11. Paul's Passion: Knowing the Exalted Christ


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Detail of ĎApostle Paulí, mosaic (c. 1900-1910), from Pyotr Basinís (1793-1877) original painting, Saint Isaacís Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Detail of 'Apostle Paul', mosaic (c. 1900-1910), from Pyotr Basin's (1793-1877) original painting, Saint Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia.

We've left the narrative of Acts of the Apostles now. Paul is dead, executed by Nero in Rome around 65 AD, give or take a year. About the same time as Peter.

But somehow, Paul lives on. His letters have ignited fires of love and joy and wonder in all the great saints of God throughout the ages -- St. Augustine and St. Francis. St. Patrick, apostle to Ireland, and St. Columba, apostle to Scotland were touched. And so many more.

Martin Luther wrote of his conversion about 1519,

"I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans....

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, 'In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live."' There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith....

Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.... Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise."[498]

When John Wesley heard someone read from Luther's Preface to the Epistle to Romans, something happened in him. "I felt my heart strangely warmed..."

I don't think it any exaggeration to say that Paul's writings have been used by the Spirit of God to bring saving faith to hundreds of millions of people in the last two millennia. We see his writings as Holy Scripture, inspired by the Spirit.

We've looked deeply at some of Paul's key teachings as we've studied his life and teachings over the last eleven weeks (See Theological and Practical Themes). I would like us to conclude our study by examining a few more of Paul's amazing insights into Christ -- and knowing him.

11.1. Christ Appears to Paul

So far as Paul tells us, he never saw or met Jesus in the flesh. Perhaps he arrives in Jerusalem after Christ's crucifixion and resurrection -- or just didn't attend Jesus' teachings in the Holy City.

But just after Paul's conversion, Ananias prophesies over him:

"The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth." (Acts 22:14)

But as we've observed, Christ appears to Paul on a number of occasions, revealing himself in unique and powerful ways, far beyond what a physical sighting alone could have conveyed. Here are the ones Paul mentions:

  • On the road to Damascus (33 AD, Acts 9:3-6, 17, 27).
  • Three years in Arabia (33-35 AD, Galatians 1:15-17).
  • Trance in the Jerusalem temple (about 35 AD, Acts 22:17-18a).
  • Revelations in Tarsus of the third heaven (about 41 AD, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, 7).

These visions form part of the basis for Paul's apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1b; 15:8).

Paul's Revelations

But beyond his personal experiences, Paul is blessed with first-person revelations that constitute the basis of his teaching. He tells the Galatians:

"11 The gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 12  I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:11-12)

Add to these times the Spirit speaks to him or leads him in a certain way, we have many, many communications. God has been teaching Paul and revealing Christ's wonders to him  in the desert and the cities, in good times and bad.

In the Gospels we see Jesus in the flesh, his death, his resurrection, and promises of his return in glory as the Son of Man and the Son of God. But in Paul's writings especially we meet the exalted Christ, who is with the Father from before the beginning and is highly exalted -- due to God's revelation to Paul. Let's carefully examine a couple of these passages.

11.2. The Exaltation of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11)

One of the most profound revelations of Christ is tucked into Paul's Letter to the Philippians.

Stop now and read it (Philippians 2:5-11), then continue.

This beautiful passage is a kind of Christological hymn[499] of Christ's humility and exaltation. The context is some kind of "selfish ambition or vain conceit" that the church in Philippi needs help with. Instead of trying to exalt themselves, Paul calls on them to emulate the humility that is in Christ, whom God ultimately exalts to the highest place.

"Your attitude[500] should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:5)

Interesting. Our understanding of Jesus should affect our attitude, our way of looking at ourselves and others and Christ.

In Very Nature God (Philippians 2:6a)

This passage has been extremely important to the Church in understanding the relationship of Christ to the Father, which found expression in the Nicene Creed. It begins by Paul asserting the pre-existence of Christ in a place of glory.

"Who, being[501] in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped...." (Philippians 2:6)

Paul shares with other New Testament writers the conviction that Christ existed in the presence of God from before time began (John 1:1-2; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 7:3; 13:8; cf. Proverbs 8:22-31). John's Gospel records in Jesus' "high priestly prayer," this request:

"And now, Father, glorify me in your presence
with the glory I had with you before the world began." (John 17:5)

In Revelation, Jesus speaks words that can only apply to the God who existed before the beginning, who created all things.

"I am the Alpha and the Omega,
the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End." (Revelation 22:13)

In keeping with John 3:16, "the only begotten Son," the Nicene Creed says of Jesus: "begotten of the Father before all worlds."

Our passage follows this understanding of Christ's pre-existent glory with the Father.

"Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped...." (Philippians 2:6)

"Nature" (NIV) or "form" (ESV, KJV, NRSV) in both verses 6 and 7 is the Greek noun morphē, "form, outward appearance, shape."[502] Paul is saying that Jesus is God. Jesus is divine -- pure and simple.[503]

In order to make this unambiguous, the framers of the Nicene Creed introduce a Greek word that doesn't appear in the actual New Testament, homoousios, "of the same substance, consubstantial." The Nicene Creed states this relationship of the pre-existent Christ to the Father in this way:

"God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father."

