2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision;
3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, [NASB ‘77]
Paul warns the Philippians about the Judaizers and draws a contrast between their false gospel and the gospel he preached. In so doing he gives us a threefold description of Christianity that teaches us how our lives as children of God should look.
Judaizers are Jews who preach that Christians must abide by the Law of Moses to be truly saved. They specifically teach that all Gentile believers must be circumcised. Paul discusses their false gospel at length in the letter to the Galatians.
We don’t know from reading this letter if the Judaizers are already in Philippi or if Paul just wants to warn the Philippians as a preventive measure. Regardless, he uses very strong language to condemn their teaching.
He first calls them dogs. “Dogs” is not necessarily an insult in our culture because we think of dogs as loving pets. In Paul’s day, however, they’re wild scavengers that roam the streets and are dangerous and hated. Even more, it’s a term the Jews commonly use for Gentiles (see Matt 15:21-28). Thus Paul picks the term very intentionally to show that the Judaizers are actually the ones who are now without the true message. They’ve moved from being the covenant people of God to being the dogs they so disdain.
He also calls them evil workers and false circumcision. Far from doing right, their actions are evil. And far from advocating for a sign of the covenant, they’re encouraging new converts to mutilate themselves (which is another way false circumcision can be translated). Since they’re adding to the gospel, their circumcision is really mutilation – they’re cutting for no purpose. This goes along with his wish for the Judaizers who plagued the Galatians to emasculate themselves (Gal 5:12). In both cases Paul makes it very clear what he thinks of those who add to the gospel.
And that’s really the message for us. We probably don’t have to worry about someone telling us we have to abide by the ceremonial Law of Moses to be saved. But there are always those who want to add to the gospel – make belief a matter of gospel plus. But the gospel always stands alone as a means of conversion. Any attempt to add human effort to it nullifies it and leaves the practitioner damned. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast (Eph 2:8-9).
We are the true circumcision
In verse 3 Paul contrasts true belief with what the Judaizers teach. He says believers are the true circumcision. Those who stand on the gospel alone are now the true covenant people of God – the ones about whom God says, “I will be their God and they will be My people” (Gen 17, Ex 6:7, Rom 2:23-29). Physical circumcision means nothing in light of Christ’s coming; it’s faith in the completed work of Jesus that matters. And those who’ve believed are now the people of God. It once again sets the teaching of the Judaizers on its head.
Three Characteristics of Believers
He goes on to list three characteristics of the true circumcision. They worship in the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh. Note the implicit reference to the Trinity. They worship in the Spirit of God the Father and glory in Christ Jesus. Spirit, Father, Son. The believer walks with and for all members of the godhead.
Worship in the Spirit of God
The first characteristic of believers is that they worship in the Spirit of God. When someone comes to Christ the Spirit enters his life and that entrance is not without effect. The one in whom the Spirit dwells bears the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and begins to reflect the Spirit’s role of glorifying the Son (Jn 16:13-14). This reveals itself in his life as worship. That he worships likely means much more than what we associate with the word. Paul does not limit it to times of singing and praising or to times of formal services (though they’re included). He seems to refer to all that characterizes the life of the believer. The one who has the Spirit lives continually in a state of worship – it’s how he sees his life.
Looking at other passages helps us to understand what Paul means. In Rom 12:1-2 Paul writes, “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Here Paul equates worship with presenting our whole life to God as a holy sacrifice and being transformed such that we exemplify His perfect will. Worship is a way of life, giving everything to God. In Heb 13:15-16, the author says, “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” In this case worship (sacrifice) includes a life of thanksgiving and good works for the sake of others. It is a continual attitude of thankfulness and a continual selfless approach to all people.
One more reference informs our understanding of what Paul means. When He met the woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus said of worship, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24). Jesus’ coming means there’s no longer an official place of worship (like the temple in Jerusalem) – it now comes from the heart. And the worship that pleases God is informed by truth – by His word. And it’s in spirit – it’s an inward attitude and a right response to who God is and what God’s done. The believer works at knowing God and His precepts – the truth – and lives in relationship with Him in such a way that his whole life is a response of worship. Worship isn’t mandated or dutiful – it’s the overflowing response of his affections and knowledge. His life IS worship because of his love for and understanding of God.
All of that is included in the idea of worshiping in the Spirit of God. Everything the believer does is in a worshipful attitude before God. The Spirit drives him to knowing and appreciating and loving God and seeing God in all things and all aspects of his life. His life then becomes a thanksgiving offering. And his worship grows as his knowledge of God grows, and his knowledge grows as the Spirit lives and works in him. Worship defines the believer. It’s who he is, not just what he does. Walking in the Spirit makes his whole life a worshipful response to his Creator.
