I recently took one of my daughter’s cars to the dealer for its 80,000 mile tune-up. When one buys a new car, the manufacturer provides a maintenance schedule indicating what maintenance is required at various intervals. Certain things need replaced, while others simply need lubrication or inspection. The same is true for our lives, although we do not inspect our lives on the basis of mileage, but rather in terms of time.
This last Sunday of 2006 is a good time for us to reflect on the past year as we prepare to commence a new year – 2007. Have we lost sight of our priorities? Are there areas of failure which we need to recognize and remedy? Do we need to review our goals? I can think of no better passage of Scripture to consider on the eve of a new year than our text in Philippians 3. We are in the midst of a study of discipleship. In our previous lesson, we looked at the Lord Jesus as the perfect disciple. In this lesson, we will consider Paul’s words as those of a model disciple. We will also find that Paul’s words provide us with an excellent benchmark by which any disciple may evaluate the past year and establish goals for the year to come. An older friend shared with a group of us that when he evaluated the past year and prepared for the new, he used this text from Philippians 3 as his goal:
7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11, emphasis mine).
One way to measure the success of a business is to evaluate it each year in terms of a profit and loss statement. I must confess I’ve quickly overstepped the boundaries of my knowledge of accounting, but I do know that an end-of-the-year accounting reveals the losses and gains a company has made, measured in dollars and cents. Even as a church, we provide an end-of-the-year report indicating whether we have more or less money in hand than this time last year. I find it fascinating in these verses in Philippians to see how Paul evaluates the past, and the present and the future, in terms of profit and loss. But let us first make some observations about the context.
Philippians 3 begins and ends with words of warning:
1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! (Philippians 3:1-2)
17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things (Philippians 3:17-19).
Paul’s values and goals as a disciple of Jesus Christ are in stark contrast to those of his unbelieving Jewish adversaries. Indeed, Paul’s values and goals as a Christian are in stark contrast to his previous values and goals as a devout, but unbelieving, Jewish Pharisee. In our worship service this morning, men were encouraged to share their testimony about how they came to faith in Jesus Christ. Some came to faith at an early age. Others came to faith later in life after living as pagans, much as some of the Corinthian saints had lived.3 Paul’s testimony was very different. He had lived as a devout Jew. He was deeply religious and believed he was serving God when he persecuted Christians. In terms of human effort, Paul was at the head of his class, religiously speaking. But in terms of the gospel, Paul was opposing God and was desperately lost. His law-keeping contributed nothing to his eternal well-being and served only to condemn him.4
When our Lord Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul’s life was turned upside down. He came to regard all of his religious works as a liability, as a loss. While Paul may have excelled beyond other Jews in his performance, his religious zeal gained him nothing in terms of the righteousness that God requires. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ caused him to completely reverse his values, as he came to regard his works as an offense to God. And the Jesus whom he had been persecuting (by persecuting the church) was the One whom he came to regard as the most precious thing of all.
In our worship time today, my friend Lenny Correll challenged us to consider Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1. I had never read these verses in 1 Timothy in the light of Paul’s words in our text in Philippians 3. In 1 Timothy, Paul has instructed Timothy to remain on in Ephesus to correct some false teaching.5 It becomes evident in verses 7-11 that this false teaching is being disseminated by Jewish false teachers. They want to be teachers of the law, but they are ignorant of what the law was meant to accomplish.
Does this not describe Paul before God turned him around and brought him to faith? Was Paul not a student of the renowned Gamaliel?6 Was he not the bright and shining star on Judaism’s horizon? From what I read in Acts (not to mention Philippians 3:4-6), it appears that Paul was the most promising young Jewish leader in Jerusalem, at least among the Pharisees. Wouldn’t you love to have heard Paul preach just once before he was saved, and then compare that message with one of his sermons as a Christian?
In 1 Timothy 1, Paul goes on to say that the law was not given for a righteous man, but for ungodly sinners.7 Such was he. When Paul then continues to mention his own conversion, he is very clear that his salvation was the result of God’s mercy and grace, rather than his own good works.8 God saved Paul, not because he was so good, but because he was so bad:
But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:16).
No one could ever again say, “I’m not good enough for God to save,” because Paul was as bad as one can get. If God could save a sinner like Paul – a man who persecuted the church, arresting Christians and dragging them off to jail or execution – then surely He can save anyone. Paul’s conversion, whether seen in 1 Timothy, in Acts, or in Philippians 3, was a humbling experience, an experience that completely reversed his values.
