READ : Philippians 3:4-14
If you aim at nothing, that’s exactly what you will hit, as the saying goes. So what are you aiming at with your life?
One of the surest signs of growing up is recognizing that your sense of values has changed. It’s amazing how time alters our judgment about what is and isn’t important in life. Things we once prized now seem downright silly. Ambitions that we pursued with all our strength no longer stir even a flicker of interest. “How in the world could I ever have thought that was so important?” we ask ourselves. When we are young, our heads are filled with notions of athletic glory, romantic excitement, pride of possession from owning the right car or wearing the best clothes. But as we mature, we outgrow those youthful fantasies and begin to recognize and treasure and seek after the things that truly matter. (Or at least we should; nothing is sadder than an adult with the values of a teenager.)
The apostle Paul went through a somewhat similar experience of “growing up” in spiritual terms. There came a time in his life when his whole value system was turned upside down. Everything he had formerly been pursuing now seemed worthless to him. All the things that gave him a sense of importance and self worth became, in his word, “garbage.” It’s not that he was a terrible or a shallow person who suddenly “saw the light” and got religion. Paul wasn’t a criminal, or a greedy businessman, or a corrupt politician, or even just an empty-headed modern pleasure-seeker. On the contrary! Paul was as religious as anyone ever has been. What he came to see as worthless was the very religion that had caused him to become so proud and self-righteous.
A RIGHTEOUSNESS NOT MY OWN
Here’s how the apostle describes his life before he knew Jesus Christ. This is his description of his pre-Christian identity:
I have many reasons to trust in my human nature. Others may think they have reasons to trust in theirs. But I have even more. . . . I am part of the people of Israel. I am from the tribe of Benjamin. I am a pure Hebrew. As far as the law is concerned, I am a Pharisee. As far as being committed is concerned, I opposed and attacked the church. As far as keeping the Law is concerned, I kept it perfectly.
I thought things like that were for my benefit. But now I consider them to be nothing, because of Christ.
(Philippians 3:4-7, nirv)
Here Paul lists all the reasons he had for being proud of himself and confident in his own goodness. By ordinary judgment, Paul’s religious and moral standing was the highest in the whole world. He had impeccable credentials, both with respect to background and personal performance. Paul’s wasn’t the usual testimony that we have come to expect from a convert to Christianity – there’s no story here of a drastic change from a life of shame and degradation. No drug addiction, no prison term, no godless life-style suddenly arrested and turned over to Christ. Paul’s conversion story wasn’t like that at all. His life before he met Christ was zealously religious and scrupulously virtuous. Paul wasn’t an example of man at his worst, but of man at his best!
The pre-Christian Paul was righteous and unashamed, both outwardly (as far as others could see), and inwardly (as far as he knew himself). Listening to him describe himself, you get the impression of a privileged man very successful in his chosen field, and very happy with himself as a result. Paul lists a long series of things that explain this proud self-satisfaction. Four of them come from his family background: he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” The blood of Abraham flowed pure in Paul’s veins. He had been born and raised orthodox; he had the very best spiritual pedigree.
Then the apostle mentions three more elements that contributed to his sense of achievement, all matters of his own personal choice and conviction (vv. 5b-6). Paul did not merely rest on the privileges that were his by birth. He cultivated his natural advantages by active commitment to the religious life. Paul kept all the rules. He went to all the right schools, he joined the right party, he was noticed by the right people. He became a Pharisee, which to devout Jews was the most prestigious religious group because it was the strictest. Then he became a zealous persecutor of the new sect of Christians. Even among the Pharisees Paul’s reputation for orthodoxy and piety was great. He was part of a real spiritual elite, sort of the religious equivalent of a United States Marine. Finally, Paul sums it all up this way: “As far as keeping the Law is concerned, I kept it perfectly” – or so it seemed to him at the time. Martin Luther once said that if anyone could ever have been saved by being a good monk, it was he. Paul’s practice of religion was just like that. If striving to be very religious and zealous for God are what it takes to please God, Paul was a clear winner.
But there came a moment when his eyes were opened – literally – by seeing Jesus Christ. Paul came to re-evaluate his whole life as a result of that encounter. Everything he had valued and prided himself upon he now saw as worthless. It was truly a moment of reckoning. Paul added up all his human pluses: his birth and background and upbringing, his zeal and morality and righteousness. What he found was that all these things in God’s eyes totaled zero. “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss; it all amounts to nothing.” How can this be? Are all our attempts at pleasing God really worthless? Is every good deed just wasted effort? Is religion – any religion (including Christianity!) – useless? As far as saving us is concerned, the answer is yes! The trouble is that whatever we do on our own is only relatively good. God doesn’t grant salvation on the basis of giving morality or religion a decent effort or a good try. God is perfect goodness. Only the perfectly good can ever hope to see him. So what are less-than-perfect people to do?
