What are we willing to do to gain something of value? Well, you may respond that it depends on what it is. In so many realms of our lives, we try to squeeze the most benefit out of the least amount of hardship or sacrifice, with varying success.
Let’s say I want to lose weight. I might select the diet that still allows me to eat the foods I most enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to go full vegetarian, does it?
We perform this same calculation on a societal level too, don’t we? Think about the current COVID-19 crisis. A question we are currently asking is how can we prevent the worst of the disease with the least amount of sacrifice to our economic health?
Whatever the context, these sorts of calculations demonstrate that deep down, we know that we can’t actually have it all. Life has a way of dismantling our best efforts of gaining the most from forgoing the least, doesn’t it? As much as we try to move the boundaries through science and technology, or by bending the rules, something’s got to give. Something must be sacrificed so that something else, something greater can be gained.
But it’s even more complicated than this. Sometimes we have trouble deciding which outcome, or which thing, is more valuable. We want two things that can’t coexist. One must be put off for the other, and we either can’t decide which is more valuable, or we have a war of desires within us. Sometimes we feel like we have too much invested in something to give it up, even for something that is clearly better. We feel like we have worked too hard to get where we are, and to give it all up would be too great a loss, even for something much better. In this way, our competing desires can make us irrational as we cling to a lesser thing, when something greater can be grasped if we would just let go.
In this passage, Paul is giving us an inside look into how he has dealt with this same kind of dilemma. There was something about his encounter with Jesus that has revealed something better than what he had; something that has captured his heart. But what about his past? What about his status as a supremely devout Jew? What about all of his efforts? How can all of that be abandoned? And what about us? Have we seen something better in our encounter with Jesus? How can we “gain” Christ? And what about those things we’ve worked for, that we value? Should they be set aside?
That is our dilemma and the burden of this text. How do we gain Christ? Before answering this question, we’ll see that Paul begins with the threat to our gaining Christ; an obstacle that if left in place will leave us emptyhanded. And Paul has some harsh words for those who come brandishing this threat.
Threat to Believers
There is a threat to these believers’ progress of faith: there are some who have come into their churches urging the Philippian Gentiles to become circumcised in order to become “real” Christians. We don’t know exactly the nature of the issues surrounding the question of circumcision in the Philippian church, but we can infer quite a bit from other parts of the New Testament.
Paul frequently battled with those who he referred to as the “circumcision party,” a faction of early Christians who believed that Gentile believers had to submit to the Law of Moses in order to be saved. These were the Judiazers; they taught that good Christians needed to first become good Jews. But to Paul, this is not only nonsense, it is dangerous.
In Galatians, he calls this a “different gospel – not that there is another one,” he says. He asks the Galatian believers who have given in to this teaching, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
You see to Paul, accepting circumcision, submitting to the law, becoming a good Jew, at least on the outside, is to displace the gospel of Jesus. It wasn’t so much the performance of the law or doing good works that was so dangerous. No, for Paul it was a question of identity, and the danger of spiritual reliance on an identity that was self-constructed. Anyone who submitted to circumcision was saying that “I am a Jew first, and it is on that basis that I can receive the grace of God in Christ.”
But these Judaizers had gotten it all wrong because they had cast away faith as the basis of their favor with God. To Paul, the Judaizers weren’t the true people of God, they were “dogs.” They weren’t the righteous, though they obeyed the law. They were “evildoers.” Though they were physically circumcised, they weren’t the circumcision. They weren’t God’s set apart people; they were the “mutilation” as the Greek literally reads. The identity that these people claimed was a false one. They were imposters.
And this is why Paul asserts in verse 3, “Weare the circumcision” – those who worship God by the Spirit, not by ritual; those who glory or boast in Christ, not in the flesh. We are the true people of God. And our identity is not confirmed by outward markers, but by a work of the Spirit inside of us.
You see, the problem is that these Philippian believers were being enticed to mistake the object of their identity. They were being lured into supplanting the work of the Spirit with the work of human hands and circumcision. They were being told to boast in their flesh, to boast in their Jewishness, instead of in Christ.
