Began with an informal series summary//background to the letter from Saint Paul to the church he and Silas founded in Philippi. Script below is from preacher's notes therefore there may be slight difference to sermon on the day.
Now, last week we touched briefly on how Paul and Silas got off to a good start in Philippi, meeting a number of people and quickly establishing a little house church.
However, things didn’t quite go according to plan. While there, they were arrested and imprisoned by the local authorities.
Then, during the night, a large earthquake freed Paul and Silas, but (rather than flee) they remained with their jailer throughout the night.
In the morning, the authorities realised that Paul and Silas were in fact Roman citizens, and therefore not subject to the kind of arrest and imprisonment that they had suffered. Afraid of any repercussions they apologized, but because of the delicate situation they found themselves in, nonetheless asked Paul and Silas to leave Philippi.
And, not wanting to cause trouble, Paul and Silas complied but they maintained contact with the Philippian church by writing letters.
And so, it appears that Paul (in particular) only spent a short period of time in Philippi and that he conducted the majority of his interactions with the local church through letters such as this one.
Now, Paul says that he wrote this letter, in part,to thank the Philippians for a gift they sent him. However, the majority of the letter (rather than being a simple thankyou note) is contains all sorts of encouragement, exhortations, and spiritual counsel.
And one of Paul’s core pastoral concerns is that the Philippian Christians model their faith and practice after Christian leaders such as himself and Silas rather than other divisive individuals to the extent that, in the two verses preceding our reading, he urges his readers to reject the spiritual counsel of so-called “dogs,” “evil doers,” and “mutilators of the flesh,” whose “god is their stomach.”
Strong words which constitute the heart of the context of our reading this morning. Strong words which of course, beg the question:
Who are these “dogs,” these “evildoers”? Who or what is a “mutilator of the flesh”?
Well, if you’ve spent a little bit of time in the Middle East you’ll no doubt be aware that referring to someone as a ‘dog’ is an incredibly harsh and offensive term. Back in the time of Paul, Jews would sometimes use it as a way of referring to outsiders; people considered outside of God’s favour.
So that one’s quite simple to understand.
But to understand what would make Paul call someone an ‘evildoer,’ we need to understand the phrase ‘the false circumcision’ Paul uses elsewhere in his letter – a phrase which is actually the English translation of the Greek katatomen.
Because the ‘evildoers’ Paul refers to were those involved in the practice of ‘false circumcision.’ Of katatomen.
Now, katatomen is a combination of kata (which means: according to) and temno (which means: to cut). It’s quite a brutal word and our English words, ‘mutilation’ and 'butchery’ probably best convey the meaning of katatomen.
The more usual word for circumcision in the New Testament is peritome. It’s a word that Paul uses in the very next verse, where he says:
“We are the circumcision” (peritome) (Philippians 3:3)
The idea that Paul’s trying to convey here by using these two words (katatomen and peritome), is that, fora Christian, katatomen is an illegitimate form of circumcision constituting a kind of butchery, while peritome is a legitimate medical circumcision.
Now, I appreciate this might all be sounding a little archaic or even borderline esoteric. So if I’ve lost you a little, I apologise. The basicpoint here is that, regardless of the word used, the surgical circumcision procedure is the same: the difference is the motive.
Katatomen is butchery because, it’s surgery without purpose because Christians are not required to observe Jewish law.
Circumcision, of course, was mandated by the Jewish law for all Jewish males. It constituted an indelible sign of a man’s Jewish identity. The issue here is not whether circumcision is good or bad, but whether the church should require circumcision for men seeking baptism. The problem for the early Christian church was whether or not to require non-Jewish male converts to be circumcised before they were allowed to join the church.
(Which I’m sure we can all appreciate might’ve been a little bit of a stumbling block for some potential converts!)
Now, by the time that Paul wrote this letter to the Philippian church, the senior Church leadership had agreed that Christians were not subject to Jewish law. In other words, you didn’t have to become Jewish in order to become Christian.
However, certain renegade Christians continued to preach and encourage others to observe the Jewish law.
And these renegade Christians, they’re the “dogs,” the “evildoers,” and “mutilators” that Paul refers to in the preamble to our reading. Because they were needlessly encouraging others to quite literally mutilate their flesh.
And the reason they taught this is because they believed one had to become Jewish before one could become Christian. And that, since to be Christian was to be Jewish, one had to continue to adhere to the Jewish law.
Hence, a man must be circumcised.
And so the foundational issue behind our text this morning is whether Christians are saved by adherence to the Jewish law, or by faith in Jesus Christ.
And throughout his writings, Paul insists over and over again that it is faith, not works nor lineage, that saves us.
