A General Warning and a Personal Example
© C. O. Bishop, 2/9/2018 Cornell Estates 2/11/2018
We have been studying through the book of Philippians, for several months, and have seen that it is a very personal letter to a group of people in Philippi, with whom Paul shared a close relationship. They had served with him, and suffered with him, and they had supported him in his work. The epistle is noteworthy because it does not have any “corrective” teaching, and certainly no rebuke. There is encouragement, and thanksgiving, and teaching, some of which they may have heard before. We teachers do tend to repeat ourselves, because we are forever teaching the same concepts, sometimes to different pupils, sometimes a mixture of old and new. The teaching has not changed, and sometimes we hear a concept more than once.
Paul was aware that they had heard at least some of these things before. He begins by encouraging the believers to continue rejoicing “in the Lord.” He absolutely does not say that all our circumstances will be happy ones: he says, rather, that we can rejoice in the person of Christ.
1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe.
Saying “finally,” Paul seems to begin a conclusion, but, in reality, he is just turning to a final set of exhortations. It seems significant to me, that he prefaces a series of warnings with an exhortation to rejoice in the Lord. He goes on to suggest that what he was about to say was probably nothing new to his readers, but that it did not bother him to repeat himself, and that it provided a margin of safety for them, much like a warning sign on a road. It doesn’t hurt to hear it again.
A Strange Warning
2 Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.
This is a strange comment: who are the “dogs”; who are the “evil-workers,” and who are the “concision”? I would have jumped to the conclusion that the “dogs” were simply heathen, who could not be trusted entirely, simply because their agenda is completely different, and their values are co9mpletely different, than that of a believer. I still suspect that this may be the best understanding. Dr. McGee states that the “dogs” are false prophets, citing Isaiah, where God described the false prophets as “dumb” (speechless) dogs…watchdogs who don’t keep watch, and don’t sound the alarm when there is certainly cause to do so. Possibly he is right…but it doesn’t seem to fit this context. John Walvoord thinks it was the Judaizers against whom he raised the warning. But it seems likely to me that the “concision” were the Judaizers, who were physically “mutilated” as if they were believing Jews, but whose hearts were at odds with the Gospel. Evil workers would seem to be a catch-all term, at first glance, as there are evil workers everywhere. C. I. Scofield seems to think that all three were in reference to the Judaizers. But let’s take a look at all three in order:
- Dogs: If this is the heathen, simply unbelievers (and this is a term the Jews used to use, referring to heathen—gentiles—us), then they (unbelievers) are simply to be viewed with some caution at all times, knowing that their goals are completely different than those of the church, as are their values. This is still in keeping with the sure knowledge that these are souls for whom Christ died. We do not condemn them: we reach out to them. But we maintain an awareness that they are “not on our team.”
An example, at a national level, can be seen in the history of our business dealings in Asia. Westerners frequently find that they have been “cheated”, when the reality is that the Asians are simply playing by a different set of rules, and cheerfully take advantage of our naiveté.
Churches are frequently duped by unbelievers who seem to be “offering the church a special deal”, but in reality, are cheating churches. Does that mean we shouldn’t have any dealings with unbelievers? No! It is simply a warning to be careful.
A church with which I was vaguely familiar told how a local businessman began attending their church. They were glad to have him, and when he said that he needed cash, and change for his businesses, and offered to give them a check each week, to the exact amount of all the loose change and bills in their offering, they saw no harm in it, and, yes, the check cleared, every week. But, early the next year, they got a letter from the IRS asking whether this individual had really been giving them all these donations! He had been claiming those checks as charitable giving! From his perspective, he was being clever. But it was a scam, pure and simple!
- Evil workers: This could refer to people who claim to be believers but whose lives demonstrate the opposite. I am not suggesting that because a believer has a sin nature and occasionally proves it, he or she is not really a believer. I am referring to those who can recite a believable testimony, but their whole pattern of life outside of church meetings is blatantly ungodly. We have probably all known individuals like this. They are perplexing, because we want to accept them as a brother or sister in Christ, but all their behavior suggests they may not be one. We just have to be careful. I have known several people like this at work. Some, as far as I can tell, were probably believers. Some turned out to definitely be “false brethren.”
- The Concision: (The Greek word, here, literally means “mutilation.”) If this term is in reference to the Judaizers, then the whole trio fits together as living examples of the three enemies of the Christian: “the World, the Flesh and the Devil”, as
- “The World” is certainly represented in unbelievers as a whole;
- “The Flesh” is the old sin-nature, which every believer still does have. And “evil-workers” are those who habitually obey their sin-nature, whether believers or unbelievers; and, finally,
- Satan does his most dangerous work through false religion. (This was true in the time of Christ, through the Pharisees and scribes and the corrupt priesthood, but today is perhaps best exemplified in various world religions and cults, and even in good churches that have gone bad. (It happens!)
There is a fair amount of controversy over these three, but this interpretation seems to resonate well with the rest of Scripture. I do not claim it to be the only way to understand the passage.
What is the True Circumcision?
3 For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.
Paul mentioned this concept in Romans and in Galatians: the “circumcision” that God approves is the setting aside of the “flesh”—the old sin-nature. We can’t “get rid of it,” completely, but we have turned away from it, the day we chose to believe in Jesus as our savior, and we continually choose to “set aside the flesh” when we worship and serve God in the person of Christ.
We find our Joy in Him, and have ceased to have confidence in our own ability to understand, our own capability to will or to do, apart from His direction. We think more, and scheme less, as a result. We are willing to follow His lead, and we do not demand that he explain every part of his every decision, as if His will must have our approval before it can proceed.
