You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Paul’ tag.
Acts 13 contains the first of several “sermons” given by Paul. Luke is clearly summarizing since the sermon is a mere 25 verses long, taking no more than a couple of minutes to read. Since the sermon follows the blinding of Bar-Jesus, it is likely that the sermon serves as an explanation of the events on Cyprus, but it is also a representative “synagogue” sermon for Paul.
Schnabel points out that there are three movements in the sermon (Paul the Missionary, 158-9). Paul first reviews Israel’s history from the Patriarchs through John the Baptist (v. 16-25). In the second movement, Paul declares the importance of Jesus in the light of this history (v. 26-37). It is in this section that Paul carefully weaves several texts form the Hebrew Bible together to make the point that Jesus fulfils the promise made to Abraham. The final part of the sermon is the call to repentance (verse 29-41). Like Peter and Stephen, Paul calls his listeners to respond to the message that Jesus is the Christ, although the repentance here in Paul’s sermon is not related to the killing of Jesus, nor does he declare that the “times of refreshing will come.” Now repentance is connected with justification and forgiveness of sins (verses 38-39).
This is a significant development. In Acts 2 and 3, Peter’s sermon was directed at people who had themselves witnessed the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, and even participated in those events (cf. 2:23). No one in the synagogue at Antioch would have been at Jerusalem so they could not be accused of participating in the crucifixion. Paul’s sermon adds a new element – forgiveness of sins. But there is a radical element here: Paul says that through Jesus one can have forgiveness of sins in a way that the Mosaic Law could not provide (37-38).
While the first parts of this sermon were quite similar to that of Peter and Stephen, Paul now calls for a much different response than Peter did. Peter declared that those who repent will be a part of the coming kingdom. In Acts 2 and 3 the repentance is of a sin of ignorance, the sin of killing the Messiah. Since the people acted in ignorance, they may repent and find forgiveness.
Now Paul says that the “one who believes is justified,” but in a way that the Law could never justify. There is a great deal of “Pauline theology” in this verse, since the Mosaic Law allowed for “sins of ignorance” to be forgiven through a sacrifice. If one sinned intentionally (“with a high hand”) then a sacrifice could not be made. Deliberate, premeditated breach of the Law could not find “justification” through a sacrifice. Paul is not talking about the sin of killing the Messiah, but rather of deliberate sins done with forethought and intention, and he is saying that one who believes is the one that receives justification.
Is this a development away from the Law? I think so, Paul is declaring that God granting forgiveness in a new way, one that might very well have been unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible.
Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25). Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail. Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!
How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.
After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh). Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.
As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.
Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys.
But this is far from a period of monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.
Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55). To what extent did was Paul “prepared” for his encounter on the road to Damascus? Certainly Paul thought that God had prepared him to preach the grace of God (Gal 1:15), but this question usually is more interested in Paul’s psychological state of mind when he met Jesus.
Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has framed this discussion of Paul’s conversion in much different terms than the traditional view of Paul would have allowed. (I summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.) Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.” Usually Romans 7 is the key text here. Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Rom 7:25). He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14. Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness. His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.
But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl. Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification. In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars have made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology. This leads to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism – Jews become proto-Pelagians, Paul is Luther bashing the RCC’s.
Judaism is thought to be the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity and Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism. Sanders changed the debate by arguing that the questions posed by the protestant / RCC debate have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period. For Sanders, this totally obscures what was actually happening in the first century and how Christianity developed out of Judaism. In addition, Sanders points out that the protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Sandmel, for example), he was incoherent or inconsistent.
According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law. In fact, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not Paul! Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus. Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.
Is Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (55)?
Martin, Ralph P. 2 Corinthians. Second Edition. Word Biblical Commentary 40; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014. 751 pp. Hb; $54.99. Link to Zondervan Academic
This is the first revised commentary I have used in the Word Biblical Commentary since Zondervan took over the series a few years ago. Martin’s original 2 Corinthians commentary was among the best commentaries on this difficult letter of Paul. Zondervan’s new updated edition of the commentary will remain one of the first off the shelf for me for many years to come.
