Phil. 3:3 Should Be a Memory Verse
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3; ESV)
Philippians 3:3 would be a famous memory verse if it weren’t for the bit about circumcision, which takes some explaining and contextualization. But shouldn’t we try to understand all memory verses in their context? Think of the theological errors committed by Christians who rip Phil. 4:13 and Jeremiah 29:11 out of their original contexts! But that’s a topic for another article. Here I hope to unpack the beauty of Phil. 3:3 so that it will become the next memory verse you teach your Sunday School class.
“For we are the circumcision...”
Paul is being ironic here. “The circumcision” refers to a particular group of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Christ but also insisted that to be saved people must follow the law of Moses. As a marker of this, males, even Gentile males, had to be circumcised. Paul opposed these false teachers at length in his letter to the Galatians but it comes up in Philippians as well. In Phil. 3:2 he calls these false teachers “dogs,” “evildoers,” and “those who mutilate the flesh.” That last insult is Paul’s way of saying that circumcision has no spiritual value; it only serves to mutilate the flesh.
In Phil. 3:3 when Paul writes, “For we are the circumcision,” what he means is, “The circumcision party likes to boast that they are the true people of God and we are not. But the reverse is actually true. They’re not and we are!” He makes the same point in Romans 2:28-29:
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
So then, in Phil. 3:3 when Paul writes, “We are the circumcision,” what he means is that “We are the true people of God.” In the rest of this verse Paul gives a simple description a Christian. He writes what is true about the true people of God.
“...who worship by the Spirit of God...”
The false teachers liked to boast about the flesh but they lacked the Spirit of God. In Acts 15:8 Peter said that a sure sign that the Gentile believers were accepted by God without being circumcised or submitting to the law of Moses was that God had given them the Holy Spirit.
All true Christians have received the Holy Spirit. For, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Christians are those who “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Against those who would like to boast in the flesh, Jesus declares, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63). This is the point Paul makes against the false teachers when he writes that we “worship by the Spirit of God” (Phil. 3:3).
“...and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
The biggest problem with the false teachers was that they were boasting in the flesh. They gloried in their circumcision, in their keeping of the law, in their Jewish heritage, etc. Paul himself used to boast in these same things (see Phil 3:5-6). But all that he once thought gain he counted as loss when he came to know the surpassing worth of Christ Jesus his Lord.
Very simply, Christians are those who put no confidence in the flesh but instead put all of their confidence in Christ Jesus. They boast in Jesus. They glory in Jesus—his life, death, and resurrection. His promise to come again. They bet all their chips on Christ. They confess that they don’t have any righteousness of their own from keeping the law. All they have is the righteousness from God that they have received through faith in Christ. And that’s enough. Everything else is rubbish.
Once we understand the context and meaning of Phil. 3:3 it becomes a precious gem within the treasure of Holy Scripture. It teaches that to be a Christian means to put no confidence in the flesh, but instead to boast and glory in Christ Jesus. This is the message of Phil. 3:3 and we should hide it in our hearts.
Besides, wouldn’t it be great to see cute, little first graders line up in front of the church and begin to recite, “For we are the circumcision…”