As we come back to Philippians 3:7-11, verse 7 is written in the past tense,9 describing how Paul changed his mind about the value of all of his spiritual assets achieved in Judaism. These “assets” Paul came to regard as “liabilities” because of Christ. Christ’s righteousness revealed Paul’s works of unbelief for exactly what they were – an offense to God.
Verse 7 depicts Paul’s change of mind regarding his works at the time of his conversion. The “assets” to which Paul refers are his zealous works as an unbelieving Pharisee. Verse 8 goes beyond this by speaking of the present and not just the past. Now it is not just Paul’s former works (“assets”) that he has come to regard as liabilities, but rather “all things” other than Christ. Paul began to see things clearly at the moment of his conversion, but as that process continued, he came to regard anything other than Christ as a liability.
This past week, one of my daughters happened to drive by a house that had caught fire. The entire upstairs was in flames, and the woman who lived there was standing on her front lawn in tears. One can understand why. Paul too has lost all things because of Christ, but he is not in tears. He has come to see how little value earthly things have in comparison to knowing Christ. Fellowship with our Lord has become Paul’s “pearl of great price,”10 and he gladly gives up everything to gain11 Him.
What would be included in the “all things” that Paul counted as liabilities? To begin with, there are material possessions – wealth, luxuries, human comforts. There are other things like status, the esteem of others, position, prestige, significance, security. These too are not necessarily bad, but we should not pursue them as the greater good. If we do enjoy some of these things, we should not cling to them too strongly.
Paul literally lost all because of his faith in Christ and his obedience to his call. Does this mean that every Christian should divest themselves of all things? I think not. While we are to follow Paul’s example, we need not experience life in exactly the same way that he did. We need not go to the same cities, or minister in precisely the same ways that Paul did. We do not all need to become tentmakers. We do, however, need to embrace the same values. We need to view knowing Christ as the greatest good, and all other things as having no value, comparatively speaking.
Paul’s goal in life is to “know Christ,” but just what does this mean? How does one come to know Christ in this life? Initially, one comes to know Christ through saving faith, which Paul describes in verse 9. By faith, one is found in Christ, possessing His righteousness which was gained by means of His faithfulness. A number of the translations differ from that of the NET Bible in verse 9:
And may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:9, NASB 95).
And be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ's faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ's faithfulness (Philippians 3:9, NET Bible).
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 (Philippians 3:9, ESV).
And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (Philippians 3:9, NIV).
And be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (Philippians 3:9, NKJV).
The question is whether the “faith” referred to here is our “faith” in Christ or Christ’s “faithfulness” in securing our salvation through His substitutionary death at Calvary. Grammatically, one could render the Greek text either way, but I am inclined to favor the decision of the translators of the NET Bible. In the end, both aspects are true. Salvation comes about as a result of Christ’s faithfulness and through the sinner’s faith12 in the saving work of Jesus.
Now, what does “knowing Christ” look like? Just how does one come to know Christ in the way Paul means for us to understand? He tells us in verses 10 and 11:
10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
We “know Christ” as we “experience the power of His resurrection.” And how do we experience the “power of His resurrection”? I do not believe Paul is speaking here of our own resurrection from the dead because that is what he refers to in verse 11. I believe Paul is speaking of daily experiencing resurrection power in our lives. He speaks much more fully of this in Romans 6-8. In Romans 6, Paul spells out the necessity of living a righteous life. When we were baptized into Christ (saved), we were identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. This is symbolized by believer’s (water) baptism. I was in Christ when he died, freeing me from my sin. I was in Christ when He was raised from the dead to live a new life. Therefore the Christian is obligated to live consistently with our position in Christ. How can we who have died to sin keep on living in sin, as we once did? How can we who have been raised to newness of life continue to live the same old life of sin that characterized us as unbelievers?
If Romans 6 explains the necessity for living a different kind of life as a Christian, Romans 7 explains the impossibility of doing so. As new creatures in Christ, we love the law of God and agree with it. We want to do what it commands, and we desire to avoid what it condemns or forbids. The problem is that sin overpowers our flesh. In our own strength, we are unable to overcome the power of sin. We end up doing what we hate and not doing what we desire. The chapter comes to a close with an expression of desperation and despair:
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)
Who can rescue me from a body that is powerless to do right and subject to sin’s power? The answer to this question is found in chapter 8. Like salvation, sanctification (the process of growth toward spiritual maturity and godly living) is impossible in our own strength. Like salvation, the solution to the problem of the believer’s powerless flesh is to be found in the cross of Christ:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).
