Phil 3:1-16 (ESV)
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh- though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
When Paul (Saul at that time) was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus on his mission to stamp out Christianity and all who followed ‘the Way’, he was brought to an abrupt stop by a brilliant light that enveloped him. He heard a voice from heaven; it was the voice of Jesus whose followers he was persecuting. It was the moment when Saul the Persecutor saw the glorified Christ whom he was persecuting and he was instantly and forever transformed.
Philippians 3 comments on two central aspects of the transformation.
Paul lost all confidence in his personal righteousness and desired only the righteousness of God that came through faith in Christ
If any had a claim on God by his own standing it was Paul. Paul was a Jew and Jews were God’s chosen people. And Paul had a Jewish pedigree second to none, ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews’. If religious heritage or training could give a man a standing with God then Paul had it. What is more he was a man who made every effort to live righteously. He had a scrupulous zeal for God and for God’s Law, ‘as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless’. And Paul, as he travelled to Damascus in the service of his religion, did indeed believe that his legacy as a Jew and his rigorous law-keeping declared him righteous. He travelled that Damascus Road without a qualm or doubt, confident, even smug, in his integrity, his cause, his righteousness.
Until… until he was confronted with the piercing glory of the exalted Christ. It was a glory, he was to say later, brighter than the sun (Acts 26:13). Its brilliance threw him to the ground and left him without strength and blinded. The voice came from heaven and he asked who was speaking? The reply came, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’. (Acts 9). In that instant, the self-will and pride of Saul the Persecutor was broken in pieces. In a moment of time his whole constructed world collapsed around him. He knew that his heritage that he had such pride in was a meaningless bauble in the face of this glory; his religiosity was seen for the vain thing it was; his qualifications, however highly regarded, were as dung. Everything of apparent worth to the flesh was seen for the empty vanity it was when faced with the weight of glory.
He knew too, with an absolute certainty, that his own righteousness, of which he had been so proudly complacent, could never stand in the searing glory of this light. It fell woefully short of this glory. It was filthy rags. His religiously fueled and ostensibly righteous attempts to wipe out the name of Jesus were exposed as the vilest offences against the authority of God. For Paul had no doubts that this person who spoke to him was of unquestionable authority. His will is immediately subject to this authority. It could not be denied. He blurts in abjection, ‘who are you Lord?’.
And he is told; I am Jesus. In one searing terrible yet glorious moment of truth and insight he knew immediately and forever that the only righteousness that could ever stand in this holiness lay in he who spoke. Before this light all human righteousness was darkness. In its presence, the earth and the heavens must flee away. From that moment of realization, Paul had but one determination, ‘to be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith’. It is the determination of any who glimpse the glory of God in Christ; for them all self-righteousness disappears like the burning of the morning mists leaving them naked and exposed and there can be only one exclamation:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness (in resurrected glory) My beauty are, and glorious dress
Paul’s one all-consuming desire was to know Christ
When someone has seen a glorified Christ the things of earth ‘grow strangely dim’. When the light shines the shadows disappear. When the sun shines the stars and moon are no more. Christ, and Christ alone, drives and fills the life. Anything in this life upon which Paul placed value, good or bad, becomes nothing, less than nothing. It is worthless before the glory of Christ. All that gave Paul identity, standing, privilege and reputation in this world mattered not at all (Phil 3:5). All that fed his sense of self-worth and personal accomplishment was utter dross (Phil 3:6). Paul saw all law-pedlars, whether peddling its rituals or its rules, as base and evil. He treats them with vitriol; they are ‘dogs’ who trust and glory in the flesh (Phil 3:2) and draw hearts away from the glory of Christ Jesus in the gospel (Phil 3:3) . The law, focuses men on their own importance and Paul who has seen the glorified Christ will have none of it. Having seen Christ in glory he knows man in the flesh has no importance, no glory. Only Christ is worthy of glory. Only Christ is irradiated with the glory of God. And so any who seduce others from the object of his love (the glorified Christ) are contemptible. Elsewhere he targets philosophy, that ‘queen of the sciences’ accusing it of being hollow and empty; it counts as nothing, is mere empty conceit, before the One in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:8). In life Paul is prepared to, and does, suffer the loss of all things, for Christ is the treasure that he seeks. He has found the hidden treasure to obtain which a man will sell all that he has (Matt 13:44). Life in its fulness is found only in Christ. There is no glory worth pursuing anywhere other.
