The Surpassing Worth of Knowing Christ | Philippians 3:4-11
Brian Hedges | July 19, 2020
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Philippians 3. We’re going to be reading in a few minutes from verses 4-11 as we continue this study in the book of Philippians. I’ve called it “To Live Is Christ.”
I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last few months that I’ve been reading material about George Whitefield this year, and especially digging now into some of the biographies of Whitefield. One of the interesting pieces that comes down to us from the 1740s is actually an account from a farmer named Nathan Cole, a farmer who lived in Connecticut, who had heard about Whitefield and was eager to hear him preach.
One day he saw what looked like a cloud kind of on the horizon, and he realized it was actually a cloud of dust that was being kicked up by the crowds of people who were flocking to hear Whitefield. You can see a picture here of the crowds as they would come to gather around Whitefield.
Nathan Cole gathered up his family, they went, walked several miles to hear Whitefield preach. When they did, Nathan Cole wrote something in his journal following that event. These are the words he wrote. He said, “My hearing him preach gave me a heart wound. By God’s blessing, my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.”
That began a process in Nathan Cole’s life that eventually led to his conversion. It wasn’t immediate, and many of the conversions during the Great Awakening were not immediate. Sometimes it would take weeks or months; for Cole it was actually a couple of years before he really settled into a deeper assurance of his faith, but he was a lasting convert and one who became an evangelical leader in that little village in Connecticut.
I think Cole’s experience and the way he describes it is important. When he says, “My old foundation was broken up—I received a heart wound, my old foundation was broken up, and I realized that my righteousness could not save me.” That’s a realization that every person has to come to in order for them to come to genuine saving faith in Jesus Christ. We have to recognize that our righteousness will not save us and that we need the righteousness that comes through faith.
That happened to Nathan Cole, it needs to happen to us, if it hasn’t happened. And it’s really the beginning of a lifelong process, then, of coming to know Jesus Christ and to value the knowledge of Christ in our lives. That’s what this passage is about.
I confess in coming to this passage, I feel inadequate for the task this morning. This has to be one of the greatest passages in the book of Philippians, if not in all of Scripture. Words just seem to fail in trying to describe what Paul says in these verses. But we’re going to read them together and do our best to dig in and understand what Paul says. Essentially, Paul is giving us his own testimony here. He’s giving us a record of his own experience, especially inwardly, what happened in his life as he came to see that everything that he once valued was actually worthless compared to the value of knowing Christ.
Let’s read the passage, Philippians 3:4-11. Paul says,
“...though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. 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. 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. 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—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
This is God’s word.
Paul is continuing a thought that we began looking at last week, when he gives a warning about false teachers who are coming into the church pushing for circumcision. Essentially, rather than boasting in Jesus Christ, they express confidence in the flesh, that is, in what human beings can attain and achieve in their own strength. So Paul says that “if anyone has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have even more,” and he goes on to list his credentials. That’s what he does in verses 4-6.
Then, in verses 7-8, he expresses this exchange that he made as he counted all his loss for the sake of gaining Christ, and then he goes on to describe the benefits that came to him in gaining Christ.
I want to look at three things as we break this passage down. First, using the language of Nathan Cole, let’s look at the old foundation, Paul’s old foundation, Paul’s credentials, as he lists them in verses 4-6. Then we will see the sweet exchange that he makes in verses 7-8, and then the triple benefit that comes to him from Christ in verses 9-11.
1. The Old Foundation
So, first of all, the old foundation. This is where Paul expresses his confidence in the flesh. This is his resume. This is a list of his credentials. He lists seven things here, and we could really break them down into two basic categories.
The first four things have to do with Paul’s background, with Paul’s pedigree. You see this in verse 5 when he says, “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews…” Those four things describe his credentials as an Israelite, as a Jewish person. He was circumcised on the eighth day. He had the covenant sign given to him, just as God had commanded to the Israelites in Genesis 17, and of course he’s writing against people who are now pushing circumcision onto the Gentiles. But he’s saying, “I’ve been circumcised. I was circumcised on the eighth day.”
