A PRISONER OF GRACE
The life of Saul of Tarsus is an extra-ordinary story of God’s amazing grace. From being a persecutor of Christianity, he emerges in the annals of history as one of its staunchest defender, most prolific missionary, evangelist, and writer.
When the apostle Paul said that “he has more” in as far as confidence in the flesh is concerned, it’s not just some empty boast; he has the record to prove it. His pedigree is not only impressive but as a student under Gamaliel, his personal achievements in the Pharisee tradition were superior compared to most Jews of his time. In our study this morning, the text suggests seven advantages that the apostle Paul held; four (4) of these are inherent to his pedigree as a Jew and three (3) were the result of his personal achievements.
Main Text: Philippians 3:4-6, “though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
- CIRCUMCIZED ON THE 8TH DAY
To help us understand the significance of being circumcised on the 8th day, let’s turn to Genesis 17:10-12, when God was speaking to Abraham,
“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 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”.
Paul was saying, “if you think you can boast of getting your way to heaven by observing religious rituals and rites, I have more”. Sadly, he acknowledges that circumcision on the 8th day is worthless because it cannot earn him his salvation; it is merely a transcendental obedience to the requirements of the Torah.
2. OF THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL
Turn to Romans 9:4-5,
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (ESV)
What does the text suggests? When you are an Israelite, you have an advantage and the unique distinction as heirs of a divine promise. In the eyes of the LORD, Israel is the world’s most distinguished people. Hence, the apostle Paul is saying that even though he is a pure-blooded Israelite, being pure blood does not earn him his salvation.
3. OF THE TRIBE OF BENJAMIN
The tribe of Benjamin is highly regarded in Paul’s time. From a historical perspective, Benjamin is one of the two most favorite sons of Jacob (Joseph, being the other one). Rachel, their mother, is Jacob’s favorite wife. Benjamin is the only son born in the promise land (Canaan – near Bethlehem); the rest of Jacob’s children were born in Haran (Mesopotamia).
Another badge of honor for the tribe of Benjamin is that this is the only tribe that remained loyal to the House of David during the divided kingdom. Saul, anointed by God to become Israel’s first king, came from the tribe of Benjamin. During the time of the divided kingdom, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin kept the purity of worship while the other ten (10) tribes from Israel have diluted their way of worship with pagan influence and eventually fell into apostasy. Queen Esther, the unlikely heroine that prevented the massacre of the Jews during the diaspora was a niece of Mordecai from the tribe of Benjamin.
So when the apostle Paul makes reference to it, he is showing the fact that he is proud of his heritage. Unfortunately, your social status has absolutely no bearing when it comes to salvation; your social prominence cannot impress God at all. (1Cor. 1:26-29)
4. A HEBREW OF HEBREWS
This is not a repetition or a back reference to what the apostle Paul said earlier (refer to no. 2). During the Jewish Diaspora where inter-marriage and assimilation of foreign culture is common, Paul says that his ancestors were raised in a way that rejected any pagan influence and it continued in the way his parents raised him. That is why he can say with conviction that “I am a Hebrew of Hebrews”. However, when it comes to salvation, observance of ancient family tradition and practices is not a sure way.
5. IN REGARD TO THE LAW, A PHARISEE
What is the advantage of being a Pharisee? During his time, there were three (3) religious groups in the Jewish society: The Herodians, The Sadducees, and The Pharisees, who are known for their zeal in ceremonial righteousness.
Being a Pharisee is the highest ideal a Jew could ever hope to attain. If there are people who should go to heaven by means of their personal and religious merits, it was the Pharisee. But then the apostle Paul realized that being a Pharisee does not earn him enough righteousness in the presence of God. In Matthew 5:20, the Lord said that “unless your righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”.
6. AS FOR ZEAL, PERSECUTING THE CHURCH
Earlier we mentioned that Pharisees are known for being zealous. The same thing can be said of the apostle Paul: when it comes to religious commitment, nobody can surpass Paul. In fact, because of his devotion to Judaism, he treats the followers of Christ as enemies of the faith (Judaism). In Acts 8:3 & Acts 9:1-5, the historian-physician Luke said that Paul made it his personal mission to persecute and destroy Christians by dragging them to prison. His sincerity and devotion to Judaism is beyond reproof. But he also learned that even the most zealous Pharisee cannot boast about his passion for his beliefs, especially if that zeal is misplaced.
7. AS FOR LEGALISTIC RIGHTEOUSNESS, FAULTLESS
In terms of observing the Torah, the apostle Paul was blameless; he can say with convictions that he faithfully and perfectly observed the ceremonial law, which should have been enough to make him right before God.
The apostle Paul realized that legalistic observance of the Law may be enough to make him ceremonially clean but not enough to earn him salvation.
So what did he gained by being circumcised on the 8th day, by being a pure-blooded Israelite, by being able to trace his ancestry from the tribe of Benjamin, by being true to his religion, by being a Pharisee? From a worldly perspective, he has everything that a Jew of his age can die for. He should have enough religiosity and pedigree to earn him his salvation, if salvation is earned thru works. But after his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he realized that all of those things counts for nothing, because those are “works” of the flesh. In fact, the flesh has to be crucified on the cross in order to gain spiritual redemption.
Throughout the whole Bible there is only work of the flesh that is acceptable before God: the finished work of Christ on the cross! The rest are like filthy rags in the eyes of God.
When Paul met the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, he realized his spiritual deficiency for the first time. This is where he became captivated by the awesome power of God’s grace, this is where he became a prisoner of grace. After he personally experienced God’s forgiveness for all his sins and received God’s grace, he became a new person. The grace that he received from God is so amazing and Paul can’t help but speak about it. He believed it, preached about it, stood his ground in the face of opposition to it, defended it, until finally he gave his life for it.
As one Commentator said, “Paul lost his religion but in the process found his salvation”. When a person believes the good news, repents, and trust Christ, God’s righteousness is credited into that person’s account; conversely, all that person’s sins are removed from him/her and credited into Christ’s account on the cross. Therefore those sins will not be remembered anymore. Indeed, how great is our God!