By Gregg Bing
“Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.” (Philippians 3:1-7)
The American Heritage Dictionary defines confidence as “self-assurance.” In this third chapter of Philippians, the Apostle Paul warns against those who had just such confidence in themselves, that is, in their flesh.
Paul begins this section of the letter with the word, “Finally,” not introducing the conclusion of the letter, but merely a change in focus. He admonishes his readers to “rejoice in the Lord.” The tone of the whole letter is one of joy and rejoicing; here Paul stresses the cause or source of their rejoicing—the Lord. Even in difficult times, “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh. 8:10).
Paul then reiterates a warning he had given these dear brethren before. The repetition of this key teaching was not grievous to Paul, and was, in fact, needed for their safety and security. Repetition is a key to remembering. People can often recall the names and statistics of their favorite sports teams, the lyrics of popular songs, even the dialogue of current movies because they are repeatedly exposed to this information. Sadly, few people, including many Christians, know the books of the Bible, the names of prominent Bible characters, or even the basic order of key Biblical events (i.e. that Abraham lived before Moses). Just as repetition helps people remember secular information, it is also needed to help learn and understand spiritual truths. Warnings about spiritual dangers, such as temptation, false teaching, and worldliness certainly bear repeating.
“Beware” Paul says, admonishing us to see (be aware) and to discern (be wary). Three warnings are given, but all refer to the same group: the Judaizers, legalistic Jews who insisted that being circumcised and keeping the law were necessary for salvation.
“Beware of dogs!” is Paul’s first warning. Dogs was a term used to describe those who were unholy, unclean, impure. Dogs often do filthy things: returning to their own vomit (2 Pet. 2:22) or licking a beggar’s sores (Luke 16:21). The Jews referred to the Gentiles as dogs because of the animalistic behavior associated with their idolatrous worship, including sexual immorality and sacrificing their own children (2 Chron. 28:3).
Paul takes this same term and applies it the these self-righteous Jews who were outwardly religious, but whose hearts were filthy. Jesus pictured the Jewish rulers in this same way in Matthew 23:27-28:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
“Beware of evil workers!” The Judaizers not only had wicked hearts, they were also workers of evil. They appeared moral, even godly, in their words and actions, but their intentions were wicked, though cloaked in deception. Paul gave a similar warning to the Galatian churches. The Galatian saints had heard Paul preach the gospel of Christ, had believed that Christ died for their sins and rose again, and had been saved by God’s grace. But they were being troubled by those preaching a different gospel, a perversion of the gospel of Christ. Paul boldly declared: “If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9). These warnings are still relevant today; Paul told Timothy: “Evil men and imposters (seducers) shall grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13).
“Beware of the mutilation!” Here Paul addresses the Jewish practice of circumcision, a physical sign given to Abraham to remind him and his descendants (Israel) they were to be “cut off” and kept separate from all other nations (Gentiles). This rite was later incorporated into the Mosaic Law. The Jews used the term uncircumcision as a derogatory term for the Gentiles (Eph. 2:11).
Paul wrote the Philippian letter after the close of the Acts period, when God was no longer in covenant relationship with Israel. Paul had begun unveiling the mystery, the revelation of God’s plan and purpose for the Church, the Body of Christ, composed of believing Jews and Gentiles. The truth of the mystery revealed that through the death of Christ, the law of ordinances (which placed a wall of separation between Jew and Gentile) had been abolished in Christ, meaning it was no longer in operation. The Law could not give life; it was only a shadow of good things to come. Christ and His finished work on the cross provided the substance, the spiritual reality of what the Law merely pictured.
As believers, we are “complete in Him” (Col. 2:10). The continued practice of physical circumcision is now nothing more than a mutilation of the flesh, a meaningless religious ritual, much like the Gentiles who cut themselves as part of their idolatrous worship (1 Kings 18:28).
Paul declares “We are the circumcision,” the “we” meaning both believing Jews and Gentiles. True circumcision is not an outward work upon the flesh, but an inner work on the heart (Rom. 2:28-29). It is a work of the Spirit, “made without hands;” not mutilating the flesh, but “putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11).