The current Anglican version states this phrase as "of one Being with the Father." In other words, to put it rather crudely, Jesus is made of the very same divine "stuff" that the Father is made of. He isn't a lesser god; he is God.

Not Clinging to Equality with God (Philippians 2:6b)

To clarify this further, our passage considers the idea of "equality with God":

"Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped...." (Philippians 2:6)

"Equality" (isos) means "pertaining to being equivalent in number, size, quality; equal."[504] Did the pre-existent Christ have this equality with God? Yes. A very rare Greek word (harpagmos) is variously translated, "something to be grasped" (NIV, RSV, ESV), "something to be exploited" (NRSV), "robbery" (KJV). The basic meaning of the word is, "a violent seizure of property, robbery," then, "something to which one can claim or assert title by gripping or grasping, something claimed."[505] Whatever, the exact meaning of harpagmos, it seems clear that the pre-existent Christ already possesses equality with God, and determines not to clutch at it or cling to it, but rather to obey his Father and humble himself.[506] We know that the Son submits to the Father, but that they are of the same divine nature. The Son is as fully God as is the Father.

Emptied Himself (Philippians 2:7-8a)

The hymn has discussed Christ's preexistent state. Now it turns to his human state.

"... But made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man...." (Philippians 2:7-8a)

 "Made himself nothing" (NIV), "made himself of no reputation" (KJV), and "emptied himself" (NRSV, ESV) is the Greek verb kenaō, literally, "to make empty, to empty," and figuratively or metaphorically, "to make of no effect." Jesus "divested himself of his prestige or privileges."[507] Used with the emphatic "himself" makes it clear that this was a voluntary action by the preexistent Christ.[508]

Did Jesus give up the form or nature of God, that is, his actual divinity? I don't think so. Rather, he emptied himself of some of the "relative attributes" of deity -- omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence -- while retaining the "essential attributes"? We know from the text that he became a slave as well as a human being.

"He took on the form (morphē) of a slave," an expression of servility, in contrast to the "form of God."[509] He was "made in human likeness,"[510] being human in two ways: (1) by birth (ginomai, NIV and KJV "being made, NRSV, "being born") and (2) in appearance (schēma).[511]

(I know this is all rather technical, but important to understand Jesus' nature as best as we can. Thanks for bearing with me.)

Obedient to Death on a Cross (Philippians 2:8b)

The humiliation of God to become a human being might be compared to a human taking the form of a slug or a mosquito. But voluntary humiliation is not enough. In addition, he takes on the humiliation of death, and a very painful and shameful death at that:

"He humbled[512] himself
and became obedient[513] to death --
even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:8b)

Jesus' death on the cross is comparable to being executed as a criminal by electric chair or firing squad, or a slow public death by hanging -- a shameful and tortured death.

Paul's point all along is that Jesus sets the ultimate example of humbling oneself rather than insisting on one's own way with selfish ambition and vain glory. Jesus humbles himself twice over -- first, in his humbling by becoming a human being and whatever loss of divine power and prestige that required. Then again, by voluntarily assenting to the most shameful and painful death imaginable in his day. Jesus humbles himself, Paul insists, and we must, too.

Exalted to the Highest Place (Philippians 2:9-11)

Christ -- One equal with God -- empties himself, humbles himself, and gives himself up to a tortured death for us. Now the hymn builds to its glorious conclusion:

"9 Therefore[514] God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name[515] of Jesus every knee should bow,[516]
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess[517] that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:9-11)

"Exalted ... to the highest place" (NIV) or "highly exalted" (KJV, ESV, NRSV) is the Greek verb hyperypsoō, "to raise to a high point of honor, raise, exalt." Here, "to raise someone to the loftiest height."[518] Paul is referring to Christ's resurrection from the dead, of course, but also to his ascension into heaven, where "God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior" (Acts 5:31; cf. 2:33). This passage has strong echoes from of Isaiah 53 also.

Humility, followed by being exalted by God, is a theme that runs through the New Testament, especially in Jesus' own teaching (Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke l8:14):

"Take the lowest place when you are a guest at a banquet: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11)

This is echoed by the apostles:

"Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." (James 4:10)

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." (1 Peter 5:6)

It is no accident that genuine, self-imposed humility is the only way that love and unity can flourish in the Church, the Body of Christ. And Jesus himself leads the way.

Christ is exalted to the highest place. In Revelation 20:11-15 we see the awesome courtroom with the great white throne of judgment where all are called to judgment and no longer show any rebellion in the face of his holy righteousness. Ultimately, worship of all shall ascend to Christ,

"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth
and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise." (Revelation 5:12)

Come soon, Lord Jesus. 

Q1. (Philippians 2:5-11) How did Jesus demonstrate the importance of humility and forego his rights in order to do God's will? What happens when we try to exalt ourselves, rather than waiting for God to exalt us? What do you call this tendency?

