The Intercessions of Paul – Part Two
(As described in Philippians 3:4-15)
The verses of Philippians 3:4-15, contain one of the most encapsulated yet complete versions of this truth in all of Paul’s writings. He tells it personally, as it happened to him, and that to me is what makes it truly alive. In these pivotal verses Paul is sharing, not something he learned from a professor in a course he took, but instead his very life in Christ. He is not sharing these things to impress us with how spiritual and close to God he is, but to declare that this same Spirit operating in him is operating exactly the same way in us. And that work of the Spirit leads us all to the same outcome, since Jesus Christ is the Author and Finisher of the faith of all of us! And so that is why I weave it somehow into my personal experience as well, because all any of us can ever testify to, is to those things “we have seen and heard.” In ourselves, and the world around us.
Let’s first look at those verses in their context. This is Philippians 3:4-6.
“Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.”
In the letter, Paul has just given his “credentials.” They are very impressive! And all of them are in a sense, outer things. Starting with circumcision. To me it is a little more than ironic, perhaps even a great Divine Joke that causes a hearty chuckle every time it is mentioned in heaven, that of all the deeply serious and eternal questions which “religion” or spirituality tackles, that so much fuss and attention is made over the foreskin of a human penis.*
It became such a controversial issue during the early apostolic period, whether the new Gentile believers (males) could be received unless they were also circumcised, that the question merited the first great and ONLY apostolic conference recorded in scripture, in Acts 15, purely to resolve the issue of circumcision. To many of the Jewish believers, the physical cutting away of the foreskin was a necessary and faithful act, continuing the covenant of Abraham, and if the Gentiles are being brought into that same covenant, then they should be circumcised, as a sign of being part of the covenant. But Paul has seen what apparently many others had yet to see, that we are received into the covenant of Abraham in exactly the same way as was Abraham, in that Abram “believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6).
*(In actuality, most of the Canaanite religions worshipped the phallus, as the symbol and source of all fertility. The Hebrews come on the scene with a completely different and opposite viewpoint. One of the meanings of circumcision is the figurative snipping off the whole penis, signified by the cutting away of the foreskin. The meaning then becomes spiritual, because it points to the new birth, “which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13). The immediate example is Abraham, who fathers a child with Sarah, more by the spirit than by the flesh, because Isaac came by Promise, and not by the will or actions of man. That was why it had to be by that contrast, instead of their child coming in their youthful prime when they are energetic and full of virility, Isaac-Laughter comes miraculously by Promise in their old age, when they are almost too old and feeble.)
Paul does not stop there in his qualifications, though. Next he gives his physical heritage. He is “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews.” It is interesting to me that we cannot really call Paul a Jew. He is a Benjaminite, of the smallest tribe in Israel, Jacob’s last son and younger brother of Joseph. Though they are not given a place of prominence in scripture, Benjamin almost always sided with Judah, and when the ten northern tribes left the kingdom in rebellion against Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, to form the kingdom of Israel, Benjamin remained part of the kingdom of Judah. As a result, they were not part of “ten lost tribes” carried away by the Assyrians. Still, to the non-Jewish world, they were all – Judah-ites, Benjaminites and Levites – collectively called, “Jews.”
Then Paul says, “touching the law, a Pharisee.” Let us understand, the term Pharisee is not something bad in itself. We hear the term and to us it means someone self-righteous, sanctimonious, judgmental, etc. But in its time it did not necessarily mean that. It was actually a sect, or maybe a “school of thought,” that was prominent in New Testament times. Both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were probably Pharisees. It centered in strict adherence to the law in its minutest details, and yet had a Spirit side to it also. The Pharisees were differentiated from the Sadducees, the other major “school of thought” at the time, in that they believed in the resurrection of the dead, and they believed in the Spirit, both truths which the Sadducees denied. The Pharisees were more like the evangelical/fundamentalists etc of our time, whereas the Sadducees were the modernists who in our time deny the same things they denied in the time of Jesus. But NOBODY was zealous for the Law like the Pharisees. And without any further understanding from the Spirit, how could any Jew in their day not agree with their stand?
