3 Finally, my brothers rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
That word, finally, has become a little joke among readers of Paul. Finally, when he’s only half done with the letter. Preachers tend to copy Paul here: In conclusion…and then fifteen minutes later they’re wrapping up. There’s a story of a little boy whispering to his dad in the middle of the sermon, “Dad, what did the pastor mean by “finally”? And the dad mutters back: “not much.”
But in the writing of the day, finally doesn’t necessarily indicate that the writer is concluding his letter. It’s a word that’d also indicate the end of a line of reasoning: This is where I’ve been heading…finally.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. That entreaty captures the whole thrust of Paul’s words to this point; indeed, of Paul’s yearning for this congregation. If they do this, if they’re rejoicing in the Lord, everything he’s talked about will be covered: they’ll of course welcome Epaphroditus, each will prioritize others’ interests above his own, the church will indeed have a reputation of walking worthy of the gospel.
Rejoice in the Lord. That’s more than read your Bible and pray and attend church. To rejoice in goes below action and lands on attitude…affection…sincerity…what one is authentically interested in…the heart.
Important point: If the Spirit summons us to rejoice in the Lord, we must have some say in the matter. Why direct us to do something that is outside of our control? We might suppose that rejoicing simply alights on us…or it doesn’t. I have no control over my emotions… I can’t just rejoice in something that I feel apathetic towards.
And the response is: Yes you can. rejoice in the Lord. Go. Do it. Take charge. Go.
What does it look like to rejoice in the Lord?
If I were to direct one of you to rejoice in another one of you, what would you do? Your first step should be to learn about this person. And then, because the you’re not to be annoyed by this person but to rejoice in them, you’d want to focus on the facts about that person that were enjoyable.
And that’s a good start to rejoicing in the Lord: learn about Jesus. There are three main ways of learning about Jesus: 1) In the Scriptures the Spirit has produced a portrait of Jesus that is – how shall we describe it? – living, 3D, 4D(?), true, full, authorized by heaven. To rejoice in Jesus Christ demands an engagement with the Scriptures and a growing competence in relating all of Scripture to Jesus Christ.
2) Once you close the Bible the learning about Jesus doesn’t stop: pray for a deeper understanding of Jesus out of the specific passage you’ve read and then mull it over throughout the day.
3) And then, read and hear…learn… what other Christians have learned about Jesus after their long exposure to the Spirit-constructed portrait of Jesus and prayer.
So…rejoicing in Jesus doesn’t begin with rejoicing or really any dominant emotion, but with sweat, the sweat of hearing/ reading and considering. Then from that research you collect and categorize the things about Jesus that are good, helpful, freeing. Being who Jesus is, you’ll be at this for a long time. In fact, this might be an eternal project!
Completing v. 1: Rejoice in the Lord…then next Paul assures the Church that this is necessary, germane, fruitful direction he’s giving…and repeating. And we could keep going with more instruction about rejoicing in the Lord. But then, in v. 2 Paul makes a negative move.
He starts ringing alarm bells. Watch out…watch out…watch out.
What an abrupt transition! From v. 1 to v. 2, we’re ushered from the beautiful, well-appointed room themed Rejoicing in the Lord and into a hallway decked out with “Most Wanted” posters. Look at these bad guys.
Watch out for people who will prevent you from rejoicing in the Lord.
Ah…Rejoicing in the Lord will be contested. There’s nothing more vital for the church’s life; will the Devil make it easy?
These are some thugs Paul refers to – Dogs…evildoers…mutilators of the flesh?
Likely, these were three spicy and derogatory ways to designate a single threat to the worldwide Church at this time. From other letters, specifically to the Colossians and Galatians, we develop a composite sketch of these bad guys: Jewish Christians who pressed newly converted Gentile disciples of Jesus to also become proselytes to Judaism, specifically requiring males being circumcised.
Watch out for these Jewish believers insisting that male Gentile converts be circumcised.
A little background: Circumcision was a sign given to Abraham and his descendants to signify he…they… were party to a covenant with Creator God. It was kinda like a badge Abraham was given, then renewed in the covenant with Moses, which marked out the people of Israel from the rest of the world. Of course, this “badge” was kept under cover [let the reader understand] and so really it was a message unto themselves about themselves. Anyway, this directive was so striking and central to Torah observance that Israelites were sometimes known simply as “the Circumcised.”