Not only that, he was of the people of Israelite. He is a bona fide Israelite. He says he is “of the tribe of Benjamin.” The tribe of Benjamin was, of course, the tribe that gave Israel her first king, and it was the one tribe that had remained loyal to Judah and to the house of David when the kingdom divided into the two kingdoms.
Then he says, “I’m a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” which probably means he was an Aramaic-speaking Jewish person. He had not only the pedigree, he had not only the background, he had the very culture. He wasn’t so much one of the Hellenized Jews, the Greek-speaking Jews (although he did speak Greek), but he was raised speaking Aramaic. That’s probably what that means here.
All of this has to do with Paul’s background—his religious background, his racial background as a bona fide Jew.
Then he goes on to speak of his achievements, his personal achievements as a religious person. He says, “...as to the law, a Pharisee.” That means he belonged to the sect of the Pharisees, which literally meant “the separated ones.” These were the most conservative, the most meticulous law-keepers among the Israelites. They were zealous for the law. In fact, he’s so zealous he says that he was a persecutor of the church. You remember how Paul, before he was converted, he was so zealous for law-keeping, and he was so against Christ and against Christianity, that he was seeking out the Christians in order to imprison them, to put them in jail. He was a persecutor of the church.
Then he says, “...as to the righteousness under the law, blameless.” When he looked at his record of law-keeping from an external point of view he was blameless, he was faultless. It doesn’t mean that he was sinlessly perfect, but it means that when he looked at his life according to the external measurements of the law, there seemed to be no flaw, until something awakened in him and he began to understand that.
You see in Romans 7 that he says there was a time that he was alive without the law, but when the commandment came, he says, “sin came alive, and I died.” When he began to understand the inward import of the law of God, especially the command that “you shall not covet,” he began to see that he had a sin problem. But externally speaking, his life was blameless.
So, his background and his achievements. Now, the reality is that very few, if any, of us would have this pedigree, would have this resume, but we still tend to do what Paul is fighting against here and what the Judiazers, the false teachers, were often promoting. We still look to what we can achieve. We look to our backgrounds, we look to our accomplishments as the basis for righteousness with God.
D.A. Carson, in his little commentary, comments that “most who read these pages, I suspect, will not be greatly tempted to boast about their Jewish ancestry and ancient rites of race and religious heritage, but we may be tempted to brag about still less important things—our wealth, our status, our education, our emotional stability, our families, our political or business successes, our denominational alignment, or even about which version of the Bible we use.”
I think all of us have probably recognized that, both in ourselves as well as in others, people who boast in these other things, and they think that because certain things are true about their background or about their personal achievements, that therefore they are right with God or they are superior to others or they have reasons to boast.
There’s a wonderful short story by the southern author Flannery O’Connor. Flannery O’Connor was Roman Catholic, but she wrote with a very robust Christian worldview and wrote these stories that were often shocking, just kind of shocking people awake to the reality of sin and grace.
There’s a story, called “Revelation”, about a woman named Mrs. Turpin. She’s a very snobbish person; she kind of looks down her nose at other people. She sees herself as socially ranked above others; she looks down on ethnic minorities; she sees herself as better than what she calls “white trash.” She even thinks she’s better than people who own their house but don’t own their land, because she and her husband, Claude, own their own farm. So she’s just this pretentious, proud person who looks down on others.
One day, she’s sitting in the dentist office, and something happens that just kind of awakens her. Someone insults her, and essentially says, “Go to hell, you old warthog,” and it just shocks her that somebody would say that to her.
She goes home and she’s at her farm, and she’s noticing the pigs on her farm. Someone’s just called her an old warthog; she looks at the pigs, who are filthy, and she realizes that she has to clean them off again and again and again, but they keep returning to the muck and to the mire. All of a sudden she begins to realize that she’s just like those pigs; that she’s dirty, that she’s actually not superior to others. She has an awakening, and it’s a revelation in her life that she’s not a saint, she’s actually a sinner in need of salvation.