11.3. The Supremacy of Christ (Colossians 1:15-20)

While Philippians 2 deals with Jesus' humiliation and exaltation, Paul's revelation in Colossians 1 deals with the pre-existent, exalted Christ, and is the classic passage in the New Testament that can help us understand more clearly who Christ is. This passage is at the apex of Christology, the study of Christ. Like Philippians 2:5-11, the Colossians passage seems to be a hymn, "skillfully worded and rhythmically balanced, deserving to be called a poem."[519]

Our passage contains two parts. First, seven different cameos that highlight various aspects of Christ's supremacy (verses 15-18) and second, an explanation of how God fulfills his purpose through Christ (verses 19-20). Let's begin by examining these cameos.

1. Image of the Invisible God (verse 15a). This phrase introduces two contrasting concepts: image and invisibility. An image[520] is something you can see. Invisibility, by definition, you can't see.[521] The great glory of Judaism was its belief in one God who could not be seen. Jesus declared, "God is spirit" (John 4:24). This understanding of God's invisibility is also part of the Christian understanding of God (Romans 1:20; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 11:27).

The amazing truth of Christianity is that the invisible God has allowed himself to be seen in Jesus of Nazareth. John's Gospel especially ponders this paradox:

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.... No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:14, 18)

John's Gospel is clear that the Father and Son are different Persons, but that in the Son, God can be seen in all his glory. Amazing!

2. Firstborn Over All Creation (verse 15b-16). Okay, back to Paul's revelation in Colossians.

"15 He is ... the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created:[522] things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him." (Colossians 1:15b-16)

"Firstborn" (prōtotokos) can suggest both (1) birth order (as in Colossians 1:18b) and (2) the special status accorded the firstborn son, as in our verse.[523] "Firstborn over all creation" doesn't mean that Jesus is the first created being, but that he is preeminent over all created beings, the sum total of everything created.[524]

Christ created everything and everyone -- both human beings and spiritual beings (see verse 23), including the "principalities and powers," the spiritual forces we looked at in Lesson 8.1 on spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:23; Colossians 1:16). Christ is above them all. In fact, they were created to serve him ("for him").

3. Before[525] All Things (verse 17a). This passage teaches the pre-existence of Christ. He is not just a human, nor a created being himself. He predates everything. We see this taught throughout the New Testament (John 1:1-3; 8:58; John 17:5; Revelation 4:8). And there's a similar idea in verse 18b, where Christ is spoken of as "the beginning."

4. In Him All Things Hold Together[526] (verse 17b). Jesus is not just the clockmaker who creates the timepiece and sets it in motion. He also continually sustains it, maintains it, and holds it together, despite all the forces -- both subatomic and large-scale -- that might blow it apart (2 Peter 3:5; Psalms 75:3; Hebrews 1:3a).

5. Head[527] of the Body, the Church (verse 18a). Paul refers to the head-body analogy, which he develops in other places (Colossians 2:19). We see a similar idea in Ephesians, which seems to be written about the same time as Colossians.

"20b  [The Father] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21  far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22  And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23  which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." (Ephesians 1:20b-23)

6. The Beginning (verse 18b). In addition to the concept of Christ's preexistence ("he is before all things"), Paul emphasizes Christ as "the beginning. [528] He is the one who gets it all going -- and will end it all. At the close of Revelation, Jesus says:

"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." (Revelation 22:13)

Christ shares this title with God the Father (Revelation 21:6).

7. Firstborn from Among the Dead (verse 18c). Next, this hymn of Christ speaks of his resurrection. In verse 15b, "firstborn" is used in the sense of primacy due to birth order. Here, the idea of birth order itself is in view, in the sense that he is the first to be resurrected from the dead (Revelation 1:5). His resurrection from the dead encourages us that we, too, will be raised at his coming and inspires our hope (John 11:25-26; Acts 26:22-23; 1 Corinthians 15:20).

Christ is Supreme (Colossians 1:18d)

Christ's 7-fold distinctives outlined in this hymn culminate with a purpose clause:

"... So that in everything he might have the supremacy."[529] (Colossians 1:18d)

Jesus isn't given these distinctives to make him preeminent. Rather, these distinctives demonstrate his preeminence. He is in first place -- above any person or any spiritual power in all creation.

The Fullness of God Dwells in Him (Colossians 1:19)

The hymn has reached its high point in the supremacy of Christ over creation. Now it considers his relationship to God:

"For God was pleased to have all his fullness[530] dwell[531] in him." (verse 19)

This affirms that in Jesus, God is fully present and that Jesus is fully divine (Colossians 2:9-10; Ephesians 3:19; 4:13).

So who is Jesus? Is he a good teacher? A prophet? An example? Yes, all these things. But he is more. He is supreme and he is God in the flesh! This hymn of Christ in Colossians helps us see Christ in all his glory.

11.4. "In Christ" -- Union with Christ

But God's fulness no longer dwells just in Christ. He dwells in us too through the Holy Spirit! (Romans 8:9), and we dwell "in Christ."

We often find the phrase in Paul's letters -- "in Christ." He uses it several ways, but I want to focus on one sense of the word, one that suggests union with Christ.

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in (en) Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1)

"Therefore, if anyone is in (en) Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

"For as in (en) Adam all die, so in (en) Christ all will be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22)

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in (en) Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28, ESV)

"... [To] be found in (en) him." (Philippians 3:9a)

The usage of the preposition en is quite complex. However, here en suggests "close association,"[532] that is, union with Christ.