There are a few cosmetic changes that make a great deal of sense. First, the introductory pages now use Arabic numerals rather Roman numerals. It was always frustrating in the old WBC series to cite pages by Roman numeral: citing page xxviii looks clumsy. Second, all of the excurses in the commentary are printed on gray pages making them easy to find. I noticed that some of the original excurses are not identified as such in this new addition. Rather, they are simply “notes” on particular issues. It appears the note is only a few pages and an excursus is several pages long. It appears the original commentary excurses are now called notes.
One unfortunate change to the series is that Zondervan has printed the hardback edition of this book without a slip jacket. This simple cosmetic change likely saved the publisher money and made the book less expensive to the consumer, but I personally have never liked the look of printed boards on a hardback book. In additional change is that the paper is not as high-quality as the earlier Word editions. However, these criticisms are simply a reflection of the cost of printing a book today. (I was told by a Zondervan insider that all WBC commentaries will be reprinted this way.)
Martin has revised the text of the commentary in order to correct what he calls a “few slips” and to update abbreviations (BDAG for Bauer’s third edition) and to improve the reading of the text. Since it took him 10 years to write the original commentary, Martin explains he is “not inclined to meddle with the text.” As a result, there is not much new in the actual commentary.
Instead of updating the main text of the commentary, Martin includes several new excurses written by colleagues. First, Carl N. Toney contributes a 13-page excursus on the “Composition of Second Corinthians (1985-2007).” Like all sections in the WBC, this begins with a lengthy bibliography including works written before 1985. He compares several partition theories and discusses where the text breaks in 2:14 through 7:4. He concludes by supporting the view of the commentary, arguing chapters 1-9 were written as a distinct letter prior to chapters 10-13 and that “the reduction of these chapters points to the importance of reading them in their final form” (63).
Toney contributes a second lengthy excursus on “Rhetorical Studies of 2 Corinthians.” Rhetorical studies of Paul’s epistles have multiplied since 1985, so this excursus brings the commentary up-to-date in this area. Toney begins by discussing providing a brief overview of rhetorical studies in general and offers several comments on the theological value of rhetorical analysis.
A third new excursus in this commentary is on the “Social Setting of 2 Corinthians” by Mark W. Linder. As with rhetorical studies, cross-disciplinary studies using social science have been applied to Paul’s letters with great profit since the original commentary was published. Linder sites specifically Bruce Winters, After Paul left Corinth, Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians and Gerd Theissen, Social Setting. Perhaps even more influential on Pauline studes is Danker’s 1989 commentary on 2 Corinthians and his work on The Collection.
Martin contributes another excursus on the “Opponents of Paul in 2 Corinthians.” This essay was published in the Earl Ellis Festschrift in 1987. It is reprinted here as an update to the commentary, although it is nearly as old as the original commentary. Martin surveys the common suggestions that Paul’s opponents were “Judaizers” or “Hellenists.” He points out that Paul is respectful of the “highest apostles” in 11:5, but he “fiercely lambasted” the false apostles as Satan’s agents (113). Paul’s gospel embodies a “theology of the Cross” while these false-apostles preach a “theology of Glory.” Since Paul suffers greatly, is physically weak and an ineffective miracle worker, his opponents ridicule him and dismiss his Gospel.
The commentary now includes an essay Martin originally published in the Festschrift for G. R. Beasley-Murray, “The Spirit in 2 Corinthians in the light of the ‘Fellowship of the Holy Spirit’: 2 Corinthians 13:14.” Martin updates the original excursus on “Theology and Mission of 2 Corinthians” with an essay originally published in Gospel to the Nations (IVP 2000).
Carl Toney writes an excursus on the resurrection into Corinthian’s in the context of 2 Corinthians 5. After surveying 1 Cor 15 and 2 Cor 5, Toney summarizes several approaches to the resurrection found in the commentaries. He concludes the two passage are discussing the same kind of resurrection and Paul’s language does emphasize a “physical, somatic resurrection” (254-5). While 1 Cor 15 describes the resurrection as a transformation at the Parousia, 2 Cor 5 discusses the resurrection in the light of present suffering and the possibility of death.