What Does a Christian Look Like?
Now before we begin to think that this was only a first century Christian problem, let’s think about this. What does a Christian look like to you? I’m not asking what a Christian ought to believe. That’s easy. I’m asking, what does a Christian look like? We could rephrase the question to ask, what sort of identities do you expect a Christian to reflect?
Is the Christian you picture patriotic, does he or she vote Republican up and down the ballot, does he or she not drink or smoke? Does the Christian you imagine have to exhibit some kind of personal authenticity—airing out all of their struggles and failures in any context on demand? Does your version of a Christian not struggle with depression, with homosexuality, with addiction? What do you expect of a Christian, and how many of those things come from identities that are foreign to the gospel? We can fall into the same trap, and we often do. We too can mistake the object of our identity.
We weave our own standards into what we think it means to be a Christian and pretty soon our identity as a Christian is characterized by all sorts of cultural markers, none of which have anything to do with boasting in Christ and in his death.
I think this is why the evangelical movement in America is in such shambles today. It’s a case of misplaced identity. Instead of glorying in the weakness of Christ, we have preferred to glory in political power—pushing legislative agendas on a few select issues, while ignoring matters of justice that don’t align with our political ideology. Instead of glorying in the poverty of the life of Christ we have instead gloried in growing churches, better programs, multiple campuses, and expanding budgets. Instead of glorying in the humility of Christ we have gloried in church leaders who get results and speak the truth without regard, no matter that they are puffed up with their own abilities and abusive to both staff and church members. When they eventually crash and burn, we wonder where we went wrong.
We glory in all sorts of things, and in many cases, none of them are Christ. Christians are to be glory-ers, boasters in Christ above all else; and glorying in the things of Christ will more often put us at odds with the world around us than not. This isn’t just a problem just for 1st century Christians; it’s a problem for us who have mistaken the object of our identity.
Is Our Identity in Christ?
Well Paul has a bone to pick with that. And to challenge us he pulls a stunt that most of us wouldn’t dare. In so many words he says, if it’s a matter of being a good Jew, I’m the best there is. “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.”
What Paul has just given us is a flawless résumé for an upright Jew. First he says, he was of good stock, he was well-bred we might say. Circumcised precisely as the law required, born into what was regarded as the most faithful tribe of Israel—“a Hebrew of Hebrews.”
Not only can he boast in his birth, he can boast in his religious performance. He was a Pharisee, the most conservative readers of Scripture. He didn’t turn a blind eye to wrong doctrine and allow it to go on unchecked. So concerned was he for orthodoxy that he persecuted the church, those heretics and blasphemers. To top it all off, he had obeyed the law perfectly. If anyone could have confidence in his Jewish identity, it was Paul.
But no, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ,” he says. More literally, whatever was advantage to me, I regard because of Christ a disadvantage—a loss, something to be forfeited. Everything that he thought was an asset turned out to be dead weight. It was keeping him from something better. It did nothing to get him closer to God, in fact it kept him away.
He had assumed the wrong identity. It was one that was marked by his cultural distinctiveness and his own righteous living. He was convinced that he was the right kind of person to receive God’s favor. But now, in his encounter with Jesus he has realized that it was all for nothing. To gain Christ, he had to throw it all away.
“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,” he writes.
You see we can’t know and gain Christ when we’re consumed with ourselves. These two things are incompatible. One must displace the other. This is because knowing Christ is to know someone who gave no regard to his own status and identity. What has Paul said about Jesus earlier in Philippians? “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.”
To know Christ is to know the one who, in his life and death, gave no regard to his status as God. So how can we expect to know him if we can’t let go of ourselves? This means that to know Christ, to gain him, we must discard anything about ourselves that we think gives us a spiritual edge, a leg up. We must lose it all. We must lose our self- righteousness. We must lose our politics, insofar as we think ourselves good because of them.