And we know that the influence of these “evildoers” was seen by Paul as being significant in the early church, and it appears that he was worried about their increasing influence in Philippi as well. Which brings us to the opening section of our reading this morning where Paul goes to great lengths to lay out his Jewish credentials:
[I was] “circumcised on the eighth day,” (Philippians 4:5)
In other words he was circumcised from the beginning of his life. Being circumcised on the eighth day put Paul in compliance with Jewish law from day dot. No one circumcised later in life could match that.
“of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews;” (Philippians 4:5)
In other words, I (Paul) am as Israeli as possible. He had no need for anyone to bring him inside the circle. He was born inside the circle. And his reference to the tribe of Benjamin is his way of tracing his lineage, of showing where he whakapapa back to.
And his self-claimed title of being a Hebrew of Hebrews is actually quite important. In the first century, Jews would often distinguish between those who lived in Israel and spoke Hebrew; and Hellenistic Jews who lived elsewhere and whose primary language was Greek.
Paul’s essentially doubling down on his Hebraic legacy. He was a Hebrew, born of Hebrew parents, and schooled in the Hebraic language.
Paul’s Hebrew-ness, then, goes much deeper than just his circumcision. He can trace it to his genes, his family heritage, his upbringing, his language, and his long-time practice of his Jewish faith.
And he refers to his past zealous adherence to this faith as he continues:
“in regard to the law, [I was] a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 4:6)
In other words: I (Paul) was a well-educated and zealous religious leader, who openly persecuted anyone who encouraged others away from true Judaism.
And from the perspective of the Law, I (Paul) was faultless because of my education, my zealousness, my heritage, and my theology.
Now, the question this raises of course, is: why did he lay out his Jewish CV?
Well, as Paul says in verse 4:
“…others think they have reason to put confidence in the flesh…” (Philippians 4:4)
In other words, these other people, these “evildoers” and “mutilators of the flesh,” they might think they earn God’s favour through their Jewishness and their adherence to the Law, but I’m next level. No one can out credential me when it comes to my Jewishness.
But! (He continues) All this talk of credentials and Jewishness is by-the-by, it’s moot anyway, because (he says):
“Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” (Philippians 4:7)
Now, what Paul goes on to describe here is a world turned upside down. A world in which the reality of Jesus’ resurrection has altered reality as we know it. The things that used to be expensive are now cheap, and vice versa. The things that Paul used to covet are no longer important to him. And the Jesus whom he used to persecute has become his salvation.
And we see this theme of turning things on their heads at work in Paul himself, who once insisted on strict zealous adherence to Jewish law, and yet (here in our reading) now considers those who insist on circumcision to be “evildoers.”
By following the way of Jesus Paul has gained so much.
And yet, this verse makes it clear that Paul did lose something by virtue of becoming a Christian, but from his perspective his gain outstripped any such loss. Paul says that he has happily suffered the loss of the things that he once counted so dear in life so that he could embrace Jesus as his living Lord and Saviour.
A relationship he refers to in verse 10 when he says:
“I want to know Christ…” (Philippians 4:10)
You see, for Paul, following Jesus involves an all-encompassing, tangible, living relationship with Jesus. A relationship that has saving power. A relationship that involves receiving God’s blessing and acceptance as a gift rather than as a religious achievement.
For Paul, knowing Christ is much more than simply ‘head knowledge.’ It’s just as equally about the heart.
It’s similar to the kind of all-encompassing knowledge that a parent feels for a child.
Good parents want to know what is going on in their child’s life, what their child is learning in school, the problems their child faces, the names of their child’s friends and something about their character, things that might hold them back; everything.
That’s the kind of knowing to which Paul aspires here. And it’s the kind of knowing which Paul hopes to inspire in his readers.
He wants us to know Jesus as intimately as we know our own family members. He wants us to know the power of Jesus’ resurrection, to know his sufferings, to know Jesus to the fullest extent of our ability- just as he did.
And we see this theme of personal relationship coming to the fore at the end of our reading when we hear Paul say:
“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal.” (Philippians 4:13-14)
Paul chooses to forget his past zealous focus on the Jewish Law and his subsequent behaviour. Instead, the imagery here is of Paul leaning forward toward the future. Towards his goal of knowing Jesus evermore intimately.
Confident in the knowledge that, like each of us who follows Jesus, he is saved through faith, not through adherence to the Jewish Law.
And that, because of this faith, he has the opportunity to revel in a tangible relationship with the living Jesus.
Rather than submit to the stale, inflexible, graceless law that he once so desperately clung to.
And that, I believe, is the encouragement we can take from today’s reading.
An encouragement to, like Paul, actively seek out an intimate, life-giving, tangible, relationship with Jesus Christ rather than settle for the watered-down religiosity of church-life.
A SumRed Church sermon series
October 17, 2023