As an introduction to chapters 8-9 there is a brief note on the Pauline Collection which is more or less the same as the original commentary. But the older excursus is supplemented by a short note from D. J. Downs updating the discussion with material from 1985 through 2000. Downs maintains Martin’s view that the Pauline collection was intended to address “a real material need among the Saints in Jerusalem.” But the collection also likely served other needs as well such as “a tangible expression of the mutual relationship shared by Jews and Gentiles” (424).
Conclusion. I am pleased the venerable Word Biblical Commentary is being updated. Some of the volumes are in need of replacement; most are in need of the sort of updating demonstrated in Martin’s 2 Corinthians. The cosmetic changes are acceptable, especially if these changes keep the cost of printing lower. If you have the original commentary, the added sections make this update worth while.
NB: I purchased this book for my personal library. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Fee, Gordon. 1 Corinthians, Revised Edition. NICNT Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 962 pp. Hb; $65. Link to Eerdmans
Gordon Fee is one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. Fee was the general editor of the NICNT series from 1990 to 2012, when he was replaced by Joel Green. Under Fee’s guidance this venerable series has become one of the premier commentaries series. For example, the commentaries on Romans (Doug Moo), Hebrews (Gareth Lee Cockerill), Matthew (R. T. France), Luke (Joel Green) and James (Scot McKnight) are all among the best commentaries published in the last few years.
This is one of the few commentaries I have owned in three different editions, four if you include the original New International Commentary on the New Testament volume on 1 Corinthians by F. E. Grosheide (1953). When Fee’s original commentary was published in 1987, the NICNT series was printed in more compact form (8.5×6). For most of the series, this was a handy size, but for Fee’s massive commentary on 1 Corinthians, it was much too thick to be useful. The New International Commentary also had particularly ugly dust jackets, purple in the Old Testament and bright yellow for the New Testament. As replacement volumes appeared, Eerdmans moved to a larger format (6.125 x 9.25) and greatly improved the design of the dust jackets. I bought a copy of the new version from Eerdmans soon after it came out since my older copy was cracking in the center. At that time there was no new text and the type was set exactly like the original volume so references to specific pages would be the same.
What is new in this Revised Edition? The main change in this revised commentary is the use of the NIV 2011. The first edition of the commentary used the original 1978 NIV text, which Fee describes as “more poorly done in this letter than anywhere else in the canon” (xvi). Fee has been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation since 1991 and has been a major participant in the revisions of the NIV during those years. Most casual readers think revisions were made to the NIV only to make it gender inclusive, but that is not the case. There are 82 instances in the Pauline letters where the word “brothers” refers to the whole congregation and is therefore rendered by the NIV 2011 as “brothers and sisters” (twenty-two times in 1 Corinthians). But there is far more going on in the new editions of the NIV and there is no clandestine group of liberal feminists attempting to corrupt evangelicalism from within. Setting aside the gender-inclusive language, there are many places were the NIV 2011 reflects the sense of the Greek text better than the earlier incarnations of the translation.
Fee explains a second motivation for a revised edition of the commentary: in twenty-five years there have been many important studies of 1 Corinthians. This is certainly true, but in practice Fee does not thoroughly revise the commentary with insights from more recent studies. Fee includes an “addendum” of bibliographical material to this introduction to chapters 8-10 (p. 400-1) and on the very difficult problem of veiling women in 11:2-6 (p. 565-7). Both these bibliographies are offered with a short introduction and no additional commentary. Fee chose to not update his commentary on chapters 8-10 despite the growth in secondary literature on these chapters. His reason is his target audience, pastors and students as oppose to the academy. The same is true for chapter 7, where new bibliography is placed in a footnote (p. 296). There are a few other significant revisions primarily in the footnotes, especially reference to BDAG for lexical issues.