My point is that when Paul says he was a Pharisee, he was not saying he was self-righteous and judgmental, as much as he was saying he was part of those who were most zealous toward the things of God in Israel. To further underline that point, he reminds them, “Concerning zeal, persecuting the church.” He is basically saying he could not have been a more faithful, more serious, more zealous Jew, after the traditions of the fathers! He was ready to stomp out any threat for the good of Israel! He had the zeal of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the High Priest, who pierced through with a javelin those who had brought a plague of the spirit into Israel. (Num 25). In Paul’s mind (when he still was known as Saul), the scourge of a false faith in a false Messiah, had to be stomped out with as much zeal and boldness as had the plague stopped by Phinehas! And for a time, he was that man!
Paul is always throwing us curve balls, and his next phrase is one of those. “Touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” Whoa, Paul, this does not go along with my theology! How can he say that? He kept the commandments according to the strict adherence of his sect, but they had also sort of “toned down” some portions of the law, making it something more manageable, so that those who persevere and by sheer force of will, effort and self-denial, are able to keep all the outer commandments down to their minutest details, to the “tithing of mint and rue,” and thus may consider themselves “righteous” by the effort and self-sacrifice they put forth.
In another way, Saul could have considered himself blameless in the law by virtue of the fact that when he did commit some offense under the law, the law contained sacrificial remedies that the sin might be remitted, except in certain “capital” matters. One remained “blameless” under that system by adhering to all the proper commandments and the sacrificial remedies where necessary, as well as being ritually totally cleansed of the past year’s sins on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies to intercede for all Israel. “For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.” (Rom 10:5). Saul of Tarsus was just such a man.
Either way, without realizing it, they had made life in God more like an athletic event. Who are the most successful in athletics? The first advantage goes to those who are naturally talented toward athletics. Then out of those, the ones who become champions will beat their bodies into submission, training and exercising, denying themselves pleasures and an “easy life,” in order to gain mastery on the field of competition.
That is what they had made life under the law to be. There were some who seemed to be suited for it, Saul being one of them. He excelled at all things having to do with the faith of Israel. And by his own testimony, he worked harder than and exceeded many of his peers, in his passion to purify the faith! He was on the fast track for becoming an important person in the Sanhedrin one day. It was his whole life.
But we know what happened to him. This is how he described his life before Christ, and after, in one of his last letters to the churches, written from the Roman prison:
“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.” (Phil 3:7,8)
Everything he “boasted” of, all his accomplishments, his status among the influential Jews in the Temple, his almost certain rise to great importance in the hierarchy of Jerusalem, he said he counted as “loss.” What does that mean, loss? It means that he had counted it precious, or he would have had no sense of loss. It costs him something, and he feels the cost. He had all these “things” somewhat in his possession, but now they were gone. It is no wonder he felt their loss. His whole life, his very identity, his reason for living, had been wrapped up in all those things. They were who he was. When they go there’s a bit of mourning along with it.
But, Paul had cast them aside, like furniture thrown out on the Oregon Trail by the pioneers, because it was weighing them down. “Oregon or Bust,” was their motto, but for Paul it was “Christ or bust.” Why did he allow the loss? Because something far greater came along – “the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.”
What is it, what is this “knowledge of Christ Jesus,” that is so overwhelming, that for more than two-thousand years, people have left all to find? Language is insufficient in this, because Christ cannot be fully described, like an object on a table, but by grace through faith Christ can only be lived, experienced or known. We “know” Him in the living and the experiencing. And the Spirit is the only Teacher and Revealer. Underneath all that fleshly zeal in Saul of Tarsus, there was a true heart for God! Once Saul met HIS Lord on the road to Damascus, there was never any question of turning back.
His first words to the Vision that overwhelmed him were, “Who are You, Lord?” His first declaration is to speak the Truth he cannot fail to know, “Lord!” But the Vision answers back, “I am Jesus, whom you persecute ….” (Acts 9:5).
Stop a moment. What a supernatural electrical 100,00 volt charge it must have been, in Saul’s consciousness in that instant, when Jesus Himself spoke to him and declared Himself! I cannot imagine, other than think that for an instant in the mind of Saul of Tarsus all motion in the universe ceased. No motion meant no sound also, so it was quiet as well. But then Jesus spoke again and the Apostle Paul was born. What a moment.
This is what happened to Saul of Tarsus: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.” (John 10:27-30).
The sheep of Christ know Him in themselves, in their faith, and every one of us “know that our redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: yet in our flesh shall … we see God: Whom we shall see for ourselves, and our eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27).