The true circumcision are characterized as those who: worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
“Who worship God in the Spirit.” Our worship and service (both ideas are implied) of God must be spiritual, not fleshly. This can refer to our human spirit, the part of man which enables us to know God, but, more importantly, it refers to the Holy Spirit which indwells the believer. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Genuine worship of God cannot be accomplished in the flesh, for “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things you wish” (Gal. 5:16-17). The continuing religious practices of the Judaizers were simply the works of their flesh.
“Who rejoice in Christ Jesus.” The word rejoice literally means to glory or boast. Legalists who seek to lead people back under the Law, “desire to make a good showing in the flesh” and they make their boast in the flesh (Gal. 6:12-13). Our righteous standing before God has nothing to do with the works of our flesh, for “by the works of the law, no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16). This led Paul to write:
“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal. 6:14)
“Who have no confidence in the flesh.” We must be persuaded, as Paul was, “that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” (Rom. 7:18). We cannot rely on our flesh to produce anything good, certainly nothing that would please God. Yet, how many people, both then and now, are guilty of this very thing: confidence in the flesh, persuasion that they can be good enough to please God. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, particularly the Pharisees, felt this way. “Being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness,” they refused to submit “to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3).
Paul certainly understood this attitude; he was, himself, a Pharisee before he trusted Jesus Christ as Savior. No doubt, this is part of why his heart’s desire was that Israel might come to see what he saw on the road to Damascus (Rom. 10:1-2). Paul uses himself as an example of one who might have “confidence in the flesh.” He almost challenges the Judaizers to compare records. “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so.” Paul then lists the claims he once had “in the flesh.”
“Circumcised the eighth day.” Paul was confident in his strict adherence to the ordinance of circumcision. In contrast to many Jews, who were circumcised later in life (especially those whose families were taken away into captivity), Paul was circumcised when he was eight days old, exactly as prescribed by God.
“Of the stock of Israel.” Paul was confident in his nationality, being part of the commonwealth of Israel, God’s chosen nation. He was not only a descendant of Abraham (the father of that nation), but of Isaac (the promised seed), and of Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel).
“Of the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul was confident in his tribal lineage, being descended from Benjamin, a very respected tribe because of its association with the tribe of Judah in the southern kingdom of Judah (where the term “Jew” comes from). The capitol of this kingdom remained in Jerusalem where the temple of God was located.
“A Hebrew of the Hebrews.” Paul was confident in his family purity. He was a Hebrew of Hebrew parents. Following the captivities and dispersion of Israel and Judah into foreign nations, many Hebrew families adopted the culture and language of these nations, some corrupting their lineage through mixed marriages. This was not the case with Paul’s family. They remained true to their Hebrew heritage.
“Concerning the law, a Pharisee.” Paul was confident in his religious affiliation, being trained and then living as a Pharisee, the strictest sect of the Jew’s religion (Acts 16:5). While the Sadducees had become quite liberal in their views (denying the resurrection and the existence of angels or spirits cf. Acts 23:8), the Pharisees remained more fundamental, believing in strict adherence to the Mosaic Law (though they also stressed the traditions of the elders cf. Matt. 15:1-2).
“Concerning zeal, persecuting the church.” Paul was confident in his zeal for God (Acts 22:3), being convinced that he must do “many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9-11), so he “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13).
“Concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” Paul was confident that his adherence to the law made him righteous. In his own eyes, in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees, and in the eyes of most Jews, Paul was considered blameless, having done nothing which people could easily find fault with.
However, as Paul traveled to Damascus to continue his persecution of the church, he came face to face with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth, whom he had once zealously persecuted, was not only Israel’s Messiah, He was the Lord of glory. That very moment, Paul was saved from his sins by the grace of God. Suddenly, all that Paul once held confidence in became worthless to him.
“But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.” The things that Paul once trusted in and considered great gain: circumcision, nationality, tribal respect, family purity, religious sect, zeal for God, and righteous reputation, he now viewed as loss for the sake of His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
What are you confident in for your salvation? Are you relying upon your own goodness or your own good works to attain a righteous standing before God? The Scriptures make it clear that in our flesh “nothing good dwells” (Rom. 7:18) and that “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Our confidence must not rest in the works of our flesh, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ which He accomplished for us when He died on the cross for our sins and rose again from the dead. When we truly trust Christ as Savior, we are then “found in Him, not having our own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9).