In Philippians 3:2 Paul warned his readers, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” He was referring to a group of Jewish Christians, called “Judaizers” by Biblical scholars, who taught that Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses to be fully saved. Paul’s challenging them in Philippians was not his first encounter with them. In this article I’ll summarize what we know of Paul’s life, highlighting his encounters with Judaizers.
Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor, the peninsula occupied by Turkey. He was raised in either Tarsus or Jerusalem, was both Jewish and a Roman citizen, and was trained as a Pharisee. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and became a persecutor of Christians (Acts 7:58-8:3).
When Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest any Christians he found there, Jesus appeared to him and he was converted. Not only did he proclaim Jesus in the synagogues there, but also he visited Arabia. When he returned to Damascus, the Jews plotted to kill him and he returned to Jerusalem. However ones sought to kill him there too and the church took him to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus, his hometown. For the next several years he ministered in Cilicia (see above) and Syria (the province in which Antioch–see below–was located). These events are described in Acts 9:1-31 and Galatians 1:17-24 and occurred in A.D. 33-46 (conversion 33, return to Jerusalem 36, and ministry in Antioch 45-46; all dates are approximate).
Acts 11:19-26 describes how the gospel came to Antioch in Syria, the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch, Barnabas brought Paul from Tarsus to Antioch, and Barnabas and Paul ministered in Antioch for a year (45-46). Acts 11:27-30 tells how the prophecy of a worldwide famine prompted the church in Antioch to send relief to the church in Jerusalem by the hand of Barnabas and Paul. Paul describes this visit in Galatians 2:1-10, concluding by noting that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem “gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
After returning to Antioch, Barnabas and Paul were commissioned by the church there to go on a missionary journey. Generally called Paul’s first missionary journey, it took them to Cyprus and Galatia, is described in Acts 13-14, and occurred in A.D. 46-47. On returning to Antioch they spent “no little time with the disciples.” It was during this time that the confrontation between Paul and Peter described in Galatians 2:11-14 took place and that Paul received news that false teachers were telling the Christians in Galatia that they had to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses to be fully saved. Paul reacted to the news by writing a letter to the Galatians in which he told them, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:2-4).
However Acts 15 records that the conflict continued. Some men came to Antioch from Jerusalem and told the church there, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,” and were opposed by Paul and Barnabas. Finally the church appointed Paul, Barnabas, and some others to go to Jerusalem and consult the apostles and the elders about the matter. They gathered to consider the matter. After much debate Peter got up and reminded them of how God had shown his acceptance of the Gentiles gathered in the house of Cornelius by giving them the Holy Spirit, concluding, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” There was no further discussion and the whole assembly listened to Barnabas and Paul tell about the signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentile believers through them.
When they had finished, the leader of the Jerusalem church–James, the brother of Jesus–spoke up. After referring to what Peter had said, he demonstrated that the calling of the Gentiles had been foretold in Amos 9:11-12 and gave as his judgment that they should not trouble Gentiles who were turning to the Lord except to tell them to abstain from a few things especially disturbing to Jews because “Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” The group agreed and decided to send two of their men, Judas Barsabbas and Silas, to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. The two men read the letter given in the next paragraph to the congregation in Antioch and then returned to Jerusalem. The conference in Jerusalem described in Acts 15 and summarized in the last two paragraphs occurred in A.D. 49.
“The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts 15:23-29)
Subsequently Paul went on two more missionary journeys, was arrested in Jerusalem, and was sent to Rome as a prisoner. Those events are described in the rest of the book of Acts. It was while he was a prisoner in Rome that he wrote the letter which we’re studying in our Life group, Philippians (sometime in A.D. 60-62). The passage with which I opened this article, Philippians 3:2, shows that despite the decision of the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem and the letter which they sent to Gentile Christians, the Judaizers were still spreading their message and that Paul still opposed it.
After being released from his imprisonment in Rome, Paul extended his ministry, possibly to Spain, and was rearrested and executed by beheading.
This article is adapted from a handout which I prepared to aid our Life group in our discussion yesterday evening of one of the questions given on Philippians 3:1-11 in The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups: “If this problem with the circumcision party had gone unchallenged, how would it have hurt the gospel?” We had a good discussion of the question and of the passage.