Further, my brothers and sisters, 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. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised 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; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. Philippians 3:1-6
Trading Our Sorrows
In chapter two of Philippians, Paul emphasizes the need for unity. In Philippians 3, Paul focuses on Christian joy. He begins the chapter with an exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord (v. 1). Paul’s language suggests he felt that exhortation was both necessary and challenging. Perhaps, the Philippians were subject to the same type of persecution as was Paul. Because of such persecution, Paul wanted to encourage them and remind them of the imperishable joy that is inclusive in the Christian life. What makes Christian joy imperishable is that it is centered in Jesus Christ, our Lord. That is the point Paul makes in verse 1. He exhorts them to rejoice in the Lord. Because of their faith in Jesus Christ, the Philippians can be assured that their joy will be indestructible. The basis of that joy is the promise of eternal life through Christ Jesus. “Therefore, even in circumstances where joy would seem to be impossible, and there seem to be nothing but pain and discomfort, Christian joy remains because not all the threats and terrors and discomforts of life can separate the Christian from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord (Romans 8:35-39).” The matter is seemingly so urgent and critical to Paul that he sets down what has been called “the necessity of repetition.” Indeed, in the latter part of verse 1, Paul says, “It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” That statement is intriguing on a couple of levels. First, it suggests that Paul had written other letters to the Philippians that have been lost. That should not be surprising to students of the Bible because Paul was writing letters from A.D. 48 to A.D. 64, sixteen years, but we possess only thirteen.
Second, because of Paul’s intimate knowledge of his target audience, he was not afraid of repetition. Paul justifies the need for that repetition by indicating that it is intended to safeguard the Phillippians. He uses the Greek word asphalēs that is translated "to make firm." Simply stated, he is repeating the admonition for the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord despite their persecution so they can grow stronger in their Christian walk. In verse 2, Paul switches his focus to war the Philippians against those he calls “dogs, evildoers, and mutilators of the flesh.” In biblical times, dogs were considered unclean animals that roamed the streets and fed on the refuse and filth of the streets, quarreling among themselves and attacking passer-by. Jews used to refer to Gentiles as dogs. Jesus said the same in his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman who asked him to heal her daughter in Mark 7:24-30. “So this is Paul's answer to the Jewish teachers. He says to them, "In your proud self-righteousness, you call other men dogs, but it is you who are dogs because you shamelessly pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ." He takes the very name the Jewish teachers would have applied to the impure and the Gentiles and throws it back at them.” Paul also calls the persecutors of the Philippians, evildoers. It is an affront to the Torahnic sensibilities of the Jews to be call evildoers, or workers of evil things. The Jews believed it was their obligation to keep the Law’s many rules and regulations to achieve righteousness. However, Paul maintains that righteousness comes from the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He believed the result of the teaching centered on work righteousness was to pull people further away from God instead of to bring them nearer to him. Thus, though, he feels they were workers of evil, though they thought they were working good. Lastly, Paul calls them “mutilators of the flesh.” “There is a pun in the Greek which is not transferable to English. There are two Greek verbs which are very like each other. Peritemnein means to circumcise; katatemnein means to mutilate, as in Leviticus 21:5, which describes forbidden self-mutilation, such as castration. Paul says, "You Jews think you are circumcised; in fact, you are only mutilated."
