This series continues with Paul explaining and comparing both the physical and spiritual circumcisions as well as the teachers who promote each of these.

So far in this letter to the Philippian church Paul has pronounced a blessing on them, given them news regarding his personal status as he awaits trial in Rome and his plans to revisit them when he is freed from prison which he feels is imminent. In the meantime he commends them for their faithfulness and generosity, and he encourages them to pursue greater Christian maturity. He then proceeds to describe five examples of the maturity all Christians should seek after:

  1. Christians should stand firm in the Lord and in the faith despite trials, attacks and temptations.
  2. Christians imitate Christ and not those in the world.
  3. Christians are not defeated by trials, they rejoice during trials knowing that victory awaits them and that trials are tests of faith.

In this chapter we will examine the fourth example of Christian maturity, the fact that mature Christians seek righteousness by faith not by works.

The Mature Christian Seeks Righteousness by Faith (3:1-21)

A Warning (3:1)

1Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.

Paul has a warning to impart but prefaces this with an exhortation to rejoice in the Lord since this should be the standard "go to" position for Christians no matter what the conditions or situation. His warning will not be about something new, it will address an ongoing concern that he has probably warned them about in the past. He assures them that he is not troubled by repeating this warning and is assured that in doing so he is guarding their souls from the errors taught by the false teachers who are creeping into the church and causing trouble. The false teachers were referred to as "Judaizers" and they promoted the idea that you had to become a Jew (by circumcision) first, before you could become a Christian and thus be saved.

The Enemy Defined (3:2-3)

2Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision;

Paul goes directly to the core of the matter. To refer to someone as a dog was a serious insult since, in those days, dogs were not kept as pets but wandered aimlessly, usually in packs and acted as scavengers. It was a term the Jews used to denigrate Gentiles.

The Judaizers were "workers" but their efforts and activities were evil and had a destructive result: the falling away of a believer from Christ and His salvation. The symbol of their teaching was circumcision, which they insisted was necessary for salvation. Their thinking was that Christianity was part of Judaism, therefore if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian, he had to first submit to Jewish regulations which included food laws and other requirements, but the main demand was circumcision. Circumcision was an ancient practice among the Jews, beginning with Abraham, and it signified that the individual was included in the covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. All Jewish boys were to be circumcised eight days after birth (Luke 2:21).

Circumcision, much like animal sacrifice, was a preview or forerunner of things to come when Christ appeared. The sacrifices of the temple previewed a time when Jesus, the Lamb of God, would sacrifice Himself for the sins of all men (I John 2:2). The physical circumcision performed on the body was a sign of one's willingness to obey God and be one of His chosen people. This, however, was a preview of a time when God's people would be regenerated by God's Holy Spirit from within and be circumcised spiritually. Physical circumcision would no longer be needed for religious purposes (it continues for health purposes). Even in the Old Testament the prophets spoke of what God really wanted, "... a circumcision of the heart." (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4). Paul told the Romans that physical circumcision no longer had any spiritual benefits.

25For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
- Romans 2:25-29

In Colossians, Paul explains the relationship between Christian baptism and Jewish circumcision.

8See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
- Colossians 2:8-12

The Colossians were also having problems with Judaizers teaching the necessity of circumcision for Gentile converts. Note that in verses 11-12 Paul explains two features of Christian baptism:

  1. That through baptism Christ Himself performs a "spiritual" circumcision on the believer.
  2. What is removed at baptism is not only a small symbolic piece of flesh as in physical circumcision, but He removes the entire body of sin (our sins are all completely forgiven and replaced by the Holy Spirit, Acts 2:38).

This is why physical circumcision is not required. It is inferior, it is only a preview, it does not serve to remove sin (never did), cannot regenerate the sinner (it is only relevant now for health reasons). However, faith in Christ expressed in repentance and baptism removes sin and fills the believer with the Holy Spirit. The New American Standard Bible refers to the attempt to force circumcision onto Gentile believers as a "false circumcision."

However in the original Greek, Paul referred to it as "the mutilation." This better described the unnecessary imposition of this practice on believing Gentiles who wanted to become Christians at that time.

The True Circumcision (3:3)

3for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,

Paul uses this verse to summarize and compare the Judaizers and what they are doing to himself and the Philippians as well as their status in Christ. He lists three attributes that he and the church that he planted in Philippi share. He tells them:

