Beware of the Legalists

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 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 3:1-3)

In verse 1 we see that Paul is acting with a great desire to keep his brothers and sisters, siblings in Christ, safe. He says, “to write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” He is willing to perhaps be boringly repetitious in order to keep his readers safe. Of course in this context his desire regarding safety is to protect them spiritually. He loves them, so he wants to do what he can to play his part to keep them spiritually safe. Paul’s love for Christ and his love for the well-being of his Christian contemporaries drives him to give them clear and direct warning of danger that may be coming their way, or danger that is already knocking at their door.

He says, “look out for,” or your version may say, “watch out for,” or even “beware of.” What this means is to be constantly observant so as to avoid danger. It doesn’t matter where we are, or who we’re with, but constantly to be observant. The fact that Paul gives this coming warning must imply that they had not really gotten a firm grasp of the danger they were facing, or perhaps they had become lax toward the danger. They had not been diligent spiritually, careful in their walk. We must be careful if we’re going to be spiritually safe.

It reminds me of when my son Beck and I went turkey hunting in south Texas. We pull up to the camp where we will be staying and the first thing we hear as we step out of the track is that there is a diamond back rattle snake right outside the lodge, in some rocks by a small tree. We took a look at where it was supposed to be, but because of the excellent camouflage of the snake as it lay in the sandy, rocky soil, we could barely make out what it was or where it was. As I thought about that I began to look around at the rest of the landscape, and it all looked the same, and I began to wonder how many were out there that I couldn’t see! It was so well hidden and yet right in the open.

And so we were told, “Beware of the snakes. Look out for, watch out for the snakes.” For me what that meant is that I better be constantly observant, watchful, looking carefully with every step in order to avoid danger. The funny thing is that where I live there are copperhead snakes everywhere. There are poisonous snakes on our property. I know they are there because we occasionally see one. But you know what? I never think about it. I never think about them being out there. I don’t watch every step I take, I don’t really think much about them being a danger. I just go about my business with no concern at all. What’s the difference between a south Texas rattle snake and a north Texas copperhead? They both pose a threat to our safety, yet one I take very seriously and the other I think little about. I think that is an interesting dynamic, an interesting question. I think the answer may be familiarity. You get used to it. One I am very familiar with because I have lived around it, and never been bit, so perhaps I have let my guard down, perhaps foolishly so. The other was new, different, and not familiar, so I took it more seriously. And yet they both pose a potential danger.

We have reason to believe that those whom Paul is speaking about were people who were very familiar to the Philippian church. They were perhaps even a part of the Philippian church. Paul wasn’t speaking about some strange phenomenon, something they didn’t know anything about, like monsters from some foreign land who were creepy looking, these were just regular people they rubbed shoulders with. They were most likely regular looking people, learned people, even respectable people who lived among them. It could be that many had grown used to hearing their false teaching, their false messages. Maybe some had begun thinking, “You know, they’re not so bad, maybe there is some truth to what they say, maybe I should listen in on what they preach just to hear what they’re saying.” False teachers can be really nice guys, persuasive with their words, convincing in their deeds. They may not look dangerous. Paul spoke elsewhere about false teachers and the fact that they don’t appear to be dangerous. 

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

Jesus also speaks of false teachers and their false, dangerous messages in the last days. In Matthew 24:24-25 He says, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.” False christs, false prophets who must be incredibly convincing with their message, so much so that it may cause true believers to waver in the faith. They will not be dressed in a red suit with horns; they will look like us. Maybe they are even nicer than we are, better orators than we are, more intellectually gifted than we are. 

So familiarity: these false teachers lived among them, probably educated and gifted speakers, could have even been kind. You put all that together and Paul sees danger, danger where the Philippians perhaps had become complacent.

There must have been a surface attractiveness to the message, because if not there would have been no reason to warn the Christians at all. And so Paul says, “Beware. Don’t be lulled, here. Don’t let down your guard. Let me warn you not just once, but over and over again, if necessary. Beware, look out, be watchful, because there is danger here.” There is nothing much worse than being in real danger, spiritual danger, for there to be an imminent threat to our spiritual well-being, and to be completely oblivious to it. And so Paul steps forward and brings it to light, saying, “Beware. There is a particular vulnerability here, so beware.” Beware of what? Beware of those who will, if you let them, suck the life out of your spiritual walk in grace and leave you with a heavy yoke of works-based salvation. Beware of the legalists. Beware of those who would have you trade in grace and life for slavery to works. Beware of those who would convince you that Christ is not enough, that you need more, more of your works, more of your effort to earn favor with God. Beware of those who peddle formulas for righteousness instead of a relationship with Christ Jesus. It’s, “do this, do that, and God will love you. Work hard and be righteous, and God will forgive you.” That’s a legalistic viewpoint. Beware of those who will appeal to your desires for work and steal from you free, unmerited, unearned grace.

