Philippians 3:1–3

Philippians 3:1–3

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh

Some years ago, some of us went on a mission trip to Mozambique, Africa. Near the end of the trip we were able to go on a wild game safari at Kruger National Park in South Africa. One of the really fun things about the wild game safari was trying to spot the big five apex predators of Africa: the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the elephant, and the buffalo. It was really an amazing experience.

At one point during the safari, our truck stopped on the road along with some other trucks. Walking along the side of the road were some small to average-sized looking wild dogs. I commented on them to our driver, who was extremely knowledgeable. What he said surprised me. Looking at the little pack of “painted” dogs, as they are sometimes called, he said: “Most dangerous thing out here.” I said, “What?” He said, “Most dangerous thing out here.”

Now, let me repeat the list of the apex predators of Africa: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. Not to mention how deadly hippos are! But here the driver was calling these dogs the “most dangerous” thing in the whole park?

“How can that be?” I asked.

He explained. He said that the wild dogs were the most dangerous thing out there not because they were big but because they were unrelenting. They never stopped. They hunted in packs and were fast but, above anything else, they could keep going. Many of the fast animals in the park could hit great bursts of speed, but for only so long. These average-looking dogs could keep running and running and running until they flat wore their prey out. And when their prey fell down in exhaustion, it was over. They also have very sharp teeth!

In short, you do not want to be hunted by a pack of African wild dogs.

Beware the dogs!

Oddly enough, Paul will say the same thing in our text: “Look out for the dogs!” And his reasons for warning the Philippians about these dogs were the same as the warnings of our driver: the dogs are unrelenting, they will not stop, and they are deceptively deadly in their bites.

Who on earth is Paul talking about? Let us consider the marks of empty religion. Let us consider the marks of true faith.

The marks of empty religion.

We begin with verse 2. In doing so we will immediately notice a radical and intense shift in Paul’s tone from what precedes it. In verse 2, he warns the church at Philippi:

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Our English translations lose some of the force of his language here. Gordon Fee refers to Paul’s “powerful rhetoric, full of invective and sarcasm.”[1] Frank Thielman says of these words:

The force of his language is lost in most English translations, both because Paul’s rhetoric is almost impossible to duplicate in intelligible English and because the stridency with which he speaks is startling.

Thielman then tries to capture the stridency of verse 2 by translating it:

Beware the curs! Beware the criminals! Beware the cutters![2]

Scot McKnight tries to capture Paul’s intensity by translating verse 2 like this:

Look at the dogs! Look at the bad workers! Look at the incisionists![3]

Well, my goodness! What on earth is happening here?! What has caused this shift in mood? What has caused such language?

To understand this, we must understand that Paul was seemingly continuously harassed by one particularly pernicious group of people: the Judaizers. And who were these people? These were Jews who claimed to have accepted Christ, but these particular Jews felt that faith in Christ and the cross of Christ was not enough to save Gentile Christians. So, these Judaizers would travel to Paul’s churches after he left and enter those churches and begin to try to convince non-Jewish Christians that in order to truly be the people of God they needed to also become Jews. And the focus here was in two main areas: food and circumcision. The Gentile Christians, the Judaizers said, needed to accept Jesus, yes, but also be circumcised and keep kosher.

Paul had to deal with these people in Galatia and Paul had to deal with these people in Corinth. In his letters to the churches there, he similarly used strong language.

Why? Why did the Judaizers so incense Paul? Because he knew the fruit of their teaching. The fruit of the Judaizers’ teaching was:

  • a dilution of the gospel;
  • the introduction of works and externals into salvation;
  • the diminishment of the cross and resurrection as sufficient for the salvation of mankind;
  • arrogance;

These people, then—these Judaizers—were “dogs” in the sense that they were unclean, evildoers in the sense that their fruit was bad, and mutilators in the sense that they lifted the physical act of circumcision above the cross itself.

