Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
Philippians 3:1-3 ESV
Now having commended the work of Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians, Paul begins the next major discussion: the danger of legalism. One of the most influential heresies of the early church was the teaching of the Judaizers, who taught that Gentile Christians must conform to the Mosaic Law, particularly by being circumcised, in order to become a disciple of Christ. The Apostles rightfully condemned this teaching as adding human effort to the gospel of grace. Although the Judaizers’ insistence on circumcision may not be widespread today, the spirit of such legalism continues to stalk followers of Christ.
REJOICE // VERSE 1
Just as the previous chapter concluded with Paul urging the Philippians to find joy in how God was using Timothy and Epaphroditus, so chapter three begins with another call for joy in the Lord. The word finally here does not signify the conclusion of the letter (we are, after all, only beginning the second half); instead, it reveals that Paul is approaching the final matters of discussion within the letter. A few things must be noted of verse 1.
First, the second sentence of the verse appears (in the ESV, at least) to connect it directly to the previous one. However, Fee notes “that seems nearly impossible, since (1) ‘the same things’ is plural, not singular, which would be the natural expression if he intended to point to the preceding imperative, (2) this view disregards the asyndeton [referencing the lack of conjunctions in verse 2 which is unusual for Paul and therefore is likely a matter of emphasis], which is especially unusual if this were Paul’s intent, and (3) one can imagine any number of adjectives that might serve as reasons for him to repeat the imperative to rejoice, but ‘for your security’ is not one of them, whereas it fits perfectly with the warning and exhortation that follows. The view suggested here seems confirmed by the repetition of this idea in v. 18 (‘about whom I have told you many times before’)” (292-293).
Second, the command to rejoice in the Lord might, at first, seem disconnected from Paul’s assault on legalism within the following verses, yet the superior joy found only in Christ is a central foundation for the apostle’s argument here. The gain of Christ (v. 8) in the midst of losing all things is a reason joy. Glorying only in Christ and placing no confidence in our flesh (v. 3) is reason for joy. Knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection is a reason for joy (v. 10). Looking toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (v. 14) is a reason for joy. Our heavenly citizenship (v. 20) is a reason for joy. Our hope of having our lowly bodies gloriously transformed (v. 21) is a reason for joy. Thus, the entirety of this chapter presents the joyful truth of the gospel against the destruction, shame, and worldliness of legalism (v. 19). To rejoice in the Lord, therefore, is to understand and submit to the truths that follow.
MUTILATORS OF THE FLESH // VERSE 2
In verse 2, Paul begins his attack on legalism. Paul warns the Philippians to beware a certain group of Jewish Christians called the Judaizers. This group stepped into the limelight whenever Gentiles began to profess faith in Christ by speaking up and claiming that Gentiles must first become Jews (via circumcision) in order to become Christians. In fact, the main motivation behind the letter to the Galatians was combatting this very heresy. The argument that Paul gave in Galatians to show this movement as heretical was that by claiming circumcision is needed for salvation, they were saying that Jesus was not all-sufficient. Their formula was essentially Jesus + circumcision = salvation, but Paul said that salvation comes from Christ alone. Furthermore, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was formed to definitively answer the question of whether circumcision was necessary for Gentile Christians. Thus, having dealt with this issue on numerous occasions before, it is as if Paul sought to waste as little time dealing with it as possible. The result is three critical jabs at this heretical ideology that leave the Judaizers in a theological knockout.
First, Paul calls them dogs. The concept of dog did not bring such pleasant emotions in the ancient world as it does today. Yes, some people did keep dogs for pets, but for the most part, dogs were dangerous, disease carrying scavengers that ate whatever they could find on the streets. Thus, dogs were seen as one of the most unclean animals to the Jews, and to parallel such uncleanness, there was a rabbinical saying that called the Gentiles dogs. They compared the religious impurity of the Gentiles to the physical impurity of a dog. Paul, thus, reverses this notion and claims that their legalistic insistence on circumcision actually makes them unclean like a dog.
Second, he calls them evildoers. Devout Jews considered it the highest priority to uphold God’s Law. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that took this to the next level by literally devoting their entire lives to studying and obeying the Torah. Thus, they would have considered themselves to be righteous keepers of the Law, but instead their mentality produced evil, law-breaking behavior. Instead of workers of righteousness, they became workers of iniquity.
The third statement on Paul’s list is actually a specific example of the second. Paul calls them mutilators of the flesh. This was another of Paul’s play on words because the words for mutilation and circumcision are near-rhymes in Greek (peritome, meaning “to cut around” versus katatome meaning “to cut to pieces”). Thus, he was saying that although they thought that circumcision would seal their favor with God, in reality they were only mutilating their flesh (which in the Torah would disqualify priests from service).
