“Remember that you were formerly gentiles in the flesh — called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision in the flesh by hands — that you were at that time without Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and a stranger to the covenant and the promise, being without hope and an atheist in the world.”
The contrast between the Old Testament administration of the mark of the Covenant and the New Testament administration of the mark of the Covenant are profound. The first was made with blood and only on the males. With the bloody sacrifice of Christ being complete, the bloody mark of circumcision is replaced with the bloodless mark of baptism, also shifting from a mark on the body to a mark on the soul. The fleshly one being made with human hands but the spiritual one, though through human agency, being made by God himself. In this case, Paul is addressing a largely gentile audience and pointing out that this salvation that God has worked is doing more than just giving them salvation from their sins; it brings them into the covenant of God and the promises that are found within it — it makes the gentile a citizen of the holy city of Christ.
And so, a second change is being highlighted to these Ephesian Christians. Not only is there a different way that the covenantal mark or sign is applied, there is a different way that citizenship is received (and note that citizenship in the Roman world was very difficult to receive and was highly valued). Now it is no longer a contrast between Israelites and those outside of Israel. Now it is those who are in Christ and those who are not in Christ. With Christ comes membership in the covenant, citizenship in heaven, and the promises which bring hope.
“For we are the circumcision; those who worship in the Spirit of God and who boast in Christ Jesus and who do not trust in the flesh.”
Indeed, in Christ’s economy, circumcision is no longer a matter of the flesh, but is a matter of the heart. To take the notion one step further, we should argue that circumcision of the flesh was always meant to be a physical symbol of an inward reality — an inward circumcision. And, as noted above, as the physical symbol changed (circumcision to baptism), the physical cutting is no longer deemed necessary while the inward reality (a circumcised heart) remains the same. Thus not only is Paul of the circumcision (physical and spiritual) the uncircumcised (physically) gentiles who were a part of the church in Philippi are circumcised in the eyes of God (spiritually). If the cutting is done out of ritual or as a sign of works it is an abomination…a mutilation of the flesh; the cutting that takes place in the heart is worked by God and by God alone upon us and is designed to prepare us for glory (as well as to equip us to live out our life in the here and now.
And ultimately, then, what is the visible mark of this inward circumcision? In addition to baptism, it is a life that is lived glorying in Christ and not trusting in the works of the flesh. It is a life marked by worship in the Holy Spirit and not by worshipping in the strength or pattern of the flesh. It is a life that is oriented around serving God (the word in this passage which we translate as “worship,” literally means “to serve in a liturgical or religious manner”).
The question we must set before us is whether or not this is how we live. Is this what we strive for? Do we still take pride in our flesh or is the only thing in which we glory the work of Christ in and over this weak flesh of ours? The former relies on an outward circumcision; the latter relies on an inward. And Paul will shortly remind us that the outward circumcision avails us nothing if we seek to stand upon it. The bottom line is that it is all about Christ, from beginning to end, it is all about Jesus.
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
— Edward Mote
“Beware of the dogs! Beware of those who work evil! Beware of the mutilators!”
Having told the Philippian church to stand on firm ground, he now warns them about predators who will seek to draw them off of that sure ground of scripture. In the larger context, Paul is speaking of the danger of those who would trust in their own works for either glory of salvation. Here, Paul speaks more specifically.
To begin with, Paul warns to beware of the “dogs.” Some commentators understand the reference of “dogs” to be euphemistic for male prostitutes and the sexual activity that would be engaged in during many of the pagan practices of worship. There is some evidence for this, though I would suggest that, given the character of the Philippian church, male prostitution was not a great threat. The term, kuw/n (kuon) in Greek is also used to refer to those who are infamous criminals (again, not a likely threat to the Philippian congregation) and to those who are spiritually unclean. The Didache (an early, second-century manual for the Christian church) refers to those who are unbaptized and not yet ready to commune with the body as kuw/n (kuon). In a young and thriving church, this seems the most likely use of the term as Paul is employing it…essentially to warn them to be cautious and, as new people come into the fellowship, make sure that they are genuine believers before they are embraced entirely into the body.
