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Philippians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

At Issue: The Circumcision of Gentiles

What would you do if a longtime member--and leader--of your community, who over many years had faithfully resisted the attractions of "rules" as a way of identifying God's people, had finally begun to play the devil's advocate for such a view--and was apparently being persuaded by it in the process? And to top it all off she and another leader are carrying on open disputes about the issue in the context of the community.

We cannot be sure of this scenario, of course, but Paul's way of going at the issue is remarkable indeed. He chooses to capitalize on the anticipated rejoicing in Philippi over the return of Epaphroditus (2:28-29) and thus to return to the imperative by which he concluded his earlier appeal (2:17-18). Only this time he expresses it in the language of the Psalter: Rejoice in the Lord; and when all has been said about the present dispute, he will say it again: "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, Rejoice!" (4:4). This may seem like a strange framing device within which to speak to a controversial matter; but for Paul it is the only way. Not only does he focus them again on the Lord, but he does so in the language of both the laments and the praise psalms, so as to set their focus above themselves and their sufferings by active participation in singing and praise to Christ.

Rejoice in the Lord thus serves as the context in which he will warn them of the same things ( same people) yet once more, the memory of which brings forth the one moment of impassioned rhetoric in this letter: literally, "Beware the dogs; beware the evil workers; beware the mutilation." What these people are about is made clear by the sharp contrast with we in verse 3. The true circumcision "serves" (in the new temple, is implied) by means of the Spirit of God, thus "boasting" in Christ and putting no confidence in the flesh. These final contrasts, between "serving" by the Spirit and trusting in "the flesh," serve as the springboard for Paul's personal testimony--exhibit A supporting the validity of verses 2-3.

Given the frequency with which Paul speaks to this issue in his letters, one must assume that the arguments of the Judaizing faction had a surface attractiveness to many, despite the (literally) painful consequences if Gentiles were to submit. But Paul appeals not to the physical pain but to historical and theological realities. Moreover, despite the emotive language of verse 2, there is little hint either here or elsewhere in the letter that such people are actually present in Philippi at the time of this writing. After all, Paul's primary response takes the form of personal narrative, not argumentation as such; and not once does he threaten the Philippians with the consequences of such action. His main thrust is altogether positive, setting life in Christ in stark contrast to what he had formerly known as a Torah-observant Jew. This suggests that the emotive language is more a reflection of Paul's own distaste for such people, after many years of struggle against them, than a direct attack against anyone currently in Philippi.The Framework--Rejoice in the Lord (3:1) We have already noted that the adverbial phrase to loipon that begins this section means something like "as for the rest [of what needs to be said]." A new section is further indicated by the vocative brothers [and sisters], one of four occurrences in this section (3:13, 17; 4:1). The first and last of these are also accompanied by the familiar my, probably stressing their relationship as friends.

This is the sixth occurrence of the verb rejoice in the letter. It was noted earlier (on 2:17) that for Paul "joy" is primarily a verb, something we do rather than how we feel. The verb itself means to verbalize with praise and singing. Echoing a repeated refrain from the Psalter (e.g., Ps 32:11; 35:9; and many others; cf. Hab 3:18), Paul thus gives this motif perspective. We are to rejoice in the Lord. As with the psalmists, the Lord who saves is both the basis and focus of rejoicing. The phrase in the Lord refers to the ground (or sphere) of our present existence (cf. Phil 2:19, 24) and thus points to our basic relationship with Christ. This in itself should eliminate all attraction to mere religion. Knowing Christ makes trash even of blameless Torah observance; it is unthinkable that under the pressure of present sufferings the Philippians should lose their joy in Christ by yielding to such observance.

In the context of rejoicing in the Lord, Paul begins his warning by noting that what he is about to say he has said many times before (cf. v. 18). That he should have done so in Philippi, where the Jewish contingent was so small it could not even form a synagogue, only underscores the potential threat these itinerants were to every church Paul had established among the Gentiles. Since Philippi straddled the Egnatian Way, the east-west turnpike through Macedonia, this church was always in danger of the Judaizers' showing up with their subversive teaching. So using this letter to warn the Philippians one more timeis "not onerous" (NIV no trouble) to Paul; it is a safeguard for you.The Warning (3:2) The very thought of his and their common enemies causes Paul to come out with guns blazing--with rhetoric (including assonance) that is impossible to capture in English. The threefold repetition of blepete (watch out for; "beware") followed by the thrice-repeated definite article and three words beginning with k nearly spits out: blepete tous kynas; blepete tous kakous ergatas; blepete ten katatomen. Although we are hardly prepared for this outburst, such people have dogged Paul all the years of his Christian ministry (see Gal 2:1-14). So the warning addressed to the Philippians turns out to be full of invective and sarcasm against (apparently) Jewish Christians who promote circumcision among Gentile believers. Each of the words is intended to score rhetorical points.

First, watch out for those dogs. This metaphor is full of "bite," since dogs were zoological low life, scavengers that were generally detested by Greco-Roman society and considered unclean by Jews, who sometimes used "dog" to designate Gentiles. Paul thus reverses the epithet; by trying to make Gentiles "clean" through circumcision, the Judaizers are unclean dogs.

Second, they are evildoers. The clue to this usage lies in its position between "dogs" and "the mutilation." Since both of these terms express reversals, it is arguable that this one does as well. If so, then the irony derives from the Psalter's repeated designation of the wicked as "those who work iniquity." In trying to make Gentiles submit to Torah observance, Judaizers (and their contemporary counterparts, the legalists) do not work "righteousness" at all but evil, just as those in the Psalter work iniquity because they have rejected God's righteousness.

