Thus far we have seen Paul’s command to the Christian to rejoice in the Lord, no matter what the situation, because of the grace Christ has given to us. Then Paul warns the believers to look out for those who do not rely on grace, but on their own law keeping, because believers are truly right before God, having a new Spirit within them, and boasting in God not in themselves.
Today we look at the second part of his argument against the legalists. Remember Paul is countering the potential legalist charge that the Philippians are relying on grace apart from works only because they are spiritually lazy. The Philippians don’t normally keep the law, aren’t used to keeping the law, and just simply aren’t Israelites, and so that’s why they rely on grace and not law; or so the legalists said.
In the first part of Paul’s argument he pointed out that whatever the legalists had, he had as well, and more. He had the legal requirements fulfilled, he was associated with the people of God, he was of spiritual lineage, he had rank among God’s people, he was orthodox in theology, he was passionate for religious tenants and finally he was “holy,” at least outwardly.
Now Paul destroys the legalist case by showing that though he had all the credentials they had and more, he gave them all up. This is what he says in verse 7. “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” But Paul takes it a step further in verse 8. In these two verses together he teach about a core truth essential to Christianity, that a believer gives up everything to have Christ. We’ll break this passage down into two main ideas: The believer’s loss and the believer’s gain.
I. The believer’s loss
Paul writes, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” As already stated, in this verse Paul says that those credentials he had he “counted as loss.” To understand Paul’s meaning, there are a couple questions we should ask the text.
First, what does Paul mean by “gain I had”? It is clear that he is referring to the credentials he just listed. Earlier in verse 4, he called these his “reason for confidence in the flesh.” So we can think of “gain I had” being equivalent to “reason for confidence in the flesh.” What is this idea of “gain”? It correlates with the idea of “reason for confidence” and literally can mean an advantage or even gain monetarily (Titus 1:11). So his idea of gain is something positive, something that was helping him, giving him an advantage.
When I first read this passage, I was struck by Paul’s language here. How can Paul call these things “gain”? Besides being a list of legalistic human achievement that would never give him any credit before God, he even has the specific mention of the killing and imprisoning of God’s people, and now he’s calling it “gain”? In other passages his mention of his former life brings him shame, so how can it be “gain” here?
Paul calls his credentials “gain” for a number of reasons. First, when he was without God in legalism, these things were considered an advantage for him. These were the things, in the flesh, that were considered to be giving him a right standing before God. Remember from last week that Paul has righteousness in mind when he speaks of his credentials. Second, among his peers, these things he prided himself in gave him status. People looked up to how zealous Paul was in his legalism. He was somewhat of a Jewish hero. He probably enjoyed that status, and the society that would have come with it. Third, he took pride in his own accomplishments and work as a Pharisee, and probably enjoyed it. This was his life. This was his purpose, and the way he identified himself. For those reasons, he calls it gain. It was gain to him; it was everything for him.
But this “gain” is not the only thing he counts as loss. In the next verses he says he counts “all things” and “everything” as loss also. What is the significance of this difference? The word linking the two verses sometimes carries the idea of an affirmation and amplification of previous concepts; hence the NASB translation “More than that.” So Paul is expanding what he counts as loss. In verse 7, he specifically is talking about legal self-righteousness, his main purpose in life. However in verse 8, by saying “all things” and “everything” he includes all purposes, all possible things of value outside of Christ.
Paul has counted gain as loss in verse 7 and in verse 8 he counts all things as loss. What is this “counting” and “loss”? “Count,” like other ideas we’ve seen in Philippians, is a mental reckoning, a decision to regard certain things in a certain way. For example, in James 1:2, James says, “Count it all joy.” “Think of your various trials as all joy,” he is saying. “Decide in your mind that they are so.” It’s the same here in Philippians. Think of your pursuits as loss; decide in your mind that the things you may value outside of Christ are loss and rubbish.
Paul uses two main phrases for the way we regard all our pursuits and potential righteousness outside Christ: “Loss” and finally “Rubbish” The idea of loss is his most prominent one, he uses it three times. In Luke’s account in Acts 27, Paul uses this word “loss” to describe the shipwreck that the obstinate sailors incurred. The idea is that it is ruin, it is harm, it is catastrophe. The things that meant the world to us before become worthless to us at salvation.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this loss is something less weighty than what it is. Paul said he “suffered” the loss of all things. “Suffered,” like one suffers an injury, or receives damage to his belongings. This loss will cost you. To borrow words from a song, All you once held dear, all you built your life upon, everything seen as worthwhile by the world you see as worthless. This is not an easy road to take. In fact, giving up everything you’ve known in this way will only happen by a work of the Spirit. But as we will see, the gain far outweighs the loss.