Paul has tasted that the Lord is good. He has learned a little of knowing Christ and knows that knowing him has a worth that eclipses all else. He wants to know him more and more. How can he do so? He will do so, as by the power of the resurrected life of Christ in glory (for it is as a resurrected Christ in glory that Paul first knew Christ) he puts to death all that is not of Christ in his life, all that is mere ‘flesh’ (true circumcision). He will know Christ as he shares in his sufferings. It is the only way for any to know Christ, now or ever. We know him and fellowship with him only as we die to self, take up our cross and follow him. The life of Christ on earth is always one of identifying with his rejection, his reproaches, his persecution, and his self-renunciation; it was for Christ and it is for us, for Christ remains unaccepted and hated. And so, in this world we know him in glory in our hearts only as we know him through the cross in our lives. We experience his life only as we share his death. We know fellowship with the Christ of glory and rejoice with joy unspeakable through sharing the shame of the Christ of the cross. And we enter into future glory through accepting present sufferings.
Whatever, in God’s plan, these sufferings may be, even if they may mean death itself, Paul was prepared to undergo if this was for him the route to resurrection and glory in Christ. For ultimately, knowing Christ, is being with Christ in glory. Paul had seen him in glory and wanted to be with him there. He was not there yet, merely travelling to it. Thus, whatever the cost, whatever the demands the wilderness threw, whatever the pain involved, he would endure that he may enjoy the Promised Land. Of course, for Paul, the Promised Land is not glory itself, but Christ in glory. The Lamb is all the glory of Immanuel’s land.
It is the Lamb of Glory that fills his vision. He has his eye singly on Him. He thinks nothing of anything that is past – like the runner, his concentration is fully on the prize. It fills his vision and concentrates his mind. Christ is the goal and Christ the prize.
And so it ought to be for us all. Not immediately perhaps, as with Paul, but as by grace we mature in faith it is God’s plan that we will increasingly grasp this perspective and live in it (v16). So that, with Paul, we may all increasingly say ‘for me to live is Christ’. And so, may our God, by his grace, enable us more and more to set our affections on things above – where Christ is. May we, by faith, increasingly see Christ in glory. And, in doing so, may we progressively learn to count everything else as loss compared to the excellence of knowing him, being found in him, and gaining him.
Once again, hymns capture the heart of the apostle so well.
Jesus, my Lord, my Life, my All,
Prostrate before thy throne I fall;
Fain would my soul look up and see
My hope, my heaven, my all in thee.
Compared with Christ, in all beside
No comeliness I see;
The one thing needful, dearest Lord,
Is to be one with thee.
The sense of thy expiring love,
Into my soul convey;
Thyself bestow, for thee alone,
My All in all, I pray.
Less than thyself will not suffice
My comfort to restore;
More than thyself I cannot crave,
And thou canst give no more.
Loved of my God, for him again
With love intense I’d burn;
Chosen of thee ere time began,
I choose thee in return.
Whate’er consists not with thy love,
O teach me to resign;
I’m rich to all the intents of bliss,
If thou, O God, art mine.
My concern is that in the writing (online or in books) of many modern evangelical writers, learned and sophisticated though many are, I see few signs of this heart of the apostle, which is, of course, the life of Christ in maturity in a fallen man (and so he can exhort others to imitate him Phil 3:17). There are plenty books on Christian social and political agendas, defending theological systems of one kind or other, apologetics, and so on, but few that seem to pulsate with a love for the glorified Christ, fewer still where the writer seems to have caught this vision and whose specific purpose is to draw our hearts out to him in glory.
I do not see a great deal of it in the church. And, wretch that I am, I see little of it in me. Why is the Western church without power? Why does the world neither persecute nor believe her? Why indeed.