This close association is initiated by God. You see a number of metaphors that describe this relation, this union, such as:

  • Born again (John 3:3, 5)
  • Created (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10)
  • Adopted (Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4)
  • Redeemed (Titus 2:14; Galatians 3:13-14; 4:5; Romans 3:24; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14)

This close relation, this union with Christ, is brought about by the Holy Spirit -- Christ's Holy Spirit being joined with our human spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17). In that sense, we are a "temple" of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (1 Corinthians 6:19).

It suggests that when Christ saves us, he places us within his own sphere and joins us to him. We belong to him. We have been bought by his blood. We are united with him in spirit. We are "in Christ."

This is not a fragile union, dependent upon our daily emotions. Rather, we have been transferred by God into Christ's sphere:

"13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness
and transferred
[533] us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
14  in whom we have redemption,
the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1:14, ESV)

We are "in Christ" now. Christ is righteous, we are "in him," and so we share his righteousness. We are one with Christ.

Q2. (Colossians 1:14-20; Romans 8:1) What does it mean to be "in Christ"? Why is such union with Christ so important?

11.5. A Passion to Know Christ (Philippians 3:7-14)

Paul knows he is "in Christ," that he is united with Christ. But you sense in Paul a quest that isn't fully satisfied. He has an insatiable hunger, a passion, a longing to know Christ more, to experience his presence more fully, less interrupted by life's circumstances. 

Knowing Christ Jesus My Lord (Philippians 3:8b)

In an amazingly passionate passage in his Letter to the Philippians, we see Paul's heart. Previously, his confidence was based in himself -- his pedigree, his attainments, his personal righteousness under the Law. But it didn't satisfy. Even worse, these things kept him from experiencing the reality of God. They got in the way.

"7  But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him...." (Philippians 3:8b-9a)

What does it mean to "know Christ"?[534] In the Old Testament, knowledge (Hebrew yāda`) denotes "living in a close relationship with something or somebody, such a relationship as to cause what may be called communion."[535] The prophets look forward to that day when all would intimately know God.

"They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain:
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge (dē`ā) of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:9; cf. Habakkuk 2:14)

"No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know (yāda`) the Lord,'
because they will all know (yāda`) me,
from the least of them to the greatest,"
declares the Lord.
'For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.'" (Jeremiah 31:34)

"Let us know (yāda`), let us press on to know (yāda`) the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth." (Hosea 6:3)

This longing to know God can find fulfillment among Christians under the New Covenant because of the Holy Spirit who can reveal to us the very mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16).

But Paul is hungry and thirsty for even more. He can't get enough of intimacy with Christ. To be intimate with the Messiah is of "surpassing greatness" (NIV), "surpassing value" (NRSV), and "excellency" (KJV).[536] In our contemporary parlance we talk about, "chocolate to die for." But Paul meant it literally. To know Christ is worth giving up everything.

Knowing Christ Intimately (Philippians 3:10-11)

Paul goes on in verse 9 to talk about righteousness that comes by faith, not law, that we discussed in Lesson 1.3. Paul's salvation is secure in Christ. But his soul longs for an even greater intimacy with Jesus than he has already obtained.

"10  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11  that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:10-11, ESV)

"Know"[537] is not expressed in esoteric enlightenment, but a growing personal relationship. The relationship begins when we first put our faith in Christ and grows over a lifetime. Sometimes our relationship seems stable. Sometimes it seems to wane. Occasionally, we might experience what St. John of the Cross describes as "the dark night of the soul."[538] But there are also times of rapid growth, of spiritual breakthroughs, of renewal and refreshing of the soul. Paul is crying out for more. He is hooked on Jesus and only more of Jesus can satisfy his soul.

Paul is content to know Christ in his fullness even if it is sometimes painful, even if it costs him something. He longs not only to know Christ, but also to experience God's power -- on the scale of the power revealed at Christ's resurrection.

Paul is no stranger to suffering for Christ. He knows that in the experience of persecution and suffering for the Name there is great consolation of the Spirit, so he prays for "the fellowship[539] of sharing in his sufferings."

Paul also looks to Christ's death, that he might share that too, "becoming like him in his death." Whether Paul is speaking of spiritual death to his old life or literal martyrdom like Jesus himself it's not clear -- probably both.[540]

Finally, Paul looks forward to physical resurrection at Christ's return -- "and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." The phrase "and so, somehow," doesn't indicate doubt whether he will be raised from the dead, but uncertainty about his immediate future expressed in this prison letter -- whether he will be released or executed.[541] Whichever, John tells us, "When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

This passage illustrates Paul's passion for Christ.

Q3. (Philippians 3:8-9) How can pride in our own righteousness and religious achievements actually get in the way of "knowing Christ"? Has this ever happened to you or someone you know?

Running Flat Out in the Race (Philippians 3:12-14)

Detail from Panathenaic prize amphora, attributed to the Euphiletos painter (Athens, ca. 530 BC), terracotta black figure, 24.5 in high. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Detail from Panathenaic prize amphora, attributed to the Euphiletos painter (Athens, ca. 530 BC), terracotta black figure, 24.5 in high. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Paul doesn't feel he has arrived. There's more. He is still a work in progress.

