The Irony of It All
As he often does, Paul now issues warnings to his readers over matters to avoid, which usually has to do with sinful behaviors but here concerns people, and that people in this case are the Judaizers, sometimes called the “circumcision party” (Acts 11:2). These insisted that believers must observe the law of Moses and submit to circumcision and other matters of the Mosaic law concerning rituals. Paul regarded this as nothing short of an attack on the gospel of Jesus Christ itself. His language sounds harsh and seems to degenerate into name-calling but one must know the history behind the words to understand the irony. It was a commonplace for Jews of that day to regard Gentiles as “dogs,” the unclean scavengers of the world. And their “doggedness” over a ritual that now had given way before the new covenant inaugurated under Christ Jesus who had fulfilled the law amounted to Paul as an insistence on self-mutilation, often practiced in pagan mystery religions. By using these terms, Paul is turning back on the heads of the Judaizers the names they employed when speaking of Gentiles.
So then if religion is not about observing the law, then what is it about and who are the people of God and how do they worship Him? Paul answers: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” More irony! Under the new covenant, the circumcised are those who believe in Christ Jesus. But how can this be? Because by faith in Jesus Christ, “a Jew is [now] one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter” (Romans 2:29). The Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (4:4). The Jews of Paul’s day had prided themselves on matters of the flesh—their ethnicity and rituals; Paul will have them and everyone else to know that true religion is not a matter of such transient things but a matter of the heart, “for those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). And since circumcision and related matters ultimately count for nothing, Paul can even complete the circle of irony by referring to the Church of Jesus Christ made up of both Jew and Gentile as the new “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
This is the new covenant announced by the prophets long ago and established by our Lord’s death, resurrection, now seated at the Father’s right hand. The flesh counts for nothing; it is the new creation that matters (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15).