Making Sense of Philippians 3:1-3
by Ed Vasicek
For years, this text often came across to me as a disconnected hodgepodge. Recently the text seemed to fall into place. I thought I would therefore share this casual exegesis with others who may likewise be perplexed. Particularly at issue for me was "How does rejoicing in the Lord relate to false teaching?"
Let's dig in.
Paul begins Philippians 3:1-3 with the term, "finally" meaning, literally, "the remaining" (matters). The remaining matters at hand included the problems caused by false teachers, particularly those sometimes referred to as Judaizers. They probably had not gained much of a stronghold yet in the Philippian congregation, but Paul decided to make a preemptive strike.
These Judaizers are sometimes thought to be gentile Christians who embraced Judaism as part of their Christian profession, but the better guess is that they were mostly Jews who considered themselves Messianic Jews (Christians) or gentiles who had converted to Judaism beforehand, then later acknowledged Jesus as Messiah.
The early church was made up mostly of Messianic Jews (believers in Jesus who were Jewish, like the apostles) well past the first half of the first century. Somewhere between 65 and 75 A.D., gentile Christians became the majority. The Jewish presence was mostly a blessing to the church; the Jews were well grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures and had a tradition of morality, monotheism, and solid theology (especially when compared to Christians who were converted from polytheistic idolatry). If immorality and idolatry were struggles common to gentile converts, the tendency toward salvation by faith in the Messiah PLUS Torah keeping was a problematic issue among some Jewish converts.
According to Acts 15, one of the big controversies in the early church was whether gentile believers needed to convert to Judaism before (or after) they became Christians. As David Stern points out (see Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel), the issue as to whether Jews had to leave Judaism to become Christians was never addressed; it was assumed that Jewish believers would continue within Judaism. The controversy was whether gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews. If Jewish believers had been instructed to forsake Judaism, there would have been no such controversy!
Circumcision, one of the rituals associated with Judaism and observing the Torah (the Law of God given to Moses), was used as the first installment in assuming the yoke of the Law, the obligation to obey the Law in its entirety. Circumcision was not merely a cultural boundary marker of culturally separatist Jews (as Sanders and the Covenantal Nomists maintain), but rather signified the requirement to keep the entire law. Paul describes these Judaizers as those who want to be under law (Galatians 4:21), not just Jewish separatists.
So with this false teaching in the textual limelight (as is clear from verse 2, "Beware of the dogs, beware of the false circumcision"), why does Paul urge believers to rejoice in the (realm of the) Lord? The answer is quite simple, but we often are blinded to it because of the "worship movement." When modern ears hear the words, "rejoice in the Lord," they may think the reference is to singing, worship, or becoming enthusiastic. But I do not believe that was Paul's intent.
I think Paul here is talking about the joy that comes from salvation and the knowledge that we are fully accepted by God because we are in Christ by faith alone! Note the following Old Testament precedents that associate joy with salvation:
Psalm 51:12, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me."
Isaiah 12:3, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."
This joy, then, is in itself a refutation of the false doctrine of salvation by grace AND law keeping. It is the joy of one who believes God "justifies the ungodly," (Romans 4:4-5), not the law keeper.
False teachers would consider this sort of joy presumption; thus their works system is incompatible with the New Testament plan of salvation, a salvation that brings the joy of assurance of salvation. This is why Paul calls this rejoicing a "safeguard" and has no embarrassment about repeating his admonition (3:1b and 4:4, where we can rejoice for the reason found in 4:3 -- namely, our names are written in the Book of Life, and 4:4, we can rejoice because the Lord is near and we look forward to His return; on the other hand, the law keeper cannot be sure he has met the standard, so the nearness of the Lord's coming is bittersweet at best).
Paul then urges the believers to beware of (scavenging) dogs, redefining the negative label Jews often used when describing ungodly gentiles. In this case, the erroneous Jewish teachers are the "dogs." It is worth noting that they are called dogs not because they were Jewish, nor because they preferred to live according to the dictates of the Law. Their error was twofold: (1) advocating that law-keeping was necessary for salvation (and thus perhaps owning the mentality described in Luke 18:9, "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable") and (2) demanding that gentile converts also become Jewish converts at the risk of their own souls.
First-century Judaism had many diverse beliefs within its confines. Some Jewish rabbis believed that gentiles could be saved apart from being full converts to Judaism. These gentiles needed to repent of their sins, recognize the God of Israel, and were expected to relate to God under the Covenant of Noah, a covenant made with all mankind and still in effect as long as rainbows are observable. From Genesis 9:1-17, Jewish rabbis extrapolated seven of the ten Commandments. These "God-fearing gentiles" were not expected to eat kosher, observe the Sabbath, or be circumcised. Cornelius was a man in this category, and thus his house was considered ceremonially unclean to observant Jews, even though he had a good relationship to the synagogue leaders. If God-fearing gentiles wanted to become full converts to Judaism, they would submit to ritual immersion and circumcision. Some Jewish Rabbis considered baptism even more important than circumcision, but since Christians had already been baptized, the Judaizers did not raise that particular issue.