One major revision in this edition is on the controversial text in 14:34-35, “On Women Remaining Silent” (780-92). This section appears after verse 40, only a note appears after verse 33 indicating the “spurious passage (vv. 34-35) that made its way into the MS tradition at this point in the majority of surviving witnesses, but after v. 40 in the Italian church. . .” (774, n. 695). Fee made this argument more briefly in the earlier commentary, in the revised commentary he offers for evidence for the exclusion of the verse as well as some interaction with other explanations of the verses. These pages take the form of an excursus; it is set off from the main commentary by lines, the font is smaller, and the footnotes are unique to this section. While Fee states there is a substantial bibliography for these verses (presumably in the last 25 years), his interest only textual-critical and most articles are theological in nature. This is perhaps the case, but there are several important studies since 2000 simply ignored by the excursus. For example, the contribution of Jeffrey Kloha, “A Textual Commentary on Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians” (Ph.D. diss., The University of Leeds, 2006) seems worthy of inclusion here even if the final form of the study has yet to be published. He mentions Payne’s Man and Woman (2009), although he does not do much with Payne’s arguments. Since Fee’s solution to the problem of a very difficult text, namely, it is spurious and non-Pauline, I expected more interaction with alternative views.
Conclusion. In some ways I was disappointed with the commentary since I imagined a “Second Edition” of the commentary which fully interacted with the massive number of commentaries, monographs, and articles on 1 Corinthians. There are a number of new (perhaps faddish) approaches to epistles Fee has no interest in these new approaches at all: there is nothing socio-rhetorical in this commentary! But this is not a problem since Fee is not writing a new commentary, but revising his older work.
Despite the fact this is a revision as opposed to a Second Edition, Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians should be among the first consulted by pastors and teachers as they treat this important letter of Paul.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
While the following commands from Paul seem unrelated to the theme of unity, Frank Thielman argues they ought to be read in the context of persecution (Philippians, NIVAC, 217-9). While this is not an Empire-wide systematic persecution of believers, we have already seen several times in the letter than the church at Philippi was a small community of believers who are in many ways “different” from the Roman culture around them. The existence of a group of people who “have the mind of Christ” is enough to be suspicious, and suspicion easily gives way to gossip, wild accusations and pressure to conform. This sort of social pressure can be difficult to accept and a source of great fear for the church. Paul’s series of short exhortations in these verses are therefore designed to give comfort and encouragement to endure.
First, Paul encourages the church to set aside worry by rejoicing in their circumstances. If the context is social pressure on Christians in Philippi, then there may be some despair in the congregation. Paul repeats his call for joy regardless of circumstances here, recalling his words in chapter 1. Paul is in prison and may be executed for his faith, yet he rejoices in his circumstances. He is modeling the kind of attitude he desires from the congregation.
This is not some sort of masochistic pleasure in suffering, but rather the sort of happiness that comes from understanding the circumstances properly. For example, someone who competes in athletics “suffers” greatly when they train. They consider the work they are doing well worth the pain because of the ultimate goal (winning the prize). The same is true for pursuing a college degree or training necessary to advance at a job. It is hard work, and might fairly be called suffering, but as painful as it is, from the perspective of the goal, it is a cause for rejoicing. Paul models this by counting his past achievements as a loss and “forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead” (3:12-14).
Second, Paul says the believer is to be “reasonable” (ESV) or “be gentle” (NIV 2011), or perhaps a “forbearing spirit” (BDAG). The Greek word (ἐπιεικής) does have the sense of kindness or courteousness. But it has the sense of kindness in a context where retaliation is expected. This fits well with the possibility of harassment and persecution as well. The believer responds to pressure to conform to the world in ways the world does not expect; instead of revenge and retaliation, we are to be reasonable, gentle, and forgiving.
Third, worry is not necessary because the “Lord is at hand. The phrase, “the Lord is at hand” may go with “be reasonable,” although it is probably better to see it as the reason we should not be anxious. This is not escapist, as if Paul is saying, do not worry about things since God is going to destroy it all soon anyway! The soon return of the Lord is a motivation for unity because the return will vindicate the righteous (rewarding them) while punishing the oppressors. Again, this is not some sort of defeatist, “hunker down and take it” attitude; Paul is once again pointing to the goal and understanding his present suffering in the light of future vindication at the return of the Lord.
