Why to Beware of Dogs?
What does Paul mean in his letter to the Philippians when he instructs them to “beware of dogs”?” In Philippians 3:2, Paul writes the following to the Philippians: “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!” When understanding this admonition, it should be clear that the reference to dogs is not to be taken literally. In this passage, Paul is not warning people about animals, but rather this is a warning to the Church in Philippi about individuals who are compared to dogs in a symbolic sense.
In order to correctly interpret the meaning of this passage, we need to begin by evaluating the context and learn about similar comparisons of people to dogs elsewhere in the Bible. By answering the following questions, we can learn more about the true and complete meaning of the warning to “beware of dogs.” What biblical evidence is there for describing people as dogs? What are the defining attributes and characteristics of people who are described as dogs? Finally, why does Paul pronounce a warning about these types of people? By investigating each of these facets, we can learn more about the instruction to the Philippians, but we will also learn enough to apply the warning in our own lives.
The behavior of people who are described as dogs appears throughout the Bible. In all examples, dogs are described in terms of lowliness. However, some lowliness is virtuous in the sense of humility (compare Matthew 15:26-27), while most examples describe dogs in the sense of being wild, vicious, untamed, and unclean in behavior (compare 1 Kings 14:11; 1 Kings 16:4). In this letter to the Philippians, the latter type of lowly behavior is attributed to people, and not the endearing type of lowliness. In the examples following, we will see that a person described as a dog takes on characteristics that are shameful, crude, despicable, and contrary to a godly Way of Life.
Peter describes false teachers as dogs in 2 Peter 2:22: “But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.’” This example points to the disgusting behavior common to dogs, and attributes it to people who return to a sinful way of life after attempting to turn away from it. Not only do we see that people are described as dogs, but we also see that the qualities of such behavior are repulsive. Dogs are also mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:18, alluding to the behavior of homosexuality and male prostitution, which is abominable in the judgment of God. From these examples we can conclude that one aspect of the warning about “dogs” is to beware of people who live and promote a sinful lifestyle in doctrine and deed.
Jesus Christ also speaks in symbolic terms about dogs, instructing those in His attendance, “‘Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces’” (Matthew 7:6). The warning given by Jesus Christ is consistent with the warning by Paul to the Philippians. Those people who do not value the holiness of the Truth need to be handled carefully and avoided if possible. The practice of living righteously is not appreciated by individuals who care for sin more than the Truth. The instruction from Jesus is to disengage from such individuals. It is wasteful to present the holy Truth to those who do not care for it.
In Isaiah’s prophecy to the nation of Israel, the leaders are described in unfavorable terms as well: “His watchmen are blind, They are all ignorant; They are all dumb dogs, They cannot bark; Sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yes, they are greedy dogs Which never have enough. And they are shepherds Who cannot understand; They all look to their own way, Every one for his own gain, From his own territory” (Isaiah 56:10-11). Here too we see an example of people described as having characteristics of a dog. These individuals are lazy, greedy, self-centered, and look out only for their own interests. In the context of having responsibility and accountability for others, individuals who are described as dogs exhibit inconsiderate behavior, not taking care of others. Applied to the role of leadership for watchmen, this is condemned as failure.
In a prophecy about the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ in Psalm 22:16, another depiction of dogs describes Jesus’ abusers: “For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet…” Knowing about the events leading up to the murder of Jesus, we can ascribe the violent and vitriolic behavior of the individuals involved in the beating and murder of Jesus to “dogs.” This behavior may also be interpreted as a description of Satan and his demons (compare Psalm 22:12-13). Certainly, the characteristics revealed in the Bible about people described as dogs can be applied to the accusers and abusers of Jesus. However, this example brings out the additional characteristic of violent behavior. Gnashing teeth, biting, and growling are behaviors common to dogs and also associated with violence against people working to uphold the Truth (compare Acts 7:54; Galatians 5:15; Psalm 59:6, 14). When describing individuals as dogs, an additional characteristic of meanness and violence may be applicable.
Bible commentaries support the evaluation of what it means for a person to be a dog as well. Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines the word in part: “As the dog was an unclean animal, the terms ‘dog,’ ‘dog’s head,’ ‘dead dog,’ were used as terms of reproach or of humiliation.” From this correct interpretation, we can see that there is a connotation of lowliness and impropriety associated with people described as dogs. Nelson’s NKJV Study Bible has this to say about the reference to dogs in Philippians 3:2: “In New Testament times, dogs were hated scavengers. The term came to be used for all who had morally impure minds.” These commentaries support the interpretation that people who are described as dogs have behavior that is brazen in its disregard to God’s Way of Life.
In the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see the individuals described as dogs mentioned alongside two other classes of people—evil workers and those promoting the doctrine of mutilation. One of the strongest messages in the letter to the Philippians is that of spiritual unity, harmony, and mutual strength (Philippians 2:1-4, 14-15; 3:16). The encouragement that Paul provides throughout the letter stands in contrast to the types of individuals of whom he warns. Evil workers are malicious; those promoting a return to physical circumcision as a requirement for salvation discount the Sacrifice of Christ; and the dogs are indiscreet, violent, and self-seeking. Each of these types of people is warned about because they cause damage to the Church. A dog represents the promotion of a sinful way of living that is shameless and done in a manner that is confrontational and violent.
Today we can apply this same warning in our lives. As we see the world turn further and further away from God, we observe people behaving like dogs in our age. Confrontationally refusing to accept God’s Truth, our modern society can do damage to the peace and unity of the Church. We can also see that those who willfully behave as dogs will be excluded from the Kingdom of God and destroyed in the lake of fire (Revelation 22:15). Seeing how contrary dog-like behavior is to a life dedicated to righteousness, it is clear that we must beware of dogs today so we can avoid having damage done to the Church, while protecting ourselves from being influenced by such sinful behavior, so that we do not conduct ourselves in the same manner.
Lead Writer: Eric Rank