“Word for Today” – Philippians 3 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

November 19, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment


Haircut 1“I’ll just wear a hat.”  At least that’s what I told myself after my buddy gave me a haircut.  I was in seminary at the time and did not have money to see a professional stylist.  But that was okay, because my buddy had just bought a pair of clippers with guards of every number.  “I want a five on the top and a two on the back and sides,” I told him.  And that’s what I got.  Except that one side was higher than the other.  And my buddy had not learned how blend from a two guard to a five guard.  So for the next week, in every class I attended and to every place I went, I wore a hat.  And, perhaps illogically, I even went back to my buddy the next time I needed a haircut.  Thankfully, he had vastly improved in his craft by my next visit.

Most of us have probably received a bad haircut at least once in our lives.  But a bad haircut is not nearly as devastating as what some in our reading for today from Philippians 3 receive.  Paul warns the Philippians to stay away from those who “put confidence in the flesh” (verse 4) rather than in Christ.  He writes, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (verse 2).  The Greek text of this verse is much more colorful than the NIV here translates it.  First, the verb “watch out” is repeated three times in rapid succession in this one verse:  “Watch out for those dogs!  Watch out for those men who do evil!  Watch out for those mutilators of the flesh!”  Paul clearly wants the Philippians to be on their guard.  Second, the phrase “mutilators of the flesh” refers to those in the early church who insisted on a physical circumcision under the stipulations of the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Genesis 17:10) in order for newly minted Christian converts to be included as part of the church.  The common Greek term for “circumcision” is peritome, meaning “to cut around.”  But Paul here uses the word katatome. The kata prefix is retained in such English words as “catastrophic.”  In other words, these required circumcisions had gone terribly awry.

Why would Paul render such a harsh estimation of those who thought it necessary for formerly pagan Christian converts to be circumcised according to Old Testament law?  Because Paul knows that such legalism can lead to a self-righteous and depraved spirit.  Indeed, this was precisely Paul’s experience when he was trapped in the strangling strictures of a legalistic theology:

If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 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; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. (verses 4-7)

Notably, the Greek word for “loss” is zemia, meaning not only “loss,” but “damage.”  That is, Paul’s legalism was actually damaging to his faith.  Why?  Because it led him to place his hope and trust in something other than Christ.  Indeed, it led him to put his hope and trust in himself and his own works.  And such hope and trust is sorely, and even damningly, misplaced.  This is why Paul so virulently rails against those who insist on circumcision.  For such a requirement actually damages faith as it points away from, rather than toward, the all-sufficient work of the Savior.

All of this is not to say that the circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant is unimportant or archaic, mind you.  Abrahamic circumcision is still important, but it must be the right Abrhamic circumcision, as Paul explains to his readers:  “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (verse 3).  The right Abrahamic circumcision is not one of the flesh, but one that instead utterly despairs of the works if the flesh and instead trusts in Christ with the heart.  As God himself says about true circumcision: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16).  The circumcision of the heart is the circumcision of repentance – when a person turns from their sin and toward Christ.  Any other kind of circumcision is just a katatome.

Has your heart been circumcised?  Martin Luther, in the first of his famous ninety-five theses, wrote:  “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”  In other words, we are to live in our spiritual circumcision every day, repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ with our hearts.  This circumcision is to mark everything we do.  May it mark you today.

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Entry filed under: Word for Today.

“Word for Today” – Philippians 2 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com “Word for Today” – Philippians 4 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

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