Paul, describing the Circumcision, lists three defining features of a Christian.
Paul says that Christians are the “Circumcision”. In the Old Covenant, circumcision was the mark of God’s people. They “cut off” their foreskin as both a remembrance of when God “cut off” all flesh from the face of the earth and to remember Yahweh as the only one who truly gives life. It is not the flesh, but the Spirit, who gives life. In Deuteronomy 10, Moses tells Israel that the fleshly circumcision is not the end goal: rather, it was circumcision of the heart as performed by God.
In Christ, the circumcision of the heart of God’s people was accomplished in the New Covenant. The Spirit joins us to Christ’s death, resurrection, and atonement, enabling a new Spirit-empowered obedience to God’s commands. It is through the Spirit we die and are resurrected now (Galatians 2:20-21) and will be bodily resurrected in the last days (I Corinthians 15; Daniel 12:1-3). Through the Spirit, we no longer live according to the flesh, but according to God’s righteousness in Christ (Romans 7-8). This is what it means to be circumcised in the heart: to no longer be stubborn (Deut 10:16) and fear Yahweh, to walk in his ways in step with the Spirit (cf. Gal 5:16-26), to love him with all of our heart and soul (cf. Matt 22:37) and keep his commandments (Deut 10:12-13).
Those who trust in the flesh live in darkness, are stuck in Adam’s death, and are condemned under the Law (Romans 7). The flesh has always been at war with Yahweh. The flesh warred against God, causing him to unleash the Flood upon the earth to cut off the flesh. Paul’s Judaizing opponents, in both Philippi and Galatia, trusted in the flesh. They trusted in the covenant boundary markers of the Old Covenant, in table laws and circumcision and festal calendars, to make them right with God. This is the type of fleshly trust in self that Paul stands against in Philippians 3.
We may not trust in Torah the same way that Jews do, but we may still trust in our works and actions to make us right with Christ. Paul vehemently denies the power of our flesh to make us right with God. Instead, he shows us the way to live in Christ. He gives us three ways to identify one who is truly a part of the Circumcision. I pray that God uses this list to challenge us and show us places were we are deficient in living out our calling, where we may have fallen back and trusted in ourselves rather than the ascended Messiah.
First: The Circumcision worships by the Spirit of God. It is only through the Spirit that we have access to God. Though Paul’s pneumatology is not well developed in Philippians, he has a lot to say about the Spirit elsewhere. We live in righteousness through the Spirit because he allows us to give our body parts as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-14; 8:1-11). It is the Spirit who unites us to Christ, sanctifying us that we bear the fruit of God in our lives (Gal 2:20-21; 5:16-26). We only know the mind of God through the Spirit, who searches the depths of God (I Cor 2:6-16). The Spirit seals us as the people of God, one body under one God who worships as one (Eph 1:14-15; 5:1-21). The Spirit breathes life into the Scriptures to teach us how to live righteously (I Timothy 3:16). The Spirit warns us about false teachers and keeps us on track (I Timothy 4:1-5).
What does it mean to worship by the Spirit of God, at least according to Paul? It means we live as those united to Christ, offering our bodies as living sacrifices through our righteous obedience, bearing the fruit of the Spirit. We live as those who know the mind of God because the Spirit teaches it to us through the Scriptures. We worship by the Spirit because worship without him is dead: it is ignorant of the mind of God, it is lifeless because it is done in unrighteous behavior.
Second: The Circumcision glories in Christ. Our greatest temptation might be to glory in ourselves. To boost our own accomplishments, to plaster our names over the world on giant posters and banners. This is a false and empty glory: our glory fades and it will fade away. This is why Paul warns us not to boast beyond our measure (2 Cor 10:15).
Rather, we exalt and glory in God. We exalt Christ because he has done what we cannot have done: he has bought reconciliation with God. When we were yet his enemies, unfaithful to his covenant, Christ died for us. His death and resurrection justified us, and transferred us out of the kingdom of darkness, upon which judgment was coming, into the kingdom of light. How much more, Paul asks, will we be saved by his life if his death saved us from death? This is why we glory in Christ. (Romans 5:1-11)
Finally: The Circumcision puts no confidence in the flesh. Paul has every reason to be confident in the flesh: he was an exemplary Jew. Everything that Torah demanded, he did (Phil 3:6). He was descended from the tribe of Israel’s first king and one of David’s earliest allies. He was one of the leading experts on Torah and oral law. If you had a question about God’s demands, Paul was the man to ask. Yet, he counted it skubalon in comparison to knowing Christ. He knew what Torah said about flesh. It was always at war with God, and most of the time, even touching flesh made you unclean (ie., Leviticus 15). Living in the flesh made you live out against God (Romans 7:14ff). He knew this personally, so he was able to discard all of his earthly gains in order to enjoy Christ in the Spirit.
When Paul counts his accomplishments as rubbish, he finds something better: Christ. By not trusting in his accomplishments, not trusting the righteousness he had under Torah, he was able to truly know Christ Jesus the Lord. Isn’t that scary? We block ourselves from knowing Christ, the ultimate joy, by holding tightly to our fleshly ways and so-called benefits. But there’s something more to be gained when we let those go. We know Christ, and we die a death like his. Seems scary, right? But that suffering is turned into eternal joy, because by living righteously through faith, we attain the resurrection of the dead. Our accomplishments are unable to bring us to life, only faith can promise us eternal joy.
So, we of the Circumcision live differently. We trust not in ourselves, but we live by faith in Christ to attain the resurrection. We glory not in what we’ve done, but in a glorious Savior, because when he appears, we will appear in glory, too (Col 3:4). We worship not in our own power, but in the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Pray for God for the will and the energy (Phil 2:13-14) to work out your salvation in any of these areas in which you feel are deficient due to disobedience, whether apathy or sin.