For the last post in this series, see here.

Turning now to Philippians for wisdom in my continued exploration of the theological relationship between Israel and the Church, one passage in particular merits considerable attention within Paul’s most joyful, encouraging letter.  Philippians 3:2-11 runs like this:

“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—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: 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; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  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 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

The vast majority of commentators agree that the unnamed opponents Paul lambasts in verse 2 are identical to the group he opposes in Galatians (and whose views he deals with more fully in Romans).  They also appear in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council, when the early church formally decided that Gentiles need not undergo circumcision or become observant of the Mosaic Law in order to become Christians.  There, these teachers insisted that “unless you are circumcised and obey the law of Moses, you cannot be saved”.  “Judaizers” is the term often given to these ethnic Jews, as they seem to have held both the conviction that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah and that the Torah continued to mark out God’s people and provide the necessary path of righteousness before Him.

In verse 2, Paul hurls a sequence of three invectives at these “Judaizers”, characterizing them with bitter irony as existing on the periphery of God’s covenant people–in radical opposition, quite obviously, to their own cherished self-understanding.  In verse 3, Paul contrasts their miserable state of affairs as “outsiders” with three more descriptions aimed at the Gentile Christians in Philippi which, in the same way, represent a profound reversal of roles and confound traditional expectations of the identity of God’s people.  In doing so, Paul provides us a fascinating glimpse into his way of thinking about Jesus, Israel and the Church.

The three terms applied to the Judaizers are “dogs“, “evil workers” and “those who mutilate the flesh.”  Indisputably, these terms were common derogatory references employed by the Jewish people to describe the “outsider” status of Gentiles with respect to God’s covenant purposes.  In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus himself refers to the Gentile woman whose daughter is demonized as a “dog” and to the people of Israel (to whom alone he was sent for) as “children” of God.  The use of “dogs” to describe Gentiles is due to the perception that, much like dogs, Gentiles will eat anything set before them (i.e. they do not eat according to the kosher laws) and are thus unclean and unholy.

“But in an amazing reversal Paul asserts that it is the Judaizers who are to be regarded as Gentiles; they are the ‘dogs’ who stand outside the covenant blessings.” (Peter T. O’Brien, Philippians, p. 355).

“Evil workers”, subsequently, alludes to the typical Jewish belief (rooted in the OT) that Gentiles are “unclean” and cut off from God’s people not merely because of their ethnicity, but also because of their personal immorality and sin.

Finally, “those who mutilate the flesh” has reference to the widespread Gentile practice in the ancient world of piercing and marking (tatooing) and defacing one’s body, a practice that was prohibited in the Torah for Israel.  One possible allusion to Paul’s “mutilation” here is the story found in I Kings 18 of the false prophets of Baal mutilating their own bodies in an effort to find favor with their god (the same cognate word is used in the Septuagint).  In Galatians, Paul interprets (henceforth after the coming of Jesus, to be sure) all Jewish reliance upon and confidence in Old Covenant markers as no better than the former paganism of the Galatians (note the polemical word “again” in Galatians 4:9 and 5:1 with reference to the Galatians brand-spanking new interest in converting to Judaism).  In like fashion, so it would seem that Paul perceives the “confidence in the flesh” of these Judaizers.  They are in the same place (in God’s eyes) as the prophets of Baal and the pagans of the Greco-Roman world with respect to the efficacy of their rituals they place their hope and boast upon.  In other words: they have become Gentiles.  They are outside the new covenant community of God.  This is the unmistakeable thrust of verse 2.

Verse 3 begins with “for”, and as Gordon Fee points out, this verse provides “the reason they must not give heed to such persuasions…[namely] that ‘we’ who have received the Spirit and boast in Christ are God’s Israel, the ‘true circumcision.'” (Philippians, p. 289).  All three terms are apt characterizations of God’s true people: we worship in the Spirit, we boast in Christ Jesus, and we place no confidence in the flesh.  This is, it must be insisted upon forcefully, the very definition of what a Christian is.  This is what it means to belong to Jesus.  Strongly echoing the flow of thought in Galatians 6:12-16, the clear inference is that God’s “Israel” (that is, His true covenant people) are no longer identified by ethnicity or law-observance, but rather by the Spirit and Christ and faith in his death and resurrection as their only grounds of righteousness (cf. 3:7-11).  For all those who walk by that rule, who boast only in the cross of Jesus and who put no confidence in the flesh, peace and mercy be upon them–that is, upon the Israel of God.  Indeed, they are–as Paul explicitly affirms in verse 3–the circumcision (cf. Romans 2:25-29).  They are God’s distinct, unique people in this world.  As Moises Silva concludes in his summary of Philippians 3:2ff:

“Paul, therefore, is making a startling point: the great reversal brought in by Christ means that it is the Judaizers who must be regarded as Gentiles…Continuing this line of thought, Paul draws the antithesis sharply by affirming that Christian believers have now become the true Jews…the polemic of Phil. 3 begins with an unequivocal assertion of the great spiritual reversal: Judaizers are the new Gentiles, while Christian believers have become the true Jews.” (Moises Silva, Philippians, pp. 147-48)

Next Up: Romans 1-8 (another post will be devoted to the crucial passage of Romans 9-11)