Paul will get even more specific than this as Romans 8 unfolds. The question Paul left us with at the end of chapter 7 was this: “Who can deliver me from this body that is dead so far as being able to live in a way that pleases God, this body that is so easily overpowered by sin?” The answer is that the power to live a godly life does not come from our flesh but from God’s Spirit:
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:9-11, emphasis mine).
This is what Paul means when he speaks of “experiencing the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24).
Here is a text the “good life gospeleers” (the health and wealth prosperity preachers) never seem to get around to. It is easy to see that Paul experienced a great deal of suffering as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul contrasts himself with the false teachers who have come to Corinth. They made great claims, but they somehow seemed to avoid suffering for the sake of the gospel:
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so: with much greater labors, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. 24 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. 26 I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, 27 in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing. 28 Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Corinthians 11:22-29)
In Philippians 3:10 and Colossians 1:24, we see that Paul actually rejoiced in his sufferings as an apostle because in this way he could experience a deeper level of intimacy with Christ. As Christ suffered in the flesh, so would His disciples:
18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me” (John 15:18-21).
The disciple of Jesus can rejoice that he is privileged to suffer for His sake:
So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41).
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Suffering for Christ’s sake identifies us with Him and with His suffering for us. Let us not forget the words of the risen Lord to Saul (Paul) when He confronted him on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) To suffer for Christ is to suffer with Christ, and thus to enter into deeper intimacy with Him.
Paul next speaks of “being like Him in His death” (Philippians 3:10). How does this come about? The first way would be to die in the same way that Jesus did (just as Paul purposed to suffer as Christ did). We see this in Philippians 1:
19 For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My confident hope is that I will in no way be ashamed but that with complete boldness, even now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die (Philippians 1:19-20).
Here, Paul’s purpose and desire is that if he is to die, he would die in a way that exalts Christ. In other words, the reason for his death would be righteous (the gospel), and also the manner of his death would be godly. Both Peter and Paul spoke of our Lord’s death as an example for us to follow:
21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:21-25).
5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)
Our Lord died in obedience to the will of the Father.14 Having said that we should purpose to die as our Lord did, I’m not certain that the only way to “be like Him in His death” is to die. For example, in Ephesians 5, Paul uses the death of our Lord as an example to Christian husbands to show them how they should live in a sacrificial way for the benefit of their wives:
25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Thus, we are to manifest the same attitudes (toward God and others) and to behave in a similar way to our Lord when He died. That is why Peter can use the silent suffering of our Lord as an example to slaves and to wives (1 Peter 2:18-3:6), just as Paul can use it as an example to husbands (Ephesians 5:25-27).
Finally, Paul’s aim is to “somehow attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:11). The word “somehow” should not be read as an expression of doubt or uncertainty as to the fact of his bodily resurrection or to the means of it. Paul has great certainty of these things:
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day (2 Timothy 1:12).
7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! 8 Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Paul knows where he will go when he dies. Paul knows how he will get there. What Paul does not know is how or when he will die. That is what is uncertain to him. Let me see if I can illustrate this by using the analogy of an airline pass. Because of a problem my wife and I had in a flight to Houston, Texas, Southwest Airlines gave us coupons for two round trip tickets. Jeannette and I planned to use these to travel to the Pacific Northwest, but we did not know exactly when we would go. Going to Seattle was certain, but when we would get there was, at that moment in time, unknown. Paul knew that when he died his body would be raised from the dead. But how and when he was to die was not known – it was just, in Paul’s words, “somehow.”
This is Paul’s “profit and loss” statement which expresses his eternal value system. It tells us what Paul considered precious (knowing Christ) and what he considered a liability (his good works as an unbeliever). It tells us what he gladly would put aside to gain Christ. And thus Paul’s goal was to know Christ in His sufferings, death, and resurrection. His desire was to live like Jesus.
As I think through the New Testament Gospels, I realize that our Lord’s disciples (particularly the twelve) experienced something similar to Paul. They were immediately impressed with Jesus, as we can see in John 1. They came to the point where they were so captivated by the Lord Jesus that they left everything to follow Him (Luke 5:1-11). And yet they still did not fully grasp His greatness, His supreme value. But the more they grew in their understanding of His worth, the more committed to Him they became. So it should be for us.