And, as we said, for a variety of reasons some Jewish Christians were intent on Gentile Christ followers also submitting to this sign of the covenant.
Ok…whatever…that doesn’t sound too bad to me. But Paul views this circumcision push as a great threat, and it summons some of the most aggressive language we have on record from him. Dogs – that’s a peculiarly Middle Eastern insult. Evildoers – now what a big word to trot out: evil. I thought we’re saving that for the likes of Hitler and the New England Patriots? But that’s what Paul wrote about these circumcision compellers.
And then those who mutilate??!! He implies their pushing for circumcision is a form of genital mutilation, akin to what pagan and animistic peoples do to really get their gods’ attention.
Taking vv. 1 & 2 together, here’s what Paul perceived…this push for circumcision is hijacking your ability to rejoice in the Lord. And remember, to rejoice in the Lord is the great finally – where all the instructions have been leading, the sum and substance of being the Church.
How is compelling circumcision so devastating to the Church’s rejoicing in the Lord?
Because it sends a mixed signal that’ll eventually hammer home a falsehood to all involved parties. I’ll have to explain by way of some theology.
As I said, the Law, specifically the sign of circumcision, was intended to set apart ethnic Israel from the rest of the world as they awaited the birth of one of their own, a descendant of David. I say again, Israel was a people waiting for a birth…in this way a mark on the organ that initiates life is an appropriate emblem of what they’re about. That Messiah they awaited would make atonement to God for sins and thus set themselves and the gentile peoples free from the dark, enslaving powers.
Well…that Messiah, Jesus, has come. In the substitutionary death of Messiah…Christ, the God of Abraham has dealt a lethal blow to the god of this world, to the dark powers, to this present age. And then in the Resurrection of Christ, the new creation has sprung into the world. That new creation has cascaded into the world with saving power, the power of the gospel, the power of God’s Spirit creating eternal life.
Since the One whom Israel awaited has arrived and fulfilled the covenant, so also then the requirement of circumcision should be discontinued. Insisting on circumcision would mislead from the fact and weightiness of Christ’s accomplishment, that Christ has died for our sins, has set us free from bondage to our sins, has brought us out into the freedom of the children of God.
Circumcision signified: we are a people set apart, waiting. But the Gospel says: In the fullness of time God has sent forth His Son and now the Spirit of the Son is gathering together a worldwide people…
Yes, apart from their circumcision status, all people in the Messiah who have believed what God is doing through him are the true children of Abraham and heirs of the promises to him. All peoples of the earth, including the Philippian Christians, as they respond to the gospel are being brought under the ancient Abrahamic promises of blessing and land. (Only now the promise of a particular strip of land has been expanded to all the earth [Romans 4:13].)
Extending the sign of the discontinued covenant calls into question the very identity of God revealed in the Gospel – did the God of Abraham have a Son whom He’s already sent His Son into the world? Through this Son was the old covenant fulfilled and brought to an end and, as the Son’s blood spilt on Golgotha, God is cutting open a new covenant with the world? Is it truly the Spirit’s word that God is moving forward, gathering a people, only along the way of the Messiah’s death and resurrection? Can we trust the Spirit’s presentation that God is glorifying Himself through Jesus?
To summarize: Jewish circumcision was a sign that pointed toward something. A badge that distinguished. It was a symbol, a compressed narrative intended to explain reality. Compelling someone to get circumcised is to communicate – mainly to oneself – a falsehood. Because what circumcision signifies doesn’t square with reality. Christ has already entered the world and his death and resurrection have inaugurated a new creation. The waiting of the Old Covenant is over: the Spirit is already at work in the Gentile and Jewish world forming redeemed humanity into a worldwide temple. What the old covenant pointed ahead to has been fulfilled in Christ…to insist on the old covenantal badge sends a mixed signal. A false signal. A false signal about where your loyalty lies that over time erodes faith.
In v. 3 Paul makes a striking claim: The physically circumcised are not the Circumcision. We [Christ followers] are the Circumcision, the people whom God has marked out for His own. Not those who had a bodily organ cut. But those who have been cut on the inside by God, marked at their center, pierced in their heart. It’s real for them; they’re not faking it. The Spirit sent out into the world by Messiah has persuaded them at their core that through the gospel God is revealing aspects of Himself as never before,. They trust the Spirit as he shapes them into a Messianic community, a temple of God. They know and experience and thus worship God through the Spirit.