"Not that I have already obtained[542] all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press[543] on to take hold of[544]  that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it." (Philippians 3:12-13a)

Paul realizes that he hasn't attained his full potential in Christ, but he doesn't excuse himself by the difficulty of the calling, and so he "presses on," runs for all he's worth, ready to grab the baton from the runner ahead of him, to "take hold of it."

This reminds me of a story from David's life (2 Samuel 2:12-23). Abner, general for King Saul's son Ish-Bosheth, loses many troops in a skirmish with David's men. Then Asahel, brother of David's general, "chased Abner, turning neither to the right nor to the left as he pursued him." The Bible records, "Asahel refused to give up the pursuit."

It is this kind of dogged determination that is the fire in Paul's belly. With the same zeal that he once persecuted the church (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6), he now pursues Christ.

No, Paul has not obtained his spiritual goal yet, but he is not resting or turning back:

"But one thing I do: Forgetting[545] what is behind... " (Philippians 3:13b)

This passage has inspired me for decades. Every time I read it, it speaks to me again. The imagery is from a race, "I press on" -- "chase, run after, pursue." Paul is single-minded: "But one thing I do!"

Runners in an all-out race don't spend much time glancing back or they'll trip and fall. Rather they are intent on the goal. Thank God for forgiveness! In Christ, we can find forgiveness for our sins and our own failings. In Christ we can find the grace to forgive even the deepest hurts. So Paul doesn't look back, he looks forward to the goal.[546]

When I was on the high school tennis team the coach would shout at us, "Keep your eye on the ball!" If our eyes slip to the temporal world, we lose focus on the spiritual world and lose our bearings. Forget what lies behind. Keep your eye on the goal!

Straining Towards the Finish Line (Philippians 3:13d)

"13d ... and straining toward[547] what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13d-14)

If you watch sprints and hurdles in track and field, you can see as the leading runners reach the tape at the goal line, they lean their bodies forward. In some of the heats, it is that extension of the body to its uttermost that wins the race. Paul is talking about his own flat out commitment to see this through to the end. No slacking off. No excuses. No laziness. Paul is stretching all out to win the race.[548]

Paul isn't fighting for his salvation. That is settled. He is seeking to know Christ in his fullness.

"I press on[549] toward the goal to win the prize[550] for which God has called me heavenward[551] in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:14)

What is the prize? Knowing Christ, loving him, serving him, and enjoying his salvation forever. Paul seeks to fulfill the call of God on his life. O'Brien concludes,

"The greatest reward is to know fully, and so to be in perfect fellowship with, the one who had apprehended him on the Damascus road. And this prize Paul wants his readers also to grasp."[552]

Your Passion and Mine

We're nearing the end of our study of the Apostle Paul, the passionate disciple. But I don't want to leave it there. I want to ask about you? Do you long to know Jesus better -- really know him?

It is possible to do some amazing things for God and be caught up in the euphoria of these good works. The church Paul founded in Ephesus had that problem. A few generations after Paul's time there, there was the appearance of vitality -- lots of good works and orthodox doctrine -- but within it was somewhat like a hollow shell. Consider Jesus' words to this church in Revelation:

"I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil... I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." (Revelation 2:2-4)

It is quite possible to live a "Christian" life without really knowing -- or attempting to really know -- Christ. Church is good, but its familiar rituals can lull us into thinking that we actually know Jesus intimately. That we listen to him personally. Walk with him. Enjoy him. Just like Paul, whose righteous background got in the way of knowing Christ, your religion can actually keep you from the sweetness of knowing Jesus in a personal way.

But that isn't what we see in Acts and in Paul? Here we see men and women intent on knowing Christ intimately.

Q4. (Philippians 3:13; Revelation 2:4) What does it look like when a person "loses his first love"? Has this ever happened to you? How can you regain a personal intimacy with Christ? What might you need to repent of to restore this?

Ranger Walks

When camping in state and national parks, I've often gone on "ranger walks," where the ranger or naturalist arranges to meet a group of people at a particular time and place, and then conducts them along a trail, explaining what they are seeing.

On most of these ranger walks, a pattern develops, and the group begins to separate into four distinct groups.

1. Running ahead. There are people -- usually children -- who rush ahead down the trail. They never hear what the ranger says.

2. Going for a walk. Then there are ones who keep up with the ranger, but aren't quite in earshot and aren't following the dialog, but they keep the pace pretty well, enjoy the walk, and catch up when the ranger pauses.

3. Engaged. There is a cluster of people, however, who keep up with the ranger and are fully engaged, asking questions, listening intently to the ranger's explanations. Now and again, the ranger will stop to explain a particular tree or view or plant, and talk about it for a few minutes. About the time the ranger is finished with the presentation and is ready to move on, the fourth group catches up.

4. Laggers. They never hear what the ranger has to say. The ranger, however, doesn't wait for them or repeat, but steps out along the trail once more and before long the four groups emerge again.

In your Christian walk, which group best describes you? Do you get to know the Ranger? Really?