As we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another, it may be beneficial for us to consider whether the Lord Jesus has become more precious to us. I believe (with others) that heaven is the place where we will ponder the worth of our Lord for all eternity and continually grow in our wonder and amazement at His worth. This growing appreciation of our Lord should be taking place in time (now), as well as in eternity. Each day, He should become more precious to us. And if our appreciation for His supremacy continues to grow, so should our desire and commitment to know Him more intimately and to serve Him more faithfully. The more we come to know Christ, the greater our zeal should be to press on toward even greater knowledge of Him. This is the topic of Paul’s next paragraph.
12 Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected – but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will reveal to you the error of your ways. 16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained (Philippians 3:12-16).
Paul was certainly not a perfectionist. As dramatic as his conversion had been, and as much as he had already achieved (in the power of the Spirit), Paul was not content with where he was. While conversion happens at some point in time,15 discipleship is a lifetime process. In our text, Paul draws our attention to God’s purpose for saving him, a purpose that was generally revealed to him at the time of his conversion, and more specifically as time went on:
15 So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for this reason, to designate you in advance as a servant and witness to the things you have seen and to the things in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me’” (Acts 26:15-18).
The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).
23 “For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve came to me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul! You must stand before Caesar, and God has graciously granted you the safety of all who are sailing with you.’ (Acts 27:23-24).”
We can hardly dispute the fact that God chose to save Paul for a particular task, but many may think that Paul was the exception, and that we are saved only to keep us from hell and to assure us of heaven. This would be an unbiblical conclusion. Each and every Christian has been saved for a purpose, saved to fulfill a specific purpose. We see this indicated in general terms in Romans 8 and Ephesians 4:
28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
I, therefore, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1).
When we come to the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts, we find that every Christian has been given at least one spiritual gift, with an accompanying ministry and capacity for effectiveness:
4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
If a believer, as part of the body, fails to fulfill his or her stewardship, the whole body suffers.16 When the body is functioning as it should, every member of the body is fulfilling its part to the edification of the entire body:
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Thus, every Christian, like Paul, should strive to discern his or her place in the body of Christ – the purpose for which they were saved – and then to pursue that calling. If it is your desire and commitment to pursue that for which you have been called, then you must know how God has gifted you, and you must have a sense of what God has called you to do. Do you know what your spiritual gifts are? You are a steward of these gifts,17 and God will hold you accountable for your stewardship. If not, I would make this a goal and a priority as we come to a new year. Having discerned what God has called you to do, I would strongly urge you to consider how you will achieve that for which God has called and equipped you.
In Paul’s words, we should “strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of us.” I have drawn attention to the word “strive” because this is the same Greek word used for persecution.18 To persecute was to pursue with great zeal. And so God displayed His grace and power by converting Paul and transforming him from one who pursued (to persecute) Christians to one who pursued Christ, and his calling in Him.
Paul had one compelling goal, one clear mission: to strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.19 Paul’s goal of knowing Christ is very closely tied to his goal of striving toward the upward call of our Lord:
1 (See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children – and indeed we are! For this reason the world does not know us: because it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is. 3 And everyone who has this hope focused on him purifies himself, just as Jesus is pure) (1 John 3:1-3).
Paul made it his goal to strive to know Christ in this life, but he also knew that we will not know Him fully until He appears to take us to be with Him in glory. It is then that we shall know Him fully, because we will then see Him as He is. Paul describes the “upward call” more fully in 1 Thessalonians 4:
13 Now we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. 15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Christ was everything to Paul. Paul’s conversion introduced him to the Jesus whom he had been persecuting. It turned his life around and his values upside down. Paul’s goal was to know Christ more intimately in his day-to-day walk. His long-term goal was to experience the “upward call” and to spend all eternity with Christ, and thus to know and enjoy Him fully.
How does one strive toward this upward call? I would say that it is doing everything possible to prepare for that day and, indeed, doing everything to hasten that day:
11 Since all these things are to melt away in this manner, what sort of people must we be, conducting our lives in holiness and godliness, 12 while waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God? Because of this day, the heavens will be burned up and dissolve, and the celestial bodies will melt away in a blaze! (2 Peter 3:11-12)
Think about it as though you were a young man engaged to a wonderful young woman. She has gone abroad for schooling but is soon to return for the wedding. You would, of course, have the house clean and neat, ready for her arrival. You might merely wait for her to arrive at your home. But that is not what you would do. You would probably check to see if an earlier flight was available. And you would certainly be at the airport to meet her. You would do everything possible to be ready for her and to speed her return. That is the way the Christian should be regarding our Lord’s second coming.
