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Phillipians 3:2-11: A Biblical Study of Pauline Warning

Updated on August 19, 2014
A depiction of St Paul
A depiction of St Paul | Source
A map of the 1st century Mediterranean world
A map of the 1st century Mediterranean world | Source

An Overview

Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a whole is a letter of great joy and pays tribute to the close relationship between the Apostle and the Philippian community. It was penned during one of his numerous terms of imprisonment, here in the Turkish city of Ephesus (52-54 CE)[1], and possibly under the threat of execution. Paul expresses his hope and confidence in the future of both himself and his “crown” (Phil. 4:1) of believers at Philippi as he firmly holds to the belief that Christ is with them.

Having said this however, the sharp polemic that introduces Phil 3:2-11 renders the epistle as also a message of warning. Through the clever utilisation of comparison and rhetoric, Paul alerts the Philippian community to those who will later be identified as “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:18). It is in this context that he exhorts the Philippians to follow his example and empty themselves of the religious and social things that they previously held to be valuable, in order that they may enjoy the ultimate goal of “knowing Christ” and being joined with Him. In order to share in his life, suffering/death, and resurrection.

This epistle was composed in anticipation of the arrival of those opponents which he had previously encountered at Galatia and Antioch. It features a sharp contrast between the Judaisers and Philippian converts, and the presentation of himself as the right example for his converts to follow. Paul thus continues to impart the message that features throughout his letters: that the Law-free gospel he preaches fulfils the Mosaic Law. It is through faith in Christ and the workings of the Holy Spirit that his converts are brought into full fellowship with God – not through adherence to the obligations of the Torah.

[1] Ian Elmer, Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers (Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 189.

Context and Literary Form

The overall theme of the epistle to the Philippians is that of joy and fulfillment in righteousness as available through Christ alone. In such a context, the broad meaning of Phil 3:2-11 becomes clear. Having exhorted the Philippian community to live in a manner worthy of the gospel and be resolute in the face of opponents (Phil 1:27-2:18), Paul explains the mental rectitude required to experience such joy and fulfillment.

To do so, Paul employs an argument which directly contrasts those who will not experience joy and fulfillment in Christ (Phil 3:2-3) with one whose whole life is directed solely towards achieving such a goal (Phil 3:7-11). As such, it is possible to understand Phil 3:2-11 as featuring within a clear use of deliberative rhetoric which induces the reader to measure appropriate actions for future performance[1].

Having expressed the significance of Christ and His sacrifice by way of an Adamic Christology (Phil 2:6-11), Paul launches into a polemic against those who work against his gospel and misunderstand the significance of Christ’s sacrifice – made clear by his subsequent reference to them as “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:18). Such a polemic makes the presentation of himself as an example for the Philippians to follow in order to achieve life “in Christ” (Phil 1:1) all the more forceful and persuasive.

[1] Bonnie B. Thurston and Judith M. Ryan, Philippians & Philemon (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009), 36.


Literary Structure

Numerous scholars propose that the epistle to the Philippians is a literary unity which conforms to the general pattern of Greco-Roman letters. However, it is much more likely that it is an amalgamation of two to three letters written at various times throughout Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus[1]. According to such a theory, Phil 3:2-11 falls within the earliest section of the epistle which is known as the ‘interpolated fragment’ (Phil 3:2-4:1),and is defined by the contrast between Paul/the Philippians and the opponents against which Paul directs his opening polemic (Phil 3:2-3)[2].

This fragment itself may be separated into two sub-sections (Phil 3:2-17; 3:18-4:1), the beginnings of which are marked by negative references to his opponents[3]:

1) Consists of the contrast between the “dogs”, “evil workers”, “mutilators of the flesh” (Phil 3:2) and Paul himself. Paul had renounced all that his opponents held dear, which he himself had previously held to be the great privileges of life (Phil 3:4-8), for the sake of “knowing Christ” (Phil 3:8) and sharing in His suffering, death and resurrection (Phil 3:10-11).

2) Consists of the contrast between those who are denounced as “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:18), who desire temporal and temporary things (Phil 3:19), with the righteous believers in Christ who direct their expectations toward their heavenly Saviour and strive toward fulfilling transformation in Him (Phil 3:20-21).

