“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.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8–14).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
As he wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison, Paul knew from personal experience the necessity to let go of the things that are not vital and to hold on to what is most important. It had happened a couple of years earlier.
Paul had been arrested on false charges. He could have gone free. Festus, the Roman governor, declared Paul not guilty and King Agrippa agreed that “this man could have been set free.” But the apostle has used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal his case personally to Caesar. Soon, Paul headed for Rome under the watchful eyes of a centurion named Julius.
It was much too late in the year to be sailing on the Mediterranean Sea. Paul had warned them that this voyage would be a difficult one, with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and ship, but also of lives, but no one listened to him.
At first the gentle south wind suggested Paul had been too pessimistic. But soon a northeaster struck down from the land. The ship was driven along by the gusty wind and tossed about by the rolling waves. The crew began to jettison the ship’s cargo of grain to lighten the load. Then they threw the ship’s tackle overboard. The storm lasted for days, with neither sun nor stars appearing in the darkened sky. They had all given up hope. But Paul reassured them that they would be safe if they only remained with the ship. When the sailors sought to escape in the boat, Paul had the soldiers cut the ropes to the boat and let it go so the sailors would not escape. By God’s grace, all 276 persons on board made it to Malta.
When the ship is going down, you have to know what to let go and what to hold on to. The same is true with most of life and faith. You have to know your priorities. You have to know who and what are valuable and indispensable, and what and who are deadly and will drag you down.
In the preceding verses, Paul had presented his resumé, enumerating the privileges of his Jewish descent and his personal achievements according to the Law. Paul had more than enough credentials to place his confidence in the flesh. His opponents could not easily dismiss him by saying he had no right to speak.
Circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the requirements of the Law, Paul regarded himself as a devoted member of God’s covenant people. Of the tribe of Benjamin, held in high regard by the Jews. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob born in the Promised Land (Genesis 35:16-18). From his tribe came Israel’s first king, Saul (1 Samuel 9:1-2), Paul’s namesake. As a Hebrew of Hebrews, Paul was a full-blooded Jew, faithful to the customs and traditions of his ancestors. He had been a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish sect that advocated strict adherence to the written Law and its many binding interpretations. In this regard, he was blameless. Paul’s extreme zeal had moved him to aggressively persecute Christians, ironclad evidence of his total commitment to the Jewish faith.
At one time, to Paul’s spiritually blind eyes, all these things had been to his “gain.” He had considered them advantages that would help him gain eternal life. But, by God’s grace, Paul had been led to see all these outward things in their true light and to discover that they had no value at all. All those physical things, all those supposed religious advantages did not gain real righteousness for him. They led him away from the only righteousness that truly saves.
The Lord Himself had led Paul to that great discovery. One day, as Paul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus had appeared to him. In that moment, Paul saw himself as the wretched helpless sinner he really was. He experienced a complete change of heart and a total reversal of values. The Savior he had been persecuting became his Savior. The cause he had been determined to destroy became his cause. Christ had made Paul His own; now Paul pressed on to make Christ and His righteousness his own.
Consequently, all the things that had been so precious to Saul the Pharisee became and remained forever useless to Paul the sinner saved by grace. All the things he had formerly regarded as gain he now regarded as less than useless, not because all of them were wrong in themselves but because he had so wrongly regarded them as tickets to eternal life.
So, like a ship’s captain tossing baggage off a foundering ship so that the ship will not sink, Paul ridded himself of all the things that had been so important to him. In that sense, he lost everything. Yet in his heart he knew that his “loss” was really no loss at all. He calls all these things, well, “rubbish” is too nice a word to describe the stinking excrement Paul notes. “Paul is expressing not only the true value of his past accomplishments and sources of confidence…, but also revulsion. Not just, ‘I am willing to pay this high price because it’s worth it,’ but, ‘Get this stuff away from me! It stinks!’”[i]
When you see even the best of who you are apart from Christ, you are not only ready to give it up, but cannot wait to flush it away. When you give up “righteousness of my own that comes from the Law” (Philippians 3:9) which seems great but actually stinks, you “gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). You gain a “righteousness that comes from God and depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9).
In losing those earthly things as the object of his trust, Paul had, through the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart, gained Christ. During the nearly 30 years that had elapsed between that experience on the Damascus Road and the writing of this epistle, Paul’s knowledge of Christ had grown and matured. The more he knew of his Savior and the more deeply he came to rest his confidence on Christ, the more that knowledge eclipsed everything else in beauty and desirability, as the apostle realized that nothing in all the world can compare with knowing Christ.