Paul did something else in his striving toward the upward call – he forgot the things that were behind, and reached out for what lay ahead. Have you ever watched a child who has his hands full of toys, but wants something else? It is not easy for that child to come to the point of willingness to part with some things in order to gain something else. They have to decide what is most important. Striving for a future goal requires us to leave some things behind:
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12).
In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul is saying that in order to strive toward (or grasp) the upward call, he must first forget (let go of) the past. At first, my inclination was to think of certain parts of the past that would prove to be a hindrance to progress in the faith. We would all like to forget our failures and to leave them in the past. We should also leave the failures of others in the past, particularly those which negatively impacted us. We should also leave our successes in the past. In the context of Philippians 3, this may be the most important part of our past to leave behind because we may be tempted to rest on our laurels, rather than to press on toward the upward call. But having said this, there is a way in which we should leave all the past behind us, so that we will not be distracted from what lies ahead:
61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:61-62).
This is not to say that we are to entirely forget the past, for we are frequently told to remember the lessons of the past.20 But it does seem that those who dwell on the past often glorify the “good old days,” such that they are unwilling to press on toward that which God has laid up for them in the future. This is like the Israelites’ glorification of the past as an excuse not to press on toward Canaan:
1 When they journeyed from Elim, the entire company of Israelites came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their exodus from the land of Egypt. 2 The entire company of Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron in the desert. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this desert to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” (Exodus 16:1-3)
1 Then all the community raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished in this wilderness! 3 Why has the Lord brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” 4 So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).
Like Paul, the disciple of Jesus must be forward looking and upward looking. For those who are young, this is much easier to do. As we grow older, the past tends to look better than the future, unless we see the future in heavenly terms, as opposed to earthly terms. Paul will take this matter up in the next paragraph. But before we go there, we must first consider verses 15 and 16.
In verse 15, Paul instructs those who are “perfect” to “embrace this point of view.” What point of view is this, and what does it mean to be “perfect”? Those who are “perfect” are those who are mature.21 Those who are “mature” should be the first to recognize how much more they need to grow in their faith. Those who are “mature” are those who desire, like Paul, to know Christ more intimately, and who are striving toward the “upward call.” By inference, we must conclude that it is the immature who think too highly of themselves with regard to their spiritual maturity. For those who think they have arrived, Paul has every confidence that God will reveal this to them. Those who are spiritually arrogant (who are so bold as to think they have arrived) are not inclined to listen to others, but this does not prevent God from humbling them. He can arrange the circumstances needed to expose our sin and our immaturity, and He will do it. Paul has no doubts about that.
On the surface, verse 16 might appear to contradict verses 12-15. Verse 16 says, in effect, stand firm, stand fast; verses 12-15 urge the believer to forget the past and strive to move forward. How can both be true at the same time? Let us make a couple of important observations. First, notice the change from “I” in verses 4-14 to “us” (plural) and “you” (plural) in verses 15 and 16. Second, notice the distinction Paul makes between “us” and “you” in verses 15 and 16. Paul seems to be saying this: “I have told you how I am pressing on, rather than looking back. You should do the same. And this certainly means that you should not backslide.” I think Paul may also be saying, “While you should forget your past performance as a disciple, you must never allow yourselves to ‘move beyond’ the doctrines of the faith that you learned from us. Thus, we should stand firm in the doctrines of the faith, but we should press on in our daily walk.” Put differently, Paul is saying: “Don’t look back (but press on), and don’t fall back (but stand fast in the truth).”
17 Be imitators of me, brothers and sisters, and watch carefully those who are living this way, just as you have us as an example. 18 For many live, about whom I have often told you, and now, with tears, I tell you that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, they exult in their shame, and they think about earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself. 1 So then, my brothers and sisters, dear friends whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand in the Lord in this way, my dear friends! (Philippians 3:7—4:1)
Disciples are those who follow Jesus, but there are also those in the church who are more mature in faith and practice whom we should follow to the degree that they follow Christ.
7 For you know yourselves how you must imitate us, because we did not behave without discipline among you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying. Instead, in toil and drudgery we worked night and day in order not to burden any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give ourselves as an example for you to imitate (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in your speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12).
6 Encourage younger men likewise to be self-controlled, 7 showing yourself to be an example of good works in every way. In your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and a sound message that cannot be criticized, so that any opponent will be at a loss, because he has nothing evil to say about us (Titus 2:6-8).
