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Beware of every threat to gospel joy
Philippians, Chapter 3, verses 1-11
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, those men who do evil, 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—though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
To introduce a new subject, Paul returns to the key word of this epistle, “rejoice.” This time, however, he emphatically adds the words “in the Lord.” Paul wants the Philippians, whom he affectionately refers to as “my brothers,” to find their real joy in the Lord alone and in their union with him in faith. He wants them to reject all teachings that would direct them to any other source of confidence or joy.
The subject Paul brings up here is not a new one. Earlier in this epistle the apostle encouraged the Philippians to “stand firm in one spirit, contending . . . for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). He had probably also spoken with them personally about this subject when he was with them. But in view of the serious threat that enemies of the gospel always pose to believers’ salvation and to their joy in the Lord, Paul wanted to speak about this matter again. As a concerned shepherd and watchman of souls, Paul did not consider repeated warnings against false teachings to be a matter of beating a dead horse. Rather, he considered such warnings beneficial, a spiritual safeguard for those he served.
With a three-fold “watch out,” Paul warns against threats to the Philippians’ spiritual safety. “Watch out for those dogs,” he says, “those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.” The Philippian congregation was a fine congregation, but danger was threatening. Perhaps fresh news concerning the activity of certain false teachers in their area had just reached the apostle. At any rate, he uses very forceful and vigorous language here to condemn them. There is a vehemence here that is uncharacteristic of the rest of this primarily cheerful epistle. This does not surprise us. Paul always became excited when the gospel was at stake. This shows his deep love and concern for the souls of the believers whose spiritual needs he served.
Paul uses three different terms to refer to the enemies of the gospel whom he is warning the Philippians against here, but with all three he is actually referring to the same enemies, who are commonly called Judaizers. Judaizers were Jews or gentile converts to Christianity who claimed to believe in Jesus as their Savior, but they also taught that in addition to believing in Jesus, it was also necessary to keep certain ceremonial laws that God had given to the Old Testament Israelites through Moses.
The Judaizers placed special emphasis on the rite of circumcision, the Old Testament sign of God’s covenant with Israel. By their insistence on the outward observance of laws and ceremonies as a necessity for salvation in addition to faith, the Judaizers confused law and gospel. They attempted to rob New Testament believers of the freedom from the Old Testament laws and ceremonies that Jesus won for them (see the commentary on Colossians 2:16,17), and they continued to plant in human hearts the damnable idea that human beings can somehow make a contribution toward their own salvation. These Judaizers were a very real threat to the life and faith of the early church. They apparently established no congregations of their own but rather tried to worm their way into existing congregations. Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians chiefly to combat the Judaizers’ teachings. He also indicated that Judaizers were troubling the Corinthians.
The first recorded “synod meeting” of the New Testament church (Acts 15) exposed the errors the Judaizers were trying to promote in Antioch. The idea that Jesus’ atoning work is not quite enough and human beings have to add something of their own to it is still creeping around in many Christian church bodies. It is no less of a problem today than it was in the apostle’s day. This human error continues to endanger faith and lead people away from Christ and salvation.
Paul applied harsh terms to the Judaizers, because they were attacking the very heart of the gospel. They were seeking to substitute it with a mixture of divine grace and human works. “Dogs” is what Paul called the false teachers. That was a term that the Jews derisively hurled at the Gentiles, whom they regarded as unclean and lower than themselves. In the apostle’s world, dogs generally were not pets. They were large, ugly beasts that roamed the streets and lived on garbage. Paul took that insulting term the Judaizers so often applied to others and hurled it right back at them.
The Judaizers were extremely proud of their “Jewishness” and the fact that they lived according to Jewish customs. But in reality, Paul says, it was the Judaizers who were the dogs. They were greedy scavengers who were bent on destroying Christ’s church. Yes, the Judaizers were workers. They were busy and active. They worked hard at keeping the laws and regulations they insisted were necessary for salvation. Sadly, however, they were workers who did evil. Instead of helping the gospel’s cause, their work harmed it.
We cannot help thinking here of many religious sects that exist and flourish today. Their zeal, enthusiasm, and hard work put many of us to shame, but their false teachings condemn them as men and women who do evil.
In the original Greek, the words circumcision and mutilation were very similar. The apostle, therefore, was using a play on words when he called these Judaizers “mutilators.” The ritual of circumcision involved a physical cutting on the sexual organ of the male child. In the Old Testament age, this physical act was the outward, visible sign of Israel’s special covenant relationship with the Lord.
