Righteousness From God Through Faith in Christ

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

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. – Philippians 3:1-4a ESV

Here, Paul drives home a message that was common to virtually all of his letters – that of true righteousness. And his reason for bringing it up seems to be due to the fact that the Philippian believers were undergoing intense opposition, either from within or without, regarding the issue of circumcision. As a Roman colony, Philippi would have had a large Gentile population and, therefore, the church in Philippi was most likely made up predominately of Gentiles who had converted to Christianity from paganism. In A.D. 50, when Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy had arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey, there would have been few Jewish residents in the city. But by the time Paul wrote this letter some 10-12 years later, the Jewish population could have grown and there may have been Jewish converts to Christianity within the congregation at Philippi. The presence of Jews outside the church and Jewish converts within the church had evidently raised an issue that had become a point of contention for Paul: Circumcision.

Paul opens this section with a reminder to rejoice, even in the face of opposition. This is in keeping with his message to them earlier in the letter:

“…it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” – Philippians 1:29 ESV

And Paul had used his own life as an example of joy in the midst of suffering. After all, he was writing to them from house arrest in Rome, facing a trial before Nero and uncertainty as to his fate. But he had been able to tell them:

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” – Philippians 2:17-18 ESV

So, even though they were facing opposition, they had every reason to rejoice because they were privileged to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

But it doesn’t take long for Paul’s tone to turn much more serious and sarcastic. He warns them to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). Now, while this statement is clearly intended to paint the opposition in an unflattering light, there is more going on here than meets our modern, western eyes. 

Paul, writing in Greek, uses a play on words in describing those who were of the pro-circumcision camp. He refers to them as “those who mutilate the flesh.” But that is a translation of a single Greek word, katatomē, which means to cut up or mutilate. In Leviticus 21:5, the priests of God were forbidden to “make any cuts on their body.” In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the word katatomē was used to describe this forbidden practice.

Here is where Paul’s cleverness and open hostility can be seen. The Greek word normally used when speaking of the Jewish practice of circumcision was peritomē and Paul uses it in verse 3.  You can see what Paul is doing here: katatomē vs peritomē. He is comparing the Jewish ritual of circumcision with the forbidden act of self-mutilation. But it’s important to remember the context. Paul is addressing a predominately Gentile congregation. These would have been pagans who had placed their faith in Christ, but now there were being told that their faith was incomplete and insufficient. There were those who were telling them that they must be circumcised and keep all the Jewish laws and religious rituals in order to be truly saved. This message was common in the 1st Century and was propagated by a group that came to be known as the Judaizers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Paul thought about these people. He calls them dogs and evildoers. And his intense anger for them was due to the fact that they were adding to the gospel message he preached. His feelings about this matter are made perfectly clear in his letter to the believers in Galatia.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 NLT

And Paul had strong words for the church in Corinth because they were being led away from the simple message of the gospel and buying into a false narrative that essentially claimed true righteousness was based the false formula of Jesus + something = salvation.

As far as Paul was concerned, the Judaizers were the enemy. Although they claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ, they were demanding that everyone become as they were. Their demand was that all the male members of the church in Philippi be circumcised and, essentially, convert to Judsaism before they .could be considered truly saved. And this left Paul in a state of rage, especially because he was unable to do anything about it while under house arrest in Rome. Which explains the strong nature of his rhetoric.

And he completely invalidates the message of the Judaizers, instead offering the Gentile converts to Christianity as the true circumcision.

“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…” – Philippians 3:3 NLT

This verse summarizes Paul’s view on the matter. To him, circumcision was nothing more than a work, an outward act that left the one circumcised with a false sense of spiritual well-being. For the Jews, it had become a symbol of their unique status as God’s chosen people. But in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul exposed the flaw behind the Jewish thinking regarding circucision.

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. – Romans 2:25 NLT

In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. – Romans 2:27 NLT

The problem lies in the dangerous misperception being perpetrated by the Judaizers. In their way of thinking the rite of circumcision was the non-negotiable doorway all must enter on their way to justification before God. But this teaching stood in direct opposition to the gospel message of salvation made possible by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There was no other step needed. To add circumcision to the gospel message was to distort the good news and to make it another gospel altogether. Rather than basing salvation on the grace-gift of God’s Son, the Judaizers were introducing a form of works-based salvation. They were making justification a matter of rule-keeping and self-effort. But Paul reminds the Philippian believers, “We put no confidence in human effort.”

