Self-help mentality is rampant in this world. We’re told from an early age, you can do it, you have the power, you’re strong enough. But the Bible tells us the complete opposite: it is in Christ alone that your ability to navigate this world resides. Paul contrasts the advantages of being in Christ with what the world sees as advantageous in Phil. 3:1-6.
Part 12 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
Turning the Corner
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
The word “finally” (loipon) in verse 1 of chapter 3 links all that Paul has talked about so far as he prepares to turn to the next subject (and ultimately toward the end of the letter). He often uses this word to introduce the next round of exhortations (related: Phil. 4:4; 2 Cor. 13:11; 1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:1) It is like when we say “so then,” “furthermore,” or “in closing.” The New Living Translation even goes so far as to translate this as “whatever happens.”
Rejoice in the Lord
At first glance, Paul’s exhortation here seems random and ill-placed, but remember the tone of this entire letter is one of rejoicing in Christ despite any difficulties. We rejoice that we have Christ as our Savior and Lord, that He saved us not because of anything that we did, have done, or could ever do, but because of His great love.
It is as if he [Paul] had said, Whatever may become of me, or of yourselves, so far as any worldly interest or prospect is concerned, rejoice in the Lord Christ — In the knowledge you have of him, and of the truths and promises of his gospel; in the faith you have in him; the union you have with him by that faith; the relations in which you stand to him as his friends, his brethren, his spouse; in the conformity you have to him in heart and life, and in the expectations you have from him of felicity and glory eternal.
These are sufficient causes for rejoicing, whatever circumstances you may be in, and whatever your trials and troubles may be in this present short and uncertain life. (Benson Commentary)
What is Paul referring to when he talks about writing the same things? “Here Paul repeats material he had previously communicated, either personally or by letter, that the Philippians might be ‘safe’ against false teaching in the church” (Reformation Study Bible). This is key to understand as Paul goes on to warn these believers about a specific kind of false teacher.
Certain people opposed the gospel of Christ at this time, probably Judaizers, who insisted on the keeping of the law and circumcision for salvation, or possibly believers who were in error over the law versus the Spirit (as in Galatians). (related: Acts 15:1) Paul has three choice descriptions for these people:
- dogs (kuón). This was strong language, a reproach even. The word in Greek is “literally, a dog, scavenging canine; (figuratively) a spiritual predator who feeds off others” (HELPS Word studies). As unclean animals, to call someone a dog was a particularly emphatic expression of disgust. Generally dogs were thought of at this time (by Jews and Greeks alike) as “profane, impure, and unholy” (Meyer’s NT Commentary). (related: Matt. 7:6; Rev. 22:15)
- evildoers (kakos ergatés). Literally, workers of evil. Paul refers to people who make a practice of living in and working evil ways, perhaps even with a bent toward influencing others to do the same. By their very actions and words against the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, they were evil because they opposed the truth.
- those who mutilate the flesh. This graphic phrase indicates people who based their standing before God on whether they had followed the Law, in this case, having been circumcised. They considered themselves the “true circumcision.” (related: Gal. 5:6, 12) What they were missing was that the circumcision was an external rite; what God wanted was circumcision of the man inside — the heart (see Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4).
There is a critical lesson for us here in that as believers we need to guard against and separate ourselves from any kind of thinking which adds to or waters down the purity of Christ’s gospel. We need to be vigilant that we do not follow people who encourage us to focus on our own ability and strength to walk with Christ (proponents of Word of Faith (that is, speaking your own reality into existence), prosperity gospel, extra-biblical revelation, legalism, etc. Some examples here and here.).
We also need to examine ourselves and ask whether we are merely going through external rituals thinking that is what pleases God or even thinking that our salvation lies with the things we do. Paul moves next to describe some of what marks a true follower of Jesus Christ.
The Marks of True Believers
3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
Rather than focusing on the physical act of circumcision, here Paul describes a spiritual kind of circumcision. To the Jews, circumcision represented consecration and belonging; further it represented God’s covenant with and promise to Abraham. It was an external act of obedience. But it was never intended to stand alone in terms of right standing before God (see Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4).
Paul explains in Romans 2 that the believer’s circumcision is one of separation from the world and separation to Christ. It is about what rules your heart:
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. [Rom. 2:25-29 ESV; emphasis mine]
(related: Col. 2:11-12)
Worship by the Spirit
As Christ said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” [John 4:24 ESV] There Christ indicated that because God is Spirit, He did not require a temple. For us here in Philippians, there is a close parallel. God is Spirit so the worship we offer Him is not done merely by rote, external activities.
