It began with just a few men. They didn’t know exactly what kind of damage they were about to inflict on their own reputation, for all of eternity. The account is found in Acts 15 with “some men” going down from Judea and teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul and Barnabas debated them fearlessly, but the damage had been done. The argument had so successfully confused and stirred up the assembled group that it was decided to take matters up the command chain. They were off to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas hadn’t lost faith and in fact, they proclaimed what God had done for the Gentiles to all who would listen on their trip. The news of God’s grace to all races and nations brought the listeners a great joy. In Jerusalem, the apostles and elders had already gathered to deal with the fierce conflict. It didn’t take long for the group to separate into two teams each holding two different beliefs about God’s will for all. It was at this moment where Peter stands up and begins to speak. He explains that God knows the heart of all of us and He’s always known.
The spirit had descended on the apostles to prove that there is no discrimination between Jews and Gentiles. The demand for proof is always in our hearts, and so the Spirit demonstrated miraculous powers to give credence. Peter would explain that under the Jewish law, even Moses and the greats couldn’t bear the load. It wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t meant to last.
It’s verse twelve that gives one some additional insight. It says, “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done though them among the Gentiles.” How do we solve our conflicting views that spring up in our midst? There’s only one effective way to do so and that’s to take our matters of division to the top. Not preachers, teachers, deacons, or elders, but to the very top.
If God is going to speak, we’ve got to be quiet. The assembly went silent. Everyone there, no matter what their belief was—decided to listen. Speaking over each other never solved a problem and this is true on a congregational level, as well as a personal one. How many times do we fall victim to the assembly of the thoughts and bias in our own minds when reading God’s word? It can be difficult to hush those voices, but it’s when we do that real change has a chance to take root.
Worry not. I am not writing an article about the 2021 National Champion Georgia Bulldogs, even though that is an article I had wished to write for decades. No, I am thinking of an archaeological discovery made in a Pompeiian house (“House of the Tragic Poet”) renowned for its exquisite frescoes and mosaics. Within the house’s vestibule, there is a dog mosaic. Below the dog, there are also these two words in Latin: “Cave Canem.” I imagine you have guessed from the context of our title what those Latin words mean. Yes, they read, “Beware of the dog.” (Literally, “Beware the dog.”) The mosaic dates to the second century BC.1
Did you imagine that the ancient Romans had “Beware of the Dog” signs? I admit being unaware of this until I stumbled upon a bit of clickbait on social media promising interesting archaeological finds. OK, so maybe this “sign” wasn’t the most breathtaking discovery ever. But it was interesting. It serves as an example of Solomon’s inspired truth that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1.9).
Typically, we think of the “Beware of the Dog” sign as a warning to unwanted visitors. It says, “We have a dog, and it may bite you.” However, scholars believe that the sign’s original purpose was the opposite. Visitors did not have to worry about dog attacks but needed to avoid trampling the family dog. “When you come inside, you will encounter a small animal we cherish. Please be mindful of him.”
The Italian Greyhound, for example, is an older breed originating more than two thousand years ago. It is the smallest of the sighthounds. The AKC states that breeders bred them as “noble companions.”2 That fits what we know of Pompeii, a resort town for wealthy Romans who would surely own such canines. Indeed, the House of the Tragic Poet was not the only house in Pompeii with a “Cave Canem” mosaic. It was just the first one excavated.
Now, why would I spend so much time within a religious forum talking about a “Beware of the Dog” sign? It so happens that Paul used that expression in Philippian 3.2: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (all ref. NASB1995 unless otherwise indicated). In Koine Greek, that is “Βλέπετε τοὺς κύνας.” As odd as it sounds to the dog-loving United States today, Arabs and Jews were more likely to despise dogs. Remember that even Jesus cautioned us, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs…” (Matthew 7.6).
Dogs were often wild and roamed in packs in ancient Judea. There was no archaeological evidence of pet dogs in the region until the post-exilic era.3 In their nondomesticated state, these dogs would do disgusting things like eating the bodies of the dead (e.g., 1Kings 14.11). These reasons are why generic Biblical scholarship believes Jews and Arabs dislike dogs and use the term as a byword for detested people. (Indeed, Western languages now likewise use “dog” in a derogatory manner, but it doesn’t impact the Western perception of the animal.)