Last, instead of worry, we are to bring requests to God in prayer. Based on this verse, worry is sometimes considered a sin. But “worry” here is refers to anxiety or apprehension concerning present circumstances (suffering for the faith?) rather than faithlessness or a careless attitude toward life. Some worry is a “healthy concern.” If my car makes a funny noise it is a cause for concern; I might worry about some change in my health; I might be worried about how my children behave, or about my family’s health, etc. But if I begin to worry about your children, perhaps I have gone beyond healthy concern.
How much worry is unhealthy? Since Paul says we ought to bring requests to God in prayer rather than worry about them, perhaps the analogy of a “burden” is good here. Some things you can physically carry better than others, some people are stronger, better at carrying things, etc. Sometimes you need a little help carrying something heavy or awkward. Unhealthy worry may vary from person to person, but sharing the concern with others, first with the Lord is the best way to “share the load.”
Rather than be excessively concerned, Paul tells us to commit these things to the Lord in prayer in order to share the burden with the one who is able to carry it for you. If Paul has in mind pressure to conform to the Roman world faced by the church, but the application to contemporary Christianity life is clear. We are to let God carry our burdens rather than bear them alone.
Paul does something unusual in Philippains 4, he specifically names at least two leaders in the congregation have some problem hindering the church. Specifically, Euodia and Syntyche need to demonstrate unity. For Paul to specifically name people is very unusual since the letter would have been read publically to the whole congregation. He treats them equally by repeating the verb twice (“I encourage Euodia, I encourage Syntyche”).
We know nothing about these two women, although there have been a few Christian writers who denied they were women, perhaps because Paul called them co-laborers, and a few who have wondered if they were actual people! But the pronouns throughout the three verses are feminine, so very few (if any) modern scholars deny Paul is talking about two women who worked with him in Philippi.
- Syntyche is a feminine name in Philippians, but it appears in inscriptions as a masculine. The early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350 – 428) therefore tried to argue this refers to a man rather than a woman. He went as far as to identify Syntyche as the Philippian jailer from Acts 16!
- Euodia is also a common name in the Greco-Roman world (BDAG cites Greek grave inscriptions on Cyprus); the name means “prosperous” or “successful,” sometimes in the context of a journey. Like Syntyche, the name has a masculine and feminine form.
- The Tübingen School interpreted Euodia and Syntyche as symbols for Jewish and Gentile Christians (for a summary, see Gillman, “Euodia (Person),” ABD 2:670). If this was the case, the Syzygus is the one who unifies the two opposing sides of the early Christian church.
The motivation for making Syntyche into a man is to avoid the implication that an early church like Philippi had women leaders on a level with Paul. These women are not opponents of Paul nor are they false teachers: their names are “written in the book of life.” This is a common way of describing someone who have suffered for their faith yet remained faithful (Dan 12:1, Rev 3:5). This may therefore be a hint the church has suffered for their faith and these two women were instrumental in guiding the congregation through that difficult time.
Verse three asks someone in the congregation to help the women to work through their dispute. The Greek word (σύζυγος) has sometimes been interpreted as a name (Syzygus), a name which would mean “yoke-fellow” if it is a name at all. The name does appear in Greek literature as a description of a wife (T.Rub 4:1, for example), so sometimes Syzygus was thought to be Paul’s wife! (She is Paul’s loyal wife, left behind in Philippi, perhaps Lydia herself.) Paul also calls on Clement and the “rest of my fellow workers” to help the women to reconcile. We know nothing of Clement. Although it is the same name as a bishop of Rome in the late 90s, it is unlikely to be the same man.
Paul clearly loves and respects these fellow-workers (v. 1), but he does strongly encourage them to set aside these difference. He uses a strong word for his affection for the church: he earnestly desires to see them (ἐπιπόθητος). The church is Paul’s “joy and crown.” This is similar to saying “pride and joy” today, the church is something Paul can boast about and on the day he stands before the Lord he can consider the church a victor’s crown.
In summary, Paul deeply cares for the church at Philippi and wants them to endure in the trails they will face. Because he loves them so deeply, he needs to call out two people who are causing disunity. But the whole church needs to have the same sort of unity as well; everyone is to “think similarly.”
