The third chapter of Philippians continues Paul’s assault on the self-consuming error that threatened the progress of the gospel. In particular, he demolishes false teaching that placed the emphasis on man rather than God. This insidious notion is a time-honoured tactic of the devil for robbing the Almighty of glory and deluding people into thinking that they have intrinsic merit apart from Him. In turn, this leads them to mistakenly believe that they can earn a righteous standing before the Lord. In contrast, the truth declares that man is a bankrupt sinner, yet God is a gracious Saviour who provides righteousness and salvation through His Son. He died, rose again, and ascended to provide this gift to those who receive it by faith, John 1. 12.
Some might sarcastically remark that Paul begins with ‘finally’ and then carries on for two more chapters! The phrase means ‘pertaining to the part of a whole which remains or continues, and thus constitutes the rest of the whole – “rest, remaining, what remains, other"’; it is a frequently-used Greek phrase for moving on to another section of a work.1
At the commencement of a passage correcting serious error it might surprise one to find the apostle saying, ‘Rejoice in the Lord’, v. 1, yet only in holding to the truth about Christ may one find the true basis of joy.
Paul did not find it the slightest bit tedious to repeat the teaching about God’s genuine righteousness versus the world’s fraudulent version. Kelly explains the apostle’s thinking, ‘It was no trouble to him, for he loved them too well to mind it. It was safe for them, for Satan threatened otherwise. Joy in the Lord is the truest safeguard against the religious snares of the enemy’.2 As Moule paraphrases it, ‘Safe, because there are spiritual dangers around you from which this will be the best preservative; false teachings which can only be fully met with the gladness of the truth of Christ’.3 Amid the modern onslaught of doctrinal error, the church must continue to ‘preach the word’ even in the face of the fickle ‘itching-ears’ culture that grips many church-goers, 2 Tim. 4. 2-4.
Paul describes the false teachers in scathingly satirical terms, vividly evoking their true nature. As Martin remarks, ‘The threefold warning is couched in strong, vigorous language with the repetition of the verb in the imperative mood, blepete, “look out for”, “be warned against”, betraying something of the tense earnestness and emphasis of a serious warning’.4 His terminology mocks the false teachers’ boastful claims. First, he refers to them as ‘dogs’, a metaphor for their uncleanness, Rev. 22. 15. Ironically, Jews referred to Gentiles using this exact expression.5 Thus, this was a rebuke of their obsession with Jewish rites and ceremonies.
Second, Paul tells them, ‘Beware of evil workers’, v. 2. Despite their practise of attaching the works of the law to the gospel, he says that these teachers are actually evil, for their works emanate from and glorify man’s own self. Moule’s paraphrase captures the thought well, ‘Beware of the evil workmen, the teachers whose watchword is “works, works, works," a weary round of observances and would-be merits, but who are sorry work-men indeed, spoiling the whole structure of Heaven’s easy, artless, unencumber’d plan’.6 Salvation is not the product of meritorious works. True Christians do good works because they have been saved by grace and have the indwelling Spirit producing fruit in their lives.7
The third description calls them ‘the concision’ – or ‘mutilation’ as other translations render it.8 This is a parody of the false teacher’s insistence on circumcision as necessary for salvation. Greek scholars point out the literary precision of the apostle’s language, ‘Paul will not give it its proper name peritom. Instead, by a pun, he mockingly calls it a mere cutting, katatom, i.e., mutilation of the body on a par with pagan practices forbidden in Leviticus 21, verse 5 (cf. 1 Kgs. 18:28, and the frenzied rituals of the devotees of Cybele’.9 Once more Moule captures the sense of the warning, ‘Beware of the concision, the apostles of a mere physical wounding, which, as enjoined according to their principles, is nothing better than a mutilation … a parody of what circumcision was meant to be, as the sacrament of a preparatory dispensation now terminated in its fulfillment’.10 Instead of performing a surgical ritual that gave its adherents standing before God, they succeeded only in mutilating them.
This erroneous emphasis on circumcision is fascinating, given the biblical history of the symbol. Originally, it was meant as a sign of cutting off the flesh, symbolically, asserting that human effort is to be rejected in favour of the Lord’s work on behalf of His people. The Almighty gave it to Abraham in Genesis chapter 17 after the patriarch vainly attempted to bring about the divine promise through his efforts with Hagar, Gen. 16. Instead of resting in the divine promise to miraculously give a child through Sarai, Abram sought to bring about the prophecy through surrogate motherhood, thereby circumventing his barren wife. God rejected this humanly planned and implemented innovation, in its place giving Abraham a sign that reminded him of the one-party covenant where the obligations were solely on God’s side, Gen. 15. 9-21. In the New Testament era, however, the false teachers were using it to do the very thing that it repudiated in type.
