I have often wondered about the trajectories my life has taken. I was raised a Latino Pentecostal in New York City but educated in a liberal arts tradition at Columbia University in Manhattan. I was exposed to evangelical and then liberal Protestant traditions in seminary and graduate school. My theological views have changed over the years. I have moved from Pentecostal to Baptist to Congregational (United Church of Christ) church traditions.
Yet at each step of the way, I have been able to build on the solid foundations of the past in moving to new understandings for the new circumstances in my life. These life transitions never started from “scratch.” Some of these same tensions might have motivated Paul in considering, at least rhetorically, his past a “loss” in comparison to a new way of living and being in Philippians 3:4b-14.
Credentials Aside, What is Truly Important?
It is hard to imagine the Apostle Paul rejecting tradition and received knowledge, but that is what he does here in the middle of this letter. He writes from prison but doesn’t seem to mind focusing on such values as joy, unity and perseverance, even when his circumstances should lead to desperation, fear and hopelessness.
At the beginning of the letter, Paul is clear that he might face death as a result of his confinement in a Roman prison. He writes, however, that he would rather survive and “continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith” (Phlp. 1:25 NRSV).
We are not sure if he is released after writing this, or if this is one of his final letters. Paul, however, understands that the nature of his ministry was such that suffering and hardship were always just around the corner. After all, he and his fellow believers follow a Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phlp. 2:8 NRSV). In many ways, Paul asserts, believers follow in Christ’s footsteps and become willing to engage hardship for the cause of the gospel.
So putting aside worldly status and “earthly” credentials is not all that big a deal for Paul. He has always had high regard for the traditions that made him who he is and in fact depends on them. At the same time, his experience of Christ has led him to understand his past in a new light.
Paul has all the right credentials as a well-bred, well-educated product of the people of Israel. More than that, he identifies with one of the more highly regarded expressions of Judaism at the time, the Pharisaic tradition. He has always been faithful to the foundations of that historic religious tradition. He even pursued judgment against perceived usurpers to that tradition, the followers of a fellow Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Yet because of an encounter with that Jesus and how his teachings and memories lived on in a new life, through the resurrection of this Christ, Paul wants to put his past in proper perspective not negating it, but “counting it a loss” in comparison to the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phlp. 3:8). In Paul’s mind, he is not turning his back on who he was but embracing a new perspective that makes him who he is. Many of us will relate well to this experience. After all, don’t we find that our lives change in light of “new knowledge?”