Well, here is the answer Paul offers in Philippians 3, and it’s good news. You can make a trade. There is a wonderful exchange offered to you in Jesus Christ. You can give up your own imperfect, performance-based goodness for a kind of goodness that isn’t your own but rather is given to you by God, in Christ, simply by trusting in him. Here’s the apostle’s simple explanation:
For me, being right with God does not come from the law [that is, from practicing religion or morality]. It comes because I believe in Christ. It comes from God. It is received by faith.
This is what Paul called “a righteousness not my own but from faith in Christ.” Paul surrendered his own religion-produced, self-defined righteousness, in exchange for Christ’s perfect righteousness, which God applies to anyone who turns his life over to the Lord Jesus. He made that trade, he never regretted it. When Paul became a Christian, he lost everything he had before. He lost his old friends among the Pharisees. He lost his job working for the Jewish authorities. He probably lost his family, and he certainly lost all the things he had inherited from them. But he wasn’t the loser in the deal, because in place of all those things, Paul gained Christ. Compared to him, what he formerly possessed seemed like trash. Paul had moved to a new address. He no longer lived in his old life; from now on he was to be found living “in Christ.” Christ’s person and joy and blessing became Paul’s permanent possessions, and Christ’s perfect righteousness replaced Paul’s poor, tattered rags of self-righteousness.
TO KNOW HIM
The apostle not only had a new kind of righteousness as a result. He also had a new set of values, a new way of estimating things. And a new ambition as well. Here’s how he put it:
I want to know Christ better. I want to know the power that raised him from the dead. I want to share in his sufferings. I want to become like him by sharing in his death. Then by God’s grace I will rise from the dead.
All of Paul’s aspirations now center on knowing Christ better. He is not content merely with knowing doctrine, with knowing ideas about God or the Bible. He wants to know Christ himself. Paul’s ambition is nothing less than spiritual union with the Lord Jesus, experiencing the deepest intimacy with him. If you are a Christian like Paul, then through the working of God’s Spirit within you, your goal, your prize in life will also become the ever-increasing knowledge of Christ. You will strive to expand your experience of being united with Christ, to enter it more deeply – he living in you and you in him.
This kind of intimate connection with Christ is what helps us “grow up” spiritually. It’s the thing that will open our eyes to real beauty and goodness, and turn our value systems upside down too. Living in Christ, we learn to see all the junk that used to impress us – Hollywood glamor, the power of money, the appeal of sex, pride in race, family, nation, or yes, even religion – as nothing but garbage in comparison with knowing Christ, with the beauty, the delight, the inexpressible joy of knowing God in the person of Jesus.
PRESS ON TOWARD THE GOAL
Meanwhile, we must keep our eyes on that prize. The Christian life is a battle to be fought. It is a race to be run (to use just two of the New Testament’s metaphors). The old values keep reinserting themselves into our imaginations. They keep reasserting their appeal, and if we lose our concentration, they will draw us back into pursuing them instead of Christ. Like one of those marvelous Kenyan marathon runners, we have to press on toward the goal if we hope to win the prize. We have to keep our eyes fixed on the finish line of the race, and the medal stand where the Great Judge of all waits to award the victors’ honors. For all that he had learned of Christ and all that he had accomplished for him since his conversion, the apostle Paul did not believe he had reached the point where he could relax and “coast” in his Christian life. Listen to what he says:
I have not yet received all of those things. I have not yet been made perfect. But I move on to take hold of what Christ Jesus took hold of me for.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t consider that I have taken hold of it yet. But here is the one thing I do. I forget what is behind me. I push hard toward what is ahead of me. I move on toward the goal to win the prize. God has appointed me to win it. The heavenly prize is Christ Jesus himself.
Paul wasn’t a “perfect” Christian. He wasn’t finished, or complete, despite all that he had accomplished. He hadn’t yet “arrived.” What a difference from his old attitude, when he felt that he had it all, and was completely satisfied with himself! But now Paul is perfectly willing to forget all past achievements and present accomplishments in his desire to press on to life’s greatest goal and prize: Christ Jesus himself.
That’s where I want to keep my eye fixed. It’s so easy to look at what the world calls prizes. I saw an advertisement on television last night for Las Vegas, the world’s gambling and entertainment mecca. “Las Vegas,” it proclaimed. “Everything. All the time.”
I think that’s a lie. I think that Jesus has and is everything, all the time. In him there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Knowing him is the only real and eternal delight. Keep your eye on that prize.