Summary: Paul frankly discloses his spiritual balance sheet in terms of What he Renounced and What he Received in converting to Christianity, and looking back 30 years later, What he once Counted and What he still Counts.
PAUL’S SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Nothing fascinates me more than a good biography. Perhaps, like me, you’re curious to know the motives that are behind the person’s actions and to learn how his character develops. It’s all the more interesting when a great man or woman write their own life story - an autobiography - where freely and frankly the veil of their private life is lifted and allows us to make our own assessment of the real person.
It would be wonderful to have a full-scale autobiography of Paul, the Apostle - one of the greatest men who ever lived. That wasn’t to be, but at least we do have some extracts of his life and work in the Acts of the Apostles and quite a selection of his writings in his correspondence with the churches. He wasn’t a man to write much about himself, but occasionally by way of illustrating a point and in a way that was glorifying his Lord, he would give a personal detail. One of these rare passages is found in Philippians 3. In this remarkable chapter he tells us something about himself and his experience of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul has just had to issue a stern warning to his converts at Philippi about the Jewish teachers, the Judaisers. Wherever Paul taught, they followed him and tried to undo his work. It was the teaching of Paul that we are saved by grace alone, that salvation is the free gift of God. It’s something that we can never earn and never deserve, but we can humbly and thankfully accept what God has offered us. Paul taught that the offer of God in Christ was to all men, of all nations. But the Judaisers wouldn’t have this. They maintained that if a man wished to be saved he must earn credit in the sight of God: he could only gain acceptance with God by carrying out the requirements of the Law of Moses. This made salvation dependent on the efforts of men and was fundamentally opposed to the salvation that Paul had received. And so in passionate personal references he argues out the point from his own experience. In the first place we learn:
WHAT PAUL RENOUNCED, AND WHAT HE RECEIVED
He begins by telling us that if any man has reason to boast, or to be proud of his achievements, that man was himself. He sets out his credentials. He doesn’t do so to boast, or to bring credit to himself. He does so to show that he enjoyed every privilege, which a Jew could enjoy and had risen to the highest ranks of its religion and yet he had deliberately, and willingly abandoned it all for the sake of Jesus Christ. He catalogues his privileges in an imposing list. There was his:
Paul refers to his religious advantage: he had been circumcised when he was eight days old to comply with the commandment of God to Abraham. He was pointing out that he wasn’t a proselyte who had come later into the Jewish faith. He was a true-blooded Jew from the cradle and so can speak with the greatest authority upon the value of Jewish rituals.
Then there was his racial advantage: he was born of the race of Israel. When the Jews wished to stress their special relationship to God it was the word "Israelite" they used. This was the covenant name of the elect, the chosen race. Paul is proud to claim membership of it. Other peoples could trace their decent to Abraham - the Ismaelites and the children of Esau, the Edomites, but it was the Israel-ites alone who could trace their descent to Jacob, whom God had called by the name Israel. By calling himself an Israelite, Paul stressed the absolute purity of his ancestry.
Paul records his ancestral advantage: for he was of the tribe of Benjamin. This tribe had a special place in the aristocracy of Israel. The claim was that Benjamin was the child of Rachael, the well-loved wife of Jacob, and of all the twelve patriarchs, Benjamin alone had been born in the Promised Land. It was from this tribe that Saul, the first King of Israel, had come. So then, Paul claims that from his birth he was a God-fearing, law-observing Jew: his Jewish pedigree was pure and he belonged to the most aristocratic tribe of the Jews. We might say that Paul had good family connections, but is that sufficient in life?
He adds to the list his family advantage: he was a Hebrew son of Hebrew parents. This tells us that the language in which he was reared was the mother tongue of his race. All over the world there were communities of Jews but often they had forgotten Hebrew, their own national language. The point Paul is making is that he was a real Hebrew for although he spoke in Greek he had learned the Hebrew tongue as well. Rather like a Guernsey person saying that he or she at least understands the patois as well! These were the privileges that came to him by birth. And then he goes on to list his: