Paul was ever vigilant against legalism. Having been born a Jew and raised under the Mosaic law, he knew what it was like to live under the law and have to perform well in order for God to be pleased with him. In Philippians 3:1-3 Paul is concerned for the “safety” of the Philippians, concerned that they would be tripped up by putting confidence in the flesh and thus lose their joy.
Rejoicing in the Lord (v. 1) and glorying in Jesus (v. 3) is what keeps us from snapping back into the familiar legalism that we all grow up with. Matthew Henry put it this way when he wrote:
“The joy of the Lord is a divine armor against the assaults of our spiritual enemies and puts our mouth out of taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks…the taste of joy in our mouths makes the tempter’s offerings seem bland by comparison.”
Thus, the true way to obedience comes through making Jesus our greatest treasure and greatest pleasure.
Listen again to Paul’s words in Philippians 3:1-3…
1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–
The positive command is to “rejoice in the Lord,” while the negative is “look out,” watch out for those who would cause you to revert to legalism. To understand Paul’s strong warning against legalists in verse 2, let’s explore the historical background.
From the very beginning of the Christian age, the gospel came “to the Jew first” (see Acts 3:26; Romans 1:16), so that the first seven chapters of Acts deal only with Jewish believers or with Gentiles who were Jewish proselytes (Acts 2:10). In Acts 8:5-25, the message went to the Samaritans, but this did not cause too much of an upheaval since the Samaritans were at least partly Jewish.
But when Peter went to the Gentiles in Acts 10, this created an uproar. Peter was called on the carpet to explain his activities (Acts 11). After all, the Gentiles in Acts 10 had become Christians without first becoming Jews, and this was a whole new thing for the church. Peter explained that it was God who had directed him to preach to the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles just as he had upon the Jewish disciples in the upper room in Acts 2. The matter seemed to be settled.
But not for long. Paul was sent out by the Holy Spirit to minister especially to the Gentiles (Acts 13-3; 22:21). Peter had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles in Acts 10, but Paul was called as an apostle to the Gentiles. It did not take long for the strict Jewish believers to oppose Paul’s ministry and came to Antioch teaching that it was necessary for Gentiles to submit to Jewish rules, in particular circumcision, before they could be saved. This was taken up at the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The result of this council was an approval of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and an acknowledgement that salvation was by grace, not by works. Gentiles did not have to become Jewish proselytes to become Christians. They did not have to be circumcised to be saved.
But the dissenters were not content. Having failed in their opposition to Paul and the gospel of grace at Antioch and Jerusalem, they followed him wherever he went and tried to steal his converts and his churches. Most scholars call this group of people “Judaizers.” The epistle of Galatians was written primarily to combat this false teaching.
When Judaizers invaded the new church in Galatia, Paul pulled out his verbal flamethrower:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8, 9; cf. 3:1-14).
A gospel of works is an anti-gospel because it is not good news at all!
This is not merely an ancient problem. Even in our day we find that people naturally default to a legalistic mindset, believing that they have to contribute something to their salvation.
Several decades ago a survey of 7,000 Protestant youths from many denominations asked whether they agreed with the following statements: “The way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life.” More than 60 percent agreed.
“God is satisfied if a person lives the best life he can.” Almost 70 percent agreed. (Reported by Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, Fearfully & Wonderfully Made [Zondervan], p. 108.)
Counterfeit Christianity is a strong danger for all of us because we’re all prone to pride and self-reliance. We all want to take for ourselves at least some of the credit for our salvation. Oh, we’ll be generous and grant that most of the credit goes to the Lord, but we still want to reserve a bit of the honor for ourselves.
People will say, “I was saved by my own free will,” which implies, “I was smart enough or good enough to make the right choice.” But the Bible knocks our pride out from under us by clearly stating that our salvation does not depend on our will, but on God’s sovereign mercy (Rom. 9:16). Or, people will say, “Christ died for me because I was worthy.” But Scripture is clear that He died for us when we were unworthy sinners (Rom. 5:8).
It these Judaizers, those teachers who were encouraging the Philippian believers that Jesus wasn’t enough, that they needed “Jesus plus…” that Paul wrote:
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
Why does Paul speak in such strange, exaggerated, derogatory terms?
To show just how serious this issue was. In Paul’s mind these were not people who were just mistaken or who wanted something positive for the Philippian believers. They were vicious, evil and meant to harm them.
Paul actually makes use of alliteration to make it even easier to remember these description; all three titles, so to speak, because they all begin with the letter k – the Greek kappa –
- beware of kunas,
- beware of kakous ergatos
- and beware of katatomen
But far more striking than their acoustical effects was that they were freighted with ironic sarcasm, as each of the three insults took a virtue that the Judaizers claimed for themselves and reversed it. Paul impaled the Judaizers on their own vocabulary.
Three rapid-fire, blunt, and offensive terms for the enemies of grace. And it isn’t that Paul is slinging mud or calling names – he’s gravely concerned about the safety of the Philippian church and knows that these false teachers are extremely dangerous. They were not to take these Judaizers lightly.
And so Paul doesn’t mince words or beat around the bush.
Paul knows that returning to the legalistic practices of Judaism, while seemingly the “safe” practice, would actually endanger them and sabotage their joy in the Lord.
In rapid-fire succession Paul says, “watch out…watch out…watch out…” These function like warning signs along a treacherous mountain road. “Slow down, do not pass, watch for falling rocks.”
Similar commands for watchfulness are found in other passages, like Matthew 7:15:
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
Also in Acts 20:28-31 Paul warned the Ephesian elders…
28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.
Wolves come disguised, so be especially vigilant. Notice Paul warns them of attacks not only from outside the church, but even from within.
