Commentary on Philippians, 3:2-3 (True Circumcision)

Philippians 3:2-3

“2 Be watchful of the dogs, be watchful of the evil workers, be watchful of the mutilation.”

“Be watchful of”  (Gr. blepo – 991)

Beware of; be on your guard; look out for; watch out for; keep a watchful eye ever upon.

Within the context of this passage, verses 1-9, it’s clear who Paul is talking about. All three of the descriptions of this verse refer to the Judaizers – Jews who combined Christianity with Judaism, who insisted that one must not only accept Jesus as the Messiah, but must also continue to follow the law of Judaism. In the case of Gentiles, they insisted that they must convert to Judaism and follow the rituals of the law, with particular emphasis on circumcision. In Galatians 2:4 Paul refers to them as “false brothers.” This is the same group of people mentioned in Acts 15:1-5 and 2 Cor 11:13-22).

This was a major problem in the church of Galatia, and Paul addresses this problem in detail in that book. I would encourage you to read my commentary on Galatians to get a more thorough understanding of the trouble they caused at this time of Christian history.

Therefore, Paul tells the Philippian Christians in essence to “keep a careful watch on them, for they will cause trouble for you.”

“Be watchful of the dogs”

This was a common term used by the Jews to describe Gentiles as an expression of their utter contempt for them. In those days this term was a completely derogatory title. In that context, it wasn’t the cute little puppy dogs that they had in mind. It was the vicious and wild and mangy and snarling type of dog that ran in packs, was uncivilized and without a master. To be called a dog was most insulting. Here Paul is turning things around and calling them the dogs.

“be watchful of the evil workers

The Judaizers were “evil workers.” They didn’t do the work of Christ. They didn’t represent the truth. They proclaimed a false gospel. Any work done that is counter to the truth is evil. False religion always leads away from God, and that is always evil, which has its origin with Satan. Anything that originates with Satan is evil.

“mutilation”  (Gr. katatome – 2699)

Only here in the New Testament.

Literally means the cutting or mutilation of the skin. This is not the common Greek word used for circumcision. Under the Jewish Law circumcision was commanded, and thus, it had its place as it looked forward to the true “circumcision” (Phil 2:3). Christ fulfilled the Law, and in Christ there is no longer any requirement or need for physical circumcision, but true circumcision is “of the heart and by the Spirit” (Ro 2:28-29).  Therefore, Paul views the physical “circumcision” of the Jews and Judaizers as merely the cutting or mutilation of the skin, which has no spiritual value.

“3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and place no trust in the flesh.”

“For we are the circumcision”

“circumcision”  (Gr. peritome – 4061)

Circumcision identified the nation of Israel with the true God. When people spoke of the circumcision, it was a reference to Israel. Paul is saying here that we who are in Christ are the true circumcision. In other words, we are the true Israel (Ro 4; 9:6-8; Gal 3:16,28,29; Eph 2:11-22; 3:6), whose circumcision is “of the heart” and “by the Spirit” (Ro 2:28-29).

What does “circumcision of the heart” mean? Under Old Testament Law, circumcision was commanded for males eight days old, and it was a physical sign of God’s everlasting covenant with Abraham and his offspring, that God would bless Abraham by making him “the father of a multitude of nations” (Ge 17:4), that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Ge 18:18; Ro 4:9-16). Read Genesis, chapters 17 and 18 in full.

This covenant had Christ in view, that He would come through the line of Abraham, and that through Christ the whole world would be blessed, that is, through the sacrifice He made on behalf of the sins of the world – providing the way of salvation for the world through Him. Jesus fulfilled the promise/covenant made to Abraham, therefore, physical circumcision is no longer required, for we are no longer looking ahead to its fulfillment. Sadly, the Jews rejected Christ, the very One whom circumcision looked forward to. They boasted in it, but they didn’t (and don’t) understand the full meaning of it.

This circumcision was never meant to be merely physical, but also an outward symbol of one’s inward faith in the true God (De 10:12-22; 30:1-6). However, it was commanded to be done regardless of the parent’s faith.

In the New Testament circumcision is spiritual, and is strictly a matter of faith, which proceeds from the heart. While Old Testament circumcision is a servering of the skin, New Testament circumcision is a servering that takes place within the heart – a servering of one’s will to the will of God, the turning away from sins to the Lordship of Christ. It’s a denial of oneself to become followers of Christ. When we trust Christ as Savior, we sever ties to the old self and the old life to live a new life in Christ.

“who worship by the Spirit of God”

Or who worship God in the Spirit”

Whether the correct rendering is “who worship by the Spirit of God” or “who worship God in the Spirit,” I believe the meaning is the same: We worship God by the Spirit of God, or in the Spirit of God. True worship can only be done by true born-again believers. This new birth is a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, which brings us into a right relationship with God, becoming His children. When we place our faith in Christ (as a result of the Spirit’s work within our heart), the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us, and worshiping God and living for Christ is all in the power of the Spirit. 

Those outside of Christ do not render true worship to God. It’s a false worship that God does not recognize. Thus, the form of worship being done by the Jews and Judaizers was not accepted by God.

“and glory in Christ Jesus”

The Jews and Judaizers gloried (boasted) in the Law and in the flesh and in themselves, but Christians glory (boast, rejoice) in Christ. It’s totally through Him and in Him that we have salvation. He is our everything, our all in all.

“and place no trust in the flesh.”

There’s nothing within us that would allow us to trust in ourselves – in our own corrupt nature (flesh). There’s nothing within ourselves that can bring us into a right relationship with God (Eph 2:8-9). We are sinners, separated from God by our sins. Only through faith in Christ are our sins forgiven and given eternal life. 

The Jews put their full trust in the works of the law. The Judaizers put their trust in the works of the law, plus faith in Christ. They mixed Judaism with Christianity. They believed that their obedience to the rituals of the law merited them favor with God. They failed to understand that Christ fulfilled the law, and that we are now under a new covenant, and as Christians we’re living a new way of life in Him. We have moved from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.