Well, any of us who ever feel superior to others need that same kind of awakening. We need to realize that we are not superior to others, that we need God’s grace.
Here’s another way that this sometimes gets expressed, and that’s by our ambitions for personal achievement. Some of you have perhaps heard me share this illustration before, but one of my favorite films is the movie Chariots of Fire. It’s the story, of course, of these Olympic runners in the 1924 Olympics, one of which was Eric Liddell, who was the Scottish Presbyterian preacher who went on to become a missionary in China. I think it was Ian Charleston who played Eric Liddell in the film (here’s a picture from the film).
Ben Cross plays one of his rivals in the Olympics, a man named Harold Abrams. I love the contrast between these two characters in the movie. For Eric Liddell, he says that “when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” He runs out of this sense of grace and delight, wanting to glorify God and honor God through his running. But Harold Abrams’ motivations are completely different. There’s a place in the film where he says, “I don’t really love it; I’m more of an addict.” He’s an addict to running.
There’s one scene where he’s talking to his love interest in the movie, and he’s just this tortured person, and he says these words. He says, “Contentment. I’m 24, and I’ve never known it. I am forever in pursuit. I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing. I’ll raise my eyes and look down that corridor, four feet wide, and ten lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?”
You see what he’s doing? He’s looking to a gold medal to justify his existence. He’s looking for a kind of justification. He’s trusting in his achievements, looking to his achievements for a sense of being right in the world.
You see that you can even be a nonreligious person and do this, where you’re looking to justify your existence, you’re looking to prove that you’re right in the world, that something’s right about your life, and it’s another expression of this self-salvation attempt, this self-salvation project, the drive to prove ourselves. It’s all part of the old foundation. Whether it takes the religious format, the religious connotations, or whether it takes more of the secular type of package in your life—whatever it is, it’s still this attempt to justify yourself. Well, Paul did that. This was his confidence in the flesh, as he expressed it in verses 4-6.
2. The Sweet Exchange
But everything changes when he meets Christ, and you see this in verses 7-9, where he expresses his exchange, how he lost everything for the sake of Christ. Read these verses again, verses 7-9. 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. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ…” So you have the sweet exchange, or the great exchange.
Three times in these two verses Paul uses the word “count.” He’s expressing how the things he once valued, he now counts as loss for the sake of Christ. You see that in verse 7. The things he valued, the things that once were his gain, this is the list, the list of credentials that he’s just expressed. He says, “This is of no value to me now. I once counted it as gain, but now I count it as loss for the sake of Christ.”
Then he intensifies the statement in verse 8 when he says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” You can just hear the devotion in his words there. It was the value of knowing Christ. It was meeting Christ personally on the road to Damascus, and then this growing acquaintance with Jesus Christ, his Lord, that caused him to count everything in his life as loss for the sake of knowing Christ.
You know, there are always two different ways that people can look at the cost of following Jesus. You can look at the cost of following Jesus and you could look at everything that you’ve lost, you can look at everything that you give up—you could look at all the suffering, you could look at all of the repentance, you could look at all the self-denial—and you can essentially say, “It costs a lot to follow Jesus.”
Or you can look at what Paul says here and say, “Yes, I count it all as loss, but it’s for the value of knowing Christ. Look at what I’ve gained in knowing Christ.”
I remember years ago hearing a preacher (I was just a young Christian at the time) preaching on these words, and he was just kind of tallying up all of the costs, all of the hardship, all of the suffering that would come in following Christ. He said, “Do you see any pleasure in that? Do you see any pleasure in that?” I just looked down at my Bible and I just kind of what to stand up and say, “What about Christ? What about the pleasure of knowing Christ?” Paul valued Christ Jesus his Lord, and he said, “It’s worth it. It’s worth it to give everything up for Christ.”
Then, in the end of verse 9, he expresses that even the suffering, he says, is worth it. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
The word “rubbish” is a very strong word. William Barclay in his commentary tells us that this word had two meanings; it could refer to that which was thrown to the dogs, the scraps on the garbage heap; that was one use of the word. But it was also an expletive; it’s a word that literally means human excrement. It means "dung," as its translated in the King James.
