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In the latter half of Romans 2, the apostle Paul discussed the nature of true Jewishness. He stated that people were not to be reckoned as Jews on the basis of outward conditions such as circumcision. Instead, Paul spoke of a circumcision of the heart that made them Jews inwardly. He actually went further and stated that an uncircumcised person who fulfilled the righteousness of the law could be reckoned as circumcised.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul also wrote along these lines. Chapter 3 is devoted to a warning against false teachers that Paul labeled as dogs, evil workers, and the “mutilation” (3:2). The last term is a pun: mutilation (katatomē) plays on the word circumcision (peritomē). It is an insulting way of referring to teachers who tried to persuade Christian Gentiles that circumcision was essential to their Christian lives. In order to bring out the force of this pun, the New American Standard Bible translates katatomē as false circumcision. But Paul went even further: with ironic flair, he referred to these Judaistic teachers as dogs, a term that was typically applied to Gentiles by Jews. Clearly, Paul did not think much of these teachers or their Judaizing teachings.
Paul insisted that if anyone could have confidence in the flesh, he could. He even recounted his qualifications: he, too, was circumcised, an Israelite, a Benjamite, a Hebrew, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church, and a blameless man as far as the law was concerned (3:3-6). These external qualifications, however, were exactly what Paul had to abandon for the sake of Christ.
For Paul, the tradeoff was well worth it. Knowing Christ was inestimably superior to all of these external accomplishments. Indeed, Paul had changed his assessment so far that he now counted them “dung,” skubala, so that he might win Christ (3:8). Many translations euphemize skubala into something like rubbish, but skubala was precisely the substance that was found in sewers and barnyards. Paul was stating that he saw his own righteousness as so much excrement.
The righteousness that Paul abandoned was a righteousness of his own that derived from the law (3:9). In its place, he recognized his need for a righteousness that came from God upon the basis of faith. Only so could he be found to be “in Christ.” Only so could he know Christ, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.
Paul saw a stark contrast between the righteousness that derives from the law and the righteousness that comes from God. This contrast corresponded to the contrast between the katatomē (the mutilation or false circumcision, the purveyors of Judaizing theology) and the peritomē (the true circumcision). Who is the true circumcision? According to Paul, it comprises those who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who place no confidence in the flesh. In other words, the true circumcision includes those who have appropriated the righteousness that comes from God, rejecting their own righteousness that derives from the law. Paul specifically says that “we” are the circumcision, and in this context “we” can only mean church saints—Paul and the Philippians.
Church saints—those who believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ—are the circumcision. Paul’s words here (Phil. 3:3) correspond closely with his insistence that true circumcision is inward rather than outward (Rom. 2:29) and that even a Gentile who keeps the righteousness of the law will be reckoned as circumcised (Rom. 2:26). No reasonable reading of Paul can avoid the affirmation that church saints are, in some meaningful sense, among the circumcised.
The question is, What is that sense? Is it correct to infer that, since church saints are the circumcision, then the church has taken the place of Israel? Would it be better to say that the church has become Israel as God always intended Israel to be? And what of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel? Are they no longer to be recognized as true Jews, except insofar as they trust in Jesus and are incorporated into the church?
For many serious students of the Bible, these questions pose major obstacles to seeing Israel and the church as distinct peoples of God. If the church is the circumcision, and if the circumcision necessarily means Israel, then it seems obvious that the church is, or has become, Israel. This understanding leaves scant room for a two-peoples doctrine, let alone a teaching that God will have many peoples to worship Him. On this understanding, there can be only one people: the church, and the church is Israel.
At least one other understanding of the text is possible, however. The church might be the circumcision, and yet not be Israel. How can that be? In order to answer that question, a detour through the biblical notion of circumcision is necessary.
My Song Is Love Unknown
Samuel Crossman (ca. 1624-1683)
My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take, frail flesh and die?
Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.
Why, what hath my Lord done?
To cause this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Are why the Lord most High so cruelly dies.
Here might I stay and sing,
Of Him my soul adores;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like yours.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.