But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of 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.
Horse Manure in New York City
Four launchpads for meditation that will act as concentric circles of context within and around this text. The first launchpad deepens the context within the text and reveals the intensity of Paul’s language. Using accounting terms of profit and loss, Paul describes the value of knowing Christ. In comparison to gaining Christ, everything Paul gave up to know Christ is considered rubbish. The Greek word for rubbish is skybala, and it is quite vulgar.
To understand the term, it is helpful to consider why the automobile was first heralded as an environmental savior. Imagine living in New York City before the advent of the automobile- 200,000 horses transport residents through the streets, leaving a combined 5 million pounds of manure each day. Compared to manure lining city streets like banks of snow and piled high in vacant lots, the car seems quite green. And our course in our journey to the streets of a first century city like Philippi there are no cars. Instead of cars, the streets are bustling with people and their livestock- donkeys, goats, and sheep for example.
The term skybala captures the nature of first century city streets with their dirt and animal waste because skybala literally means street filth or excrement. So for Paul, gaining Christ makes everything else look like the dirty, dusty, animal-waste fusion festering in the city streets.
But why Paul? Why such intense language? We can catch a glimpse for what prompts Paul’s jarring comparison by considering his phrase “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. The surpassing greatness that is knowing Christ is not simply knowing about Christ but knowing Christ in a relationship of intimacy and devotion. Normally Paul uses the phrase “our Lord Jesus Christ” while here he uses “Christ Jesus my Lord”. My implies intimacy while Lord implies devotion.
Paul’s Legalistic Righteousness
The second launchpad for meditation broadens the circle of context to the surrounding verses, to explore more of what knowing Christ means for Paul. Prior to verses 7 and 8 Paul describes a kind of legalistic righteousness like that of the Pharisees. After verses 7 and 8 Paul describes the real righteousness he has found in Christ. Thus, verses 7 and 8 describe Paul valuing the righteousness found in Christ more than legalistic righteousness. Rather than simply knowing the law, now Paul knows and is known by Christ.
And to know Christ is experiential, as Paul describes in verse 10, it is sharing in Christ’s sufferings, death, and resurrection. For Paul, because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord, it is worth giving up his elite status as a Pharisee among Pharisees to suffer the loss of his status for the sake of Christ. Indeed, it is worth losing all things because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.
Context Within Philippians
The third launchpad for meditation broadens the circle of context to the whole book of Philippians. Central to the book is the often referred to “hymn of Christ” found in 2:6-11. Describing Jesus, it reads: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, 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 acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This dense and deep poem portrays Jesus’ life as the ultimate honor-status reversal story. From pre-incarnate glory, Christ humbles himself in his humanity to experience death of the cross. But then in his resurrected state Jesus is exalted to honor, reigning over heaven and earth. Paul commends Christ as a model to follow and in chapter 3 Paul describes his life as a model of Christ’s life. Paul’s life in chapter 3 is a mirror of Jesus’ life in chapter 2. Paul gives up his honor as a respected Pharisee, to embrace a life of sacrificial love, suffering for Christ. But it is a suffering strengthened with a hopeful expectation. Just as Christ was resurrected and exalted to a place of honor, Paul anticipates his own resurrection to an eternity spent with Jesus. He envisions a redeemed humanity in a place of honor, reigning with Jesus over a restored earth.
Context Within the Life of Paul
The fourth launchpad for meditation casts our circle of context even wider, exploring the life of Paul. Philippians 3:7-8 is not made of empty words on a page, but rather a real life that’s been changed. It is out of the extreme change in what Paul values that he goes from persecuting the church to being shipwrecked, beaten, and imprisoned to make Christ known as he writes in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27, “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
But why Paul, why would you endure such suffering? Philippians 3:7-8 says that is it because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. Paul goes from persecuting the church to building up the church despite being persecuted. It’s a hard life, but it is a life radically transformed, and it’s a life that I hope for you and for me.