No Analogy: The Only Flesh that Matters

In the third chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul addresses a recurring problem in the church: what it means to be a member of the people of God and question of circumcision. The flesh, in varied and literal forms, shows up repeatedly in this chapter. There is flesh that matters, but it’s not the flesh of Paul’s foreskin or his mother’s womb. It is the flesh of Jesus, the flesh that was crucified and the flesh that was raised from the dead.

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I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

In the third chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul addresses a recurring problem in the church: what it means to be a member of the people of God and the question of circumcision. Paul writes this chapter simply to remind the Philippian Christians of what he considers to be a settled truth (3:1).  Following Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, those who serve God by his Spirit and who put their confidence in Christ are the true members of God’s family – the true heirs of the covenant – the true circumcision.

Paul’s passion is clear. He calls his opponents “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh” (3:2). The flesh, in varied and literal forms, shows up repeatedly in this chapter. With the appearance of the messiah, circumcision – that work of the law par excellence – no longer serves as the boundary marker which separates God’s people from the heathen.  Neither does physical descent, being born a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” (3:5) . Paul used to put confidence in such things, along with his zealousness and scrupulousness in keeping the law. In comparison with what Christ has done, he now considers these things to be a pile of feces (v. 8).   Anybody who still puts their confidence in these things is an enemy of the cross of Christ (3:18). They’ve made a god out of their bodily parts and functions (3:19).

There is flesh that matters, but it’s not the flesh of Paul’s foreskin or his mother’s womb. It is the flesh of Jesus, the flesh that was crucified and the flesh that was raised from the dead. Paul only wants to know the “communion of his sufferings” and be “conformed to his death” (3:10) so that he might attain the resurrection of the dead (3:11). For Paul himself, the only thing of significance that will happen to his own flesh is yet to come: its glorious transformation when Christ appears (3:20-21). It is this hope that keeps Paul pressing forward (3:12-14).

For those who live 2000 years after Paul fought this battle, what are we to do with his words? No one is making the arguments that Paul’s opponents made. The religious necessity of circumcision  is just not an issue in most Christian circles.

We’re tempted to try to find an analogy in modern life. Are you being legalistic is some way? Are you trusting in something other than Christ? Do you believe in a “Jesus plus something else” gospel? Or, if you’ve been influenced by the New Perspectives on Paul , are so bound to tradition that you don’t see what God is doing now? Are you excluding people that God has accepted? Are you building walls instead of bridges? Is your church diverse? Are you being biased or a bigot? Do you have too narrow a view of being a Christian?

The trouble is, there is no real contemporary analogy to the situation of the early Christians. Paul’s problem was not legalism in general or inclusiveness in general. The Jewish belief that Israel was God’s special possession was not mere ethnic snobbery. Confidence in God’s promises in the covenant was not irrational legalism. God called Abraham, promised to bless his family and gave him the sign of circumcision as a sign of the covenant. Both Israel’s uniqueness and its covenantal history were central aspects of the story that Jesus brought to completion and which Paul embraced. The question before the early church was a very specific one: when God incorporates non-Jews into the covenant through faith in Christ, how is that going to work in practice, and why?

We are probably going to err if we try to apply Paul’s teaching to our current situation by way of analogy. There is no real analogy. Rather, we are better off simply giving thanks for what God has done and living within that truth. We have inherited a church shaped by Paul’s vision. We confess that we are all members of God’s family and heirs to his promises to Abraham simply because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.