I wonder what it was like to travel with Paul. We know him from his letters and from Luke’s description of his travels, but these do not tell us what he was like sitting by a fire at night, looking up into the sky. They do not tell us what kind of humor he had, what kind of friend he was.
Walter Wangerin wrote a book, Paul a Novel, that I loved reading. I had always viewed Paul as a sharp intellect, but in reading this book I discovered the heart of Paul. His heart was just as exceptional as his intellect. Let me read an account Barnabas tells in this book about an experience with Paul. This is fictional, but it invites the imagination to speculate about who Paul was as a person.
About five years ago, shortly after I had invited Saul to Antioch, we were crossing Herod Street when suddenly he turned aside to one of those cook-shops that sell roasted meats by the slice. We had been discussing freedoms. I was telling him of the two times in my life when I’d felt such a glad rush of freedom that I thought I would explode. The first was when I sold my land and all my possessions, and laid the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. I panted as I did that, experiencing a physical lightness, as if I could float like thistledown.
My second discovery of freedom came more gradually, here in Antioch, where the Apostles had sent me to exhort the Antiochene believers in faithfulness. The great majority of believers were Gentiles. Already when I came, distinctions were disappearing. No longer were there “God-fearers” and “proselytes” among the Gentiles; no longer non-Jew and Jew, higher and lower, freeman and slave. Everyone who followed Christ as Lord was the same as every one else, equal – a family! Even the Romans noticed our amazing unity. They classed us and named us “Christians.” Pretty soon all the laws that had separated Jews from Gentiles also became as nothing to me, and that was my second experience of the lightness of freedom.
I told Saul that it caused in me such a giddiness – such a physically tickling joy – that laughter was always bubbling just below my throat. Always, always! is what I was saying to Saul – when suddenly he turned aside to a cook-shop, raised one long finger, and pointed at a piglet revolving on a spit, its fat flaring in the coals below.
“One small portion, please,” he said.
A woman with huge arms cut him the smallest of portions and laid it on a green leaf and accepted his penny for her food.
I fell silent. I had never seen this before. And though I delighted in our new freedoms, what Saul was doing seemed as risky as stepping off a cliff.
He pinched the pork in its folded leaf and with two delicate fingers pulled off a greasy piece. He carried the meat to his mouth, crossing his eyes as it came. He put out his tongue and touched the bit of pig to the tip of it, where it stuck. Then, scarcely breathing, Saul drew the meat into his mouth and chewed and chewed and swallowed it. He blinked rapidly – checking, it seemed, his vitals inside. Then he grinned and plucked at my sleeve and began to laugh. A gasping sort of laughter, like a man who jumped but did not drown.
The little Pharisee had eaten pork.
I am so eager to meet Paul and hear him talk about his life and his faith – and his experience in heaven. I think he will be a most delightful companion. It helps us to think of Paul as a man, not just a brilliant, passionate intellect.
In this Philippians letter, in the opening chapters, Paul has used himself as an example of someone who rejected his Jewish privileges for the sake of the gospel. A couple weeks ago I talked about Paul’s list of credentials.
In Philippians 3:5 Paul began with his circumcision on the eighth day and ascended to his credentials as a zealous Pharisee, faultless in following the Law.
as for righteousness based on the Law, faultless
as for zeal, persecuting the church
in regard to the Law, a Pharisee
a Hebrew of Hebrews
of the tribe of Benjamin
of the people of Israel
circumcised on the eighth day
Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees and he used himself as an example of someone who rejected his Jewish privileges for the sake of the gospel. And then, as he talked about what motivated him to work with Jesus, he also used himself as an example of someone who lives in the present with his focus firmly placed on his future.
Clement preached from this text last week. Let me give a brief summary.
Paul wrote in Philippians 3:8
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.
Paul was not at a crossroads, debating about who to follow. He was not wavering in his intention to follow the path Jesus had set for him. All his achievements he considered to be insignificant in comparison to knowing Jesus. His life purpose was clear:
that I may gain Christ 9 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.
In following Jesus, and obeying his call to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, Paul had suffered. Some people, when they suffer, become victims, telling others how much they have suffered and why it is not their fault they suffered. They complain, “Why me?” Paul charged through the suffering and proclaimed,
10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul knew he had not reached the finish line, there was still a path to be followed, and regardless of what lay before him, he was determined to finish his journey with Jesus.
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Pressing on. Taking hold. Forgetting what is behind. Straining toward what is ahead. Pressing on toward the goal. Why? Because his eyes were on the prize. His eyes were fixed on the reward of his heavenly home. “For the joy set before him,” the writer of Hebrews writes, Jesus “endured the cross.” For the joy set before Paul, he persevered through his sufferings with great hope and expectation of the welcome he would receive in heaven.
Paul’s words are inspirational, but when we read them, they can be quite intimidating. Paul’s passion can be overwhelming to us and it can make us push Paul up to a level we don’t think we can attain. It is as if Paul is a professional footballer and we just kick a ball around once in a while. Paul seems to be in a league above us, doing what is admirable, but not really possible for us. We can read this and think, that’s Paul – and then there is me. There are extraordinary Christians and then there are ordinary Christians like us. The extraordinary Christians impress us, but what they do and what they experience seems beyond us.
So here is the question: Is Paul supposed to be a model for us? Are we to live like Paul did? Is the passion for Christ Paul had also supposed to be the passion of Christ we should have? Or is there a standard for Super-Christians like Paul and another standard for ordinary people like us?
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things.
Paul writes, “All of us,” not “All of you.” He uses the first person plural and includes himself with the church in Philippi. He is not above the followers of Jesus in Philippi. In his heart relationship with this church he is one with them. Paul writes that we, all of us, should take such a view of things. Paul is clear that the passion he has to follow Jesus single-mindedly is for us, not just for him.
Jesus taught a parable about people having different abilities and talents. (Matthew 25:14–15)
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability.
When the man returned, his servants were judged for how they used the money they had been given. The one who received five bags of gold earned five more and was praised. The one who had received two bags of gold earned another two. He was not expected to earn five; he was praised for having used the gold he had received. The one who received one bag was judged, not for having failed to earn five bags of gold, not for having failed to earn two bags of gold, but for not having used the one bag of gold he had received at all.
I mention this parable because we do not all have the great gifts Paul had. There are exceptional Christians with great gifts and we are grateful for them. They benefit us. We need five bag people like Tim Keller and Ravi Zacharias who have great intellects and great hearts. I won’t mention names so I don’t embarrass anyone, but among us in the church there are five bag followers of Jesus. There are people who are exceptional in the use of the gifts God has given them. We admire them, we are grateful for them.
But we who have one or two bags should not compare ourselves to five bag people. We may not have the gifting others have. We may not be able to pray like James or preach like Paul, but we can have the same passion and devotion to Jesus that they had.
Rabbi Zusya was a Chasidic master who lived in the 1700s. He said, “When I get to the heavenly court, God will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses?’ Rather he will ask me, ‘Why were you not more like Zusya?’”
We are not called to have the gifting others have; we are called to serve Jesus with the gifts that have been given to us. We are not to compare ourselves to Paul and other five bag people, but we can use people like Paul who are passionate about Jesus and focused on serving him, as models for ourselves.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things.
What is the maturity Paul is talking about? Maturity for Paul is a basic frame of mind, a mindset, a way of looking at everything, which is reflected in our behavior. Maturity, as Paul is thinking about it, entails all that he has been writing about so far in his letter: rejecting his Jewish past for the sake of the gospel, participating in the sufferings of Christ, his eager pursuit of his heavenly prize.
Maturity for Paul is having the mindset that looks around at all the world has to offer: wealth, comfort, fame, prestige, awards, and promotions – and considers all of this as worthless compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. It is not a rejection of these things. What the world has to offer can be of great use in the kingdom of God, but the treasures of this world need to be put in their place. And their place is a far, far, far distant second to knowing Jesus.
We are to enjoy the things in this world. God gave the garden of Eden to Adam and Eve for their enjoyment, their pleasure. God created us as sensual beings in a sensual world. Not to enjoy the pleasures and delights of this world is to be ungrateful. We give thanks to God for the beauty and delights of his creation.
We are to enjoy the things in this world and we are to use the things in this world for the kingdom of God. The wealth, fame, and power the world offers can be used as a platform and a resource to work for the kingdom of God. Someone who excels in his or her work has a platform from which they can be a witness for Jesus. Wealthy people can use their resources to fund and encourage the work of Jesus in the world.
We are to enjoy and use the things of this world without longing for them, without lusting for them, without making idols out of them. Our priority and focus is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. And when Jesus is our focus, everything we are and everything we have will be devoted to Jesus and his work to rescue this generation and bring them into his kingdom.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.
Paul was aware that not everyone who heard his letter read would be able to see things as clearly as he did. When Paul writes about thinking differently, he is not talking about opposition in the church. He is speaking to family, the church with which he has a close, personal relationship. Thinking differently is an acknowledgment that there are some in the community at Philippi who are more mature than others. Not everyone in the church at Philippi was at the same level of spiritual maturity as Paul.
Paul did not arrive at his theology and understanding overnight. He was 27 when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Twenty years passed before Paul, at the age of 47, wrote the first of his letters, Galatians and 1 Corinthians. And another ten years passed before Paul wrote the last of his letters, Timothy and Titus.
Paul matured in the last 30 years of his life. We don’t have a record of what he wrote in his early years as a follower of Jesus. I am sure what he wrote was brilliant. But if he was anything like us, there was wisdom and depth missing in what he wrote and spoke in his early years. As Paul matured, he trusted less in his own brilliance and more in the power of Christ. As his body was increasingly broken from all the abuse he suffered, the power of his words increased as he trusted less in himself and more in Jesus. He wrote to the church in Corinth:
(1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
Jesus also matured. This may sound heretical to you, but remember that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. Jesus was fully divine but his divinity was limited. Jesus did not fully understand who he was when he was an adolescent and a teenager.
Luke wrote in his gospel about Jesus when he was twelve years old, (Luke 2:52)
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
Jesus continued to grow in wisdom and understanding when he heard God the Father say about him at his baptism, (Matthew 3:17)
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
When Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, it was more clear to him who he was and what he was called to do. After this Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem to face his crucifixion.
Paul matured over time. Jesus matured over time. We mature over time.
In our community at RIC, there are some who are more mature than others. Once we take the hand of Jesus who offers to rescue us and begin to follow him, we are all on the same journey through this life, heading to our heavenly home. But we are not all at the same place on that journey. It is not simply a matter of age. Some are more mature in their twenties than some who are in their seventies. But when we compare ourselves to ourselves, it is clear that we are maturing.
In my twenties I was confident I knew everything. In my thirties I was aware that I had a deeper understanding of my life with Christ than in my first years as a follower of Jesus, but I thought I had arrived at the peak. Now that I am in my sixties I am more aware of how complicated truth is. I am aware of how much I have learned over my years with Jesus and I am aware of how much more there is to learn.
Forty-one years ago I stood at the altar of a church and spoke my vows to Annie. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like this.
In the presence of God and these our friends, I take you to be my wife to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to understand, for as long as we both shall live; and forsaking all others, I will cherish you alone.
I have to tell you, when I said my vows to Annie, I meant it – but I had no idea what I was saying. I spoke words without knowing the implications of those words. I had no idea what was coming. There are some couples who celebrate an anniversary by renewing their vows. If I were to do that, I would say the words with a lot more understanding and a lot more humility. I have matured in many ways and one of those ways is in how to love my wife.
Proverbs 16:31 says:
Gray hair is a crown of splendor;
it is attained in the way of righteousness.
The reason wisdom comes with age is that the longer we live, the more mistakes we make, and as we learn from those mistakes, we become more wise. I wish I could go back in time and correct things I said when I was a younger Christian.