Paul didn’t straddle the fence when it came to the truth, but he did straddle a cultural divide. He who was the “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3.5) would be the Apostle ordained to take the Gospel to the gentile world (Acts 8.15). That is why as outrageous as it sounds, we benefit from “Cave Canem” since knowing cultural concepts helps us better understand a verse’s context.
So, what was Paul saying here? To the Gentile, being asked to “beware of the dog” meant looking out for him, lest you trip over him. To the Jew, “beware of the dog” meant being wary of the one with a vile nature, fitting with their cultural perception of a dog. So, Paul begins with a Jewish insult. The third noun, translated as “concision” (KJV) or “false circumcision” (NASB1995), actually means “mutilation.” Would those Judaizers insisting that Gentiles be circumcised to become Christians enjoy being called a “mutilator?”
It sounds less like we are talking about multiple groups troubling the church at Philippi and more like Paul describes one group by using three noun descriptions. Two of the nouns speak more loudly to one cultural group. So then, what of the “evil workers?” Would this not also describe the same “mutilating dogs?” That seems to fit the context better. This second noun and its adjective also remind one of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.23, particularly in the King James Version: “Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” These latter “iniquity workers” felt they had done laudable things but discovered they neglected to do God’s Will (Matthew 7.21-23). We can make the case that such was true of the Judaizer also.
Lest anyone interpret this sentiment as anti-Semitic, we emphasize that the three nouns used by Paul work as well for any false teacher. Yet, the Judaizers were a thorn in Paul’s side as he fulfilled his ministry. And even though Gentiles doubtlessly read the words of this epistle, their Jewish brethren in this cosmopolitan congregation of Philippi could provide greater meaning while also helping their Gentile brethren be wary of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (cf., Matthew 16.6)
In conclusion, although the Bible serves as its own best commentary, we note we can obtain understanding through additional sources of information. Sometimes those sources can be surprising, like a dog mosaic in the vestibule of a Pompeiian house. Yes, there might be some put off by this idea that it takes effort to delve deeper into the word of God as we look for answers within God’s Word and without, in sources like archaeology. However, the proper mindset makes Bible study more attractive, even fun. You can find faith-building things everywhere. Just think about that the next time you see those words, “Beware of the Dog.”
It’s no news flash to observe that our culture seems hopelessly divided along political lines. That seems to impact race, gender, and other lines, too. The most tragic consequence of this is that it has not left the church unaffected. Social media is often a barometer for how emotional and passionate brethren on both sides of this divide can become when discussing some specific aspect of this. We cannot hope that social media will provide the answer. Who your friends are and what their leanings are on political issues influence what shows up on your homepage as they share politically or socially charged blogs, videos, and the like. Pundits have, for a few years, theorized and analyzed the reality of a “political social media bubble.” Barton Swaim, in an August 1 article on The Weekly Standard online, said, “more than any other social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter are avenues for the kind of acrimony that has embittered our politics and poisoned reasonable dialog” (https://www.weeklystandard.com/barton-swaim/a-political-social-media-bubble). It’s not just conservative publications making that observation. Google the term “political social media bubble” and conservative, moderate, and liberal outlets can at least agree about its existence (a trip to The Guardian, New York Times, National Review, et al finds plenty of material if written from different points of view drawing different conclusions).Too often, God’s people get drawn into this hurtful, messy arena and turn on each other like gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. The God of heaven must certainly weep.
This weekend, I visited the Lord’s church in Chesapeake, Virginia, a state that is often a political cauldron boiling hotter than many other places. I’m not sure how many congregations were represented, but we had to have had close to half white and half black people attending (with various Asian and Hispanic visitors there, too). Politics were mentioned a few times, but only in the sense that they have too often become a stumbling block and distraction in the Lord’s church and that they cannot solve our nation’s problems. But I was beholding the answer without it having to be pointed out. Those in attendance had a thirst for a “thus saith the Lord.” People of different colors lovingly, naturally worshipped, fellowshipped, visited, laughed with, and enjoyed each other throughout the weekend. It was genuine. It was deep. It was powerful. And it was neither contrived nor manipulated. Its glue and bond was the blood and body of God’s Son. Christ is the great uniter. As we unite on His terms and His way, we destroy barriers. That’s by design.
What Paul says to Jew and Gentile in Ephesians 2:14-18 can have application between black and white, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, male and female, or however our country wants to erect barriers. Christ is our peace and can break down the barrier of any dividing wall. He helps us view each other as “fellow citizens” and “family” (2:19) who are “together” (2:21,22). When we get ahold of that, nothing can keep us apart!