Paul: The Way of the Passionate Pursuit of Christ — Part 1

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Paul: The Way of the Passionate Pursuit of Christ — Part 1

Posted on 25 Mar 2024

Extracted from ‘In the Footsteps of Giants’ by Wong Kim Tok




But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.

I consider them garbage, 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 on the basis of faith.

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

Brothers and sisters, 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 3:7-14


 

Passion

Passion is a word not found in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. But one can easily discern the passion Paul had for some crucial areas.

In Chapter 1, we can observe his passion for the Gospel to be preached. He was willing to overlook people’s motives as long as the Gospel was preached by them. He would rather die to be with Christ but chose to remain so that the Philippian church would be built up and thereby advance the gospel.

In Chapter 2 we read of Paul’s passion to serve in the humble pattern of Jesus. Like Paul, we also read of Timothy and Epaphroditus, all of whom served in the same selfless and sacrificial manner of their primary model, Jesus Christ.

In Chapter 3 we see Paul’s passion for knowing and being like Christ.

In Chapter 4 we read about Paul’s passion and love for the Philippian church which partnered with him in the spread of the gospel. Paul does not use the specific word in the epistle but passion oozes out of his life, pursuits and writings.

This is the same with people of passion through the ages. When we see them in action or hear them speak we not only recognise them as passionate but we also sense passion stirring in our hearts.


Passion has two meanings. The first meaning is commonly referred to as an intense desire for something, a longing after. There is emotion, fire, and intensity fuelling the pursuit. The second meaning of passion is related to suffering. (from the Latin word “patior”) This usage will be discussed later in our meditations on in Paul’s pursuit to identify with Jesus in His sufferings.

Paul’s passion concerning the pursuit of Christ is seen in the three ways he describes his relationship to Christ: to know Christ, to gain Christ and to become like Christ. In the pursuit of Christ, we can trace four major drives that motivated Paul.

These are:

1. Sifting through the heritage of the past
2. Having an ever-increasing hunger for Christ
3. Cultivating a holy dissatisfaction with current progress
4. Keeping a single-minded focus on the pursuit of Christ
 


1. Sifting through the Heritage of the Past


In Philippians 3:5-6 Paul lists seven spiritual qualifications which were his heritage. It should be noted that the first four qualifications relate to his familial background and were not his choice. These were passed on to him and did not repudiate their benefits. 

They are:
circumcised on the eighth day
of the people of Israel
of the tribe of Benjamin” 
“a Hebrew of Hebrews” 

The second set of three qualifications was of his own choice and he was responsible for them which stemmed from his self-effort:


“in regard to the law, a Pharisee”

“as for zeal, persecuting the church”
“as for righteousness based on the law, faultless”

Paul rejected everything in his past which would give him any credit of righteousness towards his personal salvation.

He plainly states that “…it is we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3, emphasis added).

“Flesh” includes all human effort, physical or even spiritual lineage or passionate zeal towards a system of works of righteousness. Upon meeting Christ unexpectedly, his world was turned upside down. What he had previously held as the basis of getting the salvation of God he now rejects. He then cites his own example—


Being the quintessential Jew of pure Jewish lineage and highly zealous for religious law counted for nothing. While what others would have considered as assets, he considered them a loss (Philippians 3:7). Indeed he considered those qualifications “garbage”, a polite alternative for what could be translated as dung or excreta (Philippians 3:8).

Many would conclude that Paul was rejecting everything of his past heritage and zealous accomplishments.

I believe, however, that Paul was not rejecting his entire past but certain elements of it. The context in Philippians 3 indicates that he renounced those qualifications for righteousness as he knew it could only be found in Christ alone by grace.

Paul’s outright rejection applied not to the qualities and achievements per se but the value he had attached to them in crediting righteousness. They had no value in terms of counting towards true righteousness before God. They hindered a person’s pursuit of God, as it did to him, resulting in his persecution of Christians.

When we look at 2 Timothy 1:3 where Paul tells us that he served God, as his ancestors did, “with a clear conscience” we can observe that Paul acknowledged his spiritual heritage of some contribution to his spirituality. In other words, his passion did not start with him but with many generations of religious ancestors who conscientiously sought and served God.

In his defence before the Roman governor Felix, Paul asserted,


"However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Lawand that is. written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked."

— Acts 24:14-15

 

Paul seamlessly linked his Jewish past with faith in Christ.

In a similar vein, he reminded Timothy not to forget his spiritual heritage which “first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded now lives in you also” (2 Timothy 1:5).

