In the last installment of this blog series, we introduced Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a companion to our current White Horse Inn series. In this piece, and for the remaining three installments, we’ll be focusing exclusively on Philippians chapter 3. In this chapter, Paul walks us through his own background as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a background which he ultimately presents as a hindrance to the gospel.
In the opening of chapter 3, Paul writes:
Phil. 3:1 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.
Who is Paul referring to as “dogs” in verse two? Jewish people regularly described Gentiles as “dogs,” but here Paul is using this word in a different sense. He says, “Look out for the dogs… those who mutilate the flesh.” This phrase might be mysterious on its own, but the next verse goes on to explain that he is thinking of the circumcision party. Also referred to as the Judaizers, these were Jewish believers in Christ who taught that a person needed to continue to keep all the laws and ceremonies of Moses in order to be saved. Paul addresses this issue most clearly in his epistle to the Galatians, even to the point of calling it another gospel (Gal 1:6).
What’s amazing here is that Paul uses the word “dogs,” which had formerly been used to describe Gentiles or those “outside the covenant,” including Jews who professed faith in Jesus’ messianic identity. Paul is saying here that race doesn’t matter and, ultimately, neither does denominational affiliation. Being Jewish is not enough, nor is belonging to a Bible-believing church. It’s not even enough to believe in Jesus if you end up adding your own works to the finished work of Christ. This is what places a person outside the covenant, and it is why Paul refers to these Judaizers as “dogs.”
3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
In Colossians chapter 2, Paul explains more fully what he means by this idea of “the real circumcision.” Starting with verse 11, he says,
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh [literally: in the stripping off of the body of flesh], by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
What Paul is saying in this text is that there is no need for the ceremonial act of circumcision, since this particular blood oath covenant was merely a temporal placeholder that pointed to the ultimate and eternal blood oath covenant that we find in the cross of Christ. He suffered the stripping away not merely of the foreskin, but of his entire body, and this greater circumcision becomes ours by faith.
Phil 3:3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
Paul here appears to be echoing Christ’s words to the woman at the well: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). In John 6:63 Jesus says that “the spirit gives life, the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Later, in John 15, Jesus says,that the Holy Spirit ” will testify about me” when he comes. Worshiping by the Spirit of God, then, is not related to ecstatic or exuberant worship experiences, as it is often misunderstood in our day. Instead, it is directly related to those who, as Paul says here in our text, “glory in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh.”
Phil 3:4 …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.
We know, of course, that Paul was not inherently righteous or blameless. In Rom 7: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” So here, when he speaks of blamelessness under the law, he is likely thinking exclusively of outward conformity. Inwardly, he was unclean. This is exactly what Jesus regularly communicated to the Pharisees during his earthly ministry: “Woe to you, for you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27).
Phil 3:7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
Any goodness that Paul had claimed previously he is now putting in the debit column. All his outward obedience, all his zeal, all of it, he says, is worthless apart from Christ. Concerning his fellow Jews, Paul writes in Romans 10: “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:2-4). In Phil. 3:8, Paul speaks of the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Some people in our day don’t like to focus on this knowledge element, saying “I don’t want to know about God,” or “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.” But zeal without knowledge is a serious problem. At the end of the day, we cannot trust someone we know nothing about, for otherwise we end up having faith in the idea of relationship rather than in Christ himself.
Paul goes so far as to call all his outward obedience rubbish. Not wanting to offend our sensibilities, most English Bible translators end up choosing the least offensive of the various translation possibilities for the word Paul uses here. In actuality, skubalon is a little cruder. According one Greek lexicon, the way this word is used by other ancient writers of the period makes the sense closer to “dung, filth, excrement, manure, or crud.” And what’s interesting is that Paul isn’t merely thinking of all his sin as dung, but his righteousness. We find this same sentiment in Isaiah 64:6: “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.”
In the next installment of this series, we’ll continue this discussion of Philippians chapter 3. We will pick up in verse 9, where Paul places his trust in a righteousness that is not his own.