This is why Moisés Silve renders verse 2 like this:

…keep your watch for those [who claim to be spiritually pure but are unclean] dogs, whose works [are not good as they proclaim but rather] evil, whose [ritual practices must be characterized as] mutilation.[4]

Calling them “dogs” was a particularly strong move on Paul’s part. Craig Keener writes:

“Dog” was a familiar insult, sometimes implying dogs’ vulgar public sexual, excretory or (cf. 3:8, 19) dietary habits…Jewish teaching considered dogs unclean and sometimes sexually immoral; the Old Testament might apply the title to male cult prostitutes (Deut 23:17); especially to enemies in Psalm 22:16. Such a title would certainly make the pietists who were demanding circumcision recoil. There were “beware of dog” signs even in ancient Rome, where they were pets and watchdogs (Petronius, Satyricon 29), no doubt reinforcing the biting sarcasm of Paul’s phrase.[5]

Moisés Silva further explains:

For the Jews, however, the term had a distinctly religious sense: it referred to the Gentiles, those people who, being outside the covenant community, were considered ritually unclean. When Jesus drew a comparison between the Syro-Phoenician woman and dogs (Mark 7:27), the woman recognized the analogy not as a vulgar insult but as a religious statement. Paul, therefore, is making a startling point: the great reversal brought in by Christ means that it is the Judaizers who must be regarded as Gentiles (cf. the comments on 2:15–16).[6]

The word “dogs” is doing a lot of work here! It is impugning the characters of the Judaizers, highlighting their irritating habits, and also pointing out the irony of their theological system: In focusing so much on ritual purity they had turned away from what God was actually doing in and through Christ and had become themselves impure!

And Paul calls them “those who mutilate the flesh.” Fred Craddock makes an interesting observation about the terminology Paul uses here.

This last phrase translates katatome, a parody of peritome which means circumcision. In other words, Paul refuses to call them “the circumcision,” a term of honor among many Jews, instead calling them mutilators (Gal. 5:12 is similar in mood but more literally means “castrate themselves”).[7]

Paul says something similar about the Judaizers in Galatians 5:

12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

What is most interesting about this verse is that there is not a lot of evidence that the Judaizers were not actually in Philippi. Gordon Fee correctly writes that “there is little hint either here or elsewhere in the letter that such people are actually present in Philippi at the time of this writing or that a serious threat is at hand.”[8] That seems true enough. Yet Paul knew their tendencies and knew the likelihood of them harassing that church, especially given the fact that the church of Philippi would have been largely Gentile in its makeup and, thus, a prime target for these troublemakers.

This is why we have the thrice-repeated: “Look out! Look out! Look out!”

Paul’s intensity is not even really focused on these individual false teachers, though it certainly includes them. What he is really piqued about is the false religion they represented and imposed upon Jesus’ church. What the Judaizers were selling had all the marks of empty, phony religion:

  • It claimed to be clean but was dirty.
  • It claimed to be good but smuggled in wickedness.
  • It claimed to affect heart-change but was obsessed with externals.

I have seen these subtle attempts to smuggle in empty, external religiosity over the years, and you have as well. They always end up selling you a bill of goods. Look out for them! Beware!

Beware empty religion!

Beware false prophets!

Beware those who say that Jesus is not enough!

The marks of true faith.

But Paul also turns to the marks of true faith. If the Judaizers represent empty religion, then what constitutes true faith? Watch:

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

There are three statements here:

  • “we are the circumcision”
  • “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus”
  • “and put no confidence in the flesh”

That “we are the circumcision” is provocative, to say the least! Remember: Paul is a Jew. Probably most of the Philippian believers are Gentiles. Just the fact that Paul says “we” is significant. But to say “For we are the circumcision” is an amazing statement. It is, first of all, a slap at the Judaizers because it is contrasting whatever kind of circumcision Paul is referring to with the external circumcision the Judaizers are concerned about.