In this final encouragement toward unity, Paul addresses the leadership of the church at Philippi. He began the letter by addressing the elders and deacons (1:1), now he calls for the leadership of the church to demonstrate the mind of Christ by standing firm in unity.
“Stand firm” is a common phrase in Paul’s letters. It refers to being firmly convinced of a belief. In 1:27 he used the same word to encourage the believers to stand firm “in one spirit,” so they are able to withstand any oppression they might face as a result of their faith in Jesus. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:15 he encourages his readers to stand firm and hold on to the traditions they have been given; In Gal 5:1 the readers are to stand firm in the freedom they have in Christ and not go back under the yoke of the Law.
One of the major themes of this letter has been the unity of the church. Paul wants the church to “live in harmony” (cf. Rom15:5) by thinking the same thing in the Lord.” Paul has used a similar phrase in 3:15 for the kind of intellectually unity necessary in the church, but also in 2:2, the church must be of “one mind” if it is going to have unity (2 Clem 17:3 uses the same phrase, possibly alluding to this text).
There may be some doctrinal unity in mind here, since this is the conclusion of a section describing the teaching of someone who opposes Paul. The church needs to think correctly about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross, for example. In the context, they need to properly understand the function of the Jewish Law in the current era.
But Paul calls for unity more often in practical matters and ethical choices. The church not only has to share the same doctrine, but also practice. In a church like Galatia, doctrine was a serious problem, but in Corinth behavior seems to be a bigger issue. As he has said throughout the letter, the church has to be of “one mind,” and they should have the “mind of Christ.”
This is the real problem with unity. There are some doctrinal and ethical matters I cannot set aside in the interest of unity. Every denomination and church has some doctrinal formulation that is considered foundational as well as behaviors considered unacceptable. How do we balance important distinctions and maintain unity in the Body of Christ?
In order to reach the goal Paul does not look back at anything, but keeps his attention fixed on the goal God has placed before him. Forgetting what lies behind. To “forget” (ἐπιλανθάνομαι) is fairly clear, although this word can mean “do not think about it” or “do not concern yourself with it.” When someone thanks you for a simple favor, the response is often “forget about it.” What we mean is, “don’t be concerned about it, whatever I did is not that big of a deal.”
Paul may refer to his persecution of the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, since he likely had a great deal of guilt and remorse for his attacks on the earliest church. This is very preachable since most people have some guilt over the things they have done in the past. Pastors can use this as an opportunity to encourage people to forgive themselves as Christ forgave them and not dwell on the past.
In the context of Philippians, however, he may refer here to his heritage as a well-trained and highly respected Jewish leader, someone who could claim to be “blameless” with respect to righteousness according to the Law. He has just described his “boast” (vv 4-6) even though he now considers it a loss compared to what he has in Christ.
But there is another factor in “forgetting what lies behind.” Paul was called to be the “light to the Gentiles” by the risen Lord Jesus himself. Jesus gave to Paul a unique commission and revelation and has directly guided him on a number of occasions. He has already planted many churches and is responsible for spreading the Gospel throughout Roman Empire, he has already written letters which will eventually become a major component of the canon of the New Testament. Paul could review his life in Christ and conclude he has made a spectacular contribution and served God better than anyone else in the first century. These “good things” have to be set aside as well, “forgetting what is behind” must include everything including these things that might be counted as bearing much fruit for God.
Second, Paul is “straining forward” to what lies ahead. This word (ἐπεκτείνομαι) only appears here in the New Testament, although it is the compound form of the more common word (τείνω) for stretching something or pulling tight on something (like reins, a helmet strap, both from Homer). Since this is a compound form, the meaning is probably intensified, stretching for something that is just out of your reach, so far that you pull a muscle in your shoulder.
There might be a hint of an athletic metaphor here, since a runner “strains forward” to cross the finish line first, often making a final push to win the race. In 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, Allyson Felix and Jenebah Tarmoh “both crossed the finish line in 11.068 seconds.” Neither of the cameras shooting 3,000 frames per second clearly showed a winner. If either runner had been distracted just a little, or looked to the side a fraction of a second would be lost and the other runner would have clearly won the race.