What Paul is saying here is that “the things that I once valued are refuse to me. They are vile to me. I despise these things now, in comparison with gaining Christ Jesus my Lord.” He wanted Christ; he wanted to win Christ, he wanted to gain Christ, and therefore he was willing to count it all as loss.
This is part of the sweet exchange, isn’t it? Christ who gives us his all, and we who give our all, not only our sins, but we have to give up even the things we boast in. We give up our righteousness in order to gain Jesus Christ.
I love the words from a second century Christian document called “The Epistle to Diognetus.” It was a letter—we don’t know who wrote it, but he wrote it to a man named Diognetus, who was not a believer, not a Christian. It’s a wonderful letter that gives us kind of a window into second century Christianity. There’s this wonderful and famous passage that describes the exchange between Christ and the believer.
It says, “He bore with us, and in pity he took our sins upon himself and gave his Son as a ransom for all; the holy for the wicked, the sinless for sinners, the just for the unjust, the incorrupt for the corrupt, the immortal for the mortal. For was there indeed anything except his righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy but in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange, O unsearchable working, O benefits unhoped for, that the wickedness of multitudes should thus be hidden in the one holy, and the holiness of one should sanctify the countless wicked!”
That’s what Paul experienced, the sweet exchange. His sins, including the sin of his self-righteousness—he traded it all in order to gain Christ.
3. The Triple Benefit
That led, then, to a triple benefit. Point number three, in verses 9-11, the triple benefit. I want you to see three things that he gained in gaining Jesus Christ.
(1) First of all, he says, “...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.” So the first thing he gains is righteousness.
Notice here that there’s a contrast. There’s a contrast between two kinds of righteousness. There’s law-righteousness on one hand and faith-righteousness on the other. The law-righteousness he describes as “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” Again, he’s looking at his law-keeping, he’s looking at his pedigree, he’s looking at his Jewish credentials, and he says that this is not the righteousness he needs; he needs another righteousness.
The faith-righteousness is righteousness that comes from God and that depends on faith. He says it “comes through faith in Christ,” and that can mean either that it comes through our faith in Christ as we exercise faith in Christ, this righteousness is given to us; or it could be the faithfulness of Christ, that this righteousness comes through Christ’s faithfulness and then is received by faith. Either way would be theologically correct, whatever Paul means here.
Essentially, what you see is that there’s a contrast between righteousness through the law and righteousness through faith. The righteousness that we generate for ourselves (self-righteousness), and the righteousness that God bestows upon us, that God confers to us through Jesus Christ. Essentially, we’re talking here about justification, how we are made right with God.
I love the words of Sinclair Ferguson, when he says that “it is full, it is final, it is invincible.” He says, “Justification is full because it gives us Christ’s righteousness. It is final because it does not depend on our keeping the law, but on God’s gift of his Son. It cannot be reversed, it can never be destroyed. It is invincible because it is the judgment of the last day brought into the present day.”
This is what you gain when you gain Christ: you gain righteousness, the verdict that you are right with God, that you are not guilty, that your sins are forgiven, and that God accepts you and receives you as righteous in his sight. That’s first.
(2) Here’s the second benefit. We also gain a relationship, a relationship with Christ himself. Paul has already talked about the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” but then he expresses his ambition in verse 10, when he says, “...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
To know Christ; this is Paul’s ambition. You remember how in chapter 1:21 he’s thinking about his possible death, and he doesn’t know whether he will live or die, but he says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Well, here you see what it means to say, “To live is Christ.” It means to come to know him more deeply.
This is not merely an intellectual knowledge; it is a knowledge of deep experience, of personal acquaintance, of personal friendship. In fact, the word that Paul uses here, the fellowship of his sufferings, it’s that familiar word we’ve already seen in the study to the Philippians, the word koinonia (κοινωνια). It means a partnership.
