MISPLACED CONFIDENCE Philippians 3:1 – 3
Read and pray through Philippians, chapter 3, specifically, Philippians 3:1 – 3.
Reflection | Interestingly, there are some New Testament scholars who argue that Paul’s letter to the Philippians as it is recorded in our Bibles is actually a composite of three letters that Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. If you’re curious where they perceive the lines of demarcation between these proposed three letters, here’s the breakdown. Philippians 1:1 – 3:1, along with 4:4-19 is one letter. Philippians 3:2 – 4:3 marks the boundaries of another letter. And Philippians 4:10 – 20 represents the suggested third letter.
Part of the reason for this theory is that Polycarp, one of the early Church fathers (the generation of leaders that came after the original apostles of the New Testament), mentions in his own, later Letter to the Philippians that Paul wrote several letters to the church in Philippi.
The other reason some scholars argue for a “three-in-one” understanding of Paul’s writing here in our Bibles is that with 3:2 there is definitely an abrupt and jarring change both in the subject and tone of the letter thus far.
After a call for the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord,” (v.1), Paul shifts into a warning to “Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh” (v. 2). To whom exactly is Paul referring as he describes these protagonists of the church as being like the scavenging, vicious animals that rambled the streets of Rome? Why are they considered workers of evil? And on what basis and in what sense is Paul accusing them of bringing deliberate harm to the body?
Paul is referencing a group of professed followers of Jesus who insisted that Gentile converts to the faith, in order to be saved by Christ, had to adhere to the Torah, the Jewish law and instructions given by God to Moses. Later nicknamed, “the Judaizers,” one of their specific fixations was compelling non-Jews who came to believe in Jesus to submit to the practice of circumcision. This is the “mutilation of the flesh” Paul is describing.
With the birth of the promise of Israel through a man named Abraham, God commanded the rite of circumcision for all Jewish males as an outward sign of their covenant or committed relationship to God. Yet, long before the arrival of Jesus, God, through the prophets of old, warned the Israelites, the outward sign of physical circumcision was nothing without having an inner “circumcised heart” – one’s person and will submitted to and obedient to the Lord. From the very beginning, God’s message to all humanity was clear, only God could circumcise or transform the heart (see (Deut. 30:6).
The Torah was provided to lead us into a posture of conviction and absolute dependency upon our Creator – not as a roadmap to righteousness secured by our own effort. And the act of physical circumcision served as a reflection of the submission of our lives to the Lord. This is the reason Israel and all humankind needed a Messiah. This is why only God coming down in the person of Jesus Christ could be that Savior. It was this realization of the revelation and implications of the Gospel that led the first leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, which included many of Jesus’ first disciples, to determine that physical circumcision as well as adhering to other Jewish rituals and practices were not required to make a person right with God. The righteousness is found, is made possible, is actualized in Christ alone.
Paul writes of his willingness to provide repeated warnings to the Philippians about these Judaizers. But we should notice when Paul adds “it is a safeguard for you,” (v.1), his caution is not so much about some external threat as much as it is to save the Philippians from themselves. For the error of these Judaizers, sometimes referred to as legalism or work-based righteousness, is the classic trap we all fall into in our relationship with the Lord. Namely, having faith and confidence in what we can do for God versus wholly relying and living out of what God has done, what the Lord continues to do in and through us.
In case we’re wondering, Paul describes in verse 3 what it means and what it looks like to live not according to our physical circumcision (what we do) but in response of the inward circumcision of our hearts by God. He lists three marks of those who follow Jesus unto everlasting life rather than trying to helping themselves: worshipping in the Spirit of God, glorying in Christ Jesus, and putting no confidence in the flesh. In other words, we place our trust and our hope in nothing we do or don’t do – in nothing we produce, earn, or accumulate. Rather the whole inspiration and direction of lives is driven by the Spirit. And all the credit for any goodness we both cultivate and experience along the way belongs to Jesus.
It doesn’t take much for us to start to believe and to begin to convince each other that “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is not a quote from the Bible. It is a saying made famous by Benjamin Franklin. This saying is NOT an expression of the Gospel. It is an articulation of misplaced confidence in our individualism and personal autonomy. Both of which run counter to the Way of Jesus. Our collective safety and security, the promise and hope of our flourishing together are realized not in having faith in ourselves but in trusting in Christ alone.
Consider & Discuss | What are the areas of your life in which you feel least secure?
If you’re really honest, what gives you confidence in life? How much, if it all, is Jesus the source of your confidence? How do you/could you practically exercise your confidence in Christ through how you engage each day and each person in your life?
Prayer Focus | Lord, our God, we praise You and thank You for Your mercy and love that are beyond our understanding. That You would humble Yourself so much for our sakes, in order that in Christ we may be so highly exalted for Your sake, it is, at times, too much for us to believe. Forgive us when, in our doubts about this, we try to add to or justify the faith and the grace that You give to us. Forgive us when we have perceived any good in our lives or in ourselves as a result of something we’ve done, we’ve earned or deserved. Instill in us over and over again, a single-minded confidence in Christ alone – that only Your Son, Jesus, can, has, and continues to forgive us, heal us, and lead us into an abundant life that is everlasting. Amen.