In contrast to the Judaizers, Paul asserts that Christians ‘are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh’, v. 3. The true circumcision are those who truly cut off the flesh, not through surgery, but through a rejection of human effort and a reliance on divine grace through the Holy Spirit. Instead of relying on human works to gain favour with God, they worship Him in the Spirit (here the NKJV rightly capitalizes ‘Spirit’, for it refers to the Holy Spirit). What is more, their joy centres on Christ and His work, not on their own feeble doings. Lastly, they do not trust in themselves or their attainments. As Moule words it, ‘Quite lit., “not in the flesh are confident”; with the implication that we are confident, on another and a truer ground’.11 The term ‘flesh’ is descriptive of what man can do. Another writer explains, ‘“Flesh” refers first to the rite of circumcision but now carries all the theological overtones of trying to have grounds for boasting before God in human achievement, the ultimate self-centered expression of life’.12 In this connection Ironside’s eloquent words are appropriate, ‘The flesh of the believer is no more to be trusted than the flesh of the vilest sinner … The fleshly nature is never improved, and the new nature received in new birth does not require improvement’.13
Rather than trust in themselves, believers look to the righteousness which God provides through Christ. If one looks to human religious credentials then Saul of Tarsus – as the unconverted Paul was known – possessed a peerless resumé. Nevertheless, he set aside his pretended righteousness – with its carefully cultivated façade of apparent spirituality – in order to gain a real form of righteousness from the holy God, vv. 4-7. The early verses of Philippians chapter 3 have already set before the reader the contrast between the pseudo-spirituality of the Judaizers and the true spirituality engendered by the gospel of Christ.
In keeping with the theme of the Epistle, the pathway to true joy and the progress of the genuine gospel are to be found in Christ alone. To deviate from this is to follow charlatans to one’s cost in time – and, ultimately, to destruction in eternity. The contemporary scene has plenty of ‘dogs’ who add human works and ceremonies for salvation – or even in the name of Christian growth. Others emphasize philanthropy – ‘good works’ of sorts such as environmentalism and social engagement – to the exclusion of correct doctrine (e.g., the Emergent Church movement). Still others want to revive sacraments, incense, and other physical rites in the name of spirituality (e.g., the Ancient-Future Movement). Like our predecessor, Paul, modern believers must vigilantly hold to the grace of God which is revealed in the true gospel.
J. P. Louw & E. A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Vol. 1. New York: United Bible societies, 1996, pg. 614.
William Kelly, The Epistle to the Philippians, found here: http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/kelly/2Newtest/philipns.html Accessed on 23 March 2011.
H. C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies, New York: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d., pg. 160.
Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 11. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987, pg. 145. [Italics original.]
Pss. 22. 16; 68. 23; Mark 7. 27-28. See also extra-biblical examples in Enoch 89. 42; Ignatius to the Ephesians 7. 1. Also, Ben Witherington III advises, ‘See the handling of Exod. 22. 31 in Mishnah Ned. 4. 3 and Bek. 5. 6). Generally speaking, dogs were not pets in antiquity, but rather ran wild, but there was an exception – the guard dog … Paul with rhetorical flair here has changed the term “dog" so it refers to those who insist on circumcision’. From the blog, The Bible & Culture: http://blog.beliefnet.com/bibleandculture/2010/03/beware-of-the-dogs---philippians-32.html#ixzz0sBVrnjjp. Accessed on 4 May 2011.
H. C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies, pg. 160. [Italics original.]
Eph. 2. 8-10; Phil. 2. 12-13; John 15. 1-10; Gal. 5. 22-25.
See, for example, the NKJV and NASBmg.
Martin, pg. 146. [Italics original.]
H. C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies, pg. 160f.
H. C. G. Moule, The Cambridge Bible: Philippians, pg. 86. [Italics original.]
Gordon Fee, IVP New Testament Commentary: Philippians. Electronic ed. (1999; QV ‘08 STEP Files, 2006). [Italics original.]
H.A. Ironside, Notes on the Epistle to the Philippians. Loizeaux Brothers: Neptune, NJ, 1922, pg. 74.