This is the kind of focus Paul is talking about in Philippians. If one is straining for what is ahead of them, their focus is not on what is behind them, or even what is around them at the moment. They are completely focused on the goal, crossing the finish line and winning the prize. A runner cannot think about who is behind them or running alongside them, they can only focus on the future goal of finishing the race and winning the prize. For Paul, this means the terrible things he had done as well as his admirable service for the cause of Christ. This also means he cannot focus on his opponents who are also running the race (even if they are not completing as properly as Paul is).
Paul develops an accounting metaphor in verse 7. All of his achievements count for nothing when it comes to his position in Jesus Christ. On one side of the ledger is his human achievement, on the other is the sake of Christ. He writes them off as a loss in comparison to known Christ Jesus as his Lord.
Human achievement is “loss” or “rubbish.” Loss (ζημία) can refer to a financial loss, as in Acts 27:10 (Paul predicts the shipwreck and “much injury and loss.”) In LXX 2 Kings 23:33 the word refers to a heavy tribute imposed on Judah by the Pharaoh Neco when he took Jehoahaz captive. The word can refer to a financial penalty (a heavy fine, for example). In this context, Paul is saying that all of human achievement was a huge loss when it came to knowing Jesus and the power of the resurrection.
Imagine someone who buys an antique at an estate sale, investing a significant amount of money because they were certain it was worth far more (maybe a Civil War Rifle or a colonial document). They take the antique to the Antiques Roadshow and have it examined by an expert and it turns out to be a worthless fake. The person would take a huge loss since they cannot resale the item and recoup their investment. It is still a nice antique and might look nice good hanging over the mantel. It can still be enjoyed and valued. But it is really a total financial loss.
In a similar way, Paul’s “heavy investment” in training as a Pharisee and his dedicated practice of Judaism as a Pharisee have turned out to be a loss if the return on the investment was “righteousness before God.” He still has the value of a thorough knowledge of the Scripture and the satisfaction of a life well lived, good moral values and work ethic, etc. But with respect to being right with God, that investment is a total loss.
The second word Paul uses here is more picturesque. Rubbish (σκύβαλον) refers to refuse or garbage, the sort of thing the dogs would scavenge. Often refers to excrement (Josephus, JW 5.571, “sewers and cattle dung,”); Sib.Or. 7.58, “the mournful refuse of war;” the word appears in the medical work of Aretæus the Cappadocian, Causes and Symptoms of Acute Disease (SD 2.9), in a section entitled “On Dysentery;” BDAG glosses “It’s all crap.” It is no coincidence Paul is more or less saying the opponents as “dogs” who they are still rooting around in their own skubalon!
It is important to understand Paul correctly here: he is not saying Judaism is bad, or that Jews keeping the Law is bad, or that Torah is “garbage.” He is saying that keeping the Law does not make one right with God, only faith in Jesus Christ will do that. In Galatians he will address the reasons why a Gentile is not under the Law, but here his point is only that human achievement (whether good or bad) counts for nothing with respect to being right with God, knowing the “power of the resurrection” or obtaining salvation at the resurrection of the dead.
The righteousness that counts is “through faith of Christ” (v.9). There is a serious interpretive issue here in verse nine. The ESV and the NIV both translate the line as “through faith in Christ Jesus” although “in” is not the natural way to read the text. “through the faith of Christ” is a better rendering of the Greek (τὴν διὰ πίστεως ΧριστοØ), but what does this mean? (Yes, this is the classic pistis christou debate!)
There are two options here. Paul might mean “the faith that I have in Jesus’ sacrifice saves me from sin.” On the other hand, “the faithful act of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross saves me from my sin (through the faithful obedience of Christ on the cross).” Since both of these options are taught in Scripture (you do place your faith in Jesus, Eph 2:8-9) and Jesus was faithful when he humbly submitted to death of the cross (Phil 2:5-11), it is possible most people do not catch Paul’s subtle teaching here. In the context of Philippians, Jesus is the one who humbly submitted himself to the Father and was obedient to death, Paul has submitted to the Father and suffers in prison at the moment; Epaphroditus humble serves the church at Philippi at the very moment even though he has suffered.