Philippians 3:3 and the True Circumcision

I was recently listening to an online broadcast where the host was taking questions from callers. The subject of the New Covenant came up and the caller asked the host — a self-identified amillennial Covenantal Baptist — about the fact that both Jeremiah and the author of the book of Hebrews state that the recipients of the New Covenant promises are specifically “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The host replied, “Well that means it’s formed with the ‘true Israel.’”

The caller enquired, “So are you saying that now the word Israel has a different, spiritual meaning?” Without hesitation, the host insisted that the apostle Paul referred to the Church that way. “It’s clear,” said he, “when Paul says that we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus.” He then proceeded as if the point had been made. As he continued his defense, the host also referred to the Church as both “spiritual Israel” and “true Israel.”

And there it was. Yet another respected theologian employing language that the New Testament authors simply never use. Nowhere in the New Testament will you find the phrase “spiritual Israel” nor “true Israel.” But, according to the host, Philippians 3:3 clearly drew a direct link between circumcised Israelites and uncircumcised, believing Gentiles. And everyone, he concluded, who worshiped in the spirit of God and who gloried in Christ Jesus was automatically, and mystically, “the true circumcision.”

Not surprisingly, I beg to differ.

It seems to me that when someone advances this type of “Replacement Theology” (a hermeneutic system that replaces Old Testament Israel with the New Testament church), they need to be 100% certain that their understanding and interpretation of a text like Philippians 3:3 is accurate and unassailable. Because, what they are postulating is that the word “Israel” — a word that had a singular meaning ever since God changed Jacob’s name — had somehow in Paul’s economy suddenly and cataclysmically changed its meaning from “the direct descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” to “everyone who believes in Christ.” This, despite the fact that Paul never actually states that the meaning of the term has changed. He makes no plain statement or explains that now Gentiles believers are part of a true, spiritualized version of Israel.

The concept of the change of meaning is an inference drawn from a particular reading of a couple of key texts. And, it seems to me that if a legitimate alternate reading can be offered, based on the rules of proper exegesis, then Philippians 3:3 may not be the bedrock text some folk think it is.

So please allow me to offer an alternate, exegetical understanding of this text.

Context matters. So let’s start there. Let’s read the surrounding text and get a sense of Paul’s argument.

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (Phil. 3:1-7 NASB)

There’s an interesting bit of word play going on the Greek text that some English translations miss.  But, it’s important in establishing Paul’s meaning.  In verses 2 and 3, he contrasts two types of people:

  1. Katatomē – evil workers; (KJV) concision; mutilators
  2. Peritomē – circumcision

Katatomē is a compound word, combining kata and temno to mean “cutting down or off.”  It implies mutilation.  Meanwhile, peritomē is the standard noun meaning “circumcision.”

The NASB translators add the words “false” and “true” in verses 2 and 3 in an apparent effort to demonstrate Paul’s contrast.  But, it’s important to recognize that they are inserted by the translators and have no place in the original Greek text. Other translations render the contrast thusly –

 Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—(NIV)

   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— (ESV)

   Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. (KJV)

   Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. (AKJV)

   Watch out for “dogs,” watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh—(HCSB)

   Beware of the dogs! Beware of the evil workers! Beware of the mutilators! For it is we who are the circumcision —we who worship in the Spirit of God and find our joy in the Messiah Jesus. We have not placed any confidence in the flesh, (ISV)

   Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the concision: For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God, and glory in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh: (ASV)

   Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision. For we are the circumcision, who in spirit serve God; and glory in Christ Jesus, not having confidence in the flesh. (DRB)

   Look to the dogs, look to the evil-workers, look to the concision; For we are the circumcision, who by the Spirit are serving God, and glorying in Christ Jesus, and in flesh having no trust, (YLT)

You will notice the lack of the word “true” and “false” in any of those translations. Paul’s contrast is not between false and true circumcision, it’s between those who glory in their flesh and those who do not. But, both groups have undergone physical circumcision.

Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles was plagued by a group of Jewish believers who were also “zealous for the law.” (Acts 21:20)  They came to be known as “Judaizers,” who insisted that Gentile converts be circumcised and follow certain dictates of the Law of Moses.  Paul withstood them adamantly —

But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But it was because of the false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. (Galatians 2:3-5)

Paul was fierce in his opposition to this mixing of law and grace, at one point saying that if the Judaizers were so zealous to cut, “I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate (or, emasculate) themselves.” (Gal. 5:12) These were the dogs of Philippians 3, the “concision” or katatomē who wanted to “cut off” and mutilate the flesh.