So this is a great thing Paul is experiencing. He has come into intimate personal knowledge of Christ, and truth be told, it is not compatible with his old life. He cannot go back to that. He has seen into the depths of the Godhead, has seen things perhaps no man has ever seen before or since, things which cause all the gold and silver, other precious metals and jewels, as well as status, prestige, an abundance of possessions on the face of the earth, to be nothing but human excrement, in comparison to the riches of the kingdom of Christ within us! This is of the same stuff as the people on the list in Hebrews 11. No greater statement can be made than this describing Moses – “Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.” (Heb 11:26,27).
He endured, as seeing Him Who is invisible. So do you and I, because the Same One Who upheld Moses, Jesus and Saul of Tarsus, is upholding you and I in the same way. We ENDURE BECAUSE WE SEE HIM WHO IS INVISIBLE! (It is a gift!)
Paul has transitioned from “suffering loss,” something precious which he nevertheless gave up for the furtherance of the cause, to the things suffered in the loss to be worth nothing, nothing whatsoever, and further, that “nothing” now has the stench of excrement on it! It was loss at first, but now it stinks, and is no longer something precious which has been given over voluntarily to loss. Now it is garbage and we do not want it anymore. In comparison with the mixed-with knowing of Christ (“one spirit with him,” 1 Cor 6:17, and, “I and my Father are one” John 10:30), it has the preciousness of dung. It is all, every bit of it, “self” stuff! That is why it stinks!
Paul finishes that thought with his primary motivation for casting it all away – “That I may win Christ!” What does he mean, “that I may win Christ?”
Is Paul linking his eternal salvation with this, and telling us if he had not cast those things out of his life, then he would not be received in Christ, that he would be eternally lost? If that is the case, Paul sets the bar pretty high!
But no, that is not the message Paul is sending. Paul is introducing us to a completely different way to look at Jesus and the spiritual life, a way that does not center on ourselves and what “we” get out of it (salvation and blessings, etc.), but rather a moving into Christ in oneness with Him and all His activities and concerns, thus bringing us into the fatherhood level in Him, in which our lives have lost their self-focusing “what about me?” syndrome (what Christ does for me), and moved into Who Christ is – the spoken “I AM” of the Father now dwelling in us and as us, and What Christ is – the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth,” Who lays down His Life even for His enemies, and now we see that THIS is the life that we are now. It is no longer about Christ Who has delivered me, keeps me safe, answers my prayers, blesses me – but Christ by me Who now delivers others!!!!
“And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
Stripped down to nothing, Paul finds himself “in” Him, and the “dung” which he has discarded has made way for the true righteousness. Only someone who comes to this point can truly understand what it means to “not have my own righteousness.” I cannot have my own righteousness!
That “own righteousness” is as subtle as the serpent who came up with it. It seems so innocuous and so completely logical to think that if I work on certain aspects of myself, fix myself up to be more pleasing to God, God will give me a gold star in my crown. What could possibly be wrong with that attitude? Because it is eating from the forbidden Tree! As I said, it is the subtlest temptation in all the world to think I can improve myself enough to make me acceptable in God’s sight. Here is what Eve came to: “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise …” (Gen 3:6).
As I heard on a radio show once, “Our teacher will teach you how to live a holy life that God can bless as your reward.”
This is typical around the body of Christ in our day, and it is 180 degrees out of sync with the message of the New Testament. The message of the New Testament is not “Live a holy life and God will bless you for it,” but rather, “God in Christ lives in you and by the Spirit is your perfect inner holiness, and out of you flow rivers of Living Water which comes out of the infinity of Christ WHO IS IN YOU! After all, Paul says in Romans 10:6-10, that we don’t seek to bring Christ down from heaven above, nor do we look for Him among the dead to bring Him back up. “No,” Paul says, “the word is nigh thee … in your heart,” (our innermost dwelling place where God lives in us). If we are His, what I have described above is our current truth. Quit looking for Christ from somewhere else! He is already IN YOU, Paul says, now JUST SAY THE WORD! There is no waiting on “our” righteousness to improve, because we do not have ANY! Now the righteousness we have is the Lord Our Righteousness, and there is no impediment.
If I think I do have even just the teeniest little bit of righteousness of my own, then I can only still be susceptible to the law, responsible to it and incomplete in myself. That is what it means when it says a little leaven leavens the whole loaf. Even if I could keep all the outer commandments, I could still not fulfill the one “law” of the New Testament, love, because love is intangible and has no solid outer measuring stick. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Gal 5:14).
