Israel and the Church, Part 4: Philippians

Theme Party for August 20 (’14), by Daniel Hoffman.

For Parts 1-3 of this series, go here, here, and here.

Philippi was a Roman military colony. It was named after Alexander the Great’philippis father, Philip of Macedon, and a good number of its population would have been retired and washed-up Roman soldiers. The Philippian jailer may have been one. In Paul’s time, there seems to have been no Jewish population to speak of since, according to the record of his visit in Acts 16, there’s no synagogue in sight. In virtually every other city Paul visits, the first thing he does is go to the synagogue and speak to the Jews. The Jew first, and then also the Greek. But in Philippi, the Sabbath arrives and he goes “to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer.” There were only some women there who may have been Jews but more likely were just Gentile God-fearers like Cornelius. In any case, there were not enough Jews around for a functioning synagogue.

So, Paul has his adventures in Philippi. Lydia, the seller of purple fabrics, embraces the gospel (16:14-15) and the girl with the spirit of Python is exorcised of her demons (16:16-18). Having been hit in the pocketbook, the girl’s owners claim political grievances, protesting that Paul and Silas were “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (16:21). So, off to prison they go. After the conversion of the jailer and his family (16:32), Paul and Silas are released and the Philippian officials, suddenly conscious of Paul and Silas’ civil rights, hustle them out of the city. But the damage is done: the church in Philippi has been founded.

Some time later, again in prison, Paul writes an epistle to the saints there, among whom surely are Lydia and the jailer, and maybe the former oracle, the slave girl. This background is important, because it reminds us that the original hearers of Paul’s epistle were in all likelihood exclusively Gentiles. Imagine, then, the force of his statement to them in Philippians 3:2,

“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for the mutilation. For we are the circumcision, those who worship by the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”

8269257Paul the Pharisee, the Hebrew of Hebrews (v.5), is calling the Jews “the mutilation”, and these Gentile Philippians “the circumcision.” The ESV says “look out for those who mutilate the flesh“, and that gets at the idea since it is the Judaizers who are in view, but literally in Greek it just says “the mutilation”, τὴν κατατομήν.  It’s meant to be a total and drastic contrast. There is the mutilation and there is the circumcision, and the circumcision are those who worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, not on Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem. The question in these posts has been: What is the relationship between Israel and the Church? This text indicates that as far as the promises of salvation are concerned, that is, as far as “Israel” even matters, the promises of salvation are attached to those who worship by the Spirit and boast in Christ. Paul is assuring these Philippians in the strongest possible terms that it is they who are, and who will share in, God’s inheritance. There is no confidence at all to be had in the flesh (v.4), in being a member of Israel according to the flesh, “Israel” as defined by circumcision. Since Christ has come, those who would insist on circumcision as the necessary mark of God’s true covenant people are simply mutilators. They are committing a kind of idolatry, putting their trust in something made with hands. For Paul to talk this way about the very sign of the covenant people speaks volumes. He did not think circumcision was a bad thing. He says elsewhere that the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. But the urgency of maintaining the complete sufficiency of Christ for eternal life and a full share in the hope of Israel compels him to become almost vulgar in his denunciations of those who would compromise in this area. So far as he was concerned, next to gaining Christ, all the advantages of Israel vanish into no consequence at all. So far as he was concerned, those who possess Christ possess everything that circumcision in the flesh could ever guarantee, if it ever guaranteed anything at all – and more.

new-chemical-reaction-could-explain-how-stars-form-evolve-and-eventually-die-1354983912Paul says other things to the Philippians. He tells them in 2:14-15 to “do all things without grumbling or complaining, that you may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” This is in deliberate contrast to the wilderness generation of Israel, the crooked generation who grumbled and complained their way to a desert grave, which Paul’s contemporary Israel had again proven to be (cf. also 1 Corinthians 10:1ff). Paul reminds these Gentile Philippians that it is they who shine like lights, as a witness against them. The Philippian believers, not Israel according to the flesh, are the living fulfillment of Daniel 12:4.

In all this, Paul’s ultimate hope is Resurrection. That’s what he wants to attain (3:11), that’s what he assures the Philippians they will share in if they hold fast (3:20). And the resurrection Paul preached and longed for was none other than the hope of Israel (Acts 24:14-15; 26:4-8). Part of the scandal of Paul’s gospel was that the Gentiles had an equal share in this hope as Gentiles. Israel according to the flesh had served its purpose. The workers who came late to vineyard were getting paid the same as those who had been there all along.

Perhaps to some degree I’ve skirted the question of whether there is any future for Israel according to the flesh. If I have, it’s to emphasize the point—which can’t be emphasized strongly enough—that the greatest blessings Israel could ever hope for are to be found in Christ: Fully in Christ and only in Christ, and to those who are in Christ by faith belong all things—including life and death, the present and the future.

*Postscript: I suppose at some point I will have to tackle Romans 11. That won’t be next week, and for now this series is over. I will just be very brief and say that I think in Romans 11 Paul is expressing hope that his fellow Israelites will embrace their Messiah before it’s too late. There is an explicit conditional in v.23. Paul knew that Jesus had prophesied judgment on the nation before his generation passed away (Matthew 24), but like many prophetic announcements of judgment, mass repentance could avert the coming disaster. That was Paul’s hope – that after rejecting the Son, Israel would not commit the unpardonable sin and reject the Holy Spirit as well. Alas, they did, and the judgment fell about 14 years after Romans was penned. Israel according to the flesh may yet embrace Christ and be grafted back into the olive tree. We should hope and pray that they do, and it would be one of the greatest works of Israel’s God that the world has yet seen. But such an event lies outside the immediate scope of the passage.


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