Do we still complain and act out in unbelief sometimes? Certainly, we do, which is simply a demonstration that we still have our old sin nature. The sin nature cannot be corrected, or improved upon. It feeds upon sin, and Ephesians 4:22 states that it is actively corrupt by nature. It is not subject to God, and cannot be, according to Romans 8:7.
This “flesh”, not our physical body, is what must be set aside, if we are to walk with God. We set it aside once for all, when we first trusted Christ as our redeeming sacrifice. We continually “set it aside” when we choose to ignore its prompting, and obey Jesus instead.
What about Human Credentials?
Paul certainly had great credentials to which he could point, if he chose to do so, He says:
4 Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more:
If there was anyone who would have had the “right” to trust in his own natural ability, education or birthright, it was Paul. He “had a lot going for him”, as the saying goes today. He lists a few of these things, here:
5 Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;
6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
But when he trusted Christ as his savior, all the things he had once trusted in became a potential liability, rather than an asset. In fact, he considers the whole world a potential snare, rather than a gain. It is all on the “wrong side of the ledger,” now—debit, rather than credit. These credentials are what the World approves, and, while they may have some value, the only real and eternal value is in our relationship with Christ. The World is temporary,
8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
It must be pointed out, here, that Paul is not suggesting that the way to “win Christ” is to “suffer the loss of all things”. One does not “buy” a relationship with Christ. Paul’s relationship with Christ had cost him all of the things he held dear, including his social standing. He had been “climbing” a social “ladder”, for most of his life, if we can read between the lines a bit. A Jewish student shared with me that the seats in the ancient schools (that of Gamaliel, for example, whom Paul claimed as his mentor), were arranged in tiers, radiating from the teacher’s position outward toward the door. Those “sitting at the feet” were the choice students who had “arrived”, so to speak. Newer students or those less approved sat at the back, or stood beyond the furthest seat. So Paul had “arrived” socially. Still today, Jewish students read the teaching of Gamaliel, whom Paul claimed. But he lost that status, and was considered a “reject”, a failure, because of his relationship with, and his service toward Jesus. And he counted it a cheap price to pay…but that is still not how he gained Christ. The losses were a result of the relationship, not the other way around.
Don’t Attempt a “Do-it-yourseff” Righteousness
9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
This is a key point: In Romans 10:3, 4, Paul points out that the Jews were “ignorant of God’s righteousness and going about to establish their own righteousness”. He evidently included himself in that indictment, and he was grateful to find that he had lost his own false, contrived, self-made righteousness, and gained the real, imputed righteousness of Christ.
I think it is a common failing among both believers and unbelievers, that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we still think we can “make ourselves better.” Self-help books, and self-improvement books are among the best sellers in the supposedly “non-fiction” market. And yet, ultimately, they tend to be “fiction” anyway, as the truth is, we cannot help ourselves, or improve ourselves in the arena of sin and righteousness.
When Isaiah said “…all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” he wasn’t exaggerating. He was simply stating a fact; that “we are as an unclean thing.” Once, as a small child, I read a story about some children finding a rusty iron pot, at the beach, and cleaning it with sand. I didn’t understand that the “cleansing” they accomplished was only to remove the worst of the rust…that the sand was only an abrasive, and accomplished nothing in terms of hygiene. But it stuck in my young mind that “sand equals soap”. So, a few days later, when my mother told me to wash my hands for supper, I happily walked outside and decided that, in the absence of sand, dirt would surely suffice, and I washed my hands in mud, rinsed them in water from the garden hose, and walked back in feeling very clever. Mom asked me if I had washed my hands, and I cheerfully told her, yes, that I had washed them in the dirt, in the garden! Understandably, she sent me off to the bathroom for a “soap and water” scrub…up to the elbows.
The point of that story was that I did not understand that dirt could not make me clean, physically—dirt was what we wanted to remove, along with the bacteria that are in the dirt. (Years later, I met a cousin of mine who had actually lost an arm to an infection originating in the soil of his back yard…and nearly lost his life in the ordeal.)
Cain brought the fruit of the ground as an offering to God. The problem was not the vegetables; the problem was sin. The ground had been cursed because of sin, so, despite the healthful character of the vegetables, fruit, or whatever it was, it was unacceptable as a sin offering, and, without a prior sin offering of blood, it was not even acceptable as a worship offering, though after a blood sacrifice for sin it would have been completely acceptable in worship.
Cain was “ignorant of the righteousness of God”, and was “going about to establish his own righteousness.” Even believers can easily lose sight of the cross, and begin to believe that because they adhere to certain practices, (whether church attendance, reciting prayers, a catechism, a creed, giving, or some other activity) that they have by those actions become acceptable to God. The fact is that I am only acceptable to God “in the beloved” (in Christ…Ephesians 1:6). We cannot cleanse ourselves. God has to do it.
Now Paul, having found himself “in Him”—in Christ—was positionally perfect. Being found “in Him,” his standing with God was forever made secure. But his condition—his state—could change drastically, just as our state, or condition, changes when we sin.
What can I learn by his example? That I need to stay near the Cross, mentally. I need to remember daily that I am saved from sin…I did not climb out of that pit on my own, nor can I claim any credit for my perseverance. God is the one who keeps me. My own works, tainted by my ever-present old nature, can never improve my standing with God. Only Jesus’s blood at the cross has that capacity. I can’t hope to improve by “washing with dirt.”
Lord Jesus, fix our eyes upon your Cross, and help us to trust in the completion of your work there. Turn our eyes away from our own efforts, and help us to rest in your finished work. Raise us up as an army of men and women freed by your hand, and living to serve you from that perfect position in You.