The second warning is a little more plain. While there are many things that are referred to as evil in the Bible, one seems to be preeminent…that of idolatry. In fact, it can be argued that the other sins that are considered evil also flow out of an idolatrous heart. So, beware, Paul warns the church, of those who would introduce idolatry into the context of worship. One need not examine church history in that much depth to discover that idolatry is a matter that the church struggled with (and still struggles with) through the ages. Early in the life of the church some people started introducing images of Jesus and of the Apostles as “aides” to worship. The images were joined by statues, relics, praying to various saints for blessings, praying to Mary as a co-intercessor with Jesus, teaching that Mary lived as a perpetual virgin and was physically assumed into heaven, and raising up the councils as being of equal authority to scripture. Even in Protestant circles, how often strong personalities are seen to speak with authority not on the basis of content but simply on the basis of popularity. How often pastors take advantage of their congregations, using the people as little more than a stepping stool to achieve their own agendas. We are fallen people; we are prone to fall into idolatrous sin.
Finally, Paul warns to beware of the “mutilators.” In light of the context of verse 3, where Paul speaks of the true circumcision — what he elsewhere calls a circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29) — it seems that he is speaking of those who would teach a works-based religion founded in the Jewish ritual practices. Those who would insist on physical circumcision (and not spiritual) in the church of Christ would be those who are the mutilators. Does this mean that Paul condemns his own circumcision? Not at all, as you will see (though he does not put weight in it). Circumcision of the flesh was the sign and mark of the people of God, but it was never meant to save. It was simply meant as an outward sign of an inward reality. In Christ, the sign has changed from a bloody sign on the males only to a bloodless sign on males and females both (for their is neither male nor female, but we are one in Christ — Galatians 3:28). If there is no inward reality, the sign avails nothing. And, where the sign has changed (circumcision to baptism), to insist on the physical, bloody sign is simply an act of mutilation (see how Paul speaks of those who so insist in Galatians 5:12).
Thus the warning is offered. The question is whether or not we will apply it, for the same wolves prey about our church doors even today. There is a tendency by many in the church to be broad and shallow in their teaching and, hoping not to offend anyone, no spiritual food of any value is offered. There is a tendency, in the hopes of ministering to everyone, to accept all things as equally valid and to embrace all practices as acceptable in the eyes of God. Beware those who would lead the sheep astray. Flee from the wicked. Flee from those who see ministry as a popularity contest, teaching only those parts of scripture that the people want to hear and not those parts of scripture that the people need to hear. Woe to the shepherd who does not open up the whole counsel of God. Woe to the pastor who is more concerned about his popularity with men than with his popularity with God. And church, beware these wolves, for they are clothed with the fleece of sheep, but exist only to destroy. Flee from them! And if you have been led astray as a shepherd and are guilty of acting this way or of abetting such actions from others; repent for the sake of your soul and for the sake of the souls of those in your charge. Beware those like this, says the Apostle Paul.
“And God said to Abraham, ‘Thus you shall cherish my covenant—you and your seed after you to the generations.”
Do we really cherish the things that God has done for us? As I interact with Christians, sometimes I wonder. How often we will tell our neighbors about an award that one of our children might have received, but we will neglect to tell them about eternal life because it might be seen as socially awkward. It seems odd that we are often so silent about that which we profess to hold so dearly. Indeed, those things that we genuinely cherish are things that we seek to keep pure and preserve from outside influences. How often, though, we allow our theology to be polluted with non-Biblical but popular ideas. We often talk much about how God is love and how God forgives, but at the same time tend to downplay the fact that he is going to judge sin with eternal fire and how those who do not come to him in his Son, Jesus Christ, are guilty of the greatest offense imaginable before a holy God. How often truth becomes so watered down that its taste is barely recognizable.
