Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:1-3)
The next few weeks, I’ll be doing a slow walk through the 3rd chapter of Philippians, which is probably my favorite in the Bible…or at least one I always tend to gravitate toward for reinvigorating my spiritual life. The Apostle Paul is at a point in his letter to the church in the ancient Greek city of Philippi (not West Virginia!) in which he starts offering practical instruction. We see that right off he admonishes them to “rejoice in the Lord,” which is good advice, as we’re first and foremost created by God to “glorify and enjoy him forever” as the Westminster Catechism states. We are made primarily as creatures of worship of the one true and living God - not mere pursuers of pleasure, or consumers, or human sacrifices offered on the altar of the juggernaut of economic growth.
From this admonition to be the worshippers Jesus makes us, Paul reminds the Philippians (which is “no trouble” to him) to be wary of a type of worship growing in popularity in their day: those who taught Gentiles needed to become Jews first and then follow the Jewish Law in order to follow Christ. They advocated being circumcised, for example (which Paul derides, calling such advocates “those who mutilate the flesh.”) Instead, Paul turns that practice on its head by calling Christians the “Circumcision,” implying that faith in Jesus, not one’s adherence to ancient Jewish Law, is what makes one covenantally blessed by God.
You see, circumcision was the rite by which one was counted by covenant among God’s chosen people (as a male, at least) and thus a beneficiary of God’s promises (provided one continued to uphold the Law), promises such as long life, material well-being, protection from enemies, health, and so on. Attached to this was the promise for a Messiah who would rescue God’s people and usher in God’s perfect kingdom, a heaven on earth. But now Paul sees that old covenant fulfilled by Jesus. Now, those who believe in Jesus, and, thus, heir contingency no longer depended on how well one kept God’s commands but on Jesus’ perfect obedience, atoning sacrifice on the cross, and victory over Satan, sin, and death in his resurrection. Our acceptance by God was made possible by Jesus and kept fresh through the work of the Holy Spirit who lives in every follower of Christ. And new promises for eternity are given: resurrection on the last day, the gift of the Holy Spirit now, and tastes of that future perfection in this life that point the way for the believer and for those around them to see God’s new benevolent reality firsthand.
Given, Paul’s rhetoric may be off-putting to some. I particularly have to remind myself that when he derides these teachers of extreme obedience to archaic and fulfilled Jewish legal precepts as “dogs” he’s not insulting my beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel as well. But if we imagine ancient stray dogs that were essentially feral, roaming about and preying on the unwary, we get that Paul is calling these false teachers dangerous opportunists, taking advantage of the good nature and common practice of ancient Christians who offered food and shelter (and often some remuneration) for itinerant preachers. Paul doesn’t want the Philippians to be taken advantage of while someone is preaching a message that doesn’t square with the truth of the Gospel. With that in mind, I get why he’s being so harsh – he’s protecting those he cares about deeply!
As you think about your life and times, what dangerous opportunists do you see taking advantage of God’s people? What false teaching is distracting the Church where you are from fully worshipping God in Spirit and in truth? What barriers to worship do you personally need to address so you can more fully enter into who God has created and called you to be as his worshipper?
Gracious Father, you have called us through your Son to worship you in spirit and in truth; defend us from teachings and distractions that keep us from entering into your calling and enjoying the eternal spiritual benefits you avail to us by means of your indwelling Spirit. Grant this, we pray, in the strong name of Jesus. Amen.