And then he goes on to expose the absurdity of the Judaizers’ argument. If they were going to make it all about human effort and rule-keeping, Paul could have been the poster-boy for self-justification. And he will go on to describe his relative merit as a good Jew who had all the criteria to make him a candidate for justification before God through works. But for Paul, this way of thinking was ridiculous and dangerous. It stood in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. And in a direct attack against the pride-filled Judaizers, Paul sarcastically states: “I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more!” (Philippians 3:4a NLT). And he will go on to describe his so-called credentials for justification before God. But he knew that his curriculum vitae had nothing to do with his right standing before God. His salvation was not based on anything he had done or any worth he brought to the table. It was all the result of the finished work of Christ on the cross. And Paul drove home that point in his letter to the Galatians.

“…we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” – Galatians 2:16 NLT

For Paul, the formula was quite simple and concise. Righteousness was made available by God through man’s faith in the finished work of Christ. No more. No less. Circumcision becomes nothing more than self-mutilation when used to earn favor with God. Law-keeping becomes disobedience to God when used as an attempt to justify oneself before God. For as Paul stated, no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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No Other Gospel.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. – Galatians 2:1-10 ESV

As we read this autobiographical section of Paul’s letter, we must not lose sight of his main point of emphasis. He is still addressing the issue of a “different” gospel being preached to the people in Galatia. So Paul’s point in recounting his own conversion experience was first, to make it quite clear that the message he preached was from God, not man. And just in case anyone might question the validity of Paul’s conversion and commissioning, he tells of his initial interactions with Peter, James, John and the other apostles in Jerusalem. It had been 14 years since his conversion on the road to Damascus when Paul returned to Jerusalem and met with the church leaders there. He shared with them the content of the gospel that he was preaching among the Gentiles, and it was confirmed by them as the one true gospel. The only difference was that Paul had a divine directive to share the gospel with the Gentiles, while Peter and the other apostles were focusing their efforts among the Jews. Paul recounts the outcome of his visit to Jerusalem:

“when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” – Galatians 2:9 ESV

But one important distinction that Paul makes in this section is regarding circumcision. He refers to Titus, his traveling companion, who was a Greek convert to Christianity. Paul, in somewhat of an aside, indicated that Titus “was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Galatians 2:3 ESV). While this may appear to be an unimportant parenthetical statement, it is actually quite revealing. One of the big issues Paul had with the Judaizers who seemed to follow him wherever he went and contradict his message and ministry, was their insistence that Gentile converts be circumcised and adhere to the law of Moses for their conversion to be complete. 

Luke records in the book of Acts that there Judean believers who had followed behind Paul, teaching the need for circumcision in order for Gentile conversions to be valid. “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1 ESV). Paul and Barnabas had what Luke described as “no small debate” with them over this matter. And eventually Paul, Barnabas and others were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles. Luke records, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:4-5 ESV). 

Addressing the council, Paul stated, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:10-11 ESV). For Paul, this was the crux of the matter. Justification with God was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Circumcision and the keeping of the law were not required. This in no way invalidated either circumcision or the law. Both were holy, righteous, and God-ordained. But with the coming of Christ, God had ordained a better way. Just a few verses later Paul will point out: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).

When Paul and Barnabas had traveled to Antioch on their way to Jerusalem, they stopped in the synagogue, and addressing the crowd there, Paul stated, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39 ESV). Then Paul warned them, using a passage from the Old Testament book of Habakuk.

Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” – Habakuk 1:5 ESV

Paul utilizes these words of the prophet Habakuk to warn his Jewish audience not to be like their ancestors and refuse to see and acknowledge the work that was doing. This was a new day and God was justifying His people in a new way. The law, while not done away with, was no longer a necessary requirement for being made right with God.

The result of Paul’s meeting with the apostles was their full support of his gospel message and ministry to the Gentiles. He walked away with their blessing. And while he makes it clear that he did not need their support, because of his having received his commission directly from Jesus, he was grateful and relieved to see that they were all on the same page. There was no other gospel. Nothing more was required to be made right with God other than faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ.