Jan. 20, 2013
Background Scripture: Philippians 3:1-11
Devotional Reading: Matthew 13:44-46
The other day it occurred to me that, in light of the current state of technology and its grip upon most people, I grew up and entered adult life in an era when technology, though growing in our lives, was not nearly as essential as it seems today.
In my earliest days my parents would go to my paternal grandparents’ house to make a telephone call. When we finally did get our own telephone, it was on a party line. The only airplanes I saw in those days were barnstorming biplanes that took off and landed at a nearby barn.
We learned about the Dec. 7 attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor, gathered around the only radio in the house. Today, most people would conclude I grew up in a world that was technologically impoverished.
Still, for all the stupendous technological advances we have made since those days, are people today any happier than those of those previous generations? I think not; in fact, for all of that, it appears to me we are less happy, less secure, less at peace – and it appears there is less, not more, rejoicing.
So, when Paul says, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord,” we are likely to look in the wrong place to evaluate our ability to rejoice. Paul’s admonition to “rejoice” is made from the darkness of a prison cell that may be his last abode in this life. How can Paul rejoice in those circumstances? How can we rejoice in ours?
Paul has learned that personal joy is based not upon externals things, but internal realities. The particular problem to which he is addressing himself is an apparent conflict between the Christian community in Philippi and those who insist a follower of Christ must also comply with the external marks of Judaism – in this case, primarily the act of circumcision, but also other aspects of Jewish lifestyle.
All of these, says Paul, are non-essential externals. Circumcision and the strict observance of Jewish laws, says Paul, do not make us followers of Jesus Christ.
‘The right way’
Of course, most of those externals are no longer a problem for Christians. Nevertheless, we have replaced them with other external tokens: worshipping, praying, eating the Lord’s Supper, seeking God’s forgiveness and achieving understanding, only in “the right way” (which translates to “in our way”).
Deciding upon which Christian tradition we adopt, we want to make sure it is “the right way.” But the right way is not necessarily what we or others decide.
Before Paul experienced Christ on the Damascus Road he believed his religious résumé added up to the right way: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew (one who speaks Hebrew) of the Hebrews; as to law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.”
His pedigree was certainly suerior to any of the self-righteous “dogs” (3:2) insisting on circumcision for all Christians. It was probably superior to our religious résumés. (What is your religious résumé?)
Paul, however, comes to an earth-shaking conclusion: “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” (3:7,8).
F.W. Beare says: “Paul is using the figure of a balance sheet, showing Assets and Liabilities. All these advantages of birth and upbringing, he had formerly set down in the column of Assets; now he has transferred them to the column of Liabilities.”
Wait a minute! Are you saying Paul’s list of pedigrees is worthless? The answer is yes, if you are depending upon them to make you a Christian. If any item on your religious résumé gives you a prideful false security, that “asset” is definitely a “liability.”
William Barclay says the unthinkable: “Christian worship is not about ritual or the observation of details of the law; it is about the heart. It is perfectly possible for people to go through an elaborate liturgy and yet have hearts that are far away from God ... to observe all the outward observances of religion (the externals, today’s “circumcisions”) and yet have hatred and bitterness and pride in their hearts.” There is still a lot of Christian Pharasaism going around.
So, in light of all this, how can we respond to Paul’s admonition: “Rejoice in the Lord?” Paul says the ground of our joy is only in knowing the Lord: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection …” (3:10).
When Paul uses the Greek word for “know,” ginoskein, it is much more than knowing facts or things of the intellect. It is a personal knowledge, “the personal experience of another person” (Barclay).
It is superior to the facts we “learn,” to the products of our reasoning. It is a “knowing” of the Lord through personal experience. Whenever we put our opinions (which may possibly call “facts” or “truths”) in first place – the place where God alone belongs – we become Christian Pharisees.
Many of us seem to think we can experience joy only when the circumstances of our lives are joyful. But Paul the prisoner facing possible execution could say to the Philippians, and us: “Rejoice in the Lord.”
He learned what all of us need to know: The ground – the only ground – of joy is in a personal “knowing” of the Lord.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.