To the Jews, circumcision was an important religious ritual. It was ordained upon Israel as a sign and symbol of their covenantal relationship with God, dating back to Genesis 17:9-10. Paul uses the play on words to make the point that the circumcision of the Jews is only a sign of the flesh that is meaningless without a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It is indeed tantamount to a mutilation of the flesh if the heart is not circumcised. Many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries regarded circumcision in itself as the very symbol that sets them apart as God’s holy nation. Yet even in the Torah, Jews are reminded that circumcision of the flesh is empty without a right relationship with God. Indeed, in Leviticus, the Israelites are reminded “that the uncircumcised hearts of Israel must be humbled to accept the punishment of God (Leviticus 26:41). The Deuteronomist warns the Israelites to "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn" (Deuteronomy 10:16). He reminds them “that the Lord will circumcise their hearts to make them love him (Deuteronomy 30:6). Jeremiah speaks of the uncircumcised ear, the ear that will not hear the word of God (Jeremiah 6:10). The writer of Exodus speaks of uncircumcised lips (Exodus 6:12).” Calling them “mutilators of the flesh,” Paul says that real circumcision is a devotion of heart and mind and life to God.” Therefore, physical circumcision without a heart circumcision is tantamount to a mutilation of the flesh. Paul continues that line of thinking in verse 3 to say it is the Christians who are the truly circumcised. For Paul, Christians are circumcised, not with the outward mark in the flesh, but with that inner circumcision of which the scriptures speak.
In verse 4, Paul preemptively outlines his Jewish credentials to give more credence to his criticism of the “mutilators of the flesh.” He describes his Benjamite heritage “that is to say, he was not only an Israelite; he belonged to the elite of Israel. The tribe of Benjamin had a special place in the aristocracy of Israel. Benjamin was the child of Rachel, the well-loved wife of Jacob, and of all the twelve sons of Jacob, Benjamin alone had been born in the Promised Land (Genesis 35:17-18).” Paul also conveys that he was circumcised on the eight-day, according to the Law (v. 5). Paul further expounds on his Jewish credentials by underscoring that he is a Hebrew of Hebrews. “A Hebrew was a Jew who was not only of pure racial descent but who had deliberately, and often laboriously, retained the Hebrew tongue. Such a Jew would speak the language of the country in which he lived but also the Hebrew that was his ancestral language. Thus, Paul claims “not only to be a pure-blooded Jew but one who still spoke Hebrew. He had been born in the Gentile city of Tarsus, but he had come to Jerusalem to receive his Pharisaic training at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).” Paul was a loyal Jew who was a member of their strictest and the most self-disciplined Jewish religious sect. In his heart, he had a burning zeal for what he had thought was the cause of God, and he had a record in Judaism in which no man could mark a fault (v. 6). His zeal for the Jewish faith made him an enemy of the Christian movement. Yet his Damascus Road experience, “he divested himself of every human claim of honor that he might accept in complete humility the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.”
Every believer has a compelling testimony to share about his or her encounter with Jesus Christ. That testimony empowers us to trod through the stony roads of life with Christ-centered joy. Our joy may not always be gleefully evident. For, we are often tossed and driven on the restless sea of time. Yet we know that all things will work for our good. Thus we continue to cultivate the audacity of hope and refuse to allow our adversity to determine the altitude of our worship.
As Paul used the tool of repetition to encourage the Philippians in sustaining their Jesus-joy, we have to remind one another of the promises of God so the body of Christ can remain steadfast in proclaiming the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some people may need to hear that encouragement over and over again. We should, therefore, not make the message more complicated than it is. Confusion is a tool of the enemy. God wants us to walk in wisdom according to his truth, as revealed in his word.
Besides, the enemy is persistent in trying to lead God’s people astray with misinterpretation of the scriptures. He is engaged in a misinformation campaign through false prophets and workers of evil that are seducing the masses into believing they can find joy outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. We cannot surrender to the pessimism of this age. We are a people of hope grounded in our faith in Jesus Christ. When sorrows like sea billows roll into our circumstances, we have to remember and declare, it is well with our soul and yet rejoice in the Lord.
Believers have to remember that Jesus is the source of their joy. All that is good and perfect comes from him. Jesus is the heart of our contentment and the hope for all we do. It is in Him we live, move, and have our being. He alone can turn our sorrow into joy. As Paul joyfully traded his Jewish pedigree for a relationship with Jesus Christ despite the sorrow he endured, we should continue to rejoice of the Lord and let that joy be the fuel that helps us finish our Christian race.
Blessed Lord, please help us to sustain your joy in our hearts in times of hardships.