It is noticeable that Paul asked Timothy to trace his spiritual heritage through his Jewish maternal line. When Paul first met Timothy, it was recorded that his “mother was a Jewess and a believer, but his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:1), with the “but” indicating that Timothy’s unnamed father was not a believer).


On a side note, Paul humbly excluded himself from Timothy’s spiritual legacy even though he was the key influence in Timothy’s recruitment and development. 

I think this is extremely humble of him. Having been involved in disciplemaking for decades, I find myself rather quick in claiming to be the prime influence in a Christian’s spiritual growth, unlike Paul!

Some things in our past heritage detract from our pursuit of Christ.

My wife, Dolly, grappled with the unsettling images of gods from her non-Christian upbringing that persisted in her subconscious, which interfered with her knowledge of God even decades after coming to know Christ.

Only the conscious recognition of who God really is from the Word of God can correct such false ideas about God.

There are boundless stories of individuals who endured abuse from their fathers and consequently developed skewed perceptions of fatherly figures, thereby distorting their understanding of God as Father. These individuals can be assisted through Christian counselling and by embracing biblical truths affirming the loving fatherhood of God.

The majority of us came to Christ before our parents did and thus lacked the Christian heritage that we could have had.

This is where God brings spiritual shepherds to provide that legacy. Sunday School teachers, elders, pastors and spiritual friends contribute immensely in various degrees to spur us to pursue Jesus.

Dolly had the privilege of being taught by a godly Sunday School teacher, a Swiss missionary from the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, who exemplified a Christian life that was passionate about God. Additionally, Dolly had been shaped by the writings of both ancient and modern saints.

My heritage included missionaries from The Navigators like Jake Combs, who was my Sunday School teacher and leader. He taught me the basics of Quiet Time, Scripture Memorization, Prayer, Bible study and Witnessing when I was a one-year-old Christian. Later I was invited to live with Dave Dawson for a couple of years for home training to develop my character as I was challenged to commit greater to Christ.

When Dolly and I got married, we lived with Warren and Ruth Myers who helped us dig deeper into God’s Word, in prayer and our relationship as husband and wife. They simply “adopted” us and as far as we know, told us that they prayed for us daily for decades until their final days. What a privilege!

The heritage of these godly men and women is immeasurable. Our lives and identities would have profoundly differed if not for their deliberate investment.

Despite their flaws, they have passed on a great treasure: to love Jesus, the Word of God, to obey and serve Him wholeheartedly. They have inspired us to pour our own lives into others. Our ultimate joy lies in witnessing those we mentor develop a love for God, surpassing us in our passion for Jesus and some have indeed exceeded our expectations!




2. An Ever-Increasing Desire to Know Christ


There are three phases which Paul uses to describe his pursuit and passion for Christ. The first element is to “know Christ” (Philippians 3:8,10). The second is to “gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). The third is “becoming like him (Christ) in his death” (Philippians 3:10).


These are not discrete phases where one ends and another begins. Rather, the underlying drive and passion is to know Christ for all of his lifetime. Yet there are distinctive changes and progressions as he pursues Christ.

To Know Christ

Paul in his pre-conversion days as Saul persecuted the followers of Christ from city to city, even having a hand in the death of Stephen the martyr (Acts 8:1).

Saul continued “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1) when he was stopped in his tracks by the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). There was a blinding light and a voice called out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Then Saul asked the first of two fundamental questions: “Who are you Lord?” and “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:8, 10).

In that pivotal moment, Jesus revealed Himself to Saul and initiated Paul’s journey to know Christ intimately. While blinded and waiting for three days for Ananias to restore his sight, the Lord tells Ananias that “he (Saul) was praying” (Acts 9:11). The pursuit of Jesus had begun in earnest soon after conversion.

According to his account in Galatians 1:17, Paul immediately disappeared into Arabia. Although the purpose was not stated but in line with Galatians 1, it was to know Jesus without any input from the other apostles.

The One whom he had opposed now became the One he proclaimed. The Name that he hated became the exalted Name at which every knee would bow.


It was three years before he had any sustained contact with the apostles. His knowledge of Jesus was directly experienced from personally seeking and understanding Him. The three years of walking with Jesus placed him on the same footing as the three years the apostles had with Jesus.

When the apostles finally examined his understanding of Jesus, they affirmed his orthodoxy and apostleship. Undoubtedly, his foundation in the Old Testament scriptures helped him understand Jesus with depth and clarity. Above all, we can clearly see that his love for Christ fuelled his passion to know his newfound Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

To know Christ passionately with such depth, Paul attributed an immense worth to this intimate knowledge. He described it as "the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have sacrificed everything" (Philippians 3:17)



To Gain Christ

How much do we know of Jesus at the point of our salvation?

