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Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision

The following passages are taken from Charles R Swindoll’s book “Laugh Again---Experience Outrageous Joy,” published in 1992.

 

Because the writer, Paul, felt so close to the Philippians, he wasn’t afraid to be honest and allow them to see the dark side of his past. But before doing so he underscores the underlying theme of his letter by reminding them to find the joy in living.

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. (Philippians 3:1 NASB)

 

The Living Bible says:

Whatever happens, dear friends, be glad in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you this and it is good for you to hear it again and again.

 

Paul is about to launch into his past—--those intense years of his own existence when he worked so hard to impress God. But before he does that, he wants to make sure that they hear yet again the importance of being people of outrageous joy. He calls that “a safeguard.” How true. Not only were the pressures of life enough to steal their joy, there were also the ever-present legalists—--ancient grace killers—--on the loose. And nobody can rob people of joy quicker than a few narrow-minded legalists. Paul’s great concern was that his Philippian friends continue to enjoy their freedom in Christ and not allow anything or anyone to get the best of them. He never got tired of telling them that.

 

A Warning to His Close Friends

I am not dreaming up the idea that legalists were on the loose. Neither have I been too strong in my comments. Paul himself called them “dogs . . evil workers.” See for yourself

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision. (Philippians 3:2)

 

Strong words! When he refers to them as dogs, Paul doesn’t have in mind the little lap dogs we enjoy as pets or those obedient, loyal creatures we pamper and nourish. No, the dogs of his day were dirty, disease carrying scavengers who ran in packs through the streets and narrow alleys of a city. Unable to be controlled and potentially dangerous, they posed a menacing threat to anyone who got in their way. With that word picture in mind, Paul warns, “Watch out . . . beware! These people will assault you and you will lose your joy.”

He goes further: “Beware of evil workers.” These legalists taught that people were saved by works—--by keeping the Law (an impossibility). Such folks live on to this day, spreading their heresy. Their message is full of exhortations to do more, to work harder, to witness longer, to pray with greater intensity, because enough is never enough. Such folks are “evil workers” who will take away what little bit of joy you may be able to muster. I would also add that when you never know how much is enough to satisfy God, you are left in a continuous state of shame and obligation. Your mind never rests. The message of the legalists always finds you lacking. It never brings relief. We need to beware of such messengers. They are, according to Scripture, evil workers.

By calling them “false circumcision” people, Paul meant they believed in mutilation, not merely circumcision, for salvation. They taught, if circumcision was good, castration was even better! One must (there that word again) work exceptionally hard to be acceptable to God—--give up, take on, put away, add to, try harder, contribute more—--before there could be assurance of divine acceptance. The result of all that? Confidence in the flesh! You worked hard . . . you sacrificed . . . you labored intensely . . . you received it. And in the process you had every reason to be proud of it. I say again . . . heresy!

With quiet and firm reassurance, Paul communicates the simple truth to his friends:

For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh. (Philippians 3:3)

 

Those last six words—--”put no confidence in the flesh”—--what a helpful relief! God’s grace has again come to our rescue. And in the process He gets the glory. All the credit goes to Him, as certainly it should. When it comes to our vertical and eternal relationship with God, unlike the humanist’s message, we put no confidence in the flesh. Salvation through human works? No way. Human pride? No reason. The gift that brings back the laughter—--God’s gift of eternal life with Him—--is based on what He has done for us and not what we have done for Him. Maybe you need to read that sentence again. It explains why we put no confidence in the flesh. Those who do have missed the whole point of grace.

 

A Revealing of His Proud Record

These words about “confidence in the flesh” triggered a lot of emotion in Paul. While writing them he must have experienced a flashback to the way he was for so many years—--in fact, all of his adult life. Before his conversion, he was the personification of a proud Pharisee. Nobody’s trophy case was larger. Had they given an award for high achievement in the field of religion, Paul would have won top honors in his nation year after year after year. His wall could have been covered with plaques, diplomas, framed letters from influential individuals, and numerous artifacts—--all impressive.

. . .If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more. (Philippians 3:4)

 

When he writes those words, Paul is not padding the report or trying to appear important. As we are about to read, he had earned the respect of every law-keeping Judaizer in the known world. When he said, “I far more,” he had the record to prove it. For example:

Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. (Philippians 3:5—6)

 

That pedigree and brief list of achievements may not seem impressive to you today, especially if you are not Jewish, but do not discount their significance. Paul was the ultimate high achiever of his day. As one New Testament scholar explains:

If ever there was a Jew who was steeped in Judaism, that Jew was Paul. Let us . . . look again at the claims he had to be the Jew par excellence. He was circumcised on the eighth day; that is to say, he bore in the body the badge and the mark that he was one of the chosen people, marked out by God as His own. He was of the race of Israel; that is to say, he was a member of the nation who stood in a covenant relationship with God, a relationship in which no other people stood. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. This is a claim which Paul reiterates in Romans 11:1. What is the point of this claim? The tribe of Benjamin had a unique place in the history of Israel. It was from Benjamin that the first king of Israel had come, for Saul was a Benjamite... . Benjamin was the only one of the patriarchs who had actually been born in the land of promise. When Israel went into battle, it was the tribe of Benjamin which held the post of honour. The battle-cry of Israel was: “After thee, 0 Benjamin”. . .

