The third division of the book of Philippians begins with Paul’s appeal for the saints in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). He next called on them to beware of dogs, evil workers, and the mutilation (3:2) – a clear warning about people who were dangers to the church’s spiritual well- being. The language Paul used most likely pointed to individuals who still were trying to bind the law of Moses and put emphasis on physical circumcision and one’s biological background.
In contrast to those who put stock in matters of the flesh, Paul said, “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (3:3). In this case, the word “we” refers to Christians, regardless of whether they are Gentiles or Jews after the flesh.
In the Bible, the expression “the Circumcision” generally is used to refer to the Jews, contrasting them with the Gentiles, who are identified as “the Uncircumcision” (Ephesians 2:11). Circumcision of the male flesh is mentioned first in the Bible in Genesis 17. There we read that God instructed Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised as “a sign of the covenant” that Jehovah made with the father of those who believe (Genesis 17:11). Physical circumcision on the eighth day also was commanded under the law of Moses (Leviticus 12:2,3).
It is worthy of noting that under the old covenant, there was another type of circumcision in addition to the cutting off of the male flesh. Through Moses, the Lord charged the Israelite nation, “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). One who had a circumcised spiritual heart was devoted to the Lord and ready to lay aside anything that stood between him and his God.
Under the new covenant, Jesus’ followers comprise “the circumcision.” How interesting. As Paul wrote elsewhere, in the Christ we were “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). Again, it is clear that this is all about a person’s heart and has nothing to do with the flesh.
Do you recall what Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians about the true circumcision? He made these three observations (Philippians 3:3):
- We worship God in the Spirit.
- We rejoice in Christ Jesus.
- We have no confidence in the flesh.
Let us expand our thoughts. Again, most often when we hear or read in the Bible about “the circumcision,” we think of the Jews. In fact, there are three ideas which went hand-in-hand during the Old Testament era: (1) circumcision, (2) the people of God and (3) Israel. The circumcised were the people of God, and the people of God were the Israelites.
Bring those thoughts forward to the new covenant. We already have seen that under Jesus’ reign, “the circumcision” refers to His disciples. What about “the people of God” and “Israel?” It is undeniable that under the old covenant, the Israelites were the chosen people of God (Deuteronomy 7:6). In the big picture of things, that simply meant that they would be the ones through whom the Messiah/Savior of the world would come (Romans 9:4,5). Things are different under Jesus’ law. The plain message of Jesus’ doctrine is that today Christians are identified as “the people of God” (1 Peter 2:9,10). But what about the Jews? An individual Jew can become a part of God’s family/ chosen people by obeying the gospel and being baptized into the Christ (Galatians 3:26-29). Under the new covenant, being part of God’s chosen people is all about being born again, that is, via a spiritual birth, and has nothing to do with one’s DNA or fleshly background.
In Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia, he mentioned “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). The context of that statement shows us to whom he referred. He was not talking about Israel according to the flesh. Rather, he was talking about those whom he had just described as being “in Christ Jesus . . . a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). Whether or not a person is in the right relationship with the Lord has no connection with physical circumcision. Rather, it is all about being new creations in the Christ and possessing a “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6; 6:15).
In our service to the Lord, there is no room for boasting about our physical or cultural heritage. It is, however, appropriate for us to have a sense of satisfaction in knowing that in Jesus we are the circumcision of God, the people of God, and the Israel of God. That is the Lord’s arrangement and His terminology. Let us embrace it. Let us be humbled by God’s mercy, grateful for His abundant blessings, and excited about telling others the good news of His gift of eternal life through Jesus.
— Roger D. Campbell