Philippians Bible Study, Week 13

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs; watch out for those evil workers; watch out for those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.

Finally . . .

Some Bible scholars suggest that the Letter to the Philippians that we have in our Bibles is actually a composite of three letters that Paul wrote to the Philippian church.[1]These scholars think that Philippians 3:1 marks the closing of the first letter and that 3:2 onwards is taken from another letter. There is certainly an abrupt change of subject and tone after Philippians 3:1 (cf. Phil. 4:4). Others speculate that Paul was interrupted when writing his letter at 3:1, and that he resumes it later at 3:2 after receiving fresh news about the Judaisers who were continually trying to undermine Paul’s message of salvation through faith and grace.

The Greek phrase to loipon at the beginning of Philippians 3:1 can mean “for the rest,” “furthermore” or “in addition,” and not necessarilyfinallywhich is the usual translation of this phrase. So, to loipon may not be signalling the end of the letter in 3:1. (To loipon also occurs in Phil. 4:8.)  Despite the different ways to loipon is understood, I am presently inclined to think that Philippians 3:2 is the beginning of a different, but genuine, letter that Paul wrote to the Philippians in which Paul speaks strongly against the Judaisers. [See endnote 1.]

The Judaisers

The Judaisers were Jewish Christians who “dogged the trail of the apostles and endeavoured to compel Gentile converts to submit to circumcision and other Jewish practises in order to be saved.” (Kent 1978:138) In the earliest stage of Christianity, the church leaders at Jerusalem, which included several of Christ’s Apostles, decided that circumcision was not required by Gentile Christians. (See Acts chapter 15.)

Paul gave a three-fold warning about the Judaisers in 3:2. This three-fold warning included three insults that are the opposite of common Jewish boasts.

Firstly, Paul warned the Philippians to watch out for the “dogs”. In New Testament times, in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world, dog’s were dirty, scavenging, vicious animals that roamed the streets. They are portrayed in the Bible as one of the lowest and most despicable forms of life. Being called a “dog” was extremely insulting, especially for religious Jews.  “In Revelation, the word dog stands for those who are so impure that they are banned from the holy city (Revelation 22:15).” Furthermore, Jesus states that “that which is holy must never be given to dogs (Matthew 7:6).” (Barclay 2003:63)

Secondly, Paul warned the Philippians to watch out for the “workers of evil.” Here again, Paul chose his term of derision carefully. There is no doubt that the Judaisers saw themselves as “workers of righteousness.” Just as Paul had mistakenly believed that he was pleasing God when he zealously persecuted Christians before his conversion to Christianity, the Judaisers believed that they were pleasing God by insisting that new, Gentile Christians follow Jewish customs and rites, including the custom of circumcision.

Paul’s third warning was to watch out for the “mutilators of the flesh.” Paul likens circumcision with deliberate mutilation of the body, perhaps even castration, something forbidden in the Old Testament.

The Outward Sign of Circumcision

Paul was a Jew and followed the Jewish traditions himself. He upheld the intrinsic value of the Old Testament Law and never disparaged it. However, Paul understood that the various Covenants within the Old Testament, including the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, were not necessarily applicable to Gentile Christians.

New Covenant salvation, through grace and faith in Christ, cannot be added to or improved by practising Jewish rites.[2] Relying on the Old Covenant Law for salvation nullifies the benefits of New Covenant grace. Paul’s entire letter to the Galatians tackles this issue of Old Covenant Law versus New Covenant Grace.  In Galatians chapter 5 Paul writes to the Gentile Christians and states adamantly:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. Galatians 5:1-6a (NIV)

Paul warned the Philippians to watch out for those he mockingly called “The Mutilation” (cf. Gal. 5:12). Paul compared the Judaisers, “The Mutilation” (Phil. 3:2), with true Christian believers, who he described as “The Circumcision” (Phil. 3:3).[3] The NASB translates (and interprets) this entire phrase as: beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision (Phil. 3:2b-3a).

Circumcision was commanded in Genesis 17:1-14 as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. It is the outward sign of a Jewish male’s participation in the enduring Abrahamic Covenant, in which God promised Abraham that he would become the father of many nations, especially the nation of Israel,[4] and that Israel would have their own land, Canaan, later called Israel. These promises are still relevant for the Jewish people, but they were not given to the Church.