The other term Paul uses is “rubbish.” This term is the strongest picture he uses for these things that were of value. In fact, it is probably about as far from valuable as one can express in words appropriately. The picture of the word is animal excrement. Anyone who has animals in their house can attest to the great internal revulsion evoked by stumbling upon a pet surprise, especially if the discovery was made through physical contact. The things formerly of value are filth, gross and nauseating to the believer. There is no great appeal to return to them, they are all garbage.
How is it that the things of value now are dung to us? The main thing that has changed is not the things themselves. In other words, there was not some fundamental change in the thing valued that made it go from important to trash. No, another higher value came along; a value higher than all others. And like the man who found treasure in a field, we sold it all to have that which was of higher value.
So the believer has pushed away and now regards as revolting all purposes and values outside of Christ to have and gain something more valuable. What is it that the believer has gained?
II. The believer’s gain
Back in verse 7 Paul lists the reason for his reckoning his former ways as loss. He says it was “for the sake of Christ.” So Paul’s gain here is none other than Christ. Why would Paul do this? What is driving him to forsake all things he held dear? Paul is compelled to give up everything by the same thing that compels all believers to do the same; he has seen the surpassing worth of Christ.
Look at Matt 13:44-45 to find a picture of Phil 3:8. A man finds treasure in a field. There weren’t really banks or safes in Israel, so people hid valuable things in fields in such a way that they could find them when they got back. But often people did not return, or the field changed owners and the treasure was forgotten. This man found such a treasure and gave everything to have this field that contained this treasure.
In the same way a merchant is looking for fine pearls, and finds the most valuable one he could imagine, and gives everything to buy it. Can you see that this is Paul’s attitude in verse 8? Paul says “This treasure – Jesus- is worth everything! All my possessions? Everything I’ve worked for to own up to this point? Worthless! Give me Jesus at any cost.” This is the idea behind his phrase: “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The worth is surpassing, it is literally of greater value than the most valuable thing he’d ever known outside Christ. In fact Christ is so much more valuable that the other thing is animal mess in a pile on the floor compared to how great Christ is.
But why, Paul? Why not have all your former purposes all your credentials? Why not keep those and have Christ too? Paul says, “That’s not an option.” He writes, I “count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” “In order that” – it is a necessary condition. You don’t get Christ while holding onto your past pleasures. You give them up so that you can have Christ. You have option A: Keep all your past pursuits and the end that comes with them or option B: Give everything to gain Christ and the end He promises. There is no option C.
Well why not? Why does it have to be a necessary condition that all is given to have Christ? Because no man can serve two masters and Christ is Lord. Don’t overlook that phrase in this verse. Paul isn’t just throwing around nice titles for Jesus here. He is Messiah, he is the man Jesus and he is the Lord God. Jesus isn’t joining a leadership team over your life. He’s not running for congress in your affections. He’s number one over and in everything or he is despised at all points in your life. You don’t get to put Jesus on the shelf like a trophy among others. He is Lord to you or you have no part in him.
This is where the conviction happens. If you feel “I want Jesus over everything but it just seems so impossibly high of a standard,” than you’re in the same place Paul was. In fact it turns out that all Paul is really doing is describing faith that produces obedience. The believing heart is enraptured by the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ and wants to move all things out of the way to know him. In verse 10 Paul will say that he is doing everything he can to be more like Christ. If you’ve seen his worth, you will value him more than everything. And strongholds of opposition to Christ in your life will begin to fall.
The important question is “Have I given all for Christ?” Am I living in such a way that makes that evident, or would people be confused into thinking there’s something else more important to me? Where in my life am I still pursuing my own pleasures and desires over Christ? Is school more important to me? Is the thrill of people’s approval or of images on the screen, or of competition, or of drugs, or of anything greater than the joy of knowing Christ? Where do I hold on to lesser joys and smaller purposes instead of Christ?
You and I know where we stand in regard to these things. It is easy to evaluate what one finds important. Have I made the decision to regard Christ as more important than all else including life itself? If I have, how am I acting differently because of it? What’s changing in my life? If you have not given it all up, why? Why hold on to moist garbage instead of embracing the most valuable thing in the universe?
If you’re facing that second question, and you don’t feel anything that I’m saying about Christ’s value or that the life you’re living now is worthless, just talk to God and ask Him to show you the surpassing worth of Christ. If you’re blind, all you see is darkness, no matter how bright the light is in front of you. Listen to those who have given all for Christ: he is glorious, and he is worth it. The light is there. Just ask God to give you eyes to see it and he will. And like the man who finds the pearl and understands its value, you’ll joyfully give everything to have it.
Awake, O Sleeper
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