealous for God…. 4 [He] persecuted the followers of [the] Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison…. 5 [He] even obtained letters from [the high priest and all the Council] to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.”
Similarly in Acts 26, Paul states how “4The Jewish people all [knew] the way [he had] lived ever since [he] was a child, from the beginning of [his] life in [his] own country [Turkey], and also in Jerusalem. 5 They [knew him] for a long time and [could] testify…that [he] conformed to the strictest sect of [the Jewish] religion, living as a Pharisee…. [He]… 9 was convinced that [he] ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what [he] did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests [he] put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, [he] cast [his] vote against them. 11 Many a time [he] went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and…tried to force them to blaspheme. [He] was so obsessed with persecuting them that [he] even hunted them down in foreign cities.”
Again, Paul thought he was being a good Jew. He did everything a good Jewish believer was supposed to do—at least as judged by the standards of his day. But he was wrong about what true Judaism was about—about what knowing God was about—about which thoughts and deeds were approved by God. All of the gains Paul thought he had before both God and man weren’t gains at all. Not one of them facilitated the real purpose of religious belief, namely knowing God. Again, in verse 8 Paul states this: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage.” The translators are being discreet here—this word translated as “garbage” literally means “refuse” and was once translated as “dung.”
All that matters, he goes on, is gaining Christ and being found in him (verse 9) “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ”—did you catch that? None of the things that Paul did in the name of his Jewish faith in order to be found righteous counted for anything. Paul tried very hard to obey all of the mandates of the law. He was a conscientious and dutiful Jew. But he did it all in his own strength, not Christ’s. Paul came to understand that it’s impossible to live out all that the law requires—which is another way of saying that it’s impossible to be righteous—to be holy—to be like God—by our own strength. To be like God, we need God himself.
More specifically to be like God, we need Christ. We need to have faith in Christ. We need to understand that Christ is the only way we can be righteous. Another possible translation of having “a righteousness through faith in Christ” is having “a righteousness through the faithfulness of Christ.” In other words, a righteousness that is given to us because of Christ’s faithfulness to his task. Potato, po-tah-to? The point here is that because of the Fall, no matter how hard we try, there isn’t a person who has ever lived (Jesus excepted)—who is living—or who will live who is capable, by their own strength, of living the way that God designed and desires us to live. Of our own attempts, we will follow in the steps of Adam and Eve—listening and succumbing to the lies and temptations of the devil and seeking to live our lives independent from God rather than listening and succumbing God and so living as he intended and dependent upon him. But if we have placed our faith in Christ and his perfect obedience—an obedience that resisted the serpent’s lies and temptations in complete reliance upon the Father and by the power of the Holy Spirit and that, in the end, led him to death on a cross—and if we have placed our faith in God who raised Christ from the grave, then this wonderful, risen Christ gives us his righteousness.
In his Freedom of a Christian Martin Luther, that great theologian of the time of the Reformation, reflecting upon this reality, focused upon the incredible exchange that takes place between believers and God once we put our faith in Christ Jesus as our Savior and Lord. In speaking of the various benefits of faith he notes that faith:
Unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers? (VI. Living and Dying as a Christian).
Isn’t that an amazing reflection? All that is ours—our sin, death and damnation—is taken on by Christ; and all that is Christ’s—his grace, life, and salvation—now becomes ours the moment we turn away from our sin to the eternal life he extends to all who would know him.
Brothers and sisters, this is the “the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (v. 9). This is a righteousness that isn’t an end in itself but rather it allows us to know God in Christ. Since God is holy, nothing which is unholy can be united with him. But God in Christ has given his righteousness to all who place their faith in him. And he’s done this by giving us his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, so that by our union with Christ, we can come before the presence of our loving heavenly Father. This union with Christ is what makes Paul bold to say that he wants to know Christ even more—“to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow [in the sense of mysteriously], attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
Part of what it means to be joined with Christ is to be willing to go where he has gone and to undergo what he underwent—even if this results in persecution, in participation in his sufferings—which, ultimately leads to our rising from death even as he rose from death. But as we’ve already seen in the account of Paul’s conversion, this identifying with Christ is a two-way street for he also identifies with us to the degree that if we suffer or are persecuted, the risen Christ told Paul that he—our Savior and Lord—suffers and is persecuted with us for to persecute a believer is no different than persecuting Jesus Christ himself. That is how strongly he identifies with us. That is part of the implication of his being united with all who come to him and are given his Spirit. If Christ’s Spirit indwells us—and God is One God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—then to persecute one in whom Christ’s Spirit dwells is the same as persecuting Christ himself.