[1] Monica Hooker, “Philippians,” in The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, ed. James D.G Dunn (London: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 105-106.

[2] F.W. Beare, The Epistle to the Philippians (London: A. and C. Black Ltd, 1969), 24.

[3] Beare, Epistle to the Philippians, 25.


Discussion and Interpretation

Through a clever use of irony and pun, Paul immediately draws attention to the Judaic tradition and presents a startling revelation. It is those who believe that they are in proper relationship to God through their adherence to the Torah who are in fact acting in error. Paul places these people against himself and the Gentile Christian believers residing at Philippi who, through acting in likeness to Christ in his life and sacrifice, hope for the ultimate goal of sharing in His resurrection.

Phil 3:2-11 begins with a warning against those who are “dogs”, “evil workers”, and “mutilators of the flesh” (v.2). The heavily ironic use of the terms “dogs” and “mutilators” suggest that the focal point here is one of un/cleanliness. It is proposed that “dogs” was a derogatory reference used by Jews and Jewish Christians to refer to Gentiles and apostates of the Law[1], who did not follow dietary laws and regulate what they ate. The reference to “mutilators” insinuates that in circumcision something is destroyed rather than something (ie. participation as a member of God’s chosen people) gained[2]. The primacy given in this warning to dietary laws and circumcision suggests that the opponents featured in this epistle are those Judaisers with whom Paul had previously clashed in Galatia and Antioch. Through his use of irony, Paul turns these insults back on his opponents and denounces them as those who are made unclean, here through their attempts to make the Gentiles clean by conformance to the Mosaic Law.

Paul then introduces the main theological point of the passage, insisting that the Gentile Christians are those of “the circumcision” (v.3), indicating that the mark of who constitutes the ‘true Israel’ is now belief in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Paul tells the Philippians that all he held to be important privileges as a zealous Jew (v. 5-6) is superseded and rendered worthless (“rubbish”) (vv. 7-8) by the prospect of “knowing Christ” (v. 8). Here the issue at stake, as in the epistle to the Colossians, is the adequacy of the grace mediated by God through Christ[3].The term “knowing” is employed in the same sense that it is featured in Hebrew thought, as a deep personal knowledge and relationship with God only made possible by His self-revelation of His Wisdom[4].

The reason for this designation is made clear in the theological centre of the passage (v.9). Here Paul reminds the Philippians that “righteousness” is God’s alone and is not the possession of Mosaic Law.One’s proper relationship in fellowship with God is available not through familial inheritance, personal qualifications, or the Law but solely through faith in Christ. For Paul the ultimate goal is to be made like Christ in His death and glory so that he may also share in His resurrection (vv.10-11). In order to know, and be perfected through, the power of Christ’s resurrection one must conform to Christ in His death, emptying oneself of previous status and self-interest and be subsumed into fellowship with Him.

[1] Elmer, Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers, 193.

[2] Thurston and Ryan, Philippians & Philemon, 113.

[3] Thurston and Ryan, Philippians & Philemon, 127.

[4] Thurston and Ryan, Philippians & Philemon, 123.


  • Beare, F.W. The Epistle to the Philippians. London: A. and C. Black Ltd, 1969.
  • Elmer, Ian. Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers. Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.
  • Grayston, Kenneth. The Letters of Paul to the Philippians and to the Thessalonians. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
  • Haaker, Klaus. “Paul’s Life.” In The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, edited by James D.G. Dunn, 19-33. London: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Hooker, Monica. “Philippians.” In The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, edited by James D.G. Dunn, 105-115. London: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Kruse, Colin G. “Paul, the Law and the Spirit”. In Paul and His Theology, edited by Stanley E. Porter, 109-130. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2006.
  • Michael, J. Hugh. The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1954.
  • Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Stanton, Graham N. “Paul’s Gospel.” In The Cambridge Companion to St Paul, edited by James D.G. Dunn, 173-184. London: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Thurston, Bonnie B., and Judith M. Ryan. Philippians & Philemon. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009.
  • Ziesler, John. Pauline Christianity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990.


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