These severe warnings are especially interesting when we remember that the church of Philippi was predominately, if not entirely, composed of Gentiles. In fact, a faction of Judaizers may have yet to exist in Philippi itself. But even if this was the case, Paul was obviously still wary of this heresy’s influence. The lure of this teaching was twofold. First, the act of circumcision gave a physical work to place one’s confidence in. Second, being identified with the Judaism meant religious protection. Not long after conquering Judea, the Romans realized that the Jews could never be made to adopt the religious pluralism of the Empire. Prudence then led to the Jewish people receiving a religious exemption from worshiping the Roman gods and emperor. The followers of Jesus were not so fortunate. While Jesus Himself may have been a Jew, the two religions quickly parted ways. Plus, worshiping a someone crucified for treason didn’t present Christians in the best light either. Thus, physically identify with Judaism likely held a strong allure to the early Gentile believers.
Of Harsh Words
Obviously, the severity of Paul’s language reveals the seriousness of the threat of the Judaizers to Christianity. Perhaps it is worth considering for a moment the worth and danger of harsh using harsh language to describe theological realities. Given that our current society tends to value kindness over truth, the willingness of Scripture to speak strong and even offensive language in defense of truth is somewhat jarring. Indeed, many today view Jesus as the paragon of gentleness and soft-spoken words, overlooking (either through sheer ignorance or blatant rejection) Jesus’ rather frequent declaration of hypocrisy upon the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Likewise, Paul wrote the Galatians concerning the issue of circumcision, calling the Galatians foolish for believing the Judaizers (3:1) and wishing for the emasculation of the deceivers (5:15). For the sake of brevity, we must pass over the language of the Old Testament, like Amos calling wealthy women who oppressed the poor cows (Amos 4:1). Just as with its frank discussion of violence and sexual sin, the Bible is not ashamed to speak harshly in the midst of a sinful world. We must, therefore, meet the Bible as it is, refusing to pretend as though we have a moral superiority to the very Word of God.
Nevertheless, does the Bible endorse our usage of harsh language as well? Is it right for us to call heretical teachers dogs or similar descriptions? Since the Scriptures occasionally use harsh language, we can conclude that it is applicable during some situations. For instance, Paul will use a slightly uncouth word in verse 8 to describe his good works when compared to Christ. Similarly, Isaiah compares the value of our righteous deeds to a used menstrual rag. The usage of such words serves to emphasize our lack of value when compared to the Most High God. Sin and the depravity that it creates should not be sugarcoated.
Confrontations with false teachers who are leading brothers and sisters astray also seem to justify harsh words in some circumstances, as we see within this verse. As nearly each New Testament author warns against false teachers at some point, the danger of yielding to false doctrine is an ever-present threat upon Christ’s church, leading many of the narrow path. As such, the biblical authors’ words against false teachers are particularly brutal. Jesus said being drowned with a stone tied around your neck is a better option than leading others into sin (Matthew 18:6). Both Peter and Jude state that the gloom of utter darkness is reserved for them (2 Peter 2:17; Jude 13). John calls them antichrists (1 John 4:3). Purposeful deception of God’s people deserves strong and even harsh rebuke.
While there are, therefore, appropriate uses of harsh language, let us also consider the severity of such words. In fact, the very impact of such speech relies upon it being rarely invoked. By becoming commonplace, its legitimate use is stripped away. Let Christians who regularly use cuss words consider the wisdom of this thought. After all, many words of profanity have become vulgar (especially in the original meaning of both words: common or ordinary) by removing them from their genuine place of use. Habitually shouting “damn it” when injured or frustrated robs the word of its terrifying meaning: to eternally condemn to hell. Or flippantly saying “to hell with it all” both ignores and diminishes the reality to which the word hell points: never-ending torment under the wrath of God.
Perhaps we could attribute much of this the postmodernism that flows so silently through our veins. We fail to grasp the reality which words represent, so words gradually lose their meaning and significance. Only as we find ourselves flailing through an abstract world of gelatin do we begin to reach out for something concrete, struggling to formulate new words to capture the weightiness of existence. But these too shall pass, leaving us to escalate our verbiage ever further. The desensitization of the word may be a doom of the Fall. God’s words, after all, are the exact opposite. As God spoke, His words formed reality itself. Even at their best, our words can only represent the objects that God’s words brought into existence. His Word, therefore, is reality. As people who worship the embodied Word of God as revealed through the written Word of God, we are (literally) eternally bound to words and the realities they represent. As children of the God who speaks life into being, let us shudder at the thought of frivolous and careless words! As disciples of the One who upholds all things by the word of His power, let us strive to use our speech to accurately display His reality!
Although we could continue to dive into the implications of words and their meanings, allow me to attempt a conclusion to our discussion of Paul’s usage of harsh language here and its lessons for us. Two reactions to Paul’s language in verse 2 are likely (although with a variety of degrees). One will smile proudly at the boldness of the apostle, while the other will silently question whether such talk was really necessary. Both lean toward dangerous extremes. A failure to acknowledge the necessity of a harsh word is harmful but so is delighting in it. The wisdom of the Holy Spirit matured through saturation in the Word is the only solution. For example, may we rightfully feel the shame of Christians who refused to appropriately condemn Nazism, while also recalling that the often unwisely harsh language of the Martin Luther, the lion of the Reformation, was able to be used to validate the Nazis’ anti-Semitic regime.