This doesn’t mean that we are already holy as God intended, at least not this side of heaven. Paul understands that the Christian walk is a journey of sanctification, of obeying and yielding and being made more like God by his Spirit who indwells us. In verse 12 he states that he hasn’t “already obtained all this, or… already arrived at [his] goal, but” he says “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” What in the world might Paul be saying here? What is the “that” Paul is pressing on to take hold of and for which sake Christ Jesus took hold of him? He’s already answered this in verse 10—to know Christ more and more. This is the purpose of our salvation, that we might have a relationship with Christ and by means of that relationship grow in our faith in him until, one day, we’ll discover that we are no longer walking by faith but by sight. One day in glory, we will no longer see in a mirror dimly but face to face; one day in glory, we will know fully even as we have been fully known by God.
Paul goes on to state in verses 13 and 14, “13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Paul has come full circle here. He began by addressing his past life, a life which he or anyone would have considered to be one of a righteous, God-honoring Jewish believer. Paul was as diligent as they come when it came to following the prescriptions of the Jewish. But the only problem was that he had all the makings of faith except the most important one of all—a relationship with God himself.
But it’s important to note as well that though Paul acknowledges his past misguided life, he doesn’t dwell on it nor does he allow his past misplaced zeal in persecuting followers of Christ to keep him from following Christ now. In this he demonstrates true repentance—a true turning from his former ways and towards the risen Christ who appeared to him and to whom he was now a slave. For the purpose of repentance isn’t that we might feel bad about ourselves and past thoughts, decisions, or actions. No, the purpose of repentance is that we might have the opportunity to acknowledge wrong decisions, see our need for God, and then turn to him that we might learn and know and live according to his will and his ways. Paul gets this.
He is “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” In turning from his former ways, Paul was no longer getting his identity from his former misguided obedience. His focus isn’t the past but faithful obedience in the present and unshakable confidence in the future. He presses on “toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” And what is that prize? It is to one day see God face to face when we join Christ in heaven along with all who left behind their former ways and sought to live according to the ways of God in Christ as revealed for us—as left for us—as recorded for us in his written Word.
This snapshot of Paul’s life is a reminder that the only way anyone can earn God’s good favor is by acknowledging our need for his Son, Jesus Christ.
It’s a reminder as well that no matter what mistakes we may have made, and no matter what sins we may have committed in the past, if we have placed our trust in Christ, that person is dead—gone. For if we’ve placed our faith in Christ and his obedience, he has given us his Holy Spirit who indwells us, and so we are now new creatures. As Luther said, God in Christ has taken our sins, and the resulting death and damnation we deserved and given us his grace—and his life—and his salvation so that nothing will ever again separate us from his presence or love.
Brothers and sisters we should take heart in this—and rejoice—and give thanks to our wise and compassionate and merciful God that knowing from all eternity that we would turn from him and prefer living according to our ways rather than his ways, he nonetheless purposed to love us anyway—to live for us—to suffer for us—to die for us—and ultimately to rise for us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, that we might now live for him not only during our earthly sojourn, but for all eternity.
To our gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be all praise now and forevermore.
Let us pray….
 Genesis 17:12: “For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. “Leviticus 12:3: “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.”
 ESV. Sa: I Sam. 9:1–2: 1There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bekorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. 2 Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.
 Reformation Study Bible.
 Acts 26:4–5: 4 The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.
 22:3–7: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
 26:4–18: 4 “The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. 5 They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee. 6 And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. 7 This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. 8 Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
9 “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11 Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. I was so obsessed with persecuting them that I even hunted them down in foreign cities.
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic,[a] ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
 I Corinthians 13:12: For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.