“For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.” Philippians 3:3
I try to remember while reading God’s word that one of the main purposes of the Scriptures is to show us how we should think, and how we should view ourselves in this world, and what our attitude and perspective should be. Another way of looking at this is to understand that the Scriptures teach us the meaning of true faith and how we should walk in true faith. Faith is an internal matter, meaning it happens inside of us, in our minds and hearts. Faith is spiritual. True faith changes the way that we think resulting in a change in the way that we act.
In Philippians chapter 3, Paul is teaching a truth to the Philippians pertaining to faith and spirituality that I want to drill down into. Let’s first look at some definitions of words in verse 3.
Physical circumcision was the cutting away of the fleshly foreskin around the penis. In Romans 4 we are told that this outward physical act was symbolic of the inward act of faith that Abraham performed when he believed and trusted and placed his hope in God’s promises. The Jews had turned the outward physical act into a ritual that they claimed was needed to become a true member of the family of God. Paul addresses this error in Romans 2:28,29, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.” In the above quoted verse, Paul is referring to this inward spiritual matter of the heart where a person “cuts away” the fleshly part of their heart, that is, their hoping for, trusting in, and longing for the things of this physical world, and then they shift their hope toward God’s promise of eternal life. Romans 4:11 refers to circumcision as being a symbol of Abraham’s faith which was exercised by his placing hope in God’s promise: “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them,” Romans 4:11 And this: “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ “ Romans 4: 20-22
The greek word used for worship in Phil. 3:3 is latreuo, from the root word latris, meaning “a hired menial”. The definition is “to minister (to God), that is, to render religious homage: – serve, do the service, worship. The “Revised” version of the Bible translates this word as “serve”, so Phil. 3:3 would read “who serve God in spirit….”. Note also that a different greek word is also used in most other instances in the New Testament for “worship”; the greek word is “proskuneo” meaning to kiss, as a dog licking his master’s hand; to fawn or crouch to, that is, prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore): worship. Paul was not talking in Phil 3:3 about what we modern Christians would call worship, for example, during our “worship songs” or “praise and worship”, no, he was speaking of how we honor God in the spirit as we serve him in our lives.
The English dictionary defines confidence as: “full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness or reliability of a person or thing.” (the translators chose to use this word to most closely fit the original greek) Note that confidence is a synonym for faith and assurance. The original greek word is “peitho” which means “to convince; to pacify or conciliate; to assent; to rely: agree, assure, believe, have confidence, be confident, make friend, obey, persuade, trust, yield. Although this original word has various usages, it seems clear from the context that it is very close to the translated English word confidence, as in relying upon, or placing assurance, trust or confidence in something.
The first inclination would be to think that Paul is talking about our talents, abilities, intellect, intuition or strength here, and that we should not place our confidence in these. This definition does not completely holds true to the context of what he goes on to explain in subsequent verses and therefore is not complete. Paul goes on to say that he would have the most reason of any man to “put confidence in the flesh”, and here’s why (verses 5 & 6): “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” Paul was talking about more than his physical attributes such as talents, abilities, intellect, strength, etc.; He was talking about putting his confidence in the way that the world viewed him, or in his reputation. Isn’t this more to do with how Paul fits into his surrounding world system? I think so. I think he’s talking about who we are in the world’s eyes. Paul goes on to say “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for Christ.” He is saying that he had gained a reputation; he had gained an importance to the world; He had established himself as a man of relevance in this world system and could have put his confidence in this position. Clearly, the term “flesh” here goes beyond our physical capabilities and includes this physical world system and our relationship to it.
We should also look at the definition of faith since it implied that true circumcision, worship/service, and placing confidence in spiritual things rather than the flesh are all the internal workings of our faith. Faith is defined in Hebrews 11 as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction (or reality) of things not seen”, so we see that faith involves placing one’s hope in a future, unseen promise and then living in alignment with the reality of this hope. Looking again at Abraham’s faith as the example of the type of faith that is represented by circumcision and is reckoned to us as righteous, we see the following description in Romans 4, “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.'” Similarly, when we walk in faith we are looking with unwavering, steadfast hope in the promise of God for eternal life in heaven. The 4th chapter of Romans ends by explicitly stating that the Lord established circumcision with Abraham with future generations in mind, that their faith in the promise of the resurrection through Jesus Christ would also be reckoned to them as righteousness, thus justifying them before God: “Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
Summing it up
Paul is saying that true Christians are inwardly circumcised, meaning that they have cut away the “flesh” or the world from their hearts and minds and don’t rely on this anymore. He then contrasts how we once “put our confidence in the flesh” against how we now “worship (or serve) God in spirit and glory in Christ Jesus”. Our focus is now on spiritual things pertaining to God. We are now putting our confidence in what he has promised through Jesus, and this is what we glory in and rejoice about. Our personal identity is based, not on what we have accomplished in this world or the reputation that we have established, but rather, our identity is based on who we are in Christ and the value of what we have obtained from God’s promise to us of a future in heaven for eternity with Him with a resurrected body.
Also, we now walk in obedience to His commands and the leading of His Spirit, with the motive to please Him. We now look to gain His praise rather than the praises of men. We now store up our riches in heaven rather than on earth. All those things that we once considered valuable when our hearts were centered on this world system, we now count as worthless. Here’s how Paul said it (vs. 8): “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse (or dung) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him,…..”.
Let’s look again at Philippians 3:3 with my comments added:
“For we (Christians) are the true circumcision (have made an internal change in our hearts by placing our hope in God’s promises like Abraham did), who worship (or serve) God in spirit (in view of and aligned with spiritual truths pertaining to heaven and God), and glory (or rejoice and find our happiness) in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh (in our worldly reputation and physical talents and abilities).”
The questions now become: What have we placed our confidence in? What “gains” are we working towards in our lives with the purpose of placing our confidence in these gains? Have we placed too much value on earthly things? Have we truly counted these gains as loss? Actions speak louder than words or intentions. Examine yourself that you be in the faith.
Are we truly waiting for what Jesus has promised: our perfection in Him, i.e., our perfected, resurrected body? Are we truly looking forward to heaven and are we truly placing our confidence, trust and assurance in the hope that we have been given for eternal life in Christ?
Here are Paul’s final thoughts on this topic from Philippians 3:13-16, “….but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”
By God’s mercy and grace through the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ we have attained citizenship in heaven, have become the very children of the living God, and are awaiting immortality by the resurrection of our mortal bodies when Christ returns. Let us hold true to this in our minds and hearts, walking in faith and in the Spirit. Amen.