It is important for us also to realize that some of the things we might regard as gain can be the loss of us if they stand in the way of our knowing and trusting in Jesus. Being born into a Christian home, being instructed and confirmed, receiving a Christian education, and being members of a Christian congregation are all great blessings and advantages in themselves, but we cannot regard them as tickets to eternal life. Likewise, other legitimate blessings of the Lord—like intelligence, money, charm, education, even our own personal moral victories—can become hindrances to our salvation, if for any reason we put our trust in them instead of placing our whole confidence in Christ.
Through Christ, Paul obtained a righteousness that enables sinners to stand before the judgment seat of God. Before he came to know Jesus, Paul trusted the righteousness that he thought he was earning by the kind of life he led. But once Scriptures were opened to him, the apostle came to realize how worthless all human righteousness really is. Gaining one’s own righteousness by keeping the law could be done only by perfectly fulfilling the law in thought, desire, word, and deed. But no sinful human being can be perfectly holy. The righteousness that Paul thought he was earning as a Pharisee was worse than worthless.
In Christ, on the other hand, Paul had found real righteousness. Jesus earned this righteousness for sinners by His work as mankind’s substitute. God freely gives that righteousness to sinners through the Gospel. Individual sinners personally receive this righteousness by faith, which the Holy Spirit kindles in their hearts through the very Gospel message that announces and offers this righteousness. From beginning to end, the righteousness that saves is God’s free gift to sinners. On the basis of this righteousness alone, God accepts sinful human beings as his children. Paul knew that in Christ he had obtained that marvelous righteousness from God. He was not about to give it up or again foolishly place his trust in the worthless human righteousness that had intrigued him before.
Over 20 centuries later, the apostle’s inspired words also urge us to place our confidence in the righteousness of Christ alone. The apostle encourages us to count everything else as loss for the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and finding in Him the righteousness that avails before God. He encourages us to reject all righteousness apart from Christ as sham righteousness that cannot save.
As one who possess Christ’s righteousness and feels His love in your heart, you will, like the apostle, constantly want to grow in your knowledge of Him. You will want to experience His love ever more deeply and respond to that love with a life of loving service to Jesus.
The Lord blesses such growth in you through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. As you regularly find Christ in His Word, remember your Baptism, and receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit reveals the Savior’s beauty to you in ever clearer focus. He binds you ever more closely to that Savior, filling you increasingly with the Savior’s love and the desire and power to serve Him. Through the Spirit’s work in your heart, you experience the power of Christ’s resurrection. You receive from their risen Lord the spiritual strength to overcome sin and grow in Christian living.
You will also experience, as Paul did, “[Sharing] His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.” You cannot atone for you own sins by suffering and dying, but you can share in Christ’s suffering and by becoming like Him in His death. You share this when you endure the scorn and ridicule and even at times the physical persecution of the hostile world, when you daily crucify your own sinful and selfish nature with its lusts and desires, and when you joyfully and uncomplainingly follow your Savior on your path of suffering and trouble in this sinful world to the glory of eternal life with Him. Toward that great goal Paul constantly strove, toward that great goal every believer also daily strives.
When you were brought to faith, you became a possessor of eternal life. As long as you are in the world, you are like people who hold a title to property in a distant land. The title makes the property theirs, but the owners are not yet physically in possession of what rightfully belongs to them. Similarly, though you are a possessor of eternal life by faith and have the righteousness of Christ, you are still also a sinner living in a sinful world. You have not yet arrived at the full, physical possession of the perfection of eternal life. So, perhaps in response to the boastful claims of the Judaizers or others who taught that believers could achieve perfection already here on earth by their works, in this section Paul vividly describes the Christian life as a constant straining forward toward the great goal and prize of eternal life that God’s grace holds out to believers in Christ.
Over the years, Paul had grown in knowledge of Christ and in conformity to Christ. He had become a revered apostle and had experienced the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Most recently he had suffered the loss of his personal freedom for the sake of Christ, but that did not mean that he had already made it his own or had reached the goal of perfection. Paul was still living in a sinful world. He was still a sinner, still troubled by the weaknesses and failings of his sinful nature. Though he was a child of God by faith, he had not yet arrived at the point where he could perfectly and uninterruptedly serve God or enjoy the fullness of the blessings God had in store for him. That would have to wait until he entered heaven. Meanwhile he lived his life as a Christian in a constant striving for holiness. He pressed on toward perfection.
That is an important key to viewing your own life. You are not in heaven yet. God is not finished with you. You have not “arrived.” You are in the process of becoming what you already are. You are pursuing what God has prepared for you to do. And Christ and His Holy Spirit go with you, leading you, guiding you, empowering you to Christ-like living through His means of grace, living and daily repentance and faith in the Lord’s promises. The Lord has made you His own.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Epistle: Philippians 3:(4b–7) 8–14 (Lent 5: Series C) | 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/epistle-philippians-