  1. We are the true circumcision: We are the substance, not the shadow or preview. We are the fulfillment of what the physical circumcision of the Old Testament pointed to. We are the opposite of the mutilation. From a religious and theological perspective, we are the legitimate children of God, not inferior to Jews or Jewish Christians (which the Judaizers were suggesting with their requirement to be circumcised in order to become a Christian).
  2. We worship the true God in the true way: A better rendition of "worship in the Spirit of God" (as the NASB translates this phrase) is "those worshipping God's Spirit." The idea is that Christians are the ones worshipping the true God and doing so according to His Spirit (according to the Revelation given to man by the Holy Spirit in God's word). In addition to this, the defining feature of that worship (that signals its authenticity and gives it power and glory) is that it is done in the name of, and for the praise of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not Moses or the Law or any other being. People of all kinds worship various deities in a multitude of ways and in any number of shrines, buildings and sacred locations. This was true in the Old Testament, in Paul's day, as it is true today. However, only the worship of God through the person of Jesus Christ according to the Spirit of God is legitimate, is effective, is as Paul says: true worship. Worship, no matter how elaborate or sincere, even if practiced by billions of people, that does not glory in Christ, is not the worship in Spirit and truth that God seeks from those who worship Him.
  3. We are saved by faith, not works of the Law/flesh: Paul does not only refer to the initial gospel message here that the lost sinner is initially saved through his faith in Christ as the divine Son of God expressed in repentance and baptism. His hearers are quite familiar with this teaching, having all experienced it at their point of conversion. Paul's point here is how one remains saved between the initial conversion and the time of one's death. The Judaizers were not only promoting circumcision to those Gentiles who had not yet confessed Christ or been baptized, they were also insisting that Gentiles who were already Christians submit to circumcision in order to guarantee their salvation. Paul claims that we are not only saved by faith when we first become Christians, but we preserve that salvation throughout our lives by continuing to believe and trust in Jesus to keep us saved and preserve our hope of eternal life. Our confidence, he says, does not rest in what the "flesh does" (circumcision and other works of the Law), our confidence rests with Christ and what He has done for us (dies to pay the moral debt to God for our sins).

This allusion to "confidence in the flesh" is also a thought-bridge to the next section where Paul will use his former life (Jewish Pharisee) as a supreme example of one who once had great confidence in the flesh. He will then compare this with his new life as a Christian.

Paul's Transformation (3:4-11)

4although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

Since the objective of the Judaizers was to bring the Gentiles under the Law, Paul uses himself as an example of one who was formerly under the Law, and was under the Law to a degree that neither the false teachers nor their followers could match. He lists six areas where he excelled when measured by the Law:

  1. Circumcision: Unlike some of the Judaizers or their followers who were circumcised as converts or as adults, which was the case for the Gentile Christians who were being seduced by the false teachers, Paul was circumcised on the eighth day after birth according to the Law.
  2. Nation of Israel: He was a Jew, not a convert to Judaism.
  3. Tribe of Benjamin: He traced his lineage to one of the two tribes that made up the southern kingdom of Judah. The 10 northern tribes (kingdom of Israel) were destroyed and scattered (722 BC). However, the southern kingdom remained intact and even though it was attacked and exiled in Babylon (589 BC), a remnant eventually returned to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and repopulate the land. Being from the southern kingdom was a mark of pride as a true Jew with an unbroken historical lineage.
  4. A Hebrew of Hebrews: This refers to the fact that Paul was a pure blooded Jew. There were no marriages with non-Jews on either side of his family all the way back to his ancestor Benjamin.
  5. A Pharisee (means "Separate"): According to the Law the highest positions in society were occupied by the Jewish priests (decided by family lineage) or Pharisees (lawyers who taught and interpreted the Law). They were the strictest and most conservative religious group within Judaism.
  6. Persecutor of the Church: If you are to measure zeal for the Law, then the most enthusiastic and extreme of the already extreme was Saul of Tarsus who actually imprisoned other Jews that he believed were violating Law by following Jesus Christ.

Paul is comparing his own credentials as one who was zealous for the Law and its application, to the Judaizers and their credentials and zeal for the Law. The implication is that in such a comparison, he is by far more pure and zealous for the Law as a Jew than they are or could ever be. This is an important point to establish before he speaks of his transformation as a Christian which we will cover in the next chapter.

Summary

Paul warns the church to be careful not to succumb to those teachers who are trying to undermine their confidence in the salvation they have received on the basis of faith by promoting a salvation based on works of the Law, the chief of which was circumcision. He reminds them of circumcision's role (as a preview of things to come) and the fact that salvation is based on faith expressed in repentance and baptism (where the true circumcision takes place - the cutting away of the body of sin by Christ) must be held on to.

In order to expose the false teaching and legitimacy of these Judaizers, Paul compares their credentials according to the Law to his own and will then demonstrate how in his life he decided to abandon these so called privileges given him by the Law for the superior gift he has received by faith in Jesus Christ.

Lesson

Satan is always promoting a "better way" which is nothing new and as old as the Garden of Eden itself. Satan promised:

  • Eve: A better life, knowledge, improved spiritual life if she ate the fruit. No need for obedience.
  • Jesus: All kingdoms are yours if You worship me (Devil). No need for the cross.
  • Philippians: A better plan (Law/circumcision). You'll have a physical reminder of your salvation. No need to walk by faith.

Satan will always be offering us a better and easier way, even to be saved. Philippians teaches us to know, understand and maintain our salvation by faith even when Satan offers us a better way.

"Excellent resources for Bible class teachers, preachers and students."


Chris Hill
Minister, Luther Church of Christ