Warning against the Concision (v1-6)

The epistle now shifts focus to warn the ecclesia against the threat of the Circumcision Group. Paul has spoken to them before about this danger but he continues to remind them for their own safety. “Beware, beware, beware” is the warning of Paul.

The circumcision faction within the ecclesia had been agitating for decades in Jerusalem, Antioch, Galatia, Rome, Corinth and Colossae 1. Despite multiple discussions, which facilitated a clear scriptural consensus about the status of circumcision, they continued to evangelise. Paul is desperate that the Philippians see these preachers for what they really are: dogs 2, evil workers 3, mutilators and enemies of the cross of Christ. Real circumcision, says Paul, is about the thoughts inside our heart. It’s about worshipping God with the right frame of mind and remembering our salvation is a gift from God. It’s about rejoicing in the hope of glory we have in Christ. It’s definitely not about boasting in our own achievements.

To know Christ (v7-12)

Paul picks up on the last characteristic of the Circumcision Party, trusting in the flesh, and demonstrates through seven examples how his early life had been impeccable by Jewish standards. He too had been circumcised and on the precise day that Moses had specified in the Law. His heritage was entirely Jewish, from the tribe of Benjamin (the favoured son of Israel). However, Paul’s Jewish credentials did not rest on his birth alone. He had actively chosen to be part of the strictest sect, the Pharisees, and among them he had distinguished himself by blameless adherence to the Law and zealous persecution of those who embraced the way of Christ.

Yet Paul had thrown away all these things and more, to follow Christ. Yes, it is true that the pursuit of righteousness is important, but the way to right­eousness does not lie in the Law. The Law, to the mind of the Concision, brought with it an illusion that one’s own works could commend them to God. Not so, says Paul. True righteousness is attributed to us by God as a result of faith in Christ Jesus His Son. Herein lies righteousness and this became the all-encompassing focus of Paul.

In the mind of Paul, the purpose of life was very clear. Only one man had ever been raised from the dead and given everlasting life: Christ. Therefore Christ must hold the key to life beyond the grave. It is only in him that we can live. Paul devoted his whole life to following Christ with the prospect of being raised from the dead, just as Christ was. He was desperate to know Christ, by experience, in every situation he found himself, to find new power within, beyond the limits of his frail body, by embracing the mind of Christ, to share with Christ his sufferings and even his death, for, says Paul, if we share his death, we will share his resurrection too.

Pressing Towards the Mark (v13-16)

Paul now speaks of his single-minded focus on Christ. He is not the only writer in Scripture to encourage such resolute attention. David in Psalm 27:4 says: “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple.” This focus served him well, particularly at the end of his life, when his desire to build the Temple became a driving and sustaining force.

Christ encourages a similar focus in his disci­ples. To Martha he says: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

It is so easy for our minds to wander through a forest of thoughts, each tree entrancing but not necessarily drawing us along the path of life in a meaningful way. The advice of Christ and the ex­ample of David and Paul is simple. Focus our minds on an important goal and pursue this one thing. For Paul, the one focus was Christ. The things of Paul’s past, as terrible as they were, were no hindrance to his progress in growing in godliness. In Christ, these were all washed away. They are forgotten forever and need not distract his mind.

Now Paul uses the analogy of a race. In Roman games, a racetrack in the stadium was laid out with a starting mark, a mark at the halfway point and a finishing mark 4. Each mark was clearly visible to the contestant runners. At the end of the track stood the judge, the ultimate mark to which all those competing looked.

Life in Christ is like a race. At the end of the race stands Christ and he acts as judge, holding the winning prize. If we want to win the race, we need to keep our eyes fixed firmly on the prize and keep running. It’s very hard to run when we’re looking backwards. Our past can easily hold us back and be a great distraction. Forget the past, says Paul; look forward to Christ and keep running.

Follow Paul (v17-21)

In chapter 2 of Philippians, Paul encouraged the ecclesia to embrace lowliness of mind and humble service. He gives 3 examples: Christ (the premier example of lowly service), Timothy and Epaphroditus. Now Paul gives another example for the believers to follow: himself. In fact, Paul encourages believers to follow him on a number of occasions in his writings 5. However, we are not told to follow Paul for Paul’s sake; we are told to follow Paul because Paul followed Christ and shared so many characteristics with him. Ultimately, it is God we are encouraged to follow: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:1-2). We follow Paul because he followed Christ, and we follow Christ because he showed to us perfectly the character of God; which is why we are here: to bring glory to God’s name.

