Jesus seriously messed up Paul’s list of accomplishments.
Before I continue though, I want to catch you up.
I am reading through the New Testament in 90 straight days, and blogging every day. God has done something supernatural in me this summer, stretching my endurance for study, and stretching my passion for the Word. I seriously, seriously, seriously love what God has provided in these ancient pages. I am also seriously, seriously, seriously being challenged, every day, to rethink things I’ve always held true. I’m still not sure what to do about that, but I am trusting that God has something in mind.
Today’s reading, then, is the letter to the Philippians. It was written to the church in the Roman city of Philippi while Paul was in jail, and probably in jail in the city of Rome.
It was an interesting city of 10,000 people the New Testament. Here’s what we know from Paul’s time there, from Acts 16.
“The first convert in Europe” was in Philippi, and was Lydia, a wealthy woman, and the first church, in Philippi, met in her home. A jailer and his family accepted Jesus as their Savior, and Paul also liberated a slave girl from a demonic presence.
In this letter itself, Paul appealed to two women in Philippians 4, who seemed to have had some influence in the church, because their quarrel warranted a personal appeal from Paul. Two women in Acts 16, and two women in this letter. History itself attests to the greater freedom of women in Macedonian culture than in other, more Jewish-influenced areas of Asia Minor. It is no surprise that we find women of influence in this city, and the church there.
Anyway, Paul wrote an emotional letter to this church. It’s hard to escape, through the words, his own self-image.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to 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 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 and is by faith. (Philippians 3:7-9; NIV84)
Paul’s word for rubbish, here? It could probably be better translated as excrement. Some translators even say that this word was a vulgar term, and the Greek audience knew it as such. If so, this statement has some pretty high shock value. That Paul would use a term like this, and then equate this term to his achievements, would’ve made some jaws drop.
Even so, Paul considered his every accomplishment as excrement, compared to just knowing Jesus.
Yet he was filled with joy! Stripped to nothing, and in jail, he held fast to joy. Even in this letter, he used the word “rejoice,” or “joy,” some 14 different times. In Philippians 1:4, the first time the word is used, it’s used in reference to how he prayed.
Paul prayed with joy! That probably deserves its own commentary. I’ll forego that here, but suffice it to say that we could learn much about our own prayer life from a man, in prison, who still prayed with joy. Circumstantial happiness is no happiness at all.
Paul, though, believed — truly believed — that the way of Jesus was through subtraction. When he quoted the infamous hymn, found in chapter 2, there is one statement that I can’t shake. Here it is:
… [Christ Jesus,] who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. (2:6, 7; NET)
(The NET retains the original words, unlike some other English translations.)
Jesus willfully emptied himself. In the form of God, he willfully became a man, taking the form of a slave, emptying himself of his limitless power, to willfully be limited as a human. Jesus went from God to slave. He looked like other men, but didn’t act like other men.
You could say that God, for a brief moment in history, considered his accomplishments as excrement, for the opportunity to live like me and you. It was a willful abandonment.
It was Emmanuel. It was God with us.
But there was a great reward, for Paul, to abandon his own accomplishments. It wasn’t what you, or I, would consider normal, though. Consider his words:
As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. (1:13; NIV84)
History confirms that the “whole palace guard” in Rome contained 9,000 Roman soldiers.
9,000 Roman soldiers knew Paul, and the reason for his imprisonment.
He was no quiet prisoner.
But he was serious, too, when he said that all of his accomplishments were considered as dung. Only someone who really, truly believed that statement would see a prison as a mission instead of a punishment.
Yet, had Paul never been arrested, these men would have never heard the name of Jesus.
This letter refashions our idea of ambition. It should rescue us from that.
God moves us as he wills. He takes us to fashionable cities, or he takes us to prisons. There is joy, regardless of where God places us. It is certainly an anti-American ideal, though. We earn and work for better things, for a false idea of a better life.
What if you looked around your home, right now, or looked around your office, and considered everything your eyes see as dung, compared to knowing Jesus? Could you part with all of it? Now?
Those are big questions. They are big questions that inject big, and frightening thoughts, into our lives. Yours and mine.
But God, save us from cultural ambition! Save us from blind ambition! Save us from the idolatry of success!
And thank you for placing all of your accomplishments aside, to join us in this life. Thank you, God.