Sermon: Knowing Christ

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Philippians. Philippians chapter 3, beginning in verse 1. Philippians is in the New Testament – if you are in Galatians or Ephesians, you haven’t gone quite far enough and if you are in Colossians or the Thessalonians you’ve gone a little too far. Philippians chapter 3, beginning in verse one. 

This passage has a special place in my heart and in my life. Ten years ago last week, I preached this passage for the first time. It was the first sermon I ever memorized the scripture passage for and my third or fourth sermon ever. I spent weeks going over it and fretting about it. Yet, this passage has stuck with me since then, creating a deep impression on my heart and soul. If people asking me what my life verse is, that passage in Scripture that speaks most clearly to my heart, it is this passage. 

I am excited to share this word from the Lord with you because it is special to me, but I am also excited because I hope and prayer that you might find your heart stirred, just as I do, by the one resound call: the call to know Jesus Christ. 

It’s Philippians 3 starting in verse one. Before we dive into God’s word this morning, let us lift our hearts in prayer.

Father, may your word be our rule,

Your spirit our teacher,

And the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

Hear the Word of the Lord from Philippians chapter 3, beginning in verse 1.

Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.

To write the same things to you is not troublesome to me 

and for you it is a safeguard.

Beware of the dogs, 

beware of the evil workers, 

beware of those who mutilate the flesh.

For it is we who are the circumcision, 

who worship in the Spirit of God, 

and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh,

Even though, I too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.

Circumcised on the eighth day, 

a member of the people of Israel, 

of the tribe of Benjamin.

A Hebrew born of Hebrews.

As to the Law, a Pharisee.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.

As to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard 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 one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

This is the end game.

This is the goal. 

This is the purpose of the entire enterprise for Paul. 

He speaks of rejoicing and praying. He speaks of dying and rising. He speaks of humbling and exalting. He speaks of sending brothers to the church and of coming himself. But all with one goal in mind:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

This is what allows him to endure hardship and distress, to bear his chains.

This is what allows him to pray fervently and compassionately for the Philippians.

I want to know Christ.

This is what turns the gains to losses and losses to gains.

This is what makes the safeguard a safeguard

And makes ‘Rejoicing in the Lord’ true rejoicing.

I want to know Christ, Paul says.

Can we feel it? Can we sense the urgency, the passion, the desire of Paul as he writes these words?

I want to know Christ

Verse 10 serves a pivotal role in this passage, and I also believe it serves a crucial function in our Christian life. 

There is a desire, a hunger, an intense longing to know Jesus Christ that lies at the very heart of our faith. 

Paul wants to know Christ, truly know him – know his suffering, know his rising, know his righteousness, know his grace – and we too – the people gathered here at the Bethel Reformed Church this morning – we too are invited, summoned, called to know Christ.

I want to know Christ, Paul says. 

To know Christ – this type of knowing is not simply knowing about Jesus, or even knowing a set of facts about Jesus or adhering to a list of his principles. To know Christ is to know a person, not a thing or an idea, a person. 

I am on twitter and I also listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot of books. By doing so, sometimes it seems like I know some of the people. It will even come up in conversation at home and Olga will know what I am talking about. Derek was saying today about the atonement…Matt was saying this about IVF…Alistair is still working on his book and was sharing about his work in Genesis…Every once in a while I stop and catch myself. These are three guys who have a theology podcast I have listened to for the last five years. I don’t actually know any of them. I know about them, I follow them on twitter and may even interact with their work from time to time, but we don’t actually know each other. 

What do we call someone who knows a lot about someone else without actually knowing them personally? At best, a fan. At worst, a stalker. But certainly not a friend. 

To follow in Paul’s footsteps, to answer the call of God’s Word to us this morning, to know Christ is about a deep, personal, relational knowledge of Jesus. It’s less like how I know geometry and more like how I know my sister. To know him, to love him, to trust him. 

I want to know Christ.

Last year, I read a biography of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s a good, thick volume – some 586 pages. And in it, I learned a lot about his childhood – growing up in an affluent German city, his siblings, their family friends, his father’s job as a psychologist. In this book, I learned about his early academic career and his publications. I also learned about his underground resistance to the Nazi regime, the illegal seminary he ran at Finkenwalde, and his days in captivity before being executed. From reading his biography, I know a lot about Bonhoeffer. 

Yet, if someone came up and asked if I knew Bonhoeffer, of course I’d say, “No, I didn’t.” Even though I know about him, I didn’t know him. No matter how much information I have about Bonhoeffer and his life, I don’t know him, because I didn’t know him personally – we didn’t have any relationship at all. 

The same is true of knowing Jesus Christ, no matter how much information we ingest about Jesus, if we do not know him personally, we do not know him. 

I want to know Christ, Paul says.

To know him deeply, personally, intimately. Paul enjoins us to know Christ – to know the one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. To know Christ – to know he who died and rose again for us and for our salvation. 

This is why evangelical Christian will talk so warmly and passionately about having a personal relationship with Jesus. The desire and consuming passion is to know Jesus, because in knowing Jesus there is life and salvation, in knowing Jesus there is forgiveness and righteousness, in knowing Jesus there is hope, peace, and joy. 

And that knowledge is not, first and foremost, about knowing about him, but knowing him personally. So Paul says, 

I want to know Christ

To know Christ in Word and Sacrament, in worship and prayer, in contemplation and service. 

To know Christ when we lie down and when we get up, when we walk down the road and when we sit around the table. 