Many of our English translations will render this word as “keep” and not “cherish.” The Hebrew verb used in this passage is rAmDv (shamar), which means, “to keep, to guard, to cherish, or to preserve.” It conveys the idea of protecting something that you treasure or hold dear. When this word is used to speak of commands, it usually reflects the idea of the people keeping them by doing them. Such is the same here. God is going to institute the sign of the covenant, that is circumcision. Yet, note that being circumcised is not how one fulfills the covenant—the covenant requires perfect obedience for it to be fulfilled—something that no mere human is able to perform. Hence, we need a savior; hence God moved through the split animal pieces, not Abraham. Thus the tone here as this word is being used is not so much the actual fulfillment of the covenant, but whether or not Abraham is going to be faithful enough to the covenant to preserve the covenantal sign not only in his life but also in the lives of his children.
In the Christian church, we use the same language to refer to Baptism. As blood in its fullness has already been shed by Christ, the sign is a bloodless one and thus circumcision as a command has been done away with. Though many Christians still circumcise their sons, it is simply a matter of preference and family tradition at this point in history. Baptism is now the covenantal sign we place on the heads of our children. This sign is not necessary for salvation (as the thief on the cross could not have been baptized), but it is a matter of obedience and a reflection as to how seriously we cherish the covenant that God made with Abraham for us—which of course, was confirmed by Christ. If you cherish the things of God, your obedience to them should follow.
Loved ones, my prayer for you is that you take these words seriously. God has made a covenant with us as his people and he has always been fully and completely faithful to that covenant; are we being faithful to him? Do we really cherish the things that God is doing in our lives and do we raise our children to cherish those things as well? People say that children will hold dear the things that they see their parents holding dear. Do we cherish the covenant of God so dearly that our children and our grandchildren are also drawn to cherish those things as well?
Christian hearts, in love united,
Seek alone in Jesus rest;
Has He not your love excited?
Then let love inspire each breast;
Members on our Head depending
Lights reflecting Him, our Sun,
Brethren His commands attending,
We in Him, our Lord, are one.
-Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf
“I will erect my covenant between me and between you and between your seed who come after you through their generations as an everlasting covenant—to be God to you and to your seed after you.”
Even the language that God uses here denotes the permanent nature of this covenant. He says, “I will erect…” The verb that he uses here denotes the idea of building a castle tower, something strong and permanent that stands for all people to see. In addition, the Hiphil form of this verb is used, which reflects that God is causing something to take place—God is the one erecting this covenant, Abraham has no part in its building (and as we saw in chapter 15, no part in its completion). In addition, the eternal nature of God’s unchangeable purpose (Hebrews 6:17-18) and character (Malachi 3:6) provide this everlasting covenant its absolute permanence. Because God is, this covenant stands even today despite the wickedness of the heart of man. Friends, that is something to rejoice about.
Notice too, the language about the seed of Abraham. This is a reference to his children and to his children’s children throughout the generations. Some would try and suggest that this language of seed only applies to Jesus, as Paul says that the Seed is Christ (Galatians 3:16). Yet, while the covenant is clearly fulfilled in and by Christ, to see Christ as the only end of this promise is to take the language out of context. God is clearly promising this covenant not only to Abraham, but to his covenant household—hence the sign of the covenant that will be given a little later in this chapter will be placed not only on Abraham and not only on those in Abraham’s household old enough to accept the covenant on their own, but also on their children and infants. Thus, in the New Testament age, we place the covenant sign of baptism on the children of believing parents to indicate that they are part of the blessings of this covenant because of their parents.
Loved ones, cherish God’s covenantal promises to you—he will be God to you and will never abandon you. This promise is more valuable than anything else on the whole of the earth. It is permanent and established in stone and God will never fail to bring it about in your lives. In addition, the covenant is not just about you, but it is about your children and your children’s children after you. Rejoice in that and raise your children up knowing these great promises of God that one day they too may accept them as their own. Sing of the might of our God, for these promises do not rest on the work of men, but upon the character and plan of God. He has established them in stone, confirmed them in blood, and will renew them in your life—day in and day out.
Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
In a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, through Jesus’ power, His Name to glorify;
And promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die.