When seen in their full context, Paul’s words establish a high standard. Note that he doesn’t say this applies only to apostles or some other type of super-Christian. This describes all who are part of the true circumcision – all believers. That means it should characterize us. Does it? Is our life a continual act of worship? Do we contemplate who and what God is as we go about our daily lives and praise Him as a matter of course (however that looks for each of us)? The picture Paul paints here should cause us to examine ourselves and make sure we are truly Spirit-led. It is not enough to say we participate in worship on Sundays. Our whole lives should be a spiritual act of worship. The Spirit who indwells us will cause us to worship.
It’s worship on a supernatural level, it’s not human, it’s spiritual, it’s energized by the Holy Spirit.
So, you ask yourself then, “Do I love to praise God? Do I love to talk with Him? Do I love to learn about Him in His Word? Do I want to serve Him? Oh sure, sin gets in the way and interrupts that and confuses my mind sometimes, but isn’t there something deep within me that longs to praise and worship and love God, to read His Word, to know more about Him, to serve Him with all my heart?” You see, that’s the evidence coming from the inside. (John MacArthur, The Distinctive Qualities of the True Christian, Part 3; Sermon on Philippians 3:1-3; 5/14/1989)
Glory in Christ Jesus
The second characteristic is that we glory in Christ Jesus. The word for glory can also be translated “boast.” So this could read, “We boast in Christ Jesus.” The true believer is so full of Christ and so aware of and in love with all that Christ has done that he boasts in Christ. He talks about Christ, he’s obsessed with Christ. Thoughts of Christ infuse his world. Like anyone who boasts, he can talk ad nauseam about his subject. If you cut the believer, he bleeds Christ. He knows all that Jesus has done and all that He is and that knowledge causes him to overflow with thoughts of and praise for Jesus. Jesus is the center of his life. Paul says in another place, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (I Cor 1:30-31).
The believer should have the following perspective on Christ: He is everything. The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the start and the finish, the All in all, and in him we are complete. Is there anything that you can conceive of or imagine that you need or want for your soul? It is all in him: ‘in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col 2:9). There is nothing that the soul of man can need in time or eternity but that it is all in Christ. You need pardon? There it is. You need reconciliation to God? The man Christ Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and man. You need new life and a new nature? You receive it from him. You need strength and power? He sent the Holy Spirit that you might have it. You need an Advocate with the Father? There he is, seated at the right hand of God. You tremble at the thought of death and of going to face God in the judgment? You are assured that you will be clothed with his righteousness and he will present you spotless. What else do you need? He is everything: Prophet, Priest and King, the All in all. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy and Peace; 273-274.)
Once again we should examine ourselves in light of Paul’s words. Do we boast in Christ? Is He truly our all in all? Is everything in our lives based on Him? Are we continually aware of serving Him and walking with Him? If we measured our use of time and catalogued our thoughts, would they show the centrality of Christ in our lives?
Put no confidence in the flesh
The final characteristic flows out of the first two. If we worship in the Spirit of God and if we glory in Christ Jesus, we certainly then put no confidence in the flesh. In the context of what Paul just said about the Judaizers, this would include having no confidence in credentials as they relate to salvation. The members of the true circumcision do not count themselves worthy of salvation because of any human effort.
The one who puts no confidence in the flesh understands his depravity and understands that his salvation is all of Christ. He’s saved in spite of who and what he is – not because of it. Therefore, his life as a believer is marked by humility and a lack of selfishness. He knows this life and this world are not about him. Happiness is not his expectation or goal. His identity and self-worth are not tied up in his achievements and activities; they are wholly tied to Christ. His lack of self-absorption allows him the freedom to love and serve others without expectations. His own love and security come from his Savior, thus he doesn’t look for them from others. And he has no confidence in his own righteousness, thus he walks by and depends on the strength of the Spirit. His understanding of Christ informs his awareness of his own sin which drives his dependence on the Spirit and his selflessness, humility and kindness.
This is an amazing summary of the Christian life in three short statements, isn’t it? Paul is able – through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – to say very briefly what a Christian is and yet give us a depth of meaning we’ll spend the rest of our lives examining and pursuing.
What we can’t forget as we contemplate what he says is the original context for why he says it. He gives this description to counter the false teaching of people who think they’re believers but aren’t. And the way he points out their unbelief is to describe those who are truly God’s. So as we look at these verses and compare them to our life, we must do it in light of false belief. Is there a chance that we aren’t truly His? If these things don’t characterize our lives, is it possible we’re fooling ourselves? We certainly won’t always live up to these descriptions, but if they rarely apply to us can we really call ourselves the true circumcision? We must not miss this opportunity to evaluate our lives and hold them up to the truth of Paul’s words.
That’s not to say that sin won’t get in the way. There will certainly be times when this doesn’t describe us and we don’t have to doubt our salvation every time one of these statements isn’t true of us. But we also shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook. If this isn’t the general direction of our walk with Christ we should examine ourselves and pray through this passage and make sure we’re His. The stakes are too high and our Enemy too clever to simply assume we’re OK.
We worship in the Spirit of God. We glory in Christ Jesus. And we put no confidence in the flesh. If that’s who we are, we are the true covenant people of God.