False Teachers – Philippians 3

Read the Passage: Philippians 3

Listen to The Redeemed Mind Podcast: Philippians 3

Warning and Identity (3:1–11)

After mentioning joy and rejoicing eight times in Phil. 1–2, Paul begins chapter three by reminding his readers to “rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1). Interestingly, for the first time in this letter, at Phil. 3:2–3 Paul warned the church about false teachers in their midst, writing, “Beware of the mutilation” (Phil. 3:2; cf. Gal. 5:12). From this passing reference we can discern that the false teachers in view here, as elsewhere in the biblical world, were likely the Judaizers. Since there were relatively few Jews in Philippi, these heretics may not have been as big a problem as they were in other cities; yet, Paul still tells the Philippian church to “beware” of them. Indeed, protecting the gospel requires vigilance. By way of refuting these false teachers, who taught the necessity of keeping certain Old Testament ceremonial laws, Paul instructed the church, “We are the circumcision” (Phil. 3:3; cf. Rom. 2:28–29). Elsewhere Paul writes that believers are “Abraham’s seed” (Gal. 3:7, 29) and that the church is the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16; cf. Rom. 9:6; Jas. 1:1).

By way of further refutation of the Judaizers, in Phil. 3:4–7 Paul listed his Jewish credentials, which exceeded those of the false teachers. Paul’s qualifications included being circumcised, being a Benjamite, having Hebrew parents, being a Pharisee, and displaying great zeal for God. Yet, despite his great accomplishments, Paul had no “confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:4). Next, in Phil. 3:7–11 Paul reveals where he had placed his confidence. In one of the clearest gospel verses in the Bible, Paul writes of being “found in Jesus, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9; cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). Such divinely bestowed righteousness, writes Paul, results in knowing God, in resurrection power, in fellowship in suffering, and in resurrection from the dead.

Goal and Mind (3:12–16)

Having just described the Christ-likeness that comes through faith, in Phil. 3:12–13 Paul writes, “Not that I have already attained or am already perfected . . . . I do not count myself to have apprehended.” In other words, Paul recognized that there is a difference between the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness and the impartation of His holiness. The illustration that Paul appeals to in this passage is that of a long-distance runner who presses on to lay hold of the rewards of finishing a race. Note Paul’s complementary methodology of “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Earlier, Solomon gave a similar teaching, writing, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these? For you do not inquire wisely concerning this’” (Eccl. 7:10). Paul was not distracted by his former sins or by his present successes.

Concerning the need to pursue Christ and make gradual progress in spiritual growth, in Phil. 3:15–16 two times Paul writes, “Let us, as many as are mature, have this mind. . . . Let us be of the same mind” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:5; 1 Pet. 4:1). Paul’s call to like-mindedness in regard to sanctification is both a call to orthodoxy and a plea for unity in the church. In writing, “To the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule” (Phil. 3:16), Paul was exhorting the church to continue on in the paths that had led to their current spiritual growth. Phil. 3:15 is a helpful reminder as here Paul notes, “If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.” In other words, Paul was not as concerned with winning a theological debate, as he was with teaching spiritual truth. He was confident that even if his doctrine was initially rejected by some, the Holy Spirit would eventually guide many dissenters in truth (cf. John 16:13; 17:17).

Example and Citizenship (3:17–21)

As he did in several of his other letters, in Phil. 3:17 Paul holds himself, and other faithful Christians up, as a pattern to follow (cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6). Next, in Phil. 3:18–19 Paul again warns the church about certain false teachers, writing that these heretics are after earthly things. While not a comprehensive diagnostic, it is helpful to note that false teachers are almost always after person gain and material flourishing. In contrast, Paul writes that believers’ “citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). In other words, the Christian faith focuses on spiritual flourishing and promises Christ. Moreover, in Phil. 3:21 Paul reminds his readers that believers will one day receive a transformed glorious body. This promise would have been precious to Paul as he was experiencing physical trials in prison.

Application Questions:

  1. What spiritual gift(s) has God given to you? How would you describe your ministry in the church?
  2. Is Paul’s use of Jewish concepts and categories to describe the church anti-Semitic? Is there a spiritual future for ethnic Israel?
  3. Why is mankind attracted to a works-based salvation scheme? Why is the gospel message of grace-based salvation so offensive to many?
  4. Do you ever get bogged down in your present spiritual growth by guilt over your past sins or by pride over present successes?
  5. What kinds of false teaching is currently affecting the church? Why are so many immature believers led astray by heresy?