In lineage Paul was not only an Israelite; he was of the aristocracy of Israel. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews; that is to say, Paul was not one of these Jews of the Dispersion who, in a foreign land, had forgotten their own tongue; he was a Jew who still remembered and knew the language of his fathers.

He was a Pharisee; that is to say, he was not only a devout Jew’, he was more—--he was one of “The Separated Ones” who had foresworn all normal activities in order to dedicate life to the keeping of the Law, and he had kept it with such meticulous care that in the keeping of it he was blameless.

. . .Paul knew Judaism at its best and at its highest; he knew it from the inside; he had gone through all the experiences, both of height and of depth, that it could bring to any man.1

 

Did you observe how Paul categorized his achievements? On an accelerated scale:

• “As to the Law”

• “As to zeal”

• “As to righteousness”

It is the last one that stands out—--the ultimate! “When I added up all those things in my mind, I had arrived. When compared to all others, qualified as righteous.” Paul outstripped all his contemporaries, eclipsed all other lights. As A. T. Robertson summed up so eloquently, Paul had—--

 A marvelous record, scoring a hundred in Judaism.

. . .He was the star of hope for Gamaliel and the Sanhedrin.2

 

In today’s terms, that proud Pharisee known as Saul of Tarsus won all the marbles—--the Pulitzer, the Medal of Honor, the Most Valuable Player, the Heisman, the Gold Medal . . . the Nobel of Ancient Jewry. Had they had newspapers or magazines in his day, his picture would have been on the front page, and the headlines would have read, RELIGIOUS ZEALOT OF THE DECADE. His was the name dropped by everybody who as anybody. Any search for a model to follow would have led to the scholar from Tarsus, but you would have to move fast to stay up. He wasn’t nearly finished with his plan to rid the world of Christians. The last entry in his Daytimer read, “Next stop: Damascus.” On that fateful trip, everything changed.

 

A Change in His Entire Life

While riding the crest of that wave of international fame, Saul of Tarsus met his match in the person of Jesus Christ. While still on the outskirts of the city of Damascus, he was suddenly struck blind by a blazing light from heaven and silenced by a voice that must have sounded like the roar of a dozen Niagaras: “Saul . . . Saul . . . why are you persecuting Me?” Though blinded by the light, at that moment the Pharisee got his first glimpse of perfect righteousness. And for the first time in his life he was humbled. His robes of self-righteousness were nothing more than filthy rags. All his trophies and plaques and impressive earthly honors were as worthless as wood, hay, and stubble. One glimpse of true, heaven-sent righteousness was enough to convince him forever that he had spent his entire life on the wrong road traveling at breakneck speed toward the wrong destination for all the wrong reasons.

Now we can appreciate the importance of that little word “but” in the midst of Paul’s listing of all his achievements:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:7—9)

 

But! God called an abrupt and absolute halt to Saul’s maddening pace. His entire frame of reference was altered. His whole perspective changed. His way of thinking and, of course, his way of life were radically transformed from that day forward. He saw, for the first time, how utterly and completely misguided he had been. As this newfound, divine perspective replaced the old hunger for earthly applause and the old drive for human righteousness, he felt himself bankrupt, reduced to ground zero. And all those honors he had worked for and relished for so long? He counted them as “loss” and “rubbish.” Having clothed himself in the pride of self-achievement, he now stood stark naked and spiritually bankrupt. Having once set records when evaluated by other men and women, he now realized what a total failure he had been when appraised by his Master and Lord. And at that epochal moment divine righteousness was credited to his empty account, and he saw himself reclothed in the imputed righteousness of Christ. That changed everything within him and about him.

 

A Statement of His Consuming Passion

Did all of life stop there? Was that all there was to it? Hardly. That was when Paul really started to live. It was at that point the man began to laugh again! With a transformed heart he testified that his desire regarding Christ was that he might—--

. . .know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10—l1)

 

It is difficult to believe that a man as hard-charging and determined as Saul of Tarsus could pen such tender words. Look at them again. Perhaps we could call them Paul’s credo. Rather than being driven by confidence in the flesh, his consuming passion was to spend the balance of his years on earth knowing Christ more intimately, drawing upon His resurrection power more increasingly, entering into His sufferings more personally, and being conformed to His image more completely. His dreams of making it all on his own were forever dashed on the solid rock of Jesus Christ.