Who are the circumcision? Those who glory in Christ…they get the unique significance of Jesus. There’s no one like him. They believe that Christ’s coming and dying and being raised again has changed the world at the structural level. The ages have shifted. A new humanity has been born, no longer in Adam but in Christ. The last days have arrived. The old has started to pass away, the new has begun.
Who are the circumcision, those who have been forever marked in their heart? Those who don’t put confidence in the flesh. “The flesh” is Paul’s way of referring to human undertaking that is always sinful or weak or impermanent or some combination of those.
The true Circumcision are those who know there’s nothing outside of Christ – what Christ has already done and our believing response – to identify the people of God. There is certainly nothing about me or my background or my potential that completes or even signifies the fact that I’m among the people of God. It’s Christ’s death and resurrection have brought us to God and his Spirit is the guarantee of our coming inheritance. Period.
What was the problem that Paul was so charged up about here? It was the evil of carrying around mixed signals, contradictory messages. Telling yourself two opposing things.
On one hand carrying about our baptismal confession: by word and sign the message is “I’m all in and moving forward with what God has done and is doing in Christ…”
But on the other hand their circumcision was sending this message, “…but hey also what about the way that’s not Christ, where my flesh has a part to play…”
Carrying contradictory messages: A) I’m all in with Christ. B) Also…in some way I’m ignoring or bypassing Christ. Paul says – and he’s not the only one – that state of trying to serve two masters, live under opposing codes becomes impossible to maintain, is peculiarly destructive.
Sending mixed signals…to others but mainly to yourself: A) I rejoice in the Lord. B) I rejoice in that which is anti-Lord.
Well, not anti…just neutral. I inhabit the great neutral space between rejoicing in the Lord and rejoicing in the anti-Lord. I’m simply doing what I want to do.
…and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:15).
There is no neutral space. Serve the Lord…or oppose Him.
Are you carrying around messages that keep conflicting with your baptismal confession?
Let me present a common scenario: You get done watching a certain TV show or a movie and turn off the screen. Then you try to set your mind on Christ, and really all that Bible stuff seems remote, almost make-believe, disconnected from real life. You’re vaguely discontent, might have a little headache, in a slightly bad mood. And you groggily remember: this happened the last time I watched TV.
I’ll attempt a diagnosis. I think this might be what’s happening: you’re carrying around two conflicting messages. There’s your baptismal confession: I live for him who died and was raised for my sake. I’m all in with Christ. I’m positioning myself to hear Christ and aligning my life to rejoice in him.
And then you’re also carrying around and telling yourself this message: there’s a path forward that doesn’t include Christ. There are segments of my life– when I think about it, pretty big segments – that I continually return to where I don’t expect to meet Christ, where hearing his voice would sound strange. This is the anti-Galatians 2:20 space: Yeah, sure, Christ died, but what’s that have to do with me?… It is still I who live, Christ is nary to be seen. And the life I now live in the flesh… I live in the flesh, hoping for the best I guess, though it’s true I don’t have the best track record.
I’m saying two things: 1) the heart of the problem of Philippians 3:2 is still with us, even though not in the form of circumcision. We often are bearing two conflicting messages; we almost do it on purpose; we’re afraid of single-minded devotion. We’re afraid of living in reality.
and 2) it’s not just the fact of contradictory messaging; it’s a dangerous game. When we keep ignoring the knocking of Christ at the door of our heart because in our inner mind we’re saying: it’s movie time, or it’s my career, or if I choose to worry that’s on me, whatever it is, that’s a slippery place to be in. To become accustomed to inhabiting a secular mindset, that’s treacherous. To go through long patches of remoteness from Christ, that’s precarious. Trying to live under two opposing directives, that’s tiring, and there’s a real possibility you’ll throw off the mindset of living by faith and embrace the flesh. That’s easier…but then all of a sudden harder.
Oh, the blessedness of being all in. I have a lot more to say about this: today I wish we had a Sunday night service because I’d like to go back to that movie watching.
I’ll close with a paraphrase from 2 Corinthians 5:
3-6 The world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way—never have and never will. The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.