Third, and changing from the masculine plural to a pejorative description of the Judaizers' activity, Paul warns, "Beware the mutilation," an ironic reference to Gentile circumcision. The Greek word for circumcision is peritome ( "to cut around"); katatome, used here, denotes "cutting to pieces," hence "mutilate." This wordplay, especially the emphatic For it is we who are the circumcision (v. 3), makes it certain this is the primary issue between Paul and them. This is the most "cutting" epithet of all, the ultimate derogation of circumcision, since the cognate verb occurs in Leviticus 21:5 (LXX) prohibiting priests (who serve God) from cutting their flesh as pagan priests did (cf. 1 Kings 18:28).

We miss too much, however, if we think of this language as merely expressing a personal pique. At issue for Paul is Christian existence itself. As with the exhortations in Philippians 1:27--2:18, living the gospel in Philippi is what is at stake. This is why he speaks of such repetition as not "burdensome" for him, even though being reminded again of the Judaizers' activities appears to be irksome.The Contrast (3:3-4) As immediate response to the ironic use of "mutilation," Paul asserts: "For we [not they] are the circumcision [hence you do not need literal circumcision], who serve by the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh." This, not verse 2, is the principal sentence in the present appeal, full of theological grist that is going to be milled by means of Paul's own story in verses 4-14.

The emphatic we--not they--by which the sentence begins reflects Paul's regular habit in the middle of an argument to shift from the second or third person to the inclusive first-person plural whenever the point shifts to some gospel reality that includes him as well as his readers (cf. vv. 15-16 and 20-21 below). Thus it is we--you and us, Gentiles and Jews together--who are the true circumcision, which Paul elsewhere calls "circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit" (Rom 2:29, echoing Deut 30:6). Paul knows nothing of a "new" Israel; for him the one people of God are now newly constituted--quite in keeping with Old Testament promises--on the basis of Christ and the Spirit.

Paul first describes the true circumcision as we who [minister] by the Spirit of God. His use of the crucial verb latreuo (NIV worship) is determined by the LXX, where it most often denotes levitical service or ministry in the sacrificial system. Here it stands in ironic contrast to Philippians 3:2: mutilated priests could not serve in the former temple; the true circumcision now serve Christ in the new temple by means of the Spirit. As the rest of the sentence makes clear, what Paul has in view is neither congregational worship nor internal "spiritual" service (personal piety) over against external rite, but two ways of existing: in the flesh, meaning life centered in the creature as over against God, and by the Spirit, as people of the future for whom all life in the present is now service and devotion to God.

"Serve" thus still refers to "righteousness" (vv. 6, 9) but now especially has to do with reflecting God's likeness and character in how we live (i.e., looking out for the interests of others, 2:3-4, as modeled by him who revealed Godlikeness in emptying himself by taking on the form of a slave, 2:5-7). Such ministry, effected by God's own indwelling Spirit, is a million miles removed from religious observance. In turning Torah (or Scripture in any form) into laws to be observed, God's people turn them into mere human regulations, missing their intent as revelation of God's likeness to be lived out among God's people. Hence the need for a circumcision of the heart, effected by the Spirit, to replace that of the flesh.

The basis of such life in the Spirit is Christ himself, expressed in terms of "boasting/glorying" in Christ Jesus (see 1:26). This seems to be a clear echo of Jeremiah 9:23-26, where the Lord says that the truly wise will boast in the Lord (thus not put confidence in such "flesh" matters as wisdom, strength, wealth), in a context where "the whole house of Israel" is judged as being "uncircumcised in heart." This seems all the more pertinent here, since Jeremiah says that true boasting in the Lord means to "understand and know me," in the sense of knowing God's true character--which is exactly the point Paul will pick up in Philippians 3:8-11. As in Jeremiah, "boasting" here carries the nuance of putting one's full trust and confidence in Christ, and thus to glory in him. Although the Spirit functions as Paul's primary contrast both to "works of law" and to the flesh, in this letter he can scarcely bring himself to speak of Christian existence without mentioning Christ. In the personal narrative that follows, this is the theme to which he returns in grand style.

Finally, and now in contrast both to boasting in Christ Jesus and to serving by the Spirit of God, he adds the telling blow: who put no confidence in the flesh. This clause is full of irony, Paul's way of moving from the specific expression of Torah observance (the circumcision of the flesh) to what he recognizes as the theological implications of Gentiles' yielding to circumcision. It reflects the similar argument in Galatians 3:2-3, where "flesh" refers first to the actual flesh cut away in circumcision but at the same time is the primary descriptive word for life before and outside of Christ. As in that passage, Spirit and flesh are overlapping realities that describe existence in the "already/not yet." One lives either "according to the Spirit" or "according to the flesh." These are mutually incompatible kinds of existence; to be in the one and then to revert to the former is spiritual suicide. And this is where the Judaizers have gone astray; they reject boasting in the Lord in favor of confidence in the flesh. But there is no real future in the past, which Christ and the Spirit have brought to an end.

As a final addendum to the description in Philippians 3:3, but also as a lead-in to the personal word that follows, Paul appends though I myself have reasons for such confidence--although he actually says it a little more starkly: "though I myself have confidence even in the flesh." What this means will be clarified in the following sentence (vv. 4b-6). We who serve by the Spirit, Paul says, who boast in Christ Jesus, have thus abandoned altogether putting confidence in the flesh--which by implication is what the Judaizers are bringing Gentiles to by urging circumcision. But, he now concedes, if they want to play that game, then I win there as well, since I excel on their turf, "having [grounds for] confidence even in the flesh." Again "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. And with that he turns to offer, first, the evidence for such a bold statement (vv. 4b-6) and, second, the zero net worth of such achievement in light of having come to know Christ and being found in him (vv. 7-9).

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