Paul gets specific in his descriptions of these false teachers by describing them in three ways. As he does he is not describing three different groups of people, he is describing one group of people in three different ways. Each of the false teachers would have all these characteristics.

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. (Philippians 3:2)

Strong words here from Paul. Dogs, evildoers, those who mutilate the flesh. The most likely candidates here for the ones described are Jewish people who are encouraging adherence to the Law as a basis for salvation, which is of course the opposite of grace-based salvation through Jesus Christ. We get that partly because later on in verse 7, Paul begins to compare himself as one who had also tried to work for salvation and righteousness but who has now embraced, by God’s grace, salvation by grace through faith. Paul is charging the church to not be fooled into thinking that there is a works-based righteousness because there is not one, and so to try to create one is not only foolish but will be exhausting, and you can’t do it. It leads to sure failure. The only righteous works that satisfy God for salvation are the works of Christ, done on our behalf. His works were sufficient, our works are as filthy rags.

So who are these that are teaching a different gospel, a gospel that makes little of Christ and His work and makes much of man and man’s works? They were dogs. Dogs were generally hated by Easterners. The Jews often described Gentiles as dogs. But here Paul is using dogs to describe Jews who were trying to convince Gentile Christians that they must be circumcised. When using the word “dog,” Paul’s not talking about a pet here. There’s another word for that in Scripture, and this isn’t it. He was talking about the ravenous dogs which roamed the countryside eating whatever they could find. They were scavengers, they were mean, and they would go after anything to satisfy their desire for hunger. These were mean animals, ready to devour smaller animals and even larger prey when in a pack together. If you have ever seen a pack of wild dogs in action, you know they can be very aggressive and destructive. These wild dogs are out for themselves, they show no compassion in their aggressive behavior. As we think of dogs like this we may think of coyotes, or even more appropriately wolves. They are fulfilling their desires regardless of the cost. They don’t ever stop to consider the damage or harm to another; their only concern is getting what they want with an intensity that demonstrates a survival mentality.

Paul knew something about this because he had been a Pharisee. He had been one he is describing here. He had believed he was righteous as he dragged Christians away from their homes to persecute them, and as he condoned their murders, Paul had been one of the dogs.

A pack of wild and vicious dogs may be capable of taking down strong and healthy prey, but they would rather go after the weak and injured. Their success can be more certain when confronting a weaker target. Ruthless false teachers are much the same. Weaker Christians make for easier targets than those who are well grounded in the Word. And so a drifting away from the Word, a gradual drift, can lead to being easy prey for false teachers.

Another target for ravenous, wild dogs would be the isolated. An isolated target would be a preferred target. They’d rather go after one than a group. It is the same with Christians. We can’t live out the word “isolated,” instead we are to be a part of a Christian community. An isolated Christian can be much more vulnerable than one who is surrounding himself with other believers.

I think this is true because we are all weak. No matter who we are, we’re all weak. I hope I don’t offend you with that, but we are all weak. Even Paul the great apostle describes his weakness. Peter was weak, though he thought he was super strong, but he was very weak under the right circumstances, even such that he denied Christ. But knowing we are weak we can go to God, go after God, stay in fellowship with Christ, cry out to Him for strength and for continued faith. We can be careful not to think that we can go it alone as an isolated believer, making ourselves an easy target. If you find yourself in a position where you are pushing people away, pushing other Christians away from you, if you are saying to others, “I’ll be your friend, but don’t speak to me on this or that,” if we are shutting people out, or maybe intimidating Christians to not allow them in, compartmentalizing our Christian friendships, then we are in effect isolating ourselves, perhaps even from those who would say, “Beware, look out for the danger! Be careful. Let me help you see what might not be so clear to you.” We need help, and we can get that sort of help from each other if we are not isolating ourselves from such help. We may be putting ourselves in a place of danger, of vulnerability, in a place where we become an easy target for false teachers, dogs as Paul describes them.

Be sober minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

“A roaring lion,” Peter says, and Paul says, “beware of the dogs,” also predators. Both would desire to lead us down a path that is far from the truths of God’s Word.

Next Paul says look out or beware of evildoers. This description is interesting because the Jews he speaks of would have been much like the old Paul, Saul, believing themselves to be blameless because of their attempt to live perfectly before the Law. They prided themselves as righteous, but the reality was that they were evildoers. Externally they looked good, not evil. You know how if you are in a crowd of strangers and maybe you need directions or something, you know how you can scan the crowd and say, “They’re safe. That looks like a kind person, a decent person.” These self-righteous Jews would probably be the ones you may turn to. Nice guys, probably helpful, but very self-righteous. Makes sense, right? After all they are trying to work their way to God, so they have to put up some self-righteous front. So external works would be very important to them.

