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 tenkatatomen. 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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.