Personally, I remember very little of Him. My understanding of Jesus Christ was contained in a twenty-minute gospel message at a Youth For Christ club meeting after school. Nevertheless, it was sufficient for God to touch my heart to seek Him for salvation.

In the second meeting, I had to battle the fear of parental disapproval before I acknowledged Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. Romans 10:9 is very pertinent:

 

“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”


To gain Christ is to progress in knowing Him more personally and intimately.

It is not merely acknowledging Christ as Lord and Saviour at the time of our conversion. To gain Christ involves the continual pursuit of Jesus so that we grow in personal intimacy with Him and appropriate Him for all of our lives.

Gaining Christ starts at the point of conversion and then extends into all areas of a Christian’s life including our sanctification and service.

Just as knowing Christ is a lifelong passion, gaining Christ should also be a lifelong reality where Christ becomes increasingly visible in the Christian’s daily life, relationships, spirituality, purpose and so on.

This is where we differ from Paul. After having known Christ in such a simple way, have we evidenced and gained Christ?

The well-known J C Ryle (1816-1900), Anglican bishop, theologian and preacher wrote a powerful tract called “A Call to Prayer”. In it, he identifies two groups of Christians. One group hardly grows beyond conversion. He writes:

“There are some of the Lord’s people who seem never able to get on from the time of their conversion. They are born again, but they remain babes all their lives. You hear from them the same old experience. You remark in them the same want of spiritual appetite, the same want of interest in anything beyond their own little circle, which you remarked ten years ago. They are pilgrims, indeed, but pilgrims like the Gibeonites of old; their bread is always dry and mouldy, their shoes always old, and their garments always rent and torn. I say this with sorrow and grief; but I ask any real Christian, Is it not true?”

There are others, however, who are alive and thrilled about the Lord.

They are hungry for the Word of God, infectious in their faith, and sharing Christ with all and sundry. They are receptive, have expansive spiritual appetites and are thus, deep and mature.

They stand tall as giant trees, unaffected by the changing winds of popular ideas and trends which sweep the church from time to time. They make a deep and permanent difference in the lives of those they touch.

Depth, quality, and maturity are the hallmarks of their faith. Their most distinctive mark is that of the character of Christ.

They have truly gained Christ.


To Become Like Christ


Previously, I mentioned the primary meaning of passion as a consuming desire. The other meaning of passion is derived from the Latin “patior” which means suffering. In this context, Paul’s consuming desire was to become like Christ.

This is where I typically cut the sentence short and ponder Paul’s desire to emulate Christ’s character during his days on earth. However, there's a deeper layer to this longing:

Paul yearned to participate in Christ’s suffering, to “become like him in His death”. It had to do with the cross.

To become like Christ we, like Paul, have to embrace suffering.

To become like Jesus is to be a mirror image of Him, who Himself is the express image of God.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, a theologian at Yale University, reflected on the place of suffering regarding the loss of his adult son in his book “Lament for a Son”, and asked the question: “In what respects do we mirror God?” He suggests several that are traditional answers: love, justice, sociality and creativity—that is, all the good things.

Then he adds a fresh perspective: “One answer rarely finds its way onto the list: in our suffering. Perhaps the thought is too appalling. Do we also mirror God in suffering? Are we to mirror him ever more closely in suffering? Was it meant that we should be icons in suffering? Is it our glory to suffer?” (bolded for emphasis).

Building on this thought, we can infer that experiencing suffering is vital to grow in Christ-likeness. It is essential to acknowledge that no matter how grievous our suffering may be, it pales in comparison to Christ’s on the cross.

Nevertheless, the greater our suffering is, the greater the opportunities to grow closer to Christ. Unless we enter into someone’s suffering, we cannot fully grasp their perspective or feel genuine empathy, let alone become like them. Their innermost struggles would seem alien and inaccessible to us, even in their most trying times.

Jesus was familiar (knew, experienced) and bore with mankind’s sufferings and grief (Isaiah 53:3). Paul would like to be familiar with that. He wanted to know Christ’s identification for the sins of the world. This redemptive connection could well be a major motivation for Paul’s passionate preaching of the gospel to the unreached people of his day and world.

This passionate desire is echoed in a prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi:

My Lord Jesus,
Two graces I beg of you to grant me
Before I die:
The first is that in my lifetime
I may feel, in my soul and in my body, 
As. far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus
Underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion;
The second is that I may feel in my heart,
As far as possible, 
That abundance of love with which you, son of God,
Were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo
Such a great passion for us sinners. Amen."



Stay tuned for Part 2!

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