Historically, the Fifth Sunday of Lent is called “Judica” or “Judge me, O Lord.” The theme of judgment will find its way into the sermon insofar as the Gospel deals with the judgment of the Jews against their King and the judgment of God through the Son. He is the Stone for Stumbling to those who refuse to believe. “Anyone who falls on this stone will be shattered” (Luke 20:18). Taken together, however, the readings from the 3-year, series C, strongly emphasize not only the judgment against unbelief, but the righteous judgment of God pronounced on all who believe: justification!
The texts compel us to deal with the “new thing” (Isa.43:18) that God is doing, namely, preaching the righteousness of faith to all nations. God’s judgment of justification is now for all. It has nothing to do with the flesh and everything to do with faith. In our texts, the law is not merely the moral law, but the law as it was practiced in Israel liturgically and ritually. The false confidence of Paul and of many in Israel in their own flesh (he’s talking about the apparently good things) must be considered rubbish and loss compared to having Christ.
You’ll notice, however, that Paul is not talking about real virtuous living. He’s addressing the abuses of Judaizers in the Christian congregation. The sins are of a religious sort. Can you think of any made-up religious works that people do to appear godly? They are to receive the judgment of God this Sunday. Paul argues that those who have confidence in their own religiosity have no right to boast as much as he can. And yet Paul, who is far superior to these Judaizers in in law, counts all his pious desires loss for the sake of Christ. Like anyone who has the appearance of godliness, such as the Jews who had the law, the promises, the worship, etc., that appearance makes it easy to feel holy and righteous ex opere operato, that is, as the Lutheran Confessions describe it, form without substance.
Paul distinguishes between confidence in the flesh (v. 4b) or in a righteousness of our own (v. 9) and the righteousness from God that depends on faith (v. 9). In no way does Paul’s description of two kinds of righteousness mean that the Jews were without the righteousness of faith or that they were somehow justified by the law without Christ. Salvation is and always has been by faith in Christ, first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles, as St. Paul says in Romans 1:16.
Underlying Paul’s argument about the law and faith is what he calls elsewhere “the mystery hidden for ages and generations is now revealed to His saints, to whom God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of this mystery’s glory, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:26). In Philippians 3, Paul addresses the same topic as he does in Ephesians 2, Romans 9-11, Colossians 1, etc., concerning the grafting in of the Gentiles to make one body in Christ, but he does so here on a very personal level. This whole Sunday is arguably a Lenten Epiphany. The death of Christ is the death that unites all, both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, and brings them into one body, the true Israel of God, who share in our Lord’s sufferings and hope in His resurrection. The law couldn’t do this; only faith.
For a text on justification and the righteousness of faith, there is, however, a whole lot of seeking, searching, gaining, sharing, and straining going on. This text may not necessarily call for a law-gospel sermon on an individual’s move from the righteousness of the law (or lack thereof) to the righteousness of faith in the traditional sense. Paul is critiquing his own false piety, which misinterpreted the real nature of the law. He is not saying that he failed to meet the law’s demands or that the law accused him of unrighteousness. To the contrary, he did it! He sought to be perfect and, by all accounts of man, he was. He means this as something praiseworthy. But even this zeal and perfection according to the law he counts as loss, not only to gain Christ (something he might attribute to his own self-denial), but to be found in Him, to share in His suffering and become one with Him in His death. Only then will we know the power of His resurrection: when we die to ourselves and find in Christ alone life eternal. The baptismal connections are clear and you’ll know your people well enough to make the application of Paul’s words concrete. We haven’t attained it yet, but the good work that God started He’ll bring to completion on the day of Christ.
If I were preaching this text, I would test out the “διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ” as a subjective genitive rather than an objective genitive. By that I mean, Paul seems to be comparing his own righteousness to that which comes by “the faith of Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ.” The grammar itself suggests this as a very possible translation of the phrase. Run the race, the suffering, the death, and the resurrection through Christ first. And only then does it become ours. Paul has moved from zeal for the law and being perfected in it to zeal for gaining Christ and being conformed perfectly to Him.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Philippians 3:(4b-7) 8-14.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 3:(4b-7) 8-14.