But importantly, they were indeed circumcised.  Physically, literally, cut in their flesh.  Paul argued that they trusted that fleshly alteration more than they trusted the Spirit of God or the finished work of Christ.  That was their problem.

Then there was the other group – the peritomē – described simply as “the circumcision.”

So, the question before us is: When Paul referenced the peritomē, was he speaking of a physical circumcision, or a “true” or “spiritual” cutting?  As we’ve demonstrated, the text merely says “we are the circumcision…”

The plainest reading of the text would be that Paul was contrasting two groups of circumcised folk.  One group trusted their fleshly connection to Abraham for their salvation and the other was trusting Christ.  Paul, a circumcised Jew, introducing the Jewish Messiah to a Gentile audience, contrasted the Judaizers with himself and his associates.  He warned the Gentiles against the one group, calling them dogs and mutilators.  But, he assured the Gentiles that he and his companions were “the circumcision who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”

Then, to really drive home his point, Paul listed his Jewish pedigree, arguing, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I more.” (Phil. 3:4)  And his first commendation? “Circumcised the eighth day.”  Paul personalized the contrast between himself and the concision.

There is nothing in the immediate context that would lead to the conclusion that Paul’s use of the word “we” indicated himself and the Gentiles to whom he was writing.  Rather, given the contrast, the use of the words katatomē and peritomē, and Paul’s personalization of his defense, it’s much more likely (and contextually consistent) to conclude that both sides of his contrast included circumcised Jews; on one side “evil workers” and on the other those who “put no confidence in the flesh.”

After all, if Paul were indeed referring to the Gentile converts when he used the term “we,” exactly what fleshly confidence would they have been denying?  Since the Judaizers were circumcised and trusting that fleshly alteration, what similar fleshly sign were the Gentiles abandoning?  Where’s the one-for-one contrast that Paul’s wordplay establishes if he was referring to people who did not first have a similar fleshly cutting to that sported by the concision?

For those reasons, I conclude that Paul was contrasting the circumcised Judaizers and their attendant fleshly confidence with his own circumcision and Jewish pedigree, all of which he counted “to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

He was not including the Gentiles in his use of the word “we.”  He was not establishing a “true” circumcision that now included uncircumcised Gentile believers.  Nor was he inspired by a novel conception of “spiritual” or “true” Israel. He was referring to believing, circumcised Israelites, descendants of Abraham, who also had a proper understanding of the Christian faith and who had cast off any confidence in their flesh.

Now, I said all that to say this —

If what I’ve just written is valid.  If the exegesis is sound, the contextual considerations consistent, and the examination of language valid, then the almost knee-jerk appeal to Philippians 3:3 that I heard on the call-in program needs to be examined.  I know I’ve said it before – over and over again – but, the person who made this appeal is a Reformed Baptist fellow who is exceedingly (and appropriately) careful with the text when defending Calvinistic soteriology.  He pours over the language and context with a well-exercised fine-tooth comb in order to prove that the Arminian proof texts cannot withstand scrutiny.  But, for some reason, when the question of Israel arises, or when the subject turns to eschatology, his devotion to Covenantal Amillennialism tosses all of that careful textual devotion out the window.

And I get it!  I really do!  Sometimes, once we’ve settled on an approach to reading and understanding Scripture, we all have a tendency to assume that how we’ve always read a passage is the correct way to read it.  We can’t see it any other way than the way we’ve always seen it.  That’s natural.  But, that assumption can lead to complacency if we’re not careful.  It’s important to challenge ourselves.

If the understanding of Philippians 3:2-3 presented in this article has some validity, then those folk who use it to defend a “spiritual Israel” hermeneutic need to be cautious.  And, let me add, by way of closing, in all my years of engaging these topics and listening to various interpreters, exegetes, apologists, and theologians, whenever the subject of New Covenant arises and they are faced the fact that the promises of that covenant are made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” and they immediately reply that the church is “the new, spiritual Israel” …

… I have yet to hear one of them explain how the church is “the house of Judah.”

But, that’s another subject for another day.

For more on this topic, please see my book, “Is The Church Israel?”  It’s a free pdf download you can find here:

http://www.salvationbygrace.org/uc/sub/docs/church_israel.pdf

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