Paul doesn’t actually have to choose between being an Israelite and following Christ. He can be both … and many in Philippi are both. But many have had to make some difficult decisions.
October 8, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright In Susan Howatch’s novel, Ultimate Prizes, one of the characters discovers near the end of his life that he has chased the wrong prizes. His sister once snapped, “You and your prizes! The only prize worth winning is love – and just you remember that when you’re an old man trying to comfort yourself with your bank balance and your fading memories!” He responds, “One mustn’t complain … I often remind myself of that when I’m feeling melancholy. I sit in my grand house and look around at all the mementos of my past, all my prizes, and I think: What a success I was! But after a while I begin to hear that silence, that long, long, silence, and I know with terrible certainty that the only prize worth chasing is the prize I’ve managed to lose.”
Paul, on the other hand, has no regrets. He has won his share of prizes and done as much striving and straining as any of us, but listen again to what he says to the Philippians: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss, as rubbish, (the Greek word is “dung”), because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” Let’s be clear: It is not that his past, his family, or his former religious convictions are worthless or to be flushed down the toilet. In fact he is proud that he is a member of God’s covenant people through circumcision; descended from Benjamin, one of the two tribes considered to be faithful to the covenant, son of Hebrew parents, a strict observer of the law like all Pharisees, zealous in his devotion to God (even when that zeal was misguided and lead to persecution of the followers of Jesus), and “a meticulous observer of everything set down in God’s law book”! It’s just that compared to knowing Christ – not just knowing about him, but knowing him by experiencing his love, his grace, his comfort – compared to that, every prize the world offers pales. The Greek words Paul uses here come from the world of accounting and balance sheets. His experience of Christ has shifted what he values to the point that the things that used to be on the gain side of the ledger have been moved over to the loss side.
That reappraisal reminded one scholar of a leadership training exercise. He writes: “[participants are asked] to imagine themselves setting out on an adventure with only ten items in each of their packs. A few minutes later, they were told that an imagined mishap had occurred and that it was necessary to leave behind five items and keep five. Soon they were required to reduce their possessions to three, and finally to only one.” You’ve probably done something like this exercise before. If I was heading out for 24 hours on the Appalachian Trail, I’d fill my pack with a water bottle and filter, food, an emergency blanket, dry socks, a hammock, a flashlight, TP, a wool shirt, and a utility tool. If I had to cut half the items, and it was summer, I’d leave behind the socks and wool shirt, the hammock, the utility tool, and the flashlight. If I could only take three items, I’d leave everything but the bottle of water, the emergency blanket, and the food … or maybe the TP! I’m torn! The exercise is hard, because lots of things are valuable when you are out in the wilderness. But if I had to choose only one thing, the most valuable thing, it would be the water! Think about your list of ten things. What would you choose?
Paul doesn’t actually have to choose between being an Israelite and following Christ. He can be both … and many in Philippi are both. But many have had to make some difficult decisions. As we’ve mentioned in past weeks, Philippi is a Roman colony. Following Christ puts one at odds with the Empire. It will require those who are Gentiles to turn away from the city gods and rituals. It will eventually lead those who are Jews to be unwelcome in the synagogues. It will cost them all a lot. Paul believes it is worth it! It has cost him status and stability. It has cost him his freedom. But he wants them to understand that knowing Christ is so valuable that he would give up everything and cut his packing list to one item – knowing Christ! That’s all he really needs to walk through this world! And the image of walking through the world is a good one. There is no final destination; only the journey. There is no arriving at the goal; only inching closer and closer to God!
Paul says, “I want to know Christ.” Eugene Peterson translates that whole section this way: “I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it!” Can you imagine? After countless hours in prayer, Paul still hungers to know Christ better. After preaching the risen Christ and witnessing his power to transform lives, Paul still feels like he has only scratched the surface. After being chased out of multiple towns, mocked, beaten, and imprisoned, all for proclaiming the gospel, he still wants to imitate Christ. Are those your goals? What could shift the trajectory of your life from success measured in fame or money or status to a singlehearted pursuit of the joy of knowing Christ?
Christian singer/songwriter Matt Maher describes such a shift this way: “I was one way / But now I am different. There was a clear change in / A Holy collision! Who I was / And who I'll forever be And He was the in between.”
The extent of that change is enormous. Maher sings of it: “From death to life / From darkness to a shine From fear to a peace / I can't explain From doubts to a hope / Holding on and letting go Of all the empty promises of shame.” Paul of all people would have understood the imagery of a holy collision. But you need not have had a Damascus Road experience. All you need is an appreciation of the impact of the cross on every human life, including your life. As Maher puts it: “Love stretched out / On a tree screaming out So that I could say / You've not forsaken me. You're the first and the last / My future and my past Who I was / And who I will forever be You are the in between”
I imagine that part of why Paul was so successful, in Philippi and elsewhere, was that people could see the results of that holy collision in his life. Far from knocking him off the road, it was a collision that set a new course. God gave him forgiveness and freedom, a new peace and a new purpose. He responded with energy and enthusiasm, with steadfastness and selflessness. These gifts and his response were attractive. People wanted what he had. Maybe you do too! May you know such a holy collision! May you know Christ! Amen
 The text of Philippians 3:10-17; 4:2-8 in Papyrus 16 (3rd century)  From Eugene Peterson’s translation of verse 6 in The Message  From Clay Oglesbee”s reflections on the text for the Christian Century, 9/20/11  See The Message, Philippians 3:10-11  See from his song, “The In Between”