When I was a new follower of Jesus in my twenties, my aunt came to visit with one of her longtime friends, Dolores. Dolores was Jewish and she was challenging me about what I believed. I don’t remember the conversation and I don’t know if I said this, but her memory was that I told her she was going to hell because she was not a Christian. Whatever I said, I am sure it was not a wise response to her challenge. And, I know that my understanding of salvation has grown over the years of my life with Jesus. I gave the best answer I could at the time.
My answer today would be that salvation is a mystery and it is not my place to say who is and who is not going to heaven. All I can encourage people to do is to put their faith in Jesus who is the one who rescues us. I would tell Dolores that she is deeply loved by God and he wants her to be with him for eternity. But I did not have the depth of understanding then that I have now.
We mature over time and what Paul is writing to the church in Philippi is that over time God will make it more clear to us how we are to think and live our lives.
Salvation is not a one-time event. The Bible says we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All three tenses are used. Salvation is a process. When we reach out to Jesus, take his hand, and submit to him, we are brought into the kingdom of God. From that moment on, we have been saved. But then begins the process of being saved as the Holy Spirit works in us, with our cooperation, to be transformed. This transformation is a transformation of our heart and mind. And, then one day we will be saved when Jesus brings us into his kingdom after our earthly death.
Until then, we are in the process of being transformed. Our understanding, no matter how certain we are, is not complete. God looks at us and sees the ways we need to grow, the ways we need to change, the ways our thinking needs to be developed and refined, the healing that needs to take place, and he is patiently at work in us to transform us into the person he created us to be.
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
Paul is aware that we are at different levels of maturity. We have different levels of understanding of the truth of the gospel and its implications, but at each point of our life we are responsible to live up to what we have attained thus far in our journey with Jesus.
My brother-in-law, Bruce Barton, along with three of his friends, produced the Life Application Study Bible that has notes helping to understand the scriptures and notes to help make application to our lives. The last time these notes were reviewed was 25 years ago and when I visited him in February he was working on a project to rewrite the notes. It is a huge project and I had breakfast with Bruce and the three others who are working on this revision.
Bruce was talking about how many significant changes were being made and I told him that was good news. If he wasn’t making changes then it would say he had not grown spiritually over the past 25 years. Bruce and his friends did the best they could with what they knew, but now with 25 years more experience of being with Jesus, there is more depth and richness to their notes. I am looking forward to the new version when it is released.
Augustine was the Berber bishop of the church in Hippo, in modern day Algeria. He died in 430 AD. In the last years of his life he wrote Retractationes. Some who do not know Latin translate this as Retractions, but the Latin has the meaning of Reconsiderations, Revisions, Second Thoughts, Corrections.
Retractationes is a summation and criticism of his own writings. He had intended to review his many letters and sermons as well, but only had time to review his more than one hundred books before he died.
Over time, Augustine had revised his thinking. He had a deeper understanding of what he knew to be true. Peter Brown wrote a biography of Augustine and writes about Retractationes. “There is the occasional flash of an active mind, which shows that, as a philosopher at least, Augustine was aware that his life had taken him into new horizons.” I like that phrase. God keeps taking us into new horizons of thinking and understanding.
Our understanding deepens with time, but at each moment of our walk with Jesus we are responsible to “live up to what we have already attained.”
What is your life passion? Is your life passion, like Paul, “that I may gain Christ and be found in him?” Is Jesus the great passion in your life? What is competing with your passion for Jesus? Be inspired by Paul’s passion for Jesus. Allow yourself to be overwhelmed with the love of Jesus for you.
We are at different levels of maturity in our pilgrimage through this life and at each moment in our journey, we need to do the best we can with what we understand. It is good to find inspiration from others, but it does not help to beat ourselves up because we are not gifted like someone else we admire. We do the best we can with what we understand in the moment and God will use us with the gifting we have been given.
Hold on to what you know, but hold on with humility, knowing that you have not yet arrived and deeper truth and understanding await you.
We are not perfect. We have not arrived. We are in process, on the way. We are not expected to be perfect.
The good news for us is that we are being saved. God is at work in us to transform us. The Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts and our minds. We are not stuck where we are. If we hang on to Jesus through the ups and downs of our lives, we will grow in maturity and depth of understanding.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.