What should they be looking out for? Basically, anything that adds to what Jesus Christ has already accomplished on the cross—fueling any sense of worthiness and self-glory.
Because Christ said, “It is finished,” in other words, “paid in full.” He did absolutely everything necessary for our salvation so that all we have to do is to receive it by faith. We have only to trust in Him, to rely totally upon Him as our only hope.
Other religions are spelled, “D-O,” you have to do something to be saved. Christianity is spelled “D-O-N-E.” Done. Nothing else is necessary. “Nothing in my hand in bring, simply to Thy cross I cling….helpless look to Thee for grace.”
There are three characteristics of these Judaizers. It sounds like Paul is trash talking here, but he’s just emphasizing the extreme danger they were facing.
First, he calls these Judaizers “dogs.” This was a derogatory term that Jews usually used for Gentiles, but here Paul is using it to talk about Jewish religious leaders!
And he doesn’t have in mind cute, gentle pets, but rather disease-ridden, destructive wild curs. You see, Jews didn’t have pet dogs in those days.
Dogs were coyote-like scavengers who fed on roadkill, carrion, filth, and garbage — they were vivid images of the unclean.
They were first of all unclean, but secondly vicious. Wild dogs generally attacked those who were weak and alone, reminding us of the importance of Christian community.
In the Old Testament, a dog came to represent all that was unclean and filthy (Exodus 22:3; 1 Kings 14:11); the term “dog” was used as a derogatory term for someone evil and dangerous.
Isaiah the prophet wrote that false prophets were greedy unsatisfied dogs (Isaiah 56:10).
You can go all the way to the end of the New Testament, in the very last chapter, the term dog appears as a general term for the unrepentant, obstinate, evil unbeliever unable to enter heaven (Revelation 22:15).
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region, and this happened…
22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Jesus was using the Jewish language of the day, referring to Gentiles as dogs, but in an ironic twist Paul was calling the very ones who considered themselves to be clean, unclean dogs.
So Paul is taking a slur that the Jews used against the Gentiles and turning back against these false teachers.
Second, Paul calls these Judaizers “evil workers.” Again, this turns things upon its head. They promoted the idea that Jesus was great, but you really needed the “good works” of the law to be saved.
Paul is not saying that these people were committing evil sins, but that they do evil by turning the gospel of grace into a religion of works.
As one author puts it: Paul calls them evil workers “not because they do what is morally wrong, nor because they act out of malice, but…because their reliance on ‘works’ is in the end harmful both to themselves and to others” (G. B. Caird)
Again, Paul uses irony to point out that although they might have thought of themselves as doing “good works” because they promoted obedience to the Mosaic law and thus would see themselves as gaining God’s approval, they were in fact doing “evil works” because it was all based upon their own fleshly efforts and gave no glory to Jesus Christ, thus it did in fact gain God’s condemnation as “evil works.”
Paul told the Galatian believers that the law is like a tutor – an educator – which leads us to understand our total inability to please God and our total need for salvation through Christ alone (Galatians 3:24-25).
So these false teachers were actually diminishing and outright denying the sufficient work of Christ – and elevating human piety and effort which only leads to more pride and more evil.
Paul expresses the truth that our salvation is based on God’s gracious act in our behalf and all we have to do is to trust it, in passages such as Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:3-5 and Titus 2:11-14.
John Calvin put it like this: “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”
The kind of faith that saves always produces good works. But we never rely upon our good works to satisfy God, rather we simply cling to His work for us through Jesus Christ on the cross.
By emphasizing their own works, instead of leading people to God, they were driving people away from God.
Here’s the thing: If salvation is by works, how do we ever know if we’ve done enough? The best we can do is to hope that we have. And that’s why we are destitute of joy. There is no peace and no joy when we believe we are justified by works.
Warren Wiersbe wrote of a woman who was arguing with her pastor about the matter of faith and works as both necessary for salvation. She said to him, “I think that getting to heaven is like rowing a boat – one oar is faith and the other oar is works. And if you use both, you’ll get to heaven. If you use only one oar, you’ll only go around in circles.” The pastor replied, “There is one major problem with your illustration – nobody is going to heaven in a rowboat.”
Yes, we will do good works, we will be obedient, but not to gain God’s approval. We do good and we are obedient because we already have God’s approval through Christ.
Beware of the dogs – they will spiritually harm you; Beware of the evil workers – they will spiritually mislead you. One more – Paul writes in verse 2, beware of the false circumcision.
Literally, beware of the “mutilation.” Paul plays upon the word for circumcision, but indicates how dangerous it is. The word for circumcision is peritome, to “cut around,” while the word used here is katatome, “to cut off.”
Paul is using hyperbole here to show how something that was once a positive thing for the Jews under the Mosaic covenant, had now become a dangerous and destructive thing during the age of grace. Instead of including someone in the covenant community, it would actually serve to cut them off from it.
This, of course, was the key issue for the Judaizers. If they could get the Gentiles to submit to circumcision, then they would be in reality Jewish proselytes (and thus not genuine Christians).
Paul is warning them that circumcision will doing nothing to help them spiritually. Instead, it would only hurt them.
Again, what Paul is trying to do is to keep the Philippians safe and to keep them rejoicing in the Lord and glorying in Christ, rather than glorying in themselves and depending upon the flesh as these Judaizers were encouraging.
We face the same pressures today. Some churches are very legalistic, usually focusing on minutiae while ignoring more important issues, but all the while we focus on these do’s and don’ts we are losing our joy.
For a helpful chart showing the distinctions between law and gospel go here. For a video explanation by American Gospel, see.