Acts 15:22-29 seems to verify that believing gentiles do indeed live under the stipulations of the Noahide Covenant, and thus are forbidden to eat blood, for example. Although it is difficult to understand the relationship of believing Jews to the Law, it seems as though Jewish believer could continue to observe the Law and maintain their Jewish identity, as long as they understood the Law could not save. This seems to be the most consistent viewpoint in light of Acts 21:20-26. It also meshes well with the institution of the Law and temple worship during the Millennium. The same reason Messianic Jews were comfortable participating in temple worship in Acts 21 is why they will be comfortable in doing so when the Lord returns. Although there is no longer a sacrifice for sin, and sacrifices, we could argue, are not necessary; still sacrifices can never be wrong, since God ordained them. In one sense, sacrifices were never theologically necessary.
Applying things to our day, Jewish believers can continue identifying themselves as Jews who believe in Messiah and maintain Jewish customs while trusting in the work of Christ alone or choose to simply identify themselves as believers in Christ who do not maintain the Jewish customs. Jewish customs or law observance are wrong ONLY IF those practicing them believe they contribute toward salvation or if they set themselves up over gentile believers and refuse to fellowship with them.
The Judaizers, who demanded circumcision as a pre-requisite for salvation, are contrasted in verse three with true Christians who are circumcised in heart. Although outward circumcision is not a wrong thing, it can become a wrong thing if one trusts in that ritual or the whole of law keeping to make one right with God. But true believers are circumcised of heart, something untrue of these false teachers. This idea is not unique to the New Testament. God says in Deuteronomy 10:16, "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer."
He speaks prophetically in Deuteronomy 30:6, "The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live."
Paul writes in Romans 2:28-29, "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God."
Since Paul is addressing the Jews, what he is saying, in my view, is that one is not a true Jew if he is ONLY circumcised outwardly, but must also have an inward circumcision. This teaching is not unique to Paul; even non-messianic Jews realized that outward circumcision was not enough. A gentile who is circumcised of heart is regenerated, as is a Jewish believer; but the gentile is nowhere clearly called "a Jew." Paul here is arguing his case before the Jews (Romans 2:17, "But if you bear the name 'Jew'"). It is inappropriate to apply the Romans text to a non-Jew when it is Jews who are being addressed. However, the Philippians text is written to all believers.
So the believer who is justified by faith apart from the Law boasts not only of an inward working, but he can do three additional things that the Judaizing "Christian" could not:
The believer can worship the SPIRIT.
I agree with C.H. Lenski, one of the great vintage Bible scholars, who translates the verse, "For we on our part are the Circumcision, those worshipping God's Spirit and boasting in Christ Jesus and not resting confidence in flesh." The term pneumati theou is very likely in the dative case (as opposed to the locative or instrumental) and is WITHOUT a preposition and should be taken in its purest sense as a dative, "who worship TO the Spirit." This would therefore approximate the accusative.The most basic use of the dative case "indicates the one for whom or in whose interest an act is performed." (Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 84).
It is likely that the ancient Covenantal Nomists believed that the Holy Spirit was a force (much like modern Non-messianic Judaism), not a Person of the Godhead. So by rejoicing in the Lord (because our salvation is secured for us) and by worshipping to the Spirit, our actions refute the false teachings of the Judaizers!
Then we glory in CHRIST.
Here, the term "in Christ" contains the preposition, en, thus it is not quite grammatically parallel to "worshiping in the Spirit." You cannot really appreciate Christ if you think you have to earn or contribute toward your own salvation. Although Christ was a theologian, an ethicist, a rabbi, a prophet, and king, He is first of all a Savior, someone who does the saving-- ALL of it; we are therefore completely PROUD of our Savior and gladly wear His Name.
As Christians, because we glory in Christ ALONE for our salvation, that means we refuse to glory in what the false teachers glory in: one's keeping of the Law (i.e., the works that we can do in our flesh).
We have no CONFIDENCE in the flesh, in our ability to merit God's favor. Since we recognize that we can do nothing to remedy our lost condition (Total Depravity), we look to another to do the saving--the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philippians 3:1-3 sets up a defense against the false Judaizing teachers. The kind of salvation Paul taught results in the joy that comes from freedom from condemnation, not the fear of a temporary probation, always one step away from perdition. It is based on the work of God within the heart; a circumcision performed by God himself, not by our efforts.
Since we have this freedom and this new life, we worship the Father, Son, AND Spirit. We glory in Christ, the one who completely saved us, and not in our own discipline, accomplishments, or ability to keep the Law of God.