Friday, January 4, 2013

Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. For me to write the same things to you is not tedious, but for you it is safe. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:1-3)
“Finally,” Paul says, and it might sound like he is finishing up his letter and bringing it in for a landing. Not so. The Greek literally means, “as for the rest,” and signals a transition to a new topic.

“Rejoice in the Lord.” There is always joy, and it is found in the Lord Jesus. It is a constant theme with Paul, particularly in this letter, and he certainly does not mind saying it again. It is for their safety and well-being that he does so now, especially in view of what he is about to say.

There are those who would come and steal that joy, and Paul warns the Jesus believers at Philippi to watch out for them. “Beware the dogs. Beware the evil workers. Beware the mutilation.” He is not talking about three different groups, but describing the same group in three different ways. In his ministry, he has frequently dealt with these Jewish legalists who insist that circumcision is the necessary means of identifying who belongs to God. He has addressed their teaching in his letters to the Jesus believer in Galatia and at Colosse. This is serious business and Paul refers to these false teachers with very harsh language.
  • They are “dogs.” Dogs engage openly in behavior that would be shameful for people to engage in. Pagans, who shamelessly behave in ways that violate the law of God, would be considered dogs by these false teachers. But Paul turns it around on them and it is now the teachers themselves who are called  “dogs.” Jesus the Messiah has fulfilled the law of Moses, and it is no longer circumcision but faith in Him that now marks out God’s chosen people. To teach otherwise is shameful to the gospel.
  • They are “evil workers.” Elsewhere, Paul refers to similar teachers as, “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:13).
  • They are “the mutilation.” This is a play on words. The Greek word for “circumcision” is peritome, from a word that means “to cut around.” The word for mutilation is katatome, which means “to cut up.” These false teachers are hacks, promoting what is not necessary but is actually now useless in identifying the people of God. They mutilate the good news about Jesus the Messiah.
Paul has an answer for them, one that is also a great encouragement for Jesus believers everywhere: “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” That really turns the tables, because true circumcision — the one God is really interested in — is not the one that is made with hands (and knives) but the circumcision of the heart. For circumcision was always meant to be the outward sign of an inward reality. This was made clear in both the Law and the Prophets.
Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your hearts. (Jeremiah 4:4)
The physical rite was the cutting away of the flesh and symbolized faithfulness to the covenant God made with Israel. Removing that little fold of skin, however, could not produce what it signified. But what that ritual could not do, Jesus Himself has accomplished in us. In his letter to the Jesus believers at Colosse, where he has also dealt with the same issue, Paul said, “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). Those who possess the “circumcision made without hands” are recognized in three ways:
  • We worship God in the Spirit. This gets to the “heart” of the matter, where God has placed His own Spirit within us (Ezekiel 36:24-27), and we worship God in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
  • We rejoice in the Messiah, Jesus. The word for “rejoice” here is not the same one we have seen earlier, although it is no less celebrative. It is a Greek word that means “to glory, exult or boast in.” We do not boast in anything about ourselves, but our glory is in the Lord Jesus — we brag about Him. He is the one who, as Messiah, has fulfilled all that is required of the people of God.
  • We have no confidence in the flesh. Paul is using the word “flesh” here in a double way. It speaks of our humanity apart from the power and Spirit of God. But in view of the controversy he is addressing, it also refers here to physical flesh, which was subject to the ritual of circumcision. As believers in Jesus, we put no stock in any of it. Our confidence is in Him and the Holy Spirit.
Putting any confidence in ourselves and what we can do will rob us of our joy. That was not the intent of these teachers but it would most certainly be the result. So Paul is quite glad to remind the believers at Philippi once again to rejoice in the Lord Jesus and put all their confidence in Him — that’s where the joy is!

Focus Questions
  1. How can the circumcision of these legalistic teachers rob us of joy?
  2. Why is it a joy to have no confidence in ourselves or anything we have done?
  3. What does the “circumcision of the heart” look like, and how does it bring us joy?

There is Always Joy!
There is Always Joy!
Paul’s Letters to the Jesus Believers at Philippi
Bite-Sized Studies Through the Book of Philippians
by Jeff Doles

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