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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – At Issue: The Circumcision of Gentiles (3:1-4)
At Issue: The Circumcision of Gentiles (3:1-4)

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.

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