In the strength, power, and direction of the Holy Spirit that indwells us, we present ourselves before God. We literally offer our bodies (all that we are, think, do, speak) to God (see Rom. 12:1).
Glory in Christ
It is Christ’s finished, atoning work on the cross that saves a person, moving them out of their self-ruled kingdom of death, sin, and wrath and into the Christ-ruled kingdom of eternal life, holiness, and forgiveness. For that reason, all glory goes to Christ because it is Christ who went to the cross, not us. It is Christ who gains the glory for His sacrifice, not our self-righteousness.
Not Relying on the Flesh
As Paul says elsewhere, we do not rely upon our ability to keep the law or human regulations:
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. [Gal. 2:16 ESV; emphasis mine]
We can bring nothing to our salvation and do nothing to earn it:
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. [Gal. 6:14 ESV; emphasis mine]
Here in Philippians 3:3, Paul talks not simply in the context of not resting upon the fleshly circumcision as the basis of our standing with God, but also upon our own natural abilities and strengths, our own ideas of how to come to God.
Our Self-Help World
The mantra of our world today goes something like: believe in yourself, if you just try hard enough, you can do it, if you want something enough, you can get it, if you think positively, it will happen. In other words, all your reason for hope lies in your own strength.
How discouraging! Because the reality is, you may succeed in your flesh with certain things. In fact, you may be wildly successful. But ultimately there is no satisfaction even in your success because it is all temporary. One day it will all blow away, like spores off a dandelion. Where’s the joy in that?
What dismays me is when I see people who profess Christ fall into this self-centered and humanistic way of thinking. It is the “all about me and what I can do” thinking with a little Christ sprinkled on top. On top of this, all the success in the world won’t save you from the ultimate destination of all those who perish without Christ: a fiery and eternal torment, separated from God’s presence.
What Looks Like Success From the Outside
4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In contrast to the Christ-like examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus Paul’s just finished with, he points back to who he used to be before Christ saved him to illustrate how far short he fell of true righteousness before God.
Everything that Paul lists here as a reason he might place his confidence in himself (the flesh) reflect man thinking he can be righteous before God by doing certain things or being certain ways. From a worldly standpoint, these things represent “gain,” which Paul disputes in the verses following this passage.
Paul presents his “resume of the law” — all the ways in which he fulfilled the roles and rules required by Jewish law and tradition. I’ll just run through these fairly briefly so you get a sense of what he’s saying:
- circumcised on the eighth day. Paul fulfilled this requirement (see Gen. 17:12).
- of the people of Israel. He belonged to God’s chosen people.
- of the tribe of Benjamin. The youngest son of Jacob, Benjamin was a founder of one of Israel’s twelve tribes, and Paul numbers himself among this tribe as was the custom of the day.
- a Hebrew of Hebrews. Here he adds weight to his belonging to Israel and to Benjamin, essentially that he was born and raised into the Hebrew people and ways.
- as to the law, a Pharisee. This means Paul was extremely precise in his religion and doctrine, and because of this possessed an attitude of spiritual superiority.
- as to zeal, a persecutor of the church. There was no halfheartedness about Paul (or Saul as he was known during this time of persecution); he pursued and persecuted them to the full extent possible by all means possible.
- as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Here a quote from John Calvin’s commentary on Philippians sums this up rather nicely:
Paul speaks here of that righteousness which would satisfy the common opinion of mankind. For he separates the law from Christ. Now, what is the law without Christ but a dead letter?
To make the matter plainer, I observe, that there are two righteousnesses of the law. The one is spiritual — perfect love to God, and our neighbors: it is contained in doctrine, and had never an existence in the life of any man. The other is literal — such as appears in the view of men, while, in the mean time, hypocrisy reigns in the heart, and there is in the sight of God nothing but iniquity.
Thus, the law has two aspects; the one has an eye to God, the other to men. Paul, then, was in the judgment of men holy, and free from all censure — a rare commendation, certainly, and almost unrivalled; yet let us observe in what esteem he held it.
As an overview, we might say, Paul had the right education, the best family, knew the right people, had the right background, was raised with privilege, and strived with all his might to do what seemed right according to his beliefs. Yet all that effort and inherent gifting paled when he held his life up to the light of Christ. We’ll see that in the next study.
Meanwhile, consider whether you are resting on your own laurels…or upon what Christ has done. Have you shed the burden of doing things in your own strength and placed your trust in Christ instead? Without trusting Christ, you may have “gained the whole world,” but are losing your very soul. (related: Mk. 8:36)