And what is Paul referring to? How are Paul and the Philippians and, indeed, all Christians “the circumcision.” Well, by way of deduction, we can surmise that Paul means something other than the mere physical act of circumcision. He must mean something interior.

Remember: For the Jews, circumcision was the great sign of covenant-belonging. It was the physical mark that meant you and your progeny belonged and would belong to the Lord God. But Paul seems to be suggesting that, in Jesus, the nature of circumcision has changed. But if a physical mark on the body—literal circumcision—is no longer the great sign of covenant-belonging, of being in the family of God, then what is?

Fortunately for us, in Romans 2, Paul tells us what the deeper more significant circumcision is:

28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Ah! There it is! True faith, true religion, is not about externals and physical things, though externals and physical elements may play supportive roles. No, the main thing, the thing that matters most, is God changing the heart, God circumcising the heart, God making us new people. And let me hasten to add that this was always the case with circumcision. A mere physical act never gives anybody a pass on actual godliness, on having an actual relationship with God. Even back in Jeremiah 4, we read:

For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem: “Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”

Do you see? It has always been about this, which is why physical circumcision was no protection for Israel against God whenever they rebelled against Him.

No, it is about your heart! It is about giving who you really are to God as He really is! It is about letting Him change you!

And when God gets ahold of your heart, then we see how Paul’s second mark of true faith can be true:

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Worship arises naturally out of a changed, transformed, born-again heart! Worship springs forth out of gratitude and out of joy.

True worship is “by the Spirit of God.” That means it boasts much of Jesus and the greatness of God! Tim Keller has listed a few “mistaken emotions” that “can be mistakenly associated with true worship.” He includes:

  • Nostalgia: a “fond sentiment” that helps ground people “because everything else in life is changing”
  • Conscience clearing: feeling better because of the feeling that having gone to church clears your guilty conscience over some deed or neglect
  • Aesthetic experiences: being emotionally moved by a song or a message[9]

These are all emotions that can touch us in worship…but none of these is actually worship! We worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus.

Worship is when we get smaller and Christ gets bigger.

Worship is when our own glory looks absurd to us and God’s glory is our great treasure!

Worship is the joyful response of a redeemed people who know the Savior that redeemed them!

This is why Paul began our text like this:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

“Rejoice in the Lord.”

“Worship by the Spirit of God.”

“Glory in Christ Jesus.”

“Put no confidence in the flesh.”

This is what true faith looks like: Exuberant celebration of the greatness of the God who saves through Jesus Christ!

True faith does not put great stock in the flesh, in the externals. True faith is a matter of inner revolution that shows up in outer transformation and sincere worship! True faith is from the inside-out, not outside-in!

Empty religion promises much but not only does not deliver, it kills.

True faith, however, is vibrant and real and healthy and God-honoring.

Look out! Beware of empty, false religion!

Look to Jesus! Worship Him! Cling to Him! Rejoice in Him!


[1] Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT)) (p. 293). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Thielman, Frank S. Philippians (The NIV Application Commentary Book 11) (p. 167). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.

[3] McKnight, Scot. The Second Testament (p. 215). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Silva, Moisés. Philippians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (p. 146). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[5] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (IVP Bible Background Commentary Set) (pp. 562-563). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Silva, Moisés. Philippians, p. 147.

[7] Craddock, Fred B.; Craddock, Fred B. Philippians (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) (p. 56). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[8] Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, p. 289-290.


One thought on “Philippians 3:1–3

  1. WOW and again, I say, WOW!!!!!!!!!……. white hot and full of light too; one of your best ever or at least in the Top 10 me ever heard from ya. Go Wym and yeah for CBCNLR…… with just 3 verses and 2 points one would wonder what might happen if you did just 2 verses and one point…….. kaBOOM!!!!!!!!!!! ……. dynomite gospel.
    Those wild dogs just might run away FROM you if you preached that right into their ears esp. if you wear black and roar between sentences; with those big ears they hear way more than we do. Thank you 🙂

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