We must lose all of those markers that we have valued about ourselves more than Christ. To gain Christ, we must lose it all. We must exchange the object of our identity from ourselves to Christ.
Just to be clear, Paul is not saying that we should throw off our individual personalities, our past, our family, or even our ethnic or national origin. Those sorts of things remain part of who we are throughout our lives. He is not expecting us all to look or act identically. No, we will always have an identity that distinguishes ourselves as individuals, and communities of individuals. But it’s a reliance on those things that’s the problem; a reliance on our self-constructed identity instead of that of Christ. What must be lost, what must be discarded, is our spiritual reliance on ourselves. We must lose all of it to gain Christ.
I once listened to a podcast that told the story of a man in his thirties who was diagnosed with leukemia. The only treatment with any hope of success was for him to receive a bone marrow transplant, because his own bone marrow was the source of the cancer and was killing him. Bone marrow transplants have an uncertain degree of success because they involve what is essentially a replacement of a patient’s immune system, and there is a chance that the body will reject it. What this man was about to go through was to have his immune system replaced with someone else’s. The doctor told him that if they were successful, it would be as if someone else was living inside him, that he was going to be given a new life. His immune system was going to be discarded to make room for someone else’s. It was only through this painful replacement that he could be saved from death.
That is what Jesus requires of us—a replacement of the identity that we rely upon, right down to the very bone marrow. We must lose everything of ourselves to gain everything of Christ. Wouldn’t we as individual Christians, and wouldn’t we as the church have a wholly different attitude if we fully reflected this? Wouldn’t we have a greater impact on our culture, on our friends and neighbors if we fully reflected the identity of Christ instead of that of our culture? Even though it was painful for Paul, he did it because he realized the surpassing worth of Christ. What he saw in Christ was more valuable than what he had in himself.
So what is this surpassing worth, and why is it better? Well Paul has realized that to be found in Christ, to take on his identity is better than retaining his own. In verse 9 he says that he wants 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.” What he has realized is that his own righteousness is worthless; it’s rubbish, as he described it. It’s rubbish because he has discovered a righteousness from God—that is available only by faith in Christ—who is the new object of his identity.
Paul wants to “know him and the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” He wants access to the very best of Christ that can only be his by surrendering what he considered to be the best of himself. He wants to witness the power that Jesus revealed in his resurrection—changed hearts, changed lives, a redeemed world. Paul has been given a taste of the best of Jesus, and there’s no way he can look back.
If you’ve given your life to Christ, you’ve been given a taste of the best of Jesus too. You’ve already seen something of the surpassing worth of Christ. Maybe it doesn’t seem so glorious now for whatever the reason, but you can look back to a time when it was. Maybe the best of Jesus is being crowded out by some other identity that lives on in you, or that has since creeped up. Get rid of it! Trust that when you lean into your identity in Christ, as you dwell with him, spend time with him, you will more clearly see his surpassing worth.
If you are still trusting in yourself, can you see something better in Jesus? As I said at the beginning, the competing desires within us can make us irrational. They can sometimes lead us to sticking with the lesser thing when something greater can be had. We become too invested in what we’ve built up in our own identity, that we’re blind to anything better.
Well, something better stands in front of you now. Jesus, who offers you a righteousness from God. He offers you the power of his resurrection, to witness the renewal of his world and to gain everlasting life with him. Because what we have ourselves is truly trash in comparison to that.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” He said “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” When he called his disciples, they had to leave their fishing nets and families behind. To the rich young man, who was seeking eternal life, he was told to sell everything and follow him. But he also said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it to the fullest.”
Jesus hasn’t required anything of us that he hasn’t already done himself. Even he has lost it all to gain it all. You see Jesus gave up his life to gain something infinitely better—the glory of his Father and the salvation of his people.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Lose it all, and you will gain all of Christ.
Stephen Simmons intends to graduate from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in December, 2020. He served as an active duty Army officer for five and a half years before making the decision to attend seminary and pursue pastoral ministry in the local church.