I want to encourage you right now to be like the group on the ranger walk that is fully engaged with the Ranger. That gets to know the Ranger. That starts when He starts and stops when He stops. Who listen. Who ask questions. Who get to know Him.

By the time Paul writes Philippians, he has walked with Christ -- closely -- for decades. Yet he hasn't lost his passion, his first love. And so his words linger to convict us and urge us on:

"That I might know him...."

Knowing Christ is the only thing that is of "surpassing worth," the only thing that really is of any value. There are lots of substitutes for knowing Christ intimately, but only one genuine article. That's what Paul is aiming for. That is "passionate discipleship." How about you?

Lessons for Disciples


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There are many lessons to grasp here. But some of the chief ones are:

  1. The Holy Spirit works through Paul's inspired writings even today to touch people and bring them to Christ. They are part of Holy Scripture.
  2. Many of Paul's teachings are direct revelations from Christ, especially during his "silent years" in Arabia and Tarsus prior to beginning his public ministry (Galatians 1:11-12).
  3. We are to have the same kind of humility as Jesus, who humbled himself obediently, and waited for God to lift him up (Philippians 2:5-11). We are directed to the same path (James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6).
  4. Before he came to earth, Christ shared equality with the Father (Philippians 2:6-8; John 17:5), but willingly emptied himself of many of the prerogatives of divinity so that he might become a man. He did not cling to his "rights."
  5. Paul teaches that Christ is the visible image of God, that he pre-existed his earthly sojourn, created everything, holds everything together, and was raised from the dead -- that he is supreme, that all God's fulness dwells in Jesus (Colossians 1:15-20). Thus, we honor him as divine at the same level as the Father.
  6. When we are saved, we are transferred to the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:14), and are now "in Christ," that is, united to Christ (Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Galatians 3:28-29; Philippians 3:9). Here we experience his salvation.
  7. Our religious attainments can get in the way of humbling ourselves so we can trust Christ for righteousness (Philippians 3:8-9).
  8. Paul knows Christ, but he wants to know him ever more deeply and intimately, and sees this as of "surpassing greatness" (Philippians 3:8; Isaiah 11:9; Jeremiah 31:34; Hosea 6:3).
  9. Paul compares his zeal to know Christ to running in a race, not looking back, but straining forward toward the finish line (Philippians 3:13). We should seek a similar zeal for Jesus.
  10. Too often, people's love for Jesus cools and they "abandon the love they had at first" (Revelation 2:4). We must seek Jesus with all our hearts to know him well and enjoy him fully.

Prayer

Lord Jesus, so often we've gone through the motions of our Christian religion, but not really sought You. So often we've failed to engage with You. And perhaps it might be said of us, that we've lost our first love. Forgive us. Heal us. And draw us close to You. Close enough to feel Your warmth. To hear your thoughts. To just enjoy being with You. Let all else go on without us, but let us take that time with You, that intimate time. That essential time in a quest to know You. Not yesterday. But today. Now. Please. In your holy Name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"The gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:11-12, NIV)

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:5-11, NIV)

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV)

"[The Father] seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." (Ephesians 1:20b-23, NIV)

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

"He has delivered us from the domain of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption,
the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1:14, ESV)

"What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:8-11, NIV)

"Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14, NIV)

"Let us know let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth." (Hosea 6:3, NIV)

Endnotes

[498] Martin Luther, Wittenberg, 1545, in Luther's Works, Volume 34, Career of the Reformer IV (English edition; St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 1960), p. 336-337.

[499] Ralph P. Martin argues that the underlying Greek indicates the structure of a hymn. Ralph P. Martin, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 110-111. He has also developed this in his monograph, An Early Christian Confession. Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation (London, 1960).

[500] "Attitude" (NIV) or "let this mind be in you" (KJV, cf. NRSV, ESV) is the Greek verb phroneō, "to develop an attitude based on careful thought, be minded, be disposed" (BDAG 1066, 3).

[501] "Being" (NIV, KJV) or "though he was" (NRSV) is the Greek present active participle of hyparchō, "to be," a widely used substitute in Hellenic Greek for einai.

[502] Morphē, BDAG 659. In the Greek papyri, morphē refers to that "form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it" (J.H. Moulton and G. Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, 417, cited by G.F. Hawthorne, Philippians (Word Biblical Commentary; Waco, 1983), p. 83).

[503] O'Brien (Philippians, pp. 207-211) details five different understandings of morphē in this verse. From a study of the grammar of verse 6 he concludes, "This then, is what it means for Christ to be 'in the form of God;' it means 'to be equal with God,' not in the sense that the two phrases are identical, but that both point to the same reality" (p. 207).

[504] Isos, BDAG 481.

[505] Harpagmos, BDAG 133-134.

[506] J.B. Lightfoot (St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (Zondervan, 1953; reprint from original Macmillan, 1913 edition; Crossway, 1994 reprint) argues that harpagmos means "a prize" or "treasure," and interpreted the phrase, "He ... did not treat His equality with God as a prize, a treasure to be greedily clutched and ostentatiously displayed," that is, he already possessed divine equality and resolved not to cling to it (Lightfoot 134). A recent study by R.W. Hoover, indicates that the Greek phrase was a common idiomatic expression that meant, "to regard something as a stroke of luck, a windfall, a piece of good fortune." Thus, the meaning would be "he did not regard being equal with God as something to take advantage of," or, more idiomatically, "as something to use for his own advantage." This understanding assumes that equality with God represents a status which belonged to the preexistent Christ (cited and explained by O'Brien, Philippians, pp. 214-216, who is convinced by Hoover's philological conclusions).

