“The Joy of Knowing Christ” (Philippians 3)
I noticed in the news about a week ago–maybe you saw it too–that Monty Hall died. He was the longtime host of the television game show, Let’s Make a Deal. You remember how the show worked? Monty would pick out a member of the studio audience and offer that person, say, $200 for the tennis shoes she was wearing. Then Monty would suggest a deal. Do you want to keep the $200 you have in your hand, or do you want to trade it in for what’s behind the curtain, where Carol Merrill is standing? Of course, the catch was, the contestant did not know what was behind the curtain. It could be a zonk booby prize, like a bucket of sand. Or it could be some fabulous expensive prize, like a dream vacation to Cancun. That’s how the game worked. Do you think what you have in your hand is worth more than what’s behind the curtain? Or not? Which would you rather have? What you’re holding on to, or what you could have instead?
Well, we kind of get a version of that in our Epistle reading today, in Philippians chapter 3. There St. Paul is saying that what he had in his hand before, while it may have seemed rather valuable to him at the time–now he can see that, in comparison to what he has now, what he had in the past is not even worth comparing. Because now Paul has received as a gift what is of infinitely surpassing worth–and something you can be absolutely sure of, as well–and that is, “The Joy of Knowing Christ.”
This is the third in our series of four sermons on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We’ve said that this letter has such a theme of joy running through it that Philippians often is called “The Epistle of Joy.” In the first chapter, we saw that Paul thought of his relationship with the Philippians as “A Joyful Gospel Partnership.” Last week, in the second chapter, Paul spoke of “The Joy of Being of the Same Mind, the Mind of Christ.” And now today, in chapter 3, it’s “The Joy of Knowing Christ.”
Knowing Christ–that’s the big thing in life. It was for St. Paul, and it is for you. If you know Christ, everything else pales in comparison. Even what you think are your greatest accomplishments or possessions are nothing as compared to knowing Christ.
Look at what Paul could have boasted about and prided himself in. He lists them off, and this is quite an impressive list. Something to be proud of, you might say. Listen to his pedigree and his resume: “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.”
In other words, Paul was a true blue Israelite, as good as it gets. His adherence to the law, throughout his life, was impeccable. “Circumcised on the eighth day”: Right on time, according to the covenant, just like it should be for every baby boy. “Of the people of Israel”: One of God’s chosen people, not a pagan, heathen Gentile. “Of the tribe of Benjamin”: Benjamin was one of the leading tribes of Israel, more prestigious than most. Israel’s first king, Saul, was from the tribe of Benjamin. In fact, Paul was named after him. Saul of Tarsus was his name, before he became known as Paul. “A Hebrew of Hebrews”: Paul was proud of his ancestry and his heritage. He could trace his lineage back; he was proud of his roots.
“As to the law, a Pharisee”: Now here Paul was going above and beyond. He wasn’t just an ordinary Israelite. No, he had chosen a dedicated religious vocation. He was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were the elite law-keepers of the people. They made it their business to be super-attentive to the details of the Mosaic law. And to make sure they wouldn’t even come close to sinning, they added on their own rules and traditions as sort of a hedge to keep from breaking the commandments. They had rules about how far of a distance you could walk on a Sabbath day’s journey. They had rules about how to wash your hands, to keep from becoming ceremonially unclean. And things like that. And when Saul of Tarsus went to Pharisee school in Jerusalem, he was top of the class, a straight “A” student. He really knew his stuff.
“As to zeal, a persecutor of the church”: Young Saul was so on fire for the Lord, or so he thought, that he even took to persecuting that new, breakaway group of Jews that followed the condemned and crucified blasphemer, Jesus of Nazareth. Saul participated in the stoning of Stephen. Saul got letters authorizing him to go up to Damascus and arrest the members of that sect up there. That’s how zealous Saul was for the rabbinical Judaism that he practiced.
“As to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Look, if anybody could be saved by their adherence to the law, it was Paul. Nobody did it better. Nobody had a better pedigree. Nobody had a better resume. Nobody was more attentive or zealous or righteous. Surely God would reward Paul! Surely Paul had earned his way into God’s favor!
Wrong! Dead wrong! And Paul now knew it. Listen to what he says: “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.” All that impressive resume that he just listed–Paul now counts it as worth nothing in God’s sight. In fact, by trusting in his own righteousness, Paul had been even digging himself a bigger hole.
What is it that you might be counting in your plus column before God? Do you come from a long line of Lutherans? Well, that’s good, but don’t trust in it for scoring points with God. Have you led an outwardly respectable life, never falling into drugs or drunkenness or sexual promiscuity? Again, that’s good, that’s a smart way to live, but you don’t earn your way into heaven by that. Do you go to church every week? Wonderful! That’s what you should do. But if you’re counting on that as a work that you do to merit God’s favor, you’re wrong. Do you treat other people well? Are you basically a kind and thoughtful person? That’s fine, but that in itself is not the reason you will be saved. No, it’s not based on your righteousness.
Listen to Paul again: “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.” All the things Paul could have prided himself in, he now counts as rubbish. “Skybala” is the Greek word there, and it can mean “rubbish,” “garbage,” even the “dung” in a dunghill. Paul’s self-righteousness ain’t worth a hill of . . . beans, let’s put it that way. And neither is your righteousness or mine.
So what did Paul discover in its place? The righteousness of Christ. And that righteousness is worth more than all the piles of silver or gold in the world. Jesus’ righteousness is the gold standard, the only righteousness that will avail on the Day of Judgment. Do you have it? Do you know it? It’s yours, as a free gift.
This is the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. There is nothing else that can compare. For only Christ Jesus your Savior will give you the righteous standing you need to stand before God and enter his heaven. You will be saved by works, but not yours. Jesus’. His works. His keeping of the law on your behalf. His taking of the law’s punishment for you, in your place. That’s what Jesus did when he died on the cross for you. He bore the weight of your sins and suffered and died for them, shedding his holy blood to cleanse you of your unrighteousness. Now you are forgiven. Now you are free. Ahh, the pressure is off! The weight is lifted! No more wondering if you’ve done enough. You haven’t. But Jesus has. More than enough. This is the joy of knowing Jesus.
And now, through faith in Jesus Christ, you share in his benefits, you share in his inheritance. Joined to Jesus in baptism, you are united with him. His future is your future, and that future is everlasting. You will share in Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus returns, he will raise up our dead bodies and give us everlasting life. That’s what Paul says too: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Christ is coming again, and we look forward, with joy, to the day of resurrection! The resurrection of the body. Your body, transformed to be glorious. No more pain or affliction. Death is not the end for us! No, life, eternal life, together with Christ and all his people–this is what we are looking forward to!
So in the meantime, now we press on. Paul puts it like this: “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.”
We press on. In the midst of sufferings and loss, we press on. In the midst of waiting, waiting for answers that don’t seem to come, still we press on. The confidence we have in Christ gives us hope, gives us strength, gives us perseverance. Remember where your citizenship is. It’s not in any earthly city or country. No, our citizenship is in heaven. That’s the true home that awaits us.
Dear friends, fellow citizens of heaven, with St. Paul you and I know the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. There’s nothing else that can compare. You and I have the joy, the great joy, of knowing Christ. We know what’s behind the curtain. And that’s a pretty sweet deal!