And yet with all the external-looking goodness, despite all the nice covering up, Paul says they are workers of evil. How can this be? Because they are belittling Christ and His perfect work. They are saying, “Jesus is not enough. You need more.” They would have seen themselves as good people, pleasing to God because of their zeal for the Law, but zeal for the Law was not what was required to be near God. Christ and His work, a belief, faith in Christ Jesus and His perfect work is what is required for true righteousness before God.

In the church, for you and me, this is where we have to be really careful I think. A Sunday morning church appearance or a Sunday morning “personality” is not what’s pleasing to God. It may fool people, but that does not please God. How we look externally, our deeds done before others, our seeming sacrifices we make, all of it is useless regarding our salvation. What God wants is our hearts, hearts that love and trust Him. People who know they are weak and needy but who believe that Christ’s sacrifice covers our weaknesses, our terrible sin, and our greatest need is met in Christ. In Colossians 1:9-12 Paul explains that those who can walk in righteousness are only those who walk in the power of the Lord.

9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:9-12)

One thing I love about that passage is that it is so Christ-centered. It helps us understand that all we do, anything we do that’s good is by His strength, His might, His power.

Lastly Paul warns, “look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” Here Paul is referring to the fact that this Jewish sect of false teachers was making circumcision – again, keeping of the Law – a requirement to please the Lord. They were preaching a righteousness based on the Law, so the deeds of the Law because a gauge of righteousness. It’s like, “Do this, keep the Law through circumcision, and that will secure your relationship with God.” To be circumcised in order to be saved was simply mutilating the flesh, it had no spiritual significance, no saving power. It was a false gospel preached by so-called dogs and evil men.

What Paul is describing is a very self-focused religion based on the Law and pride, and ineffectual for salvation. Paul of course knew something about this because he had at one time been the chief of all Law keepers! He says himself later that he is the chief of all sinners. But he had by God’s grace and God’s power put off self-righteous, works-based living and had embraced the true Christ.

It is interesting how in our pride we want to contribute to and earn our salvation. It’s a free gift and yet we say, “Let me pay. Let me work hard, let me prove myself. Let me do good and compare myself to my neighbor. Let me show the Lord how serious I am by my works.” There is something about us that makes it really hard to simply say, “Christ, you are all, and I am nothing.” I think that’s at the heart of our struggle. We even hide behind our so-called accomplishments. This is how these Jews could cut into the Philippian church. They had a plan for work and many wanted to work for salvation instead of just receive it by faith. And then there is the additional pressure from these legalists, and that was that they just looked good on the outside, they presented themselves as holy and righteous, but it was all a facade, there was no depth, it was a masquerade, and they were good at hiding who they really were. Doesn’t that have to be true of the self-righteous? It has to be. It’s always, “Look how good and holy they are.” Really, but are they? Paul says no, they are not, it’s a scam. They are ravenous dogs, evildoers, and mutilators of the flesh. God sees the heart. God simply wants our hearts, our minds, humble, loving obedience, no act, no show, just sincere, “This is who we are and Christ is our all.” We don’t need pressures from the self-righteous, only simple, child-like following of our Lord.

This reminds me of what Jesus said in Luke 11:46, “Woe to you lawyers also, for you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of you fingers.” He is describing those who want to put heavy loads of duty on people, convincing them that the burden of works will earn their salvation. Those heavy burdens of the law can be crushing. And they’re meant to be, to show us we need a savior. That is why Christ came. He came to take that burden from us. It’s like Christ saying, “Here, I’ll take that, I have fulfilled the law. Take my righteousness.” And so we don’t have to be good enough, thank the Lord.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I sort of hate to stop here because the next verse is all the good news, it’s where you get the relief from the burdens of the law, it’s how we get to live as those saved by faith, it is the refreshing part. Having been freed from the requirements of the Law through Christ, here is what we get to do now: we get to be worshipers of the Lord, we get to glory in Christ Jesus, and we get to see our flesh for what it really is – weak – and not be confident in it, but in God. It’s like a breath of fresh air! Worship God, not ourselves; glory in Christ, not ourselves; put all confidence in Him, not ourselves. Do you see what that means for us? It means we don’t have to pretend to be great, because we’re not. It means no more pretending, give up on that, and just focus on the One who is great. That will change everything we do. So next week, Lord willing, we will look more at these three great privileges we now have in Christ!

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 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 3:1-3)