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In Philippians 3, Paul warns against putting too much faith in our own efforts:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

He tells his own story, describing his former identity as a Jew and a Pharisee. He confesses that he persecuted the Church with zeal, thinking it righteous. Post-conversion everything changed dramatically:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

He acknowledges that he is powerless on his own and:

14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

He exhorts the Philippians to do the same:

15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

The closing verses of Philippians 3 and first of Philippians 4 appeared in the June 2015 newsletter of l’Église Protestante Unie de Cannes, in a final written commentary by their pastor Paolo Morlacchetti, who has since been assigned to the Reformed congregation in Nice.

The verses are as follows:

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

4 Therefore, my brothers,[a] whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

In his commentary, ‘Our city is in heaven’, Pastor Morlacchetti wrote that we can possess the highest human traits and beliefs, but, without faith in Jesus Christ, they count for nothing. Paul saw this in some of the Philippians and, similarly, it is easy for us to recognise such people today:

The enemies of the cross of Christ are those who think they can bypass the cross. They are naturally people who enter one or another of sects which are multiplying in our post-Christian era; they think they can find more and better than the Evangelist [Paul]. Or they think that what the Evangelist said is outdated. These days we need new ideals and a new morality.

The enemies of the cross are also those who believe in humanity, in its faculties, in its achievements without noticing that if humanity is capable of great things it can also commit its worst atrocities. Or they are the indifferent, the great mass of the indifferent, who turn their backs on the cross and obliterate it from their lives.

When the Apostle Paul says that some are enemies of the cross of Christ, he isn’t advocating a crusade against them. He does not say that one must destroy heretics in order to purify the Church and the earth. When he thinks of them, Paul cries (‘with tears’). Yes, he cries with sadness because such people are losing their life by imagining they are saving it.

They have for a god their belly, writes Paul. Their belly, which in that era might have been circumcision or dietary restrictions. It could also be whatever satisfies us morally or materially. It could be moral attributes or a belief system which turns us away from Christ. Any human recourse — false salvation — perpetuates the illusion and enslaves us.

The man who refuses Christ’s cross thinks he can get by on his own efforts; he believes himself to be self-sufficient. But in reality, he obeys this system, this ideology, as if it were a religion and he himself its disciple. He loses his liberty, he allies himself with a foreign power. This is why the apostle Paul directs us to another authority. If we really want to be free, we must choose to submit to this authority, that of Jesus Christ.

Morlacchetti concludes:

As so often happens, we face a choice. No longer putting confidence in ourselves, in our resources and in our own merit … this is the fundamental question which we face our whole lives. Our faith revolves around this decisive choice.

The Apostle Paul understood this well. He ceased putting his confidence in his own personal qualities, however authentic, of being a Jew and a Pharisee. He put his belief in Jesus Christ. When he says to imitate him, he does not say, ‘Follow me,’ he tells us, ‘Follow Jesus Christ, believe in Him’. He directs us to another, not himself.

It is for this reason that we see in him a witness worthy of being believed.

It is useful to read St Paul’s letters not only from a historical perspective but also to discern what they tell us — and the world — today with regard to belief and faith. I’d read this passage before, but not in such a relevant way. Morlacchetti’s interpretation of ‘belly’ was, for me, particularly helpful.

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