Inner Circumcision

Even in the Old Testament, the Israelites were warned that the outward sign of circumcision without the inner “circumcised heart” was not enough for genuine participation in God’s Covenant (Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4). According to Deuteronomy 30:6, God circumcises the heart which will cause a person to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul so that you may live.”

While Christians do not practise the religious ritual of literal circumcision, all true Christians have their hearts metaphorically circumcised. Paul, writing about true Jewish Christians, said that genuine Jews are those who have been circumcised inwardly and that this circumcision of the heart is the work of the Spirit (Rom. 2:29).

In Colossians 2:11 & 13, Paul writes that:

In him [Jesus] you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with the circumcision done by the hands of men, but the circumcision done by Christ. . . .When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave your sins. . . (NIV)

The verses above show that a circumcised heart is a repentant, forgiven, cleansed, revitalised, and loving heart. In Philippians 3:3, Paul lists just three signs of true, inner circumcision: worshipping in the Spirit of God, glorying in Christ Jesus, and putting no confidence in the flesh.

Worshipping in the Spirit of Christ

In the Old Testament, people could only approach God in worship by following carefully prescribed conditions and practices. But, with the better New Covenant, we can enter freely into God’s presence without following religious rituals (Heb. 10:19-23). In the Old Testament, most people were restricted to where and when they could worship God; they could only worship God in certain places, such as the Tabernacle or the Temple, or at certain times. But with the better New Covenant, we can enter God’s presence anywhere and at any time. This is because God’s presence is with us continually through his Holy Spirit.

New Covenant worship is essentially and genuinely spiritual. The Samaritan Woman believed that worship could only happen at a certain place, either at Mt Gerizim in Samaria or at Jerusalem (John 4:20).  Jesus answered her genuine theological questions about worship with:

Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. John 4:21-24 (NIV)

Spiritual worship is not restricted or contained by places or times and seasons. Even our sacrifices are spiritual (Rom. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:5).

Glorying in Christ Jesus

The New Covenant is all about Jesus. Jesus instituted the New Covenant with his sacrificial death on the cross. He alone paid the ransom price for our sins and provided the only way to God. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn or deserve the salvation that God freely offers to us through Jesus Christ. So all our glory is in Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.

No Confidence in the Flesh

As Christians, we do not put any confidence in religious rituals in regard to salvation. We also do not put any confidence in our own pious abilities. All our confidence is in God’s gracious gift of salvation which we receive simply by entrusting our lives to Jesus. (See Romans 3:20-27.)

If you are interested in how the New Covenant compares with the Old Covenants, read the letter to the Hebrews and note the frequent use of adjectives such as “better”, “greater”, “superior”. The New Covenant, and all the blessings it brings, is better, greater, and superior to God’s previous covenants.


[1] Several Pauline scholars identify three letters which are combined to form the canonical letter to the  Philippians. Philippians 4:10-20 is the first letter – a letter of thanks. Philippians 3:2-4:3 with 4:21-23 is a polemical letter written in response to the Judaisers who were adversely influencing the Philippian Christians. Philippians 1:1-3:1 with 4:4-9 is Paul’s “farewell” letter. Polycarp in his own Letter to the Philippians (3:2) mentions that Paul wrote letters (plural) to the Philippian church.

[2] Understanding the Jewish heritage of Christianity enhances our understanding and appreciation of very early Christianity. However, following the Old Covenant requirements does not affect our salvation in any way. In fact, it can actually lead us away from the grace of God. Under the New Covenant, salvation is a gracious gift that is given to us when we place entrust our lives to Jesus Christ.  Salvation does not depend on our good (or bad) works or religious rituals. For more on good works, read my essay: Saving Faith in Action: James 2:14-26.

[3] “The Mutilation” (katatomē) and “The Circumcision” (peritomē) is a play on words. Peritomē is the usual word for circumcision.

[4] Abraham is a prominent patriarchal figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

© 26th of August 2010, Margaret Mowczko

« Week 12: Joy – Philippians 3:1a

» Week 14: Paul’s Hebrew Heritage – Philippians 3:4-8

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