For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh . . .
– Philippians 3:3
In Philippians 3, this otherwise joyous letter takes an ominous turn. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul warns his readers about some opponents who might threaten their church. This is not the first nor the last time in this letter that Paul refers to opponents (Philippians 1:15-18, 27-30, 3:18-19). However, these opponents are unique. Their efforts do not help advance the gospel or give the gospel any opportunity to shine. Instead, they have distorted the message of the gospel, so Paul describes these opponents with his harshest words.
He writes in Philippians 3:2, “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.” The opponents Paul is talking about are Judaizers, Jewish Christian missionaries who taught that Gentile Christians could not be confident in their salvation unless they abided by certain works of the law like circumcision (Acts 15:1).
Using harsh words, Paul points out that their version of the gospel is backwards. First, he calls them “dogs,” a derogatory term that Jews used against Gentiles because of their unclean mannerisms. This is ironic because although they thought they were helping Gentiles become clean, Paul implies that they were the ones who were actually unclean. Second, he calls them “evildoers.” This word can also be translated as “evil-workers.” These Judaizers taught that certain works would make people righteous, but Paul implies that their own work resulted in evil. Third, he calls them “mutilators of the flesh.” Paul makes a great wordplay here. The Greek word for mutilation sounds like the word for circumcision, but elsewhere in Scripture this word refers to a pagan ritual (Leviticus 21:5). The idea here is that those who circumcise themselves to become part of the family of God, are in reality more like pagans who are outside the family of God. Paul’s point with all these insults is to emphasize that those who are truly in Christ “put no confidence” in works like circumcision (Philippians 3:3). Rather, they put their confidence in the cross of Christ.
The debate about whether Christians must be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, or keep a particular diet is not as prominent in today’s world. However, in our culture, it is still common to think that certain things we do can help us win a better standing before God. Paul’s message for us is to hang on to the truth of the gospel message: “a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ . . . for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:16, 21).
NO CONFIDENCE IN THE FLESH
1 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.