…in Philippians 3:2
Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. (Philippians 3:2-4 ESV)
Who did Paul have in mind when writing such strong words?
What is the identity of those that he described as dogs?
To call someone a dog is an insult in many cultures. From the Jewish perspective, dogs were considered to be unclean animals. Dogs usually roamed around the streets looking for rubbish to eat. To call his opponents dogs, therefore, was a serious insult.
These opponents are also described in Phil 3:2 as workers of evil.
This suggests that these false teachers were into works. Specifically, it seems that these works were the works of obedience to the law of Moses. It can be concluded from Paul’s description of them in Phil 3:2 as κατατομή (literally cutting in pieces, hence the idea of mutilation) that these opponents were Judaizers. The word κατατομή here is a play on the word περιτομή (circumcision) that is mentioned in Phil 3:3. The Judaizers taught the necessity of circumcision for salvation. They taught that Gentile Christians must be circumcised. They did this out of a belief that Gentiles must become Jewish and follow the law of Moses in order to be saved. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they also believed that people had to become citizens of the nation of Israel before they could be saved. This meant males had to be circumcised, and everyone (whether male or female) had to live according to all of the teachings of the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1, 5).
Even though they were Christians in the sense that they confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, in reality the Judaizers taught that being and living as a Jew was the way of salvation. But this understanding was wrong according to the orthodox wing of the early church. It is true that the old covenant spelled out that keeping the law of Moses in the context of grace was the way of salvation for those who were members of Old Testament Israel. But with the coming of the Messiah, a person’s relationship with God was no longer mediated through Moses but through the Messiah. With the coming of Christ, a greater revelation of the word of God had come. And this revelation of the word of God in Christ takes priority over the revelation given previously through Moses.
The coming of the supreme revelation of God in Christ means that in the new covenant age whoever receives the gospel and acknowledges that Jesus is Lord comes directly into the state of salvation without needing to go through the law of Moses. Failing to understand this, the Judaizers had misunderstood God’s plan of salvation. They thought that the new covenant was exactly like the old covenant, that salvation ever only comes by following the law of Moses in the context of divine grace.
Paul, however, following the orthodox Christian position, understood that the Christian gospel proclaims the lordship of Christ and the priority of his revelation over the revelation that had been given to Israel previously through Moses. Therefore, in the age of the new covenant, all that is required for people to be saved is submission to the lordship of Christ, which implies actively following Christ and his teaching.
The identification of Paul’s opponents in Phil 3 as being Judaizers explains why Paul rejects his Jewish credentials in Phil 3:4–8. The Judaizers taught that being and living as a Jew was the way of salvation. Like the Judaizers, Paul had also once upon a time thought this way. As a Jewish rabbi, committed to Judaism as the way of salvation, he had prided himself in the badges of Jewishness that we see listed in Phil 3:5–6: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, the Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
As a Jew, Paul had been zealous for God.
He showed his zeal for God by being committed to the law of Moses. As far as being and living as a Jew goes, a person could not do much better than Paul. The problem was, however, that, for all his devotion to the law of Moses, Paul had failed to see the very person to whom Moses and the law had been pointing. He had mistakenly thought that devotion to Moses meant persecuting the “so-called” Messiah Jesus. Paul believed that his persecution of the Christian church was a measure of his zeal for God and the law of Moses. But in this he was gravely mistaken. On the road to Damascus, his encounter with the risen Jesus seated at the right hand of God in heaven (i.e., on the throne of Messiah) was enough to convince him of his error.
Having met the risen Messiah Jesus, Paul saw everything that he had once prided himself in in a new light. The proofs of his zeal for the law were all useless. All the Jewish badges that he had once prided himself in, which he had once considered to be gain, he now came to see these as getting in the way of salvation. Instead of being gain, they were actually loss (Phil 3:7). Indeed, Paul writes in Phil 3:8 that he counted “everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.” Paul was even prepared to call all of his previous achievements in Judaism rubbish (Phil 3:8). This is why Paul could call the Judaizers dogs: both of them like rubbish!
Steven Coxhead has served as a visiting lecturer in Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College since 2002. He also teaches Johannine Theology and the Old Testament at the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In addition he has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney from 2002–2010, teaching the Old Testament, Romans, John’s Gospel, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek. He has had experience teaching Old Testament, New Testament, and Systematic Theology in South-East Asia.