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. 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, (vv. 1-3)
Careful students of the epistles of Paul cannot but notice a peculiarity that frequently occurs in them. Having concluded the main part of his treatise, he seems about to come to an abrupt conclusion then suddenly is moved by the Spirit of God to launch out into an altogether different line of things, which comes in as a kind of a parenthesis before he actually finishes his letter. An instance of this may be seen in the epistle to the Ephesians by comparing the first verses of chapters 3 and 4. It is plain that all of chapter 3, after verse 1, comes in parenthetically, and in chapter 4 he concludes what he started to say. Here in Philippians we have a similar case: “Finally, my brethren,” he writes, “rejoice in the Lord.” Yet, when we come to 4:8 where he introduces his closing remarks, we again have the same expression: “Finally, brethren.” All of chapter 3 is a new subject, which, as we might think, he had no intention of discussing until pressed by the Holy Spirit to bring in a message for which we can truly thank God as we would have lost much precious ministry had it been omitted.
It has often been said that this letter is the epistle of joy, and indeed it is. The apostle himself writes with his own heart filled with the joyful recollection of his past experiences in connection with those scenes so dear to him. He desires them to fulfill his joy, to share with him in the gladness that was his in Christ, and so we have this brief exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Circumstances may at times be anything but conducive to either peace or gladness, yet the trusting soul can always look above the fitful scenes of earth to the throne where Christ sits exalted as Lord at God’s right hand. He is over all. There are no second causes with Him. “Shall there be evil in the city and the Lord hath not done it?” asks the prophet. It is “evil,” not in the sense of sin, of course, but of calamity, even if that calamity be the result of sin. Nevertheless, it cannot come save as permitted by the Lord. And knowing that “all things work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to his purpose,” why should the believer either doubt or fear? Waves may roll high, stormy winds may beat tempestuously, all to which the heart had clung may seem to be swept away, but Christ abides unchanged and unchangeable, the everlasting portion of those who trust His grace.
We read on one occasion how David, when the people spoke of stoning him because of a calamitous event for which they held him largely responsible, “encouraged himself in the Lord his God.” “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” Nehemiah reminded the remnant of Israel. Before returning to the Father s house from which He came, the Lord Jesus imparted His joy to the trembling company of His disciples. Therefore, it is not only the Christian’s privilege, but we may even say, his duty, to constantly rejoice in the Lord. Holiness and happiness are intimately linked together.
And yet how often we need to be reminded of this, as our apostle does here: “To write the same things to you, to me indeed is not [irksome], but for you it is safe.” It is well that we should frequently be exhorted to “rejoice in the Lord.”
But now the mind of the Spirit refers to another line of things entirely. For our busy enemy has so many agencies through which he seeks to rob us of that joy in the Lord that is our rightful portion, that three times over in the second verse we have the significant word beware.
“Beware of dogs.” The Jew used this opprobrious title when speaking of the Gentiles, who did not bear in their bodies the mark of the Abrahamic covenant. But in the prophet Isaiah, God uses the term to distinguish false pastors or shepherds in Israel: “His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter” (56:10-11). And it is plain that when the apostle Peter says, “The dog has turned to his own vomit again,” it symbolizes the false religious teacher going back to the things he once professed to abhor.
Now the Philippians, like the early Christians in general, were peculiarly exposed to the ravages of such “dogs.” Evil teachers they were from Judaism among the flock of Christ with the purpose of perverting the saints and leading them back into bondage, and that for their own selfish ends. They are here, by the Holy Spirit, designated by this opprobrious term. They were introducing themselves among the assemblies of God to rend the flock of Christ, that they might have special recognition as leaders in the new company. Professing to be ministers of Christ, they were in reality servants of Satan as their works proved. No heart have they for the afflicted sheep and lambs for whom Christ died. They would feed themselves and not the flock, and their judgment is assured.
Consequently he adds, “Beware of evil workers.” We need not necessarily distinguish the evil workers from the dogs, for false teachers, whatever their profession of righteousness, are, nevertheless, workers of iniquity. Another figure employed by the Lord in referring to the same general class is that of “wolves in sheep’s clothing”—deceiving, misleading, destroying, working havoc among those who confess Christ’s precious name. Legality, while professing to have in view greater righteousness than that produced by grace, yet proves to be, as the law itself is, simply “the strength of sin” (see 1 Cor. 15:56).
“Beware of the concision,” says the apostle—that is, mere mutilators of the body. It is a contemptuous term he uses to designate those who taught that the observance of circumcision was imperative to give one a full standing before God. The apostle will not allow that the mere ordinance is really circumcision. The only true circumcision since the cross is, not a carnal ordinance, but the putting off of the sins of the flesh—the heart-recognition of the fact that the flesh has been put to death in the cross of Christ. It is only as the soul enters into this and uses the sharp knife of self-judgment upon the flesh that one is delivered from its power.
The mere externalists, including legalists and ritualists of all descriptions, always make more of ordinances and outward forms than of the condition of the soul and the spiritual truths symbolized by those ordinances. In Israel we may see this in the fullest way. They boasted themselves of their connection with the temple of the Lord and gloried in ordinances and legal observances, while actually far from God and under His disapproval. Nor should Christians forget that it is just as possible for believers now to be occupied with ordinances and church position while forgetting the more important things of true piety and self-judgment. Nothing that God has commanded is unimportant. But our Lord said to the Jews of His times concerning their intense regard for ordinances and neglect of justice and mercy, “These ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone.”
In the third verse, we have four distinct statements made, which we do well to consider in detail.
First, “we are the circumcision,” that is, we are those who have accepted by faith the end of all flesh in the cross of Christ. We recognize its utter corruption and its powerlessness for service to God, even though placed under the most careful training and supervision. We have, therefore, put it off in the cross of Christ, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). We began with God by accepting the mark of judgment upon the flesh. We do not now look for anything good in it, but triumph only in Christ.
Second, we “worship God in the spirit.” The worship of the old dispensation was largely of a ritualistic character, but the Lord Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “The hour [is coming], and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” Outward forms and services, music and genuflections, do not constitute worship. They may even be hindrances to it. Real worship is that of the heart, when the Spirit of God takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto us. As we are occupied with Him, true praise and adoration ascend to the Father.
Third, we “rejoice in Christ Jesus.” Our boast is in the Lord. We are, ourselves, utterly unprofitable, having nothing about us to commend us to Him who, in grace, has saved us. All our boast is in His loving-kindness and His mighty power exercised in mercy on our behalf.
Lastly, he adds, we “have no confidence in the flesh.” The flesh of the believer is no more to be trusted than the flesh of the vilest sinner. Regeneration is not a changing of flesh into spirit, nor is that sanctification in which we stand before God a gradual process of such a change within us. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The fleshly nature is never improved, and the new nature received in new birth does not require improvement. “The carnal mind … is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” And the spiritual mind is the mind of Christ. It is as we walk in the Spirit that we are delivered from the desires of the flesh. But even after years of godly living, the flesh itself is not one whit better than it was at the very beginning of our Christian life. Therefore, we dare not trust it, knowing that, however blessed the work of God is in our souls, “in [our] flesh… dwelleth no good thing.”