This is one of the deepest and hardest-to-come revelations any of us may receive. We have no righteousness of our own. We have all given lip service to the idea, “Oh yes, we know, it is not by our righteousness,” but we don’t really KNOW it yet. The temptation is always there, that we might need just a little tiny teeny weeny itty bitty pinch of our own righteousness now and then, and that is the culprit, right there. It’s the pea under our mattress.
For many, the best and often last hidey-hole in us to reserve a little place for a righteousness of our own, is in the “responsible” self, the self that thinks it is “responsible” to be the last stand place, the final bulwark, that part of us that “decides” to resist temptation or give in to temptation, the final boss inside us (in case the Lord’s upholding doesn’t come and do the job). I call him Mr. Control-Room Self. Orders come and thoughts come and Mr. Control-Room Self makes himself to be the final arbiter or judge of these things, second only to God, of course.
The thing is, God didn’t invite Mr. Control-Room Self to come and help God run things. Likewise, neither did God set it up for Mr. Control-Room Self to make the determinations of right and wrong or good and evil. In fact, as long as Mr. Control-Room Self keeps trying to help God in running the ship, it kind of leaves out the God Mr. Control-Room Self is trying to maintain a relationship with. Mr. Control-Room Self is on the job, and there is only room for one in the captain’s chair, himself.
As I have repeated it many times, Jesus told the disciples, “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33) That includes Mr. Control-Room Self.
“Our own” righteousness is a sneaky thing. I used to pray, “O Lord, You know how much I want You, I want to know You more! I love You and desire nothing but to be with You. Take away my impatience, let me listen better to others, give me wisdom, give me peace and joy, etc etc etc, because I want to be a better instrument for Your use blah blah blah blah.”
One day I heard what I was saying, and I started laughing, because I saw the irony. I saw how absolutely silly it was to think of myself praying “righteous” prayers, or having godly motivations. It was there that I saw how totally caught we each are in our own all-pervasive vanity – in self-focus, independent self, self-will, self-love, etc. And that there was NO WAY OUT (by our own efforts). Even my desire to “get out of it” was tainted by the very selfishness I wanted to escape!
Only a death could deliver me, not another renewed effort to greater devotion or dedication. I saw for the first time, my true state as regards righteousness, holiness, love, etc., and my true state was zero. I had NONE. And in that regard, I had sunk down into “nothing,” except, “to be.” And from then on it has been, “The Son can do nothing of himself, but whatever he sees the Father do, the Son does the same.” What else could the Son of God as Son of Man confess?
This is part of what Paul is describing as “winning” or “attaining” Christ. The Greek word is translated both ways. The sense of it is not that Paul is leaving behind all these things that had been valuable to him in order to impress Christ, or to gain his salvation as a reward for his works through Christ, but rather and more fully, he has an unrelenting inner drive to be a participator in His outpoured Life, “partners” so to speak with Christ, which is found no other way than by grace through faith to enter into the works of Christ, to be doing what Christ is doing, that Christ through the Spirit might live His intercessory Life in and as our human lives. That his (Paul’s) human life would be in the flow of Christ in him, which is nothing other than a laid down life for others. Discovering his own “nothingness” in the equation is the beginning, which then leads here.
“That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death”
This is a power-packed sentence! This is not Paul praying he would become more spiritual. This is not Paul praying for revelation so he could share deeper things with his followers. This is not Paul praying that he and Jesus would become closer, so that he could know Him better as a buddy sitting on the chair opposite him. Nor is Paul going for great sanctification and holiness, so that one day he might manifest the Stigmata.
Paul knows what he is seeking and what he will find. Do we want to “know Him?” Do we want to know the depths of the Godhead, the revelation of the Christ? Then let us put out of our minds visions of heavenly glory, stars in our crowns or heavenly rewards, lights, angels, colors, sights, wonders beyond our minds and understandings. Let us not make those things our goal. They may yet be ours, but in this exceedingly short moment we are given, there is something infinitely more urgent, more immediate, than the attainments of any heavenly visions or manifestations.
All the sheep have not yet come home. Some are still in chains of bondage, either as slaves still held in Egypt, or brethren still in the wilderness of the bondage of self-focus, independent self – the flesh – awaiting their release from the chains. As the old gospel song says, “None of us are free, if one of us is chained.” There is a debt yet to be paid, not “paying back” the Lord for what He has done for us, which would be preposterous, but the debt which Love owes to all God’s creatures. We have entered the Life which is Divine Love, indebted to the whole world to fill it with itself.
And it is still true, what Paul wrote to the Romans 10:11-15 –
“For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”
End Part Two