 

THE PLAIN TRUTH TO ALL WHO RESPOND

If you are among the high achievers I’ve been writing to in this chapter, I commend you for reading this far. These are not the kinds of things you normally think about, I realize. Your world doesn’t leave much room for personal weakness, does it? You don’t rely on help from anything (or anyone) but your own reservoir of resourcefulness, do you? All your life you’ve been coming on strong, fighting and pushing for top honors and hopefully getting your own sweet way, haven’t you? The things you are most proud of are your achievements, naturally, for that’s really all you’ve got to show for all your hard work. In many ways, you’ve arrived, at least in the opinion of others. Yours is an enviable list of accomplishments. Let me name a few:

• Your respected position with a nice-sounding title

• Your salary with some enviable perks

• Your growing popularity among your peers

• Those awards you’ve hung on your walls

• That fine automobile sitting in your parking space (and that parking space!)

• A wardrobe full of elegant and stylish clothes

• A nice place to go home to . . . maybe more than a summer home . . . a winter home

• The probability of accomplishing and earning more

• A sense of power in knowing you can buy whatever you want any time you want it

• The feeling of accomplishment—--you did it!

 

Granted, those are the kinds of things most folks you know spend their entire lives hoping to achieve. And now you find yourself a member of that elite club: High Achievers Anonymous (except by then they’re not usually anonymous). Maybe we could say they are members of the MITTT Club—--Made It to the Top.

 

But let’s look deeper. Let’s look at another list:

• How is your personal life? I’m referring to the real you that’s there when nobody’s looking . . . like when you’re all alone in your car or boat or plane. Are you personally contented and at peace?

• And what about your marriage? And your relationship with your children? Everything okay there?

• While you are allowing me to get this close, may we take a look at your inner person? Are you secure or still rather afraid? Any habits out of control? Any addictions you can’t seem to conquer?

• Let me ask a few what ifs: What if you became ill? What if you lost your earning power? What if you lost your title? What if your next physical exam led to the discovery of a lump . . . and that lump proved malignant? What if you had a stroke? Are you ready to die?

• Are there some secrets that haunt you? Are there some terrorizing worries that won’t go away . . . that money won’t erase?

• Finally, has life become more fun for you? Do you laugh—--I mean really laugh—--now that you have “arrived”? Or are you still too driven to relax?

 

If you’ve answered those questions honestly—--or even taken the time to read them—--then you’re ready to hear the rest.

 First, spending your life trusting in your own achievements brings the glory now but leaves you spiritually bankrupt forever. Read that again, please. And as you do, think of that first-century man we’ve been reading about, Saul of Tarsus. Think of what his life would have been if he had never responded positively to the claims of Christ.

Second, stopping today and trusting in Christ’s accomplishment on cross will give Him the glory now and provide you with perfect righteousness forever.

You’re intelligent, so let me ask you: Which option makes better sense? And just in case you think high achievers can’t change, remember that man from Tarsus. He didn’t merely exchange one religion for another . . . he didn’t swap off one system of rites and ceremonies for another system of rules and regulations. The popular opinion these days is that folks need to change their religion or start going to a different church. That is nonsense. Saul didn’t get a new religion or merely change churches after his Damascus Road experience. He was thoroughly and radically converted, like the man who wrote these words:

I had walked life’s path with an easy tread,

Had followed where comfort and pleasure led;

And then by chance in a quiet place—--

I met my Master face to face.

 

With station and rank and wealth for goal,

Much thought for body but none for soul,

I had entered to win this life’s mad race—--

When I met my Master face to face.

 

I had built my castles, reared them high,

Till their towers had pierced the blue of the sky;

I had sworn to rule with an iron mace—--

When I met my Master face to face.

 

I met Him and knew Him, and blushed to see

That His eyes full of sorrow were fixed on me;

And I faltered, and fell at His feet that day

While my castles vanished and melted away.

 

Melted and vanished; and in their place

I saw naught else but my Master’s face;

And I cried aloud: “Oh, make me meet

To follow the marks of Thy wounded feet.”

 

My thought is now for the souls of men;

I have lost my life to find it again

Ever since alone in that holy place

My master and I stood face to face.3    (130-139)

 

Notes

1.     William Barclay, The Mind of St Paul, 17-19

2.     Archibald T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4  453

3.     “I Met My Master,” Poems That Preach, ed. John R. Rice 18

 

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