By way of contrast, Paul describes a group of people we are to mark out and not follow 6. The description here fits well with the Circumcision Sect, which Paul referred to earlier in this chapter. They are characterised by self-service, pride in things which should cause shame and motivated by a mind which dwells only on earthly things rather than the things of God. These people are not simply misguided disciples but enemies of the cross of Christ. True discipleship is driven by a mindset which has its origin in the heavens, not on earth. Glory is found, not in our own bodies, but in the power of the risen and glorified Saviour of all, who has the power to subdue all things 7 to himself at the appointed time.

Paul in his Prison Cell

The epistle to the Philippians not only provides us with an exhortation from Paul; it also provides a wonderful insight into the mind and the heart of this amazing apostle. In the words of his pen we can see through his eyes and share the passions of his heart.

In Philippians we see Paul in his prison cell, sometimes alone, but often with his faithful companions Timothy and Epaphroditus. Visiting the prison cell came visitors from all around the ecclesial world. Each visitor brings with them news of dear friends and children of faith.

It is through these visitors and the letters they bring that Paul sees the ecclesial world. He sees tender ecclesias, many of them very young, grap­pling to sustain their life in Christ. And into those ecclesias, like a dark shadow, moves the Concision. Like angry dogs, they tear the ecclesia apart; dogs that throw up and turn again to lick their own vomit from the oor. They are people embracing as objects of affection what can only be described as dung and vile refuse; who think only on earthy things; whose walk and work is so evil that they can only be described as enemies of the cross of Christ. People whose very god is their own belly, such is their level of self service at the expense of those around them. People who are destructive, divisive, stubborn, persistent, evangelical, self-confident, even arrogant, boastful, obsessed with their own accomplishment and assured that their message must be embraced by all the ecclesias everywhere. Yet somehow these people are deluded into imagining they are part of God’s ecclesia.

Paul sees and hears all these things in his prison cell in Rome through a slow trickle of visitors from the many ecclesias he has worked with. These things affect Paul enormously. His heart is wrenched apart and left shattered. He feels the stinging pain in his eyes as tears run down his cheeks while he holds his head in his hands. Strong abhorrence grows for the people who are destroying the household of God.

Yet in the middle of this turmoil Paul sees the Philippians – like a patch of blue sky – untouched and unaffected by this terrible disease which is spreading through the ecclesias. His heart is moved with a strong sense of paternal instinct to protect and to guide and inspire this people, whom he loved so dearly. Paul is not downcast; he lifts up his head and looks far above and beyond the turmoil around him and shares with the Philippians the one thing that will sustain their faith when the onslaught comes; and the one thing that will sustain our faith when the onslaught comes to us.

Paul shares a mind which is focused on one thing and that one thing is Christ. The knowledge of Christ brings with it a value beyond any worth we might mistakenly place on our own insignificant achievements. It is Christ that can never be taken away from us, though all else will vanish away. It is Christ that is to be in our mind, energising us every day. It is with Christ that we are to share the suf­ferings and death of a servant; but it is also through Christ that righteousness comes as a gift from God. It is Christ who will change our vile body; it is Christ who will give us a glorious body as surely as God has vested all power in heaven and earth in his hands. It is Christ who stands at the end of the racetrack beckoning us onwards; it is Christ who holds the prize and it is Christ who is the judge and who is only too willing to give it to us if we keep our eyes on him and run onwards. It is Christ who makes our race shorter and who gives us the spirit of supreme rejoicing as we take each step. It is Christ whom Paul followed to the day he died. How can we not follow Paul, who shares so much encouragement with us?

Footnotes

  1. Passages include Acts 10:45; 11:2; 15:1; Gal 2:12; Col 2:11; Rom 2:28; Tit 1:10; 1 Cor 7:19 to name a few.
  2. Compare 2 Pet 2:18-22 where Peter also describes dogs within the ecclesia. On this occasion, dogs were those who embrace the Word of truth and then turn again to the pol­lutions of the world. In Phil 3, Paul may use the phrase dogs in a similar way to describe the circumcision party who turn back to the Law after embracing Christ, or it may simply refer to their destructive nature.
  3. Contrast Phil 2:13, where our works are to be the result of God’s mind in us. Where works are the product of our own thoughts, they can be evil.
  4. See Manners and Customs of the Bible, James M Freeman, p467
  5. See also 1 Cor 4:14; 11:1; 1 Thess 1:5-8
  6. Similarly, Paul also refers to those that the ecclesia is not to
    follow in Rom 16:17-18. Note the similarity in the description used. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”
  7. Paul appears to cite Psa 8 which he expounds in Heb 2:6-9 and references in 1 Cor 15:25-28.