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New Testament Study - Philippians 3:1-6

True and False Teaching

1Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!

It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. 3For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh--4though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

Paul begins: "Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!" Despite his being in captivity, despite the sufferings he had spoken of previously, Paul could "rejoice", and exhort others to do the same. Joy, joy, joy, at every turn in this letter: was Paul really writing this in chains? Paul speaks of joy and gladness no less than 15 times in this epistle.[Footnote #6] But Paul well knows that the exhortation to "Rejoice" is well worth repeating, for at least two reasons. First, so few of us, even Christians, exude joy. We need (for some reason) to be reminded to "Rejoice". We shouldn't need this reminder so often, we have so much to "rejoice in the Lord" about: first and foremost, our redemption through Christ, then also, peace in Christ, the love of Christ, our access to God through Christ, our inheritance in Christ, etc. The second reason that the exhortation to "Rejoice" is worth repeating is that joy is a great testimony to the world about the advantages of knowing Christ. Who can resist the opportunity for a life overflowing with joy. Joy is a magnet, drawing people to Christ. Joy is the best of contagious diseases.

It seems that Paul was ready to end the letter at this point (for he says "Finally..."), but Paul found (through the Holy Spirit) that he had much more to say, after all. Apparently, he had written to the Philippians previously concerning the subject that he now gets into: "It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you." Fortunately for us, he does "write the same things" in this letter, because we do not have the other letter. What Paul had to say was important, because there were false teachers about, who were leading some of the faithful astray: "Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh." Paul was speaking of the so-called Judaizers, who taught that one had to become a Jew, and be circumcised, in order to be saved through Christ. In Acts 15, we are told of the Council at Jerusalem concerning this problem. Attending the Council were many of the leaders of the faith, among them James, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas. They concluded that one is saved "through the grace of our Lord Jesus" (Acts 15:11), and thus, it is not necessary to be circumcised. An open letter was sent to the Gentile believers stating the official church position on this matter, but apparently when Paul wrote to the Philippians, there were many teachers that still taught that circumcision was necessary. This teaching must have confused many believers, for at a human level, it made sense. It was well known that Christ was a Jew, and so, it seemed reasonable that one had to become a Jew in order to be a follower of Christ.

Paul does not try to hide his contempt for these false teachers: "Watch out for those dogs." He calls them "mutilators of the flesh", for the circumcision that they required was not sanctioned by God, and thus, it was mutilation. Paul's contempt for these false teachers was justified. They not only were literally "mutilators of the flesh", but they cheapened the work of Christ on the cross. They, in effect, were saying that Christ's sacrifice was not effective enough to save the uncircumcised. Such teaching is blasphemy. Likewise, any teaching that requires the works of men for salvation is blasphemous to Christ. Christ did all, we cannot add to His work, nor do we need to.

One thing to note: throughout this epistle, Paul emphasizes unity within the church to the Philippians. This emphasis, however, does not prevent Paul from criticizing false teachers within the church. Unity, valuable as it is, does not come at the expense of truth.

Paul goes on to state: "For it is we who are the circumcision," that is, the true circumcision, as opposed to the Judaizers, who were "mutilators of the flesh". The Judaizers (and the Jews, for that matter) used to call themselves "the circumcision" (cf. Eph. 2:11), demonstrating their emphasis on a ritual performed by men, rather than their relationship with God. Paul contradicts them and says that it is true Christians who are "the [true] circumcision".

Paul then gives three characteristics of those who are the true circumcision: "we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh." The first characteristic concerns how they worship: "we who worship by the Spirit of God." Their worship is not directed by men, but "by the Spirit of God"; their worship is not for the benefit and entertainment of men, but for the glory and honor of God; their worship does not spring from their own talents and abilities, but from the power of the Holy Spirit. The second characteristic concerns what they value: "we...who glory in Christ Jesus." The greatest possession they have is Christ; the greatest thing that has happened to them is the work of grace through Christ. Thus, He is their glory. The third characteristic concerns their understanding of the grace of God: "we...who put no confidence in the flesh." They do not depend on anything that they have done to contribute anything to their salvation. They understand that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8,9).

Paul expands on this last characteristic. The Judaizers, no doubt, made much of their own qualifications as Jews. They preached that, to gain God's favor, one would have to be like them: become circumcised in the flesh, and keep the laws of the Pharisees. But Paul had worthy qualifications, as well. In fact, he was more qualified than they were to speak of the advantages of being a Jew. He states confidently: "If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more." Paul then lists his qualifications. He does so in a progressive manner, each time stating a higher qualiication. First, "circumcised on the eighth day." Paul, who is railing against requiring circumcision, was himself circumcised. Second, Paul was "of the people of Israel", so he was not a convert to Judaism, but a Jew by birth. Third, Paul was "of the tribe of Benjamin." Benjamin was a noble tribe, being one of only two tribes from which kings of Israel sprang (King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin). Also, Benjamin was a loyal tribe, the only tribe that remained faithful to Judah when Israel split into two nations (see I Kings 12:21). Note that these first three qualifications of Paul were acquired by birth, while the next four were due to Paul's will and choice. Fourth, Paul was "a Hebrew of Hebrews." In other words, he was not just a "cultural" Jew, but actively adhered to his religion. Fifth, Paul was, "in regard to the law, a Pharisee." The Pharisees were the strictest sect in observing the law. Sixth, Paul was "zeal[ous], persecuting the church." Paul was not passive in his defense of the religion. He actively sought to destroy the Christians, whom he considered (before he came to know Christ) as a threat to Judaism. Of course, Paul's zeal was misdirected when he persecuted the church, which goes to show that simple zeal in religion is worthless if it is not based on truth (see Rom. 10:1-4). Seventh, Paul was, concerning "legalistic righteousness, faultless." In the eyes of the community, Paul led a blameless, Pharasaical life, meticulously careful in his outward observance of the law.

Paul did well to enumerate his qualifications, for his qualifications strengthen his argument against the Judaizers. Paul was not an ignorant Gentile railing against circumcision, but a righteous Jew, even a Pharisee, who formerly persecuted the church. This was God's great plan, to use Paul, "a Hebrew of Hebrews", to be the strongest teacher concerning the grace of God. Someone who had great knowledge and zeal for the former things had credibility in putting away the former things, in favor of grace. All would agree that Paul's qualifications should by all logic bias him towards being a Judaizer himself. However, Paul sought and followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and taught the truth.

Lord, may we always follow the guidance of Your Spirit, and remain on the path of truth. May we be able to discern true from false teaching, as we seek to know You better. Also, may our confidence be only in You, and not in our own qualifications and abilities. May we understand the great blessing of not having to depend on our own qualifications to be saved from judgment. In the name of Jesus, in whom our confidence for salvation resides, we pray these things, Amen.


6. In the following verses: 1:4; 1:18 (twice); 1:25; 2:2; 2:17; 2:18; 2:19; 2:28; 2:29; 3:1; 4:1; 4:4 (twice); 4:10.

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