In the New Testament age, however, God no longer requires circumcision or any of the rituals of the ceremonial law. When Jesus died on Calvary and the temple veil was torn in two, all the ceremonial laws and regulations and their purpose came to an end. The Judaizers’ insistence on circumcision, therefore, had no promise of God connected with it. They had reduced circumcision to an outward, physical ritual that supposedly contributed to salvation. Such a circumcision, Paul said, was really only a physical thing, a mutilation. Those who relied on it as a meritorious act were not brought closer to God. They were actually farther removed from God than before. If the Philippians yielded to the Judaizers’ insistence that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved, then they too would be trusting in their own wretched works to be saved, not in Jesus alone. If they did that, they would lose their salvation.
In the Old Testament age, those who were physically circumcised were members of the covenant people. In the New Testament age, however, God’s covenant people, his “circumcised ones,” are all those of every race and nation who truly believe in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. In the New Testament age, ethnic distinctions and outward signs like circumcision mean nothing. Faith in Jesus means everything. We believers are “the circumcision,” whether we are outwardly circumcised or not. Paul, the Philippian believers, and all believers are God’s New Testament children. We are those who have by faith received the “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit,” as Paul tells the Romans (2:29). God’s people in the New Testament age are those who glory in Christ and his cross and put no confidence in outward things like circumcision or other supposed human advantages.
Incidentally, Paul’s words about the true New Testament people of God should help us answer the prominent religious figures of our day who insist that the Jews as a nation can still be identified with the kingdom of God and are still an integral part of God’s plans for the salvation of mankind. From such unscriptural reasoning have followed many false conclusions, including the rather absurd notion that there are two “chosen nations” today, the United States and Israel, and that God has raised one up to protect the other. In the New Testament age, the chosen people are all those in every nation who know and believe in Jesus as their Savior. They are not a physical nation who are identified by a special, visible mark on their bodies. They are a spiritual people.
To the Judaizers, fleshly things like ethnic background, physical rituals, and outward displays of human endeavor meant everything. They labored under the perverted impression that their souls’ salvation depended on those earthly things. Paul did not want the Philippians to be deceived by that kind of thinking. So he used his own life as an example of how perverted such thinking really is. If he chose to argue along with the Judaizers on their own terms, he would have greater reason for boasting than any Judaizer could ever have.
Were the Judaizers concerned about circumcision? Paul had been circumcised on the eighth day in strict accord with the ceremonial law. How many Judaizers, many of whom had been later converts to Christianity, could claim that? Were the Judaizers concerned about ethnic purity? Paul did not belong to a mixed stock of less than 100% pure Israelite blood, as most of the Jews after the Babylonian captivity did. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, one of only two tribes that had remained fairly intact after the Jews returned from exile. Paul was a true Hebrew among Hebrews, a genuine Israelite through and through, with a genealogy that would put many of the Judaizers to shame.
His family had remained strictly faithful to the ancestral religion and had even retained the Hebrew language, which many other Jews had forgotten. If the Judaizers were concerned about the outward keeping of Old Testament ceremonial laws, Paul could boast that he had been a Pharisee, a member of the strict Jewish sect that prided itself in keeping the laws of Moses to the last detail. The Pharisees even added many of their own laws to the laws of Moses. Even Paul’s father before him had been a Pharisee, and none of his contemporaries came close to being as good a Pharisee as Paul had been. During his years as a Pharisee, Paul, then known as Saul, had diligently kept and upheld all the Pharisees’ laws and regulations. His zeal for those laws, in fact, had been so great that it led him to try to violently destroy the infant Christian church, because it taught a way of salvation contrary to that which the Pharisees taught.
As measured by the standards of righteousness that the Judaizers upheld, Paul was therefore practically faultless. And if heaven’s gates could have been opened by any combination of these outward things, Paul, both by what he had inherited and what he had attained, would have been able to walk right in.
At one time, to Paul’s spiritually blind eyes, all the things that he has just mentioned had been “to his profit.” He had considered them advantages that would help him gain eternal life. The Judaizers still thought that way. But, Paul said, by God’s grace he had now been led to see all these outward things in their true light and to discover that they had no value at all. All those physical things, all those supposed advantages did not gain real righteousness for him. They only led him away from the only righteousness that saves.
