As a high schooler, the letterman jacket was a status symbol for athletes like myself. Each time I got a varsity letter, I excitedly pinned proof of it on my jacket. By senior year, I’d managed to rack up nine varsity letters and I wore that jacket all the time.
If letterman jackets had been a thing when the apostle Paul had been alive, my own accolades would’ve paled in comparison to his status. In fact, Paul shares about his lofty heritage in his letter to the church in Philippi:
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for 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; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Phil. 3:3-5).
Paul was a “varsity” Pharisee. He was circumcised according to the Jewish custom and upheld the law with intensity. Despite the loss of many records due to the exile of Judah, Paul was able to trace his lineage back to the tribe of Israel’s first king: the tribe of Benjamin. This is why, in verse 4, Paul says that if anyone has reason to be confident in themselves, it’s him. He doesn’t stop there though. That’s why Paul’s message is so important.
The New American Standard Bible (NASB) has a helpful translation of verse 3. It says, “although I myself could boast as having confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he is confident in the flesh, I have more reason.”
Paul could boast in himself, but he did not. Why?
Why Didn’t Paul Boast of His Accomplishments?
Perhaps an earlier Paul (who was then referred to as “Saul”) would have boasted. It’s fair to assume he did, as he was a Pharisee. Pharisees were members of a Jewish sect who were known for their strict adherence to the laws of Judaism. But once Christ entered Paul’s heart, he realized how silly it would be to ever boast in things of his own accomplishment or standing. In another one of his letters, Paul says as much:
“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:17-18).
Paul understood that the best possible thing about him was that Christ had rescued him. He understood that studying verses and learning rules was not a substitute for knowing and loving his Savior.
Rejoicing in Christ
I wonder if Paul looked back on his pre-Christ life with frustration. Maybe he recalled the prideful heart he’d lived with and felt ashamed over it. I’m not sure, but I do know that I still cringe when I remember my arrogant strut to class the Monday after a winning race. You know what’s interesting though? Like Paul, I don’t boast in that stuff anymore. Sure, my flesh still knows that temptation. But I now see my athletic experiences through a lens of pure gratitude—it is undeserved, privileged opportunity.
If I had anything to boast of as a young athlete, it was Christ in me. He had made my mind and body. He gave me the resources to excel in sports. He blessed me with parents who supported my dreams. That same God has blessed me with immense healing, a husband I adore, and a capacity to love others like I never could in years past.
It makes me think of the song “All I Have Is Christ” by Sovereign Grace Music, which opens with these lyrics:
Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life
What greater truth could we possibly rejoice in? What could we ever do to deserve such a Savior? I agree with Paul, who wrote, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8a).