Notice how Paul expresses this growing knowledge of Christ in terms of the pattern of resurrection, death and resurrection. He says, “...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” What does that mean? It means that the very power of the risen Christ is active and present in our lives, the life of the believer. It means that you and I can grow in an understanding and an experience of the power of Christ’s resurrection, changing us, transforming us, resurrecting us spiritually.
But it also means that we experience the fellowship of his sufferings. What’s that? That means that we are suffering with Christ as believers in the world, it means that we are willing to give up anything for him, it means that sometimes we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Then, being made conformable to his death, or being like him in his death; that’s our growing likeness to Jesus Christ. All of this is part of the relationship of coming to know Christ more deeply.
(3) There’s righteousness, there’s relationship, and then finally, number three, there is resurrection. You see that in verse 11 when he says, “...that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Here he’s looking forward. He’s not thinking merely about the relationship he has with Christ in the present time, but he’s looking forward to future resurrection, and he says, “If by any means possible I may attain this.” He’s not expressing doubt whether he will, but he doesn’t know what the course of his life will be. He doesn’t know whether he will live or die, he doesn’t know what the outcome of his trials will be; but he’s saying, “Whatever the case, whatever means this may involve, this is what I’m aiming for, this is what I’m running for. It’s the resurrection from the dead.”
What does that mean? It means that after death, when Jesus comes again, that we are made like him in every way. In fact, I think Paul describes this for us in verses 20-21 of this chapter when he says, “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 by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” Our bodies made like Christ’s resurrection.
This is what we gain when we gain Christ, but most importantly, we gain Christ himself. We get Jesus when we turn our backs on our sins and we turn our backs on our own righteousness, our self-righteousness.
In Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” about Mrs. Turpin, that I mentioned a few moments ago; at the end of the story, she sees a vision, and it’s a vision of a train of people who are headed to heaven, and she is surprised at this point that she sees at the very end of the crowd she is standing there, kind of bringing up the rear. She has a surprised look on her face, because now her virtues have been burned away, she’s recognized her sins, she’s recognized her self-righteousness, she’s recognized her need. But because she recognizes it, she’s now in that company, the company of the redeemed.
That’s what happens when people experience what Paul experienced here, when they experience what Nathan Cole experienced, when the old foundation is broken up, when you receive a heart wound, and when you recognize that your righteousness will not save you, but you need the righteousness of another.
Have you experienced that? Has that happened to you? Are you experiencing what Paul did, the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord? That is our great privilege as believers, and it’s worth everything it cost.
Let me end with these words, which we’ll sing in a few moments, from Isaac Watts. He said,
“No more, my God, I boast no more
Of all the duties I have done.
I quite the hopes I held before
And trust the merits of thy Son.
Now for the loss I bear his name;
What was my gain I count my loss.
My former pride I call my shame,
And nail my glory to his cross.
“Yes, I must and will esteem
All things but loss for Jesus’ sake.
Oh may my soul be found in him
And of his righteousness partake!
The best obedience of my hands
Dares not appear before thy throne,”
But listen to this:
“But faith can answer thy demands
By pleading what my Lord has done.”
Heavenly Father, we bow with gratitude in our hearts for the truth of this passage, what we gain when we gain Christ—righteousness, this new verdict, a growing relationship in knowing Jesus Christ as Lord, and the assurance of future resurrection. Lord, I haven’t preached it particularly well this morning, but I pray that the truth would pierce our hearts. I pray, Lord, that for any who do not know Christ that today would be the day when they receive a heart wound, where the old foundation is broken up, where they recognize that their righteousness will not save them, that they need the righteousness of another.
I pray for every Christian this morning, that we would be freshly humbled at the recognition of our need, and that we would be freshly encouraged at the recognition of your amazing grace that is given to us in this sweet exchange, as we receive Christ’s righteousness because he has taken our sins.
Father, I pray that as we come to the Lord’s table this morning, as we celebrate that exchange, as we take symbolically the body and blood of Jesus, I pray that we would do it with deep faith in our hearts, in what Christ has done. As we sing these words, may we sing them from our hearts, may we put away all boasting, all confidence in the flesh, and may our boast be in Jesus Christ and in him alone. So draw near to us we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.