The Lord had led Paul to that great discovery. One day, as Paul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus had appeared to him. In that moment Paul saw himself as the wretched, helpless sinner he really was. He experienced a complete change of heart and a total reversal of values. The Savior he had been persecuting became his Savior. The cause he had been bent on destroying became his cause. All the things that had been so precious to Saul the Pharisee became and remained forever useless to Paul the sinner saved by grace.
All the things he had formerly regarded as profit he now regarded as less than useless, not because all of them were wrong in themselves but because he had wrongly regarded them as tickets to eternal life. So, like a ship’s captain tossing baggage off a foundering ship so that the ship would not sink, Paul ridded himself of all the things that had been so important to him. In that sense, he lost everything. Yet in his heart he knew that his “loss” was really not loss at all. All the things he had discarded were nothing but garbage, rubbish, a worthless mess, for they had stood in the way of his knowing and trusting in Christ.
In losing those earthly things as the object of his trust, Paul had, through the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart, gained Christ. During the 30 or so years that had elapsed between that experience on the Damascus road and the writing of this epistle, Paul’s knowledge of Christ had grown and matured. The more he knew of his Savior and the more deeply he came to rest his confidence on Christ, the more that knowledge eclipsed everything else in beauty and desirability, as the apostle realized that nothing in all the world can be compared with knowing Christ.
It is important for us also to realize that some of the things we might regard as advantage or gain can actually be loss for us if they stand in the way of our knowing and trusting in Jesus. Being born into a Christian home, being instructed and confirmed, receiving a Christian education, and being members of a Christian congregation are all great blessings and advantages in themselves, but we cannot regard them as tickets to eternal life. Likewise, other legitimate blessings of the Lord—like intelligence, money, charm, education, even our own personal moral victories—can actually become hindrances to our salvation, if for any reason we regard them as more important than knowing Christ or put our trust in them instead of placing our whole confidence in Christ.
Through Christ, Paul obtained a righteousness that enables sinners to stand before the judgment seat of God. Before he came to know Jesus, Paul trusted the righteousness that he thought he was earning by the kind of life he led. But once the Scriptures were opened to him, the apostle came to realize how worthless all human righteousness really is.
Gaining one’s own righteousness by keeping the law could be done only by perfectly fulfilling the law. In the law God demands perfect holiness in thought, desire, word, and deed. No sinful human being can be perfectly holy. The righteousness that Paul thought he was earning as a Pharisee, the righteousness the Judaizers still claimed they and their pupils could earn, was worse than worthless.
In Christ, on the other hand, Paul had found real righteousness. Jesus earned this righteousness for sinners by his work as mankind’s substitute. God freely gives that righteousness to sinners through the gospel. Individual sinners personally receive this righteousness by faith, which the Holy Spirit kindles in their hearts through the very gospel message that announces and offers this righteousness. From beginning to end, the righteousness that saves is God’s free gift to sinners. On the basis of this righteousness alone, God accepts sinful human beings as his children. Paul knew that in Christ he had obtained that marvelous righteousness from God. He was not about to give it up or again foolishly place his trust in the worthless human righteousness that had intrigued him before. Nor did he want the Philippians to be deceived by the Judaizers into giving it up.
Over 20 centuries later, the apostle’s inspired words also urge us to place our confidence in the righteousness of Christ alone. The apostle encourages us to count everything else as loss for the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and finding in him the righteousness that avails before God. He encourages us to reject all righteousness apart from Christ as sham righteousness that cannot save.
Believers, who possess Christ’s righteousness and feel his love in their hearts, will, like the apostle, constantly want to grow in their knowledge of him. They will want to experience his love ever more deeply and respond to that love with lives of loving service to Jesus. The Lord blesses such growth in his believers through the gospel in Word and sacrament. As believers regularly find Christ in his Word, remember their baptisms, and receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit reveals the Savior’s beauty to them in ever clearer focus. He binds them ever more closely to that Savior, filling them more and more with the Savior’s love and the desire and power to serve him. Through the Spirit’s work in their hearts, believers experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. They receive from their risen Lord the spiritual strength to overcome sin and grow in Christian living.
They also experience, as Paul did, “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” and “becoming like him in his death.” Believers cannot atone for their own sins by suffering and dying, but they share in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering and become like him in his death. They share this when they endure the scorn and ridicule and even at times the physical persecution of the hostile world, when they daily crucify their own sinful and selfish nature with its lusts and desires, and when they joyfully and uncomplainingly follow their Savior on their path of suffering and trouble in this sinful world to the glory of eternal life with him. Toward that great goal Paul constantly strove; toward that great goal every believer, including each one of us, also daily strives.