However, there are always those who do not understand life in Christ and seek to bind their version of Christianity on others. Paul is aware of these tendencies among these Christians, and warns of the dogs, evil workers, and mutilators. Paul used similar words in Galatians (1:7, 9, 12; 5:12) and 2 Corinthians (11:13; 2:17) to describe the Judaizers, and textual evidence suggests these are the opponents here as well. What is not clear is whether they have a strong foothold in the church.
The issue of mutilation pertains to the Judaizers’ belief that one must become a Jew first to be saved. Thus, circumcision must be undergone for the Christian convert to be successfully (wholly) saved. Judaism rested on its laurels, its privileges, and believed that only those who met the particular ethnic and religious standards of Judaism could enter into the people of God.
Yet, Paul points out that these privileges did not produce humility and service to God. Instead, these privileges actually promoted national prejudice. True worship was indicated not by one’s nationality but by spiritual worship, boasting in Christ, and humility. True spiritual worship is characterized not by a mark in the flesh but by an attitude of the heart.
Paul looks to himself and shows that he had all the advantages of a natural-born Jew. He was not a proselyte, and he emphasizes his Hebrew heritage (a hearkening back to antiquity), his standing as a Pharisee, and his approach to the law (which was another boundary marker for the Judaizers). For Paul, these things, though once viewed as privileges and the paths to salvation, he now views as trash in light of knowing Christ.
Knowing Christ is experiential knowledge, not facts or knowledge about Christ. For Paul, to know Christ will unlock the meaning of life. Knowing God in the Old Testament was to understand his revelation of himself (see Isaiah 11:2; Habakkuk 2:14). Paul’s concept of “gaining Christ” is present and future, not past. He understands he must constantly be looking ahead, understanding the real value of earthly things (trash).
All this centers in righteousness (v. 9). Paul distinguishes between the righteousness that comes from the law and is one’s own righteousness and the righteousness that comes from Christ. This righteousness that is not wearisome because it cannot be attained through work (trial and error and constant failure—the law) is ONLY found “in Christ”—it is not attained by keeping laws, no matter how humble, obedient, or sincere one is. It is the faith OF Christ, that Christ gives, a response to the forgiving love of God. It rests in Christ, whose faithfulness God accepts in our behalf.
This Christ is the one Paul wants to know, and share in his sufferings, and he desires to attain the resurrection of the dead, where there will be eternal, unbroken fellowship with Christ.
Paul knows (v. 12) that this requires singular dedication, and that he himself has not attained this yet. But the mark of maturity is perseverance—to press on, press forward, to obtain this eternal result. Paul forgets the way he used to view the world through Hebraic privilege and strains forward to what lies ahead, with his new focus of knowing Christ. Jesus Christ initiated this process (v. 12) and Paul “takes hold” of it (makes it his own). Paul is clear that he himself has not arrived at this point of perfection; do some of them think they have?
What Paul has described is the perspective of the mature. Maturity is knowledge gained by long experience, resulting in firm conviction and maturity of thought and conduct. Perhaps some believed themselves to be mature when they were not, and Paul suggests that God will teach them what he really requires. He ends in v. 16 with a call to keep progressing.