[507] Kenaō, BDAG 539.

[508] O'Brien, Philippians, pp. 216-217.

[509] Morphē, BDAG 659.

[510] "Likeness" is the Greek noun homoiōma, "state of being similar in appearance, image, form," used thus both here and in Romans 8:3. Danker comments, "In the light of what Paul says about Jesus in general it is probable that he uses our word to bring out both that Jesus in his earthly career was similar to sinful humans and yet not totally like them" (BDAG 707, 3).

[511] Schēma means "the generally recognized state or form in which something appears, outward appearance, form, shape of a person" (BDAG 981).

[512] "Humbled" is the Greek verb tapeinoō, "to cause someone to lose prestige or status, humble, humiliate, abase" (BDAG 990). A related word occurs in the Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah 53:8, "in his humiliation...."

[513] "Obedient" is the Greek adjective hypēkoos, "obedient" (BDAG 1035) from the verb hypakouō, "to follow instructions, obey, follow, be subject to" (BDAG 1028-1029).

[514] Why does this stanza of the hymn begin with "therefore"? Is it a reward for Christ's obedient humiliation or an assertion of his victory over the principalities and powers? Neither. It is best understood as God's vindication of Christ's humiliation unto a shameful death. It is God's "yes" to Christ's equality with God. (Gordon D. Fee, Paul's Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 1995), p. 220).

[515] Part of Christ's exaltation is God giving to him "the name that is above every name." What is this name? Probably we should understand the "name" as "Lord." "At the name of Jesus" means "at the name which belongs to Jesus," that is, the divine title of "Lord", which the Father has bestowed on him. Jesus, once identified with humiliation and shameful death is now endued with the highest majesty and power, that of divine Lord. Now is fulfilled Isaiah's ancient prophecy, "And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). This is the authority that Jesus exercises at the Great Commission when he declares, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18). O'Brien notes, "In his exalted state, Jesus has a new rank involving the exercise of universal lordship. This gain was in official, not essential, glory since Jesus did not become divine through exaltation" (O'Brien, Philippians, p. 238).

[516] This verse recalls Isaiah 45:23b, "Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear." Is this submission and confession voluntary? Not necessarily. Though Jesus is now exalted to this highest place, not all acknowledge him as divine Lord. It remains for the Last Day for Christ's exaltation to be made plain to all (2 Thessalonians 2:8; Revelation 17:14). In Romans 14:10-11, Paul identifies this time of kneeling and confessing with "God's judgment seat" or "the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Judgment will take place "in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead" (2 Timothy 4:1).

[517] "Confess" is the Greek verb exomologeō, here means, "to declare openly in acknowledgement, profess, acknowledge" (BDAG 351).

[518] Hyperypsoō, BDAG 1034, a.

[519] N.T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; IVP Academic, 1986) p. 68. See also, Ralph P. Martin, "Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs," DPL 419-423.

[520] The word "image" is eikōn, "an object shaped to resemble the form or appearance of something, 'likeness, portrait,' then figuratively, by extension, 'that which has the same form as something else (not a crafted object), living image'" (BDAG 283, 2).

[521] "Invisible" is aoratos, " pertaining to not being subject to being seen, unseen, invisible," from a-, "not" + oraō, "to see" (BDAG 94).

[522] "Create," ktizō, "to bring something into existence, create" (BDAG 572).

[523] Prōtotokos, BDAG 894, 2a.

[524] A couple of Old Testament references show this use of the concept of "firstborn" as preeminent (Exodus 4:22; Psalms 89:27).

[525] The Greek word "before" is pro, a "marker of a point of time prior to another point of time, earlier than, before" (BDAG 864, 2).

[526] "Hold together" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "consist" (KJV) is synistēmi, originally, "to bring together by gathering, unite, collect," here, "to come to be in a condition of coherence, continue, endure, exist, hold together" (BDAG 973, B3).

[527] "Head" is kephalē. It means first, the physical head, particularly in the head-body analogy. But then extends to a figurative use as "being of high status, head." With living beings, kephalē refers to superior rank (BDAG 541-542).

[528] "Beginning" is archē. The basic idea of the word, however, is not "ruler" (as in verse 16), but "the commencement of something as an action, process, or state of being, beginning, that is, a point of time at the beginning of a duration." Here, in context with "firstborn," Paul is speaking figuratively of a person, "one with whom a process begins, beginning" (BDAG 137, 2). The idea of ruler or authority derives from the concept of one who begins or initiates.

[529] "Supremacy" (NIV), "supreme" (NJB), "first place" (NRSV, NASB), "preeminent/preeminence" (ESV, KJV) is prōteuō, "to hold the highest rank in a group, be first, have first place" (BDAG 892).

