Category Archive: Bible – NT – Philippians

February 9, 2004

“The Mutilation” (Phil. 3:2)

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I’m currently preaching through Philippians and I’ve come now to Philippians 3. One of the questions with which scholars struggle is the identity of the people Paul warns against in 3:2. Gordon Fee’s commentary on Philippians is perhaps the best one out there, but he hasn’t succeeded in convincing me of his interpretation of this verse.

Fee argues that Paul is referring here to Jewish Christians who are seeking to persuade Gentile Christians to be circumcised and to become Jews. He takes “the mutilation” as “an ironic reference to Gentile circumcision” (p. 296). That is, when Paul identifies these people as “the mutilation,” he means that by urging Gentiles to be physically circumcised, they are really mutilating them. They are the party that insists on mutilation, the mutilators.

That approach to the phrase “the mutilation,” however, doesn’t satisfy me exegetically. “The mutilation” in 3:2 is parallel to “the circumcision” in 3:3. In fact, Paul is making a play on words here: these people aren’t really the peritome (circumcision); they are the katatome (mutilation) while we — all who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile — are the true peritome, the true “circumcision.”

“The circumcision,” however, doesn’t refer to a group of people who are circumcising; rather, it refers to those who are truly circumcised. If “the mutilation” is parallel — and it is — then it cannot refer to people who are circumcising others or urging them to be circumcised; rather, it must refer to people who see themselves (wrongly, Paul would say) as circumcised. It’s not that they are mutilating the Gentiles or urging them to be mutilated; rather, they are themselves the mutilated.

So who are the people against whom Paul warns in 3:2? It appears to me that they must be those Jews who pride themselves in being the true covenant people of God, whose status is marked out by their circumcision, and who therefore set themselves against the church of Jesus Christ. The church, Paul says, is a rival claimant to that status. Those who are in Christ — whether Jew or Gentile — are the true circumcision, the true covenant people of God.

Note well: Paul is not warning the church to watch out for people who are ethnically Jewish, people who are biologically descended from Abraham or who have been grafted into the Jewish people. There isn’t a trace of racial prejudice in what Paul says. His concern is whether we boast in the flesh or in Christ.

It is also emphatically not that God has abandoned the Jews and is now working with the Gentiles. The church is made up of Jew and Gentile, and the true circumcision includes Jews as well as Gentiles.

It is also not the case that Paul regards all circumcision as mutilation. Paul himself had Timothy circumcised. Paul has no objection to circumcision so long as it is not boasted in as if it is the thing that marks one out as belonging to God’s true covenant people, the people whom God declares righteous now and whom he will vindicate and glorify in the final judgment.

It seems to me, then, that Paul is warning the Philippians not to Judaize, that is, not to be circumcised, not to start observing the Torah. He has taken that path as far as it can go (3:4ff.) and it doesn’t lead to glory. “Don’t take the step of becoming Jews, as if that is what is going to lead to justification, vindication, and final glorification,” Paul is saying. “Those who boast in their circumcision, in their Torah-keeping, aren’t really the true circumcision at all. We, who are in Christ, are.”

But at the same time, he’s also subtly teaching the Gentiles in the congregation how to view their own status as Roman citizens — and he’s warning us, too, not to put out trust in flesh, in our descent, in all the things that are true of us apart from Christ.

In Christ, we are God’s covenant people. In him, we are declared righteous; we have a righteous status by faith in him and not by anything that we do. And in Christ, we also will be raised from the dead and conformed to the pattern of Christ’s glorious body. In Christ, therefore, we inherit all the promises made to Abraham and to Israel — and for the sake of being found in him, we count everything else that’s true of us apart from him to be skubala (rubbish, refuse).

Posted by John Barach @ 5:42 pm | Discuss (0)