To know Christ in joy and tribulation, when children are born and when relationships spring up, when life is scarce and death abundant. 

I want to know Christ, Paul says.

The question we have to ask this morning is this: ’Do we?’

I want to know Christ, Paul says.

Do we want that, Bethel? 

Do we want that relationship, that sense of closeness, that intimacy? 

I want to know Christ

Can we say that this morning? 

Can we, the people gathered at the Bethel Reformed Church, say with Paul, “we want to know Christ?”

Because if we do, nothing will ever be the same.

Look with me at verse 7:

“Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.”

Because of Christ, everything was turned upside down for Paul – gains became losses and losses gains. His whole world was turned upside down because of Jesus – and, you know what, he wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

Every gain – everything which he once considered central, sacred, and measuring success – is now a loss. What gains did he have? let’s jump back a few verses:

circumcised on the 8th day

a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin

A Hebrew born of Hebrews

Paul had all the benefits of being born in the right place to the right people. He was part of the people of God from his first breath – a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin. He was born into a upstanding, law-keeping family – he was circumcised on the 8th day, just as God had commanded. His family even spoke Hebrew, the original language of the Old Testament. In a time where the people of God had been scattered to the four winds, his family still spoke the original language of his people – he was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. 

He has all the benefits of birth, but there was more.

as to the law, a Pharisee.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church

As to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Not only did Paul begin life with the deck stacked in his favor, but he joined the most rigorous and observant group within Judaism – the Pharisees. Then, he was so passionate about doing right and following God that he persecuted the Church. He was wrong, but it showed the type of passion Paul had. And he states that if anyone looked at his life from the outside, he would be considered blameless.

If anyone had reason to consider themselves a success, if anyone had reason to think that they were doing alright and ‘making it’, it was Paul. He had status, he had success, he had all the benefits of birth. 

What would that look like today? I am in the process of applying for permanent residency here in Canada and it feels a bit like Paul trotting out all of his credentials. Here’s my birth certificate, where I was born, who were my parents. A statement of all the advantages I had growing up. They want to know my education, know my degrees. When I first crossed the border when we moved, I had to have my diploma, my ordination license, and a letter from the consistory ready. I happily supply them with whatever they want so I can stay, but it feels like I have to list all that I am and all that I have done in order to be worthy to stay. 

Here, Paul is listing all the benefits of where he was born, who he was born to, how he was raised. He had all the advantages in that world – best birth, faithful parents, top flight education, excelled in every way. He was tutored by the best Rabbis and flew past all of his fellow students in passion, intelligence, and obedience. Paul was at the heights and his star was only climbing. 

But listen to what he says next, Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 

Because of Christ

Jesus once spoke of a pearl – a pearl of great price – that was so valuable that a man sold everything he had just to acquire it. And then he spoke of a treasure hidden in a field that a man sold everything in order to buy the field with the treasure on it. Paul says, More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. 

Paul is saying, I found the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, and I gave up everything for it – for him. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things – All that status, all that success, all the ways we appear to ‘making it’ – 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 one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

What all those gains Paul had couldn’t do was make him right with God. It couldn’t put him into deep, lasting, intimate relationship with God. This is why Jesus is that pearl of great price, the one of surpassing value. To paraphrase the old hymn – who can take away our sins, no one but Jesus. Who can make us whole again, no one but Jesus. This is the true gain – the thing of true value that Paul was willing to sacrifice all that he had to acquire – to gain Christ and be found in him. To know Christ is to receive forgiveness, to be clothed with the righteousness from God based on faith. To know Christ is to be right with God and receive the promise of eternal life.

I want to know Christ, Paul says. When he encountered Christ, it changed everything. His life was turned upside-down for the better, but upside-down nonetheless. 

I want to tell you about another person who knew Christ intimately. I mentioned him earlier – his name is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Within days of Hitler gaining power in Germany, Bonhoeffer could already sense Hitler’s character. Bonhoeffer began taking jobs outside of Germany – trying to use his contacts within the larger church to denounce Hitler’s policies within the German church. He spent time in England and then made his way to the United States, where he taught at a seminary in New York. Yet, the farther he went from Germany and the more desperate the situation became there, the more he sensed that God was calling him back to Germany. He was hesitant. He had great work he was doing at the seminary, people he was writing – there were ways that he could contribute from this side of the ocean. But more and more, his walk with Christ – knowing Jesus Christ intimately and personally – convinced him that God was calling him to give up his safety, security, and eventually his earthly future to return to Germany. Bonhoeffer returned and was eventually arrested for his involved in resistance against Hitler and executed. 

I want to know Christ, Bonhoeffer says, more than I want to be safe, more than I want my future, more than my life. I want to Christ, even if it means I give up everything I know and love.

I want to know Christ, Paul says, because in Christ there is life and forgiveness, even if it means my whole turns in a different direction. 

Knowing Christ left neither of these men the same, and knowing Christ – trusting and following him – will change us, will challenge us, will lead us down paths we never thought we’d walk. Knowing Christ is forgiveness and life and peace and the end of life as we know it. 

The question is still before us – do we want to know Christ?

Do we want to know Christ? This is question that we will not only answer in our hearts, but one we will answer with our lives.  

We will answer this question together as a church. We will answer it by how we worship and how we pray, by how we treat our neighbors and how we love our enemies, by how we spend our money and how we spend our time. 

And we will each answer this question ourselves. You and I will tell God and the world whether we want to know Christ with the words on our lips, the prayers in our hearts, and the work of our hands. 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead. 

Do we? 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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