Today, for lack of a better term, we’ve got a doozie.
Let’s dive right in…Philippians 3:1-6:
3 Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
We’ve all heard it preached…
(If you do this…you’re not a Christian)
(Christians don’t do this….)
(Look this way, act this way, talk this way….)
(They don’t drink, smoke, chew and date girls that do)
(Hair cuts/length, skirt length)
(Cards, movies, dancing, bowling alleys)
It’s this theology of works, and it finds its way into our teaching. If we are all extremely honest, it seems to always be around, doesn’t it.
It was the same in the early church.
There was a proud lineage in the Jewish tradition. The Old Testament was filled with the saints of the ancient faith. Moses, David, Abraham and on and on.
They had a language. They had deep and meaningful tradition.
One of these traditions was circumcision.
Now, today, we’ve lost a lot of the deep meaning behind circumcision, and why this passage is such a scandalous passage. To understand it, we must go back to Abraham.
Abram was transitioning during the great migration, and moving from the cradle of civilization, and moving west.
And during this move, God connects in a real way, and he calls Abram. He tells him that he’ll be the father of a new nation. Abram loved this promise.
He knew this would be a promise that he would have a son. (Genesis 12)
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
But this promise took many years to fulfill.
Abram gets frustrated. He had waited years to live the fulfillment of Gods promise. When was God going to follow his part of the deal?
Abram lets God know his frustration, and God responds by asking Abram to go outside and take a look at the night sky.
Above him were the countless stars.
Looking back at the understanding that the Jews viewed the heavens, the stars, as God’s royal court, this statement that God makes, your family, your court, will be larger than my own, has unbelievable ramifications.
Abram, your house will be bigger than mine!
Think about that for a moment.
And so, Abram, being a man of his culture, asked God to make a covenant with him.
To make a promise. To bind them together.
This was important for people in this land. It was wild, and without numbers, a person could expect to live long.
There were bandits, thieves and crooks all around. Death was not far away for those who journeyed alone.,
So, men would covenant together.
John, owner of sheep. Ryan owner of cows, would say, my herds will be yours, and yours will be mine.
We’re familiar with this understanding within marriage.
Two would become one. What one did, the other must do.
To make a covenant together, the heads of households would take animals, cut them from nose to tail, lay them out, and let the blood and insides spill out into the middle.
As God instructed Abraham to do, he “went and got a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.”
They would then, walk through the middle, signifying that, should I break my oath here today, may this happen to me. May I be cut in two, and my blood cover the ground.
They then walked, saying as the moved, that the two would become one.
There would be no separation, no individuality, anymore.
And so, you have to wonder, did Abraham walk through? Did he run?
Either way, he walked the path, and waited. Probably shooing the birds as he waited. Waiting again for God to move.
Which, God eventually did.
Waking Abraham from his dream, God spoke these words:
After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. 14 But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ wrongdoing won’t have reached its peak until then.”
17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land…
This was a covenant that was made with blood. Actually described as, God cut a covenant with Abram.
It says that, if necessary, one was willing to lay down their life for the other.
A couple of chapters after this covenant, God comes back and tells Abram that he would like to ratify this covenant. He didn’t want to change it. He wanted to add to it.
You see, he wanted there to be a permanent scar on Abram and all who followed him. Abram needed to give something to God.
This is what God says:
“As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. 10 This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male. 11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us.
Abram, and all the men who would follow him, would be set apart by the scar they bore. The blood they shed. They would be set apart.
But Abram was not the only one who gave a part of themselves to God. That took on a scar.
God told Abram:
Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, 4 “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. 5 And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham.
And he told Sarai:
God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah.
The beauty of these changes aren’t the changes in the name, it’s the meaning behind the changes.
The name for God in the Old Testament is, Yahweh, or, in Hebrew would be written without vowels…looking like this:
Abram then became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah.
The ancient Jewish scholars wrote that, when God said you’ll be the Father of many nations, he was saying, I’ll be giving you a piece of my name.
Literally, I’ll give you the “H’s”
And so, God and Abraham both gave up a piece of themselves. They took on the other. And both now carry a scar.
Circumcision meant something significant to Israel
Yet, for the significance of what it meant before, after Christ, even in it’s theological importance, it isn’t the main thing.
When Paul talks about Salvation, he warns against teachers and preachers who talk about grace/acceptance coming from anything other than Christ. (more on that next week)
How do we, as the church, do this?
How do we attach these extras to the church?
There are many ways we’ve been guilty of this:
Non-essential Theological views:
(creation, baptism, etc)
(One must be a republican to be Christian)
(Only heterosexuals are welcome)
Worship Style Preference
(No Drums! Why only hymns?)
These things matter to us. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt us when someone disagrees.
We are so adept at making the wrong things the main things. We make Christianity about people acting like we think they should act.
We welcome them into the kingdom, and we load them up with expectations, rules and guidelines. And in doing this, we miss the point.
Part of the irony Philippians 3, is the wordplay and how Paul calls these leaders out.
First, he calls them dogs.
Now, its important to specify, Paul is calling the preachers and teachers who are preaching that salvation only comes through Christ AND circumcision. It’s both/and.
Paul says, “no!” And calls them one of the worst things you could call a respectable jew; a dog.
This is so horrible because, in calling them dogs, Paul is insinuating that they are unclean, that they are scavengers and guilty of eating garbage.
The act of Paul saying this, he is telling the church in Philippians that, in spite of what these teachers believe and teach, they aren’t clean and pure. They aren’t the ones on the inside anymore.
Under the old law, they fit, and they were clean (through their actions), however under the new covenant, they are unclean.
For it’s not what we do that saves us.
It’s Christ alone.
Any attempts by the church to dictate terms by which men and women can be part of the kingdom, outside of faith in Christ, is an attempt to control who is in and out of the KoG.
He then ends by saying, he’s done all the right things. He was circumcised as he should be, he was a hebrew, was a pharisee (educated and knowledgeable in the Law), and followed that law down to the letter.
But this was not enough.
This the hard question: How do we do this? What is our circumcision?
How are we trying to control the movement of the Spirit?
Do we elevate sins over others?
Do we require a new believer (or un-believer) behaves and acts like us before belonging?
Are we willing to engage and live life with someone who doesn’t think like we do?
*I would like to offer a special thanks to Mike Breen at 3DM for the brilliant scholarship connected to the cutting of the Abrahamic covenant. Much of this content comes from Breen, and any rights to this content is his.