TRUE CIRCUMCISION // VERSE 3
Notice Paul’s shifted wording in this verse: for we are the circumcision. The inclusive and exclusive implications of we cast aside any remaining doubt as to Paul’s view of the Judaizers. Their teaching was blatantly heretical, and, as such, they were not among the people of God. Also note that he is not saying that we have the proper circumcision but that we are the circumcision. This is the fundamental change that God promised to His people in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Why is this so significant?
To begin, we must understand that circumcision was always meant to be an outward sign of an inner work of God. In Romans 4, Paul specifically notes that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness before his circumcision, not after. Thus, circumcision was the outward symbol of Abraham’s circumcised heart before God by grace through faith.
Yet circumcision not only signified the inward working of God in the heart of the believer, it also represented becoming a member of God’s collective people. In the Old Testament, Israelite boys were circumcised on the eighth day to symbolize their incorporation into the holy nation of God. This rite is changed in the New Testament. The sign of circumcision that physically marked the Israelites is passed away. Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus are now collectively the true circumcision. Gentiles are grafted into Israel by the cutting away of sin from their heart rather than the removal of their foreskin. The church, God’s world-wide Israel, is now marked by another rite of incorporation: baptism. Presbyterians would argue that the symbol of baptism is a nearly identical replacement of circumcision, hence their insistence on baptizing infants. We, however, believe that the transfer is not one-to-one. Baptism, instead, is the New Testament fulfillment of circumcision’s Old Testament role, extended now to both male and female confessors of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Like circumcision, baptism is not a salvific work. Our sins are not cleansed by the waters of baptism; rather, they symbolize the sin-cleansing blood of Jesus upon us.
But if circumcision is no longer the mark of belonging to the people of God, how can we know that we are God’s children, that we are the circumcision? Paul provides us with three descriptions, a fitting antidote to the threefold condemnation in verse 2.
First, we who are the circumcision worship by the Spirit of God. Paul’s concept of worship here is likely different from the images that first spring into our minds. For many of us, we associate worship with singing praises to God together during corporate worship. Interestingly, that idea is probably more accurately linked to verse 1’s command to rejoice in the LORD, since the phrase is repeated through the Psalms (for example, Psalm 35:9, 64:10, 97:12, 104:34). Instead, Paul’s idea of worship here is linked to the sacrifices performed by the Levitical priesthood, which seems odd given his insistence against putting our confidence in rites and rituals. What then does mean by worshiping by the Spirit of God? Is there something specific that we must do to worship by the Spirit? The answer, in short, is no. And I believe that this is precisely Paul’s point. Those who worship by the Spirit of God are not relying upon rites and ceremonies to worship but upon the Holy Spirit. Their reliance is upon God Himself to initiate worship. This idea is found in Galatians, where Paul claims that it is the Spirit that enables us to cry out Abba Father (Gal. 4:6). As children of God, we claim that God is our Father and that He is our Father at all times. Thus, if He is our Father and if we can only call Him such via the Spirit, then all worship that comes from a Christian is done by means of the Spirit. For the believer, worship that is done outside of the Spirit is not worship at all, just as prayer done outside the Spirit is not prayer at all. Worshiping by the Spirit, therefore, is a life of worship. It is a presentation of our very lives as living sacrifices for God. We do not merely sacrifice a tenth of our income as sacrifice; we surrender ourselves to be used in whatever way He sees fit.
Second, the truly circumcised will glory in Christ Jesus. The deepest cry of a heart that has been saved and changed by Christ is to see Him glorified. The Judaizers, by relying upon their circumcision to justify them before God, glorified themselves. When we believe that by our actions we receive salvation, we rob Christ of the glory due Him. Salvation by grace through faith gives complete and total glory to Christ and Christ alone. Thus, the true believer’s life will be of constant glorification in Christ Jesus. Paul says as much himself in Romans 4:1-5:
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
Finally, we put no confidence in the flesh. Humanly speaking, salvation is impossible. We, finite beings, have infinitely offended an infinite God and thereby deserved infinite punishment. When the finite has made and infinite error, how could the finite ever repair the infinite? To do so is beyond the ability of the finite. Thus, it is preposterous lunacy of placing confidence in our flesh (finite) to accomplish the process of salvation (an infinite task). Such is the failure of legalism. We may be able, from time to time, to assuage our own guilt via our good works, but they will never suffice to clear our account before God. Our plight is hopeless. We are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. It is as certain and unavoidable as our eventual death. Our confidence, therefore, can only be placed in that which is also infinite. This is the glory of Jesus’ sacrifice! Being infinite, Christ was able to pay the infinite price for us. Being very God of very God, the death of Christ upon the cross works the impossible for us by cleansing the infinite debt of our sin.
The heart cry of every Christian is the same as Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”