1 So as your fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Now we see that Paul’s words were meant to serve as an example for every disciple. In verse 17, Paul is not merely urging his readers to follow him; he is instructing his readers to identify those who live like him and to follow their example. There are many who seek to attract our Lord’s disciples, but who should not be followed:
28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29 I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears (Acts 20:28-31).
Paul has just told us the kind of people we should follow and seek to imitate. Now, in verses 18 and 19, he will describe those about whom he is warning us. There goals and pursuits are the exact opposite of Paul and all true disciples. They are those about whom he has warned the Philippians earlier. Certainly this must include his words at the beginning of this chapter:
1 Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! To write this again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials (Philippians 3:1-3).
Paul tells us that they are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “end is destruction” (Philippians 3:18-19). This fits perfectly with the early verses of Philippians 3. The enemies of the cross are those who trust in good works, rather than in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of calvary. Naturally, they are hell-bent, or as Paul puts it, “their end is destruction.” And not only do they rely on the flesh (self effort) for salvation, they are dominated by the appetites of the flesh. Their goal is to “eat, drink, and be merry”:
32 If from a human point of view I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what did it benefit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:32-33).
As we can see, these are people who are earthbound, present-oriented, and who live as though there is no eternity. How different it is for the true disciple. The true disciple knows that he (or she) is but a stranger and pilgrim in this life (1 Peter 2:11), whose citizenship is in heaven. They, like Paul, wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus.22
9 So then whether we are alive or away, we make it our ambition to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil (2 Corinthians 5:9-10).
Here in Philippians, Paul is not thinking of standing before the judgment seat as much as he is thinking of the resurrection of the dead. Remember that death was something very real to Paul,23 as was resurrection from the dead.24 Paul was truly a man who “took up his cross,” and he exhorted others to be like him. He lived not for the present, but for the future. He forsook temporary earthly pleasures to pursue eternal pleasures. Not so with the false disciples.
I believe that Philippians is actually the conclusion of chapter 3, and that Philippians 4:2 should really be the beginning of chapter 4. Paul concludes chapter 3 by indicating how it is that one can “stand in the Lord.” It is by imitating Paul and those like him. It is by grasping the supremacy of Christ over all. He is not merely the means of our salvation (though He is surely that); He is the ultimate good in this life, and in the next. He is the One who should be our “pearl of great price,” the One for whom we would gladly give up all to know Him. He is the One for whom we are waiting, and whose coming we desire to hasten. We should not dwell on the past, but should fix our eyes on Jesus, who is not only the author (pioneer) of our faith, but also the goal toward which we strive.
As we look back on this past year, what was most important to us? What is it that we sacrificed to attain? What is it to which we looked forward? As we commence a new year, let us seek to see our Lord as Supreme, the One who makes everything else pale in insignificance. Let us forget the past and press on in this coming year to know Him and to await the “upward call.”
Let us not deceive ourselves by thinking that we were saved only to keep us from hell and to get us to heaven. Let us seek to know the purpose for which we were saved and the role He has for us to play in His church. Let us cease to be self-centered and to focus on others. Let us strive to say, like Paul, that our fellow saints are our joy and crown. Let us seek, as individuals, and as a church, to have an outward focus this coming year, and not just an inward one. Let us strive to discern our mission in life and to achieve it, so that we may someday say, with Paul:
7 I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! 8 Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 12 in the Following Jesus in a Me-First World series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on December 31, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
9 The NET Bible renders the verb in verse 7, “I have come to regard,” which is certainly a legitimate way of handling the Greek. And in verse 8, it is clear in the NET Bible that Paul is now speaking of the present: “. . . I now regard. . . .” Nevertheless, I am inclined to prefer the NASB’s “I have counted as loss” or the ESV’s “I counted as loss” in verse 7, which makes it even clearer that Paul is speaking of the change of mind that took place at his conversion.
11 Gaining Christ is not to be seen as the fruit of one’s efforts. Rather, “gain” is being contrasted with “loss.” To trust in Jesus Christ as Savior is to gain, while striving to please God in one’s own righteousness is loss.
13 Other translations use the term “fellowship” here: “the fellowship of His sufferings” (NASB). The Christian experiences a unique kind of fellowship with Jesus when we share in His sufferings.
15 The precise moment in time may not be known to some, but there is a point at which we are transformed from death to life, from darkness to light, from being lost to being saved.
19 Verses 13-14.