Sunday, December 04, 2011

The True Circumcision

Phil 3:2-4  Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved. 3 For we who worship by the Spirit of God* are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort; NLT  
The church at Philippi, a Macedonian city located on the major shipping route known as the Via Egnatia, had a problem with dogs. Not with the kind that are furry and have a tail, but with two-legged dogs. In his concluding warnings to the Philippian believers, the apostle Paul warned them: "Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh" (Phil 3:2).
The church in Philippi began with the conversion of Lydia, a Gentile businesswoman who had become a proselyte to Judaism. She first heard the gospel when Paul preached to a group of women who had gathered near a river outside the city to pray (Acts 16:13-15). The fact that they were meeting by the riverside indicates that there was no synagogue and suggests that the Jewish population of Philippi was quite small. The growth of the church, however, drew the attention of Jews, including those who had come to Antioch and taught: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).
Paul's description of these teachers as "dogs" was intended to be ironic. This word was often used by the Jews to speak of the Gentiles (Ps 22:16). Jesus used it Himself to refer to a woman from Syrian Phoenicia who came to Him and begged Him to drive a demon out of her daughter: "'First let the children eat all they want,' he told her, 'for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.' 'Yes, Lord,' she replied, 'but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs'" (Mark 7:27-28). Jesus was so impressed by the faith demonstrated in the woman's quick-witted reply that He granted her request.
The "dogs" of Philippi, though, were false teachers who were attempting to infiltrate the church. In calling them this, Paul was probably using their own language against them. They called uncircumcised Gentile Christians "dogs," implying that they were not truly a part of God's people.
Paul's evaluation of their doctrine is evident in the harsh language he used to characterize them. He described them as "men who do evil." This is somewhat ironic, in view of the fact that they were probably meticulous in their observance of the rituals and traditions of rabbinical Judaism. Paul's description was justified, however, because these men taught that the way to be saved was by keeping the Law and doing good works. But because they were not trusting in Christ, the works that seemed good in their own eyes were really evil since they were a form of self-righteousness.
Paul also characterized them as "those mutilators of the flesh," an allusion to their emphasis on the rite of circumcision. Originally practiced by many Semitic nations, circumcision was introduced to Israel when God commanded Abraham to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant that He had made with him (Gen 17:1-14). For Abraham, the rite of circumcision was ". . . a seal of the righteousness he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised" (Rom 4:11). For Abraham's descendants, it was a reminder of God's promise that He would also declare them righteous if they followed in the steps of Abraham's faith.
It is clear from a number of Old Testament passages that circumcision had a symbolic meaning. In Deut 10:16, for example, God's people were told: "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer." Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah explained to those in the kingdom of Judah that in order to truly circumcise themselves to the Lord, they would need to circumcise their hearts (Jer 4:4). The ritual of circumcision pointed to the need for a spiritual change, but it could not bring about that change.
Paul explained the difference between those who were "truly" circumcised and those who were only circumcised in the flesh by pointing out:
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. (Rom 2:28-29
From God's perspective, then, being a physical descendant of Abraham did not automatically guarantee that one was a true heir to the righteousness promised to Abraham. Only those who shared Abraham's faith could be called "Jews" in the true sense of the word. The outward sign of circumcision meant nothing if there was no spiritual reality behind it.
Those who have trusted in Jesus Christ live in the spiritual reality that circumcision was meant to picture:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2:11-12
In Christ, it is the life of the Spirit that counts. We have no confidence in the flesh because we know that the flesh lacks the power to please God (Rom 7:18). We do not trust in mere ritual to please God but worship Him through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Paul's words, though blunt, are both an encouragement and a warning. They offer confidence to those who are bold enough to trust in Christ alone. At the same time, they are a warning to those who depend upon their religious heritage or human effort to gain acceptance in God's sight. The work of Christ alone is sufficient to justify. Anything else that is added to it, even if it is religious in nature, is, in fact, defiling.
God of Israel, I claim Christ alone as my righteousness. Circumcise my heart and make it responsive to You. Amen.

Thanks to John Koessler for allowing us to publish his

John Koessler serves as chair and professor of pastoral studies at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is married to Jane and has two sons, Drew and Jarred. John is the author of ten books and numerous articles. He also serves as a contributing editor for the Moody Bible Institute publication Today in the Word, where you can read his monthly “Theology Matters” column. You can contact John via email at or by phone at (312) 329-4077

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