Philippians: Internal Transformation
By: Natalie Wiesen
October 16, 2017
“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.” (Philippians 3:3-4)
This verse starts with a strong warning from Paul to beware of “the dogs.” Ouch. Who are the dogs? These are people who want to mark their Christian faith by what they do or do not do. They want to have a running list of things they do well and what makes them spiritually superior. The root of this approach is pride. Not only is this type of religion empty, but it is antithetical to the Gospel.
Yes, God’s people would be set apart and have something different about them. But the difference wouldn’t be found primarily in any sort of external appearance. Instead it would be a work performed by the Spirit of God in the heart of a person that sets them apart. God would circumcise their sinful hearts, and give them a new nature that is capable of a new kind of life. Rather than a difference in external appearance, there would be a fragrance to their lives that was an overflow from walking with and delighting in Christ.
Now, even Jews knew that Paul wasn’t totally out of left field on his views of circumcision as an internal reality, rather than just an external, physical act. As big of a deal as the physical act of circumcision was to the Jews, they had Old Testament precedent demonstrating that it was supposed to be an outward reflection of an inward reality.
In Dueteronomy 30:6, Moses writes:
“And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart
and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD you God with all your heart and
with all your soul, that you may live.”
Paul takes this topic further in Romans chapter 2 when he says:
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew
is one inwardly and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is
not from man but from God.”
Paul is emphasizing that it has always been the case that the people of God are to be distinguished by hearts that are towards God. True circumcision is not an external act done to earn, but an internal act performed by the Spirit. In turn, this inward act of the Spirit will transform us outwardly because He gives us a new nature.
Let’s use an analogy here. Consider a pig in a mud pit verses a cat in that same mud pit. The pig will roll in the mud and feel right at home there- he’s a pig. The cat will try and avoid the wet mud at all cost- he’s a cat. They simply have different natures. You can clean a pig up and put a chain on him, and he may stay out of the mud for a time, but he’s still a pig. If you take that chain off, he’ll be right back in the mud straight away.
Law is like that chain on the neck of the pig. There is no internal transformation. It may keep him clean for a while, but he is still a pig. Following this analogy, the work of the Spirit in our lives takes us from a pig to a cat…or a cheetah for
those like me who hate cats. We desire to avoid the mud puddles, and now have the ability to do so. We may be cats that still act like pigs from time to time, but we’re cats nonetheless.
In our new nature, we have the desire to follow Christ, and the ability to do so will rest in a daily, moment to moment dependence on him. In our inmost being a transition has happened, our nature is different, and we can walk after him in ever increasing measure as we trust in him and depend on him for strength.
That is the picture of this new circumcision that Paul is talking about in verse 3.
God has taken up residence in our hearts, we can fellowship with him, and we can worship by the sprit of God.
In His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus said:
“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)
Jesus inaugurated a new age in which people don’t have to travel to a physical temple in one city to worship, but are able to worship God in every place, because the Holy Spirit dwells in them. The very people of God have become the new temple where the glory of God dwells.
And what of this term “those who glory in Christ Jesus?”
Later in the Philippians 3, Paul will reference with tears those who glory in their shame.
“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:18-19)
He is referencing here people who follow the pattern of Adam in saying, “not your will God, but mine be
done.” Whatever their stomach wants to do, they do.
Those who glory in Chris Jesus, by contrast, are those who instead join with Jesus in saying, “not my will, God, but yours be done.”
Finally, the true circumcision put no confidence in the flesh. In this statement lies the heart of the Christian walk. Stated elsewhere, a different spin on the same idea says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
Like the classic hymn goes, “Nothing in my hands I bring, only to Thy cross I cling.” This heart and mindset is a prerequisite for admittance into the kingdom of God. If we come with hands full, there is not much God can do for us. But if we come with hands empty, depending on him alone, he gives us himself, and everything else besides.