[530] "Fullness" is plērōma, "that which is brought to fullness or completion," here, "sum total, fullness," even "(super)abundance" (BDAG 828, 3b).

[531] "Dwell" is katoikeō," to live in a locality for any length of time, live, dwell, reside, settle (down)" (BDAG 534, 1b).

[532] The most common senses of the preposition en are: (1) location or locative, "in, among"; (2) instrumental, introducing a means, "with", and (3) close association, "in," used especially in John and Paul to designate a close personal relation, "under the control of, under the influence of, in close association with" (BDAG 327, 4c).

[533] "Brought" (NIV), "transferred" (ESV, NRSV), "translated" (KJV) is methistēmi, "transfer from one place to another, remove" (BDAG 625, 1a); in classical Greek, "to transpose, transfer, remove from one place to another," properly, of change of situation or place (Thayer 395).

[534] Martin notes: "The Pauline expression 'to know Christ' is intimate, and glows with the warmth of a direct relationship; it may be therefore be taken as equivalent to 'fellowship with Christ,' to which Paul was introduced on the day of his conversion (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6)" (Ralph P. Martin, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Eerdmans, 1987), p. 149). Paul's use of the term "knowledge" doesn't derive from the Greek mystery religions and philosophical schools that abounded in his day, but from the Hebrew scriptures.

[535] T.C. Vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Oxford, 1958), p. 129, cited by O'Brien, Philippians, p. 388. Greek noun gnōsis, "knowledge." It is used of (1) "comprehension or intellectual grasp of something," and (2) "the content of what is known." In the latter sense it can involve personal acquaintance with someone, in this case, Christ (BDAG 203-204).

[536] This Greek participle of hyperechō means, "to surpass in quality or value -- be better than, surpass, excel" (BDAG 1033). Paul uses this word three times in Philippians: here, 2:3 and 3:8.

[537] Ginōskō, "to arrive at a knowledge of someone or something -- know, know about, make acquaintance of" (BDAG 199-201).

[538] This is described well by Richard J. Foster in his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).

[539] "Fellowship" (NIV, KJV) or "sharing" (NRSV) is the Greek noun koinōnia, which we've seen before in Philippians. Here it means, "participation, sharing in something" (BDAG 552-553).

[540] "Becoming like" (NIV, NRSV) or "being made conformable" (KJV) is the Greek verb symmorphizō, "to cause to be similar in form or style to something else, grant or invest with the same form as" (BDAG 958). The adjectival form symmorphos appears in 3:21 -- "pertaining to having a similar form, nature or style, similar in form."

[541] The Greek particle pōs, is used here as an adverb, a marker of undesignated means or manner, "somehow, in some way, perhaps" (BDAG 901). Here the uncertainty is whether he will come to the resurrection by martyrdom or at the return of Christ. He is uncertain about his death (Ralph P. Martin, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 153-154; O'Brien, Philippians, pp. 411-413).

[542] "Obtained" (NIV, NRSV, ESV) or "attained" (KJV) is lambanō, "take hold of, grasp." Here it has the sense, "to enter into a close relationship, receive, make one's own, apprehend or comprehend" (BDAG 584).

[543] The first verb is "press on" (NIV, NRSV, ESV) or "follow after" (KJV). Diōkō, is often translated "persecute." Here it means, "to move rapidly and decisively toward an objective, hasten, run, press on" (BDAG 254). The root idea of diōkō is "to chase."

[544] "Take hold of" (NIV), "apprehend" (KJV), "make it my own" (NRSV, ESV), a sort of purpose clause in Greek (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, in loc.). Katalambanō is an important word, since it occurs twice in verse 12b and again in verse 13b. The root idea is "to lay hold of." Here it means, "to lay hold of so as to make one's own, win, attain" (Thayer; BDAG 519-520)

[545] "Forgetting" is epilanthanomai, "not to have remembrance of something, forget" (BDAG 374).

[546] "Goal" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "mark" (KJV) is skopos, from a root meaning "to look into the distance." Here it is the distant mark looked at, the "goal or end one has in view" (Thayer).

[547] "Straining toward" (NIV), "straining forward" (ESV, NRSV) "reaching forth" (KJV)is  epekteinomai, "to exert oneself to the uttermost, stretch out, strain toward something" (BDAG 361).

[548] In 1 Corinthians he switches from a racing imagery to a boxing analogy, but the idea is the same (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

[549] Diōkō, "pressing on, pursuing, chasing, running flat out."

[550] Prize" is brabeion, "an award for exceptional performance, prize, award." The word occurs here and in 1 Corinthians 9:24 (quoted above) with respect to competition in an athletic contest. In our passage and 2 Timothy 4:8, the prize or wreath is awarded not just to the winner, but to all who finish the race, an endurance race more than a sprint (BDAG 183).

[551] The phrase "high calling" (KJV), "called me heavenward" (NIV), and "heavenly call" (NRSV) translate two Greek words. The noun klēsis is an "invitation to experience special privilege and responsibility, call, calling, invitation" (BDAG 549). It is preceded by an adverb of place, anō, "extension toward a goal which is up, upward(s)" (BDAG 92).

[552] O'Brien, Philippians, p. 433.

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