‘The excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord'1
Many will have heard of the athlete from Africa who was running in a long-distance race far from his homeland. During the race he suffered an accident that slowed him down considerably. Those at the finish line cheered when the first runners crossed the line. As people began to leave, the runner from Africa came into sight, limping. Some asked him why, under the circumstances, he kept on running. His answer was simple and right to the point. He said, ‘My country did not send me this long distance to start the race, my country sent me to finish the race’.
How very easy it is to become distracted, weary, discouraged. The Christian as a runner never has the luxury of stopping. True, he may be limping because of the circumstances of life, because of the blows he has taken in the service of God, yet he keeps running. It is difficult, if not impossible, not to think of the Lord Jesus when we read, ‘I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting'1. Then we read, ‘The Lord God will help Me; Therefore I will not be disgraced’. Yet, in spite of the unmerited, cruel blows, He endured, we read, ‘Therefore I have set My face like a flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed’.2 One translation reads, ‘I brace myself to endure them. I know that I will not be disgraced’.3 The Lord Jesus is the example for all of us, for He is the runner par excellence who continued to run in spite of all the obstacles He encountered. He said, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work’.4
Looking back, for Paul is nearing the finish line, he writes, ‘What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ’.5 He uses the past tense of the verb, ‘I have counted’, referring to a point in history more than thirty years in the past. During the years that followed he had prematurely aged, primarily because of all he suffered physically at the hands of his enemies and the emotional strain of caring for all the churches his opponents were trying to destroy.6 Yet, the apostle never stopped running. He did not run for the applause of men and women. He did not run to be famous. He did not run to please himself. Whatever adverse circumstances he faced he continued to run because of his love and devotion to the Lord Jesus. This is total commitment!
Paul tells us, ‘I have fought with beasts at Ephesus’.7 In Daniel’s case, the lions did not touch the prophet! Taking Paul’s words at face value, he actually fought with beasts. Few survived these encounters with wild animals. For that reason, some wonder if Paul is using the term ‘beasts’ in a figurative sense. He writes, I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries’.8 Is he referring to his adversaries when he speaks of fighting with beasts? On the other hand, it may well have been the very real danger of facing wild animals, for undesirable individuals in the society of two thousand years ago were often thrown to savage beasts just for the entertainment of the general public.
When Paul writes to the church in Rome, he shares with the Christians the bravery of Aquila and Priscilla. They were with Paul in Ephesus and were extremely brave in their commitment to the Christian cause and in their love for the apostle. They went farther than just witnessing together with Paul. With great feeling, Paul shares with the Christians in Rome that they ‘risked their own necks (both Aquila, the husband, and Priscilla, the wife) for my life’.9 We wonder if this could be related to Paul’s allusion to fighting with beasts at Ephesus and how he came out of the experience alive.
There were many other forms of startling persecution. Passing through Philippi, Paul and Silas were severely beaten, thrown into jail and finally asked to leave the city. In Thessalonica their witness caused many to turn to the Lord, but many who did not believe the message created a major uproar in the city. Friends succeeded in saving the lives of Paul and Silas by getting them out of the city in the middle of the night and sending them on their way to Berea. The atmosphere in Berea was more favourable, but the enemies in Thessalonica followed them to Berea and again Paul was sent on his way, this time to Athens. In Athens they just laughed at Paul’s message about a man who rose from the dead. This probably hurt him more than the threats and physical sufferings he had already endured on this trip.10
As already noted, in spite of rough physical sufferings and deep emotional upheavals, and numerous enemies determined to undermine his work,11 nothing moved Paul from his commitment to Christ. He never yearned for his old life. He enjoyed a permanent, close, vibrant relationship with his Lord. There is no indication that he ever wavered in his allegiance to the Lord Jesus. He counted and he continued to count day by day not just the gains of his previous life, but all things loss for Christ. These many experiences of rejection, persecution and close encounters with death never modified his fundamental commitment to Christ. We note again his clear testimony, ‘Indeed I also count (present tense – after about thirty or thirty-five years in which he endured a great deal of hardship) all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’.
The word ‘indeed’ marks the very abrupt change from the apostle’s past, ‘I have counted’, to his present, ‘I also count’ , or ‘I continue to count’. The firm decision Paul made at Damascus was reaffirmed every day.
We may not suffer persecution like Paul, but we may suffer opposition, bereavement, disappointment, failure, illness, financial setbacks and many other unexpected experiences in life. Writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul, perhaps indirectly, refers to his own life when passing through such experiences, for he states, ‘And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope’. Under God, Paul used the adverse experiences of his life to grow as a Christian. He knew exactly where the race he was running would take him and while he was running, in spite of all the obstacles along the way, he was rejoicing ‘in hope of the glory of God’.12
We note again that Paul was an old man, not so much in years as in hard experiences, yet the Damascus experience was just as real as ever. He writes, ‘Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’. By using the present tense, ‘I also count all things loss’, he indicates a continuing, constant commitment to Christ that neither time nor frustrations nor sufferings could alter.
Paul then adds, ‘For whom (Christ Jesus) I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ’. The word behind ‘rubbish’ is a strong word. Some translations use ‘refuse’, ‘garbage’, ‘worthless trash’. J. N. DARBY comes close with the word ‘filth’, for that word visualizes something from which we would turn away in disgust.
We know that Paul had momentary glimpses into the eternal realm, but we, with an open Bible, should be forming in our minds day by day an understanding of the incredible sphere of glory that awaits us. As we move towards the day when we will enter forever into that glory, we may have to suffer loss. Only the vision of that coming glory, so clearly seen in the scriptures in Jesus Christ, our Lord will sustain us as we run the race that is set before us.13
Paul confirms this by one of his remarkable phrases, ‘For the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’. ‘Excellence’ is the object of ‘for.’ The words ‘for’ or ‘because’ refer directly to the reason for this radical re-evaluation of his life’s values. ‘Excellence’ is a powerful noun underscoring the value of that for which Paul turned his back on all his previous values. It is the reason why the apostle ‘counted’ loss everything he formerly considered valuable. It was because of this outstanding ‘excellence’. The term ‘excellence’ refers to ‘exceptional quality’, to ‘outstanding worth’, to ‘wonderful beauty’.
Paul is referring to a ‘worth’ that far outshines any glory this world can offer to a human being. It is a greatness that exceeds anything of merely earthly or heavenly origin. It is a blessing that cannot be equalled with anything in history nor, from what has been revealed to us in the scriptures, with anything in heaven. It is so precious that it overrides all other values available anywhere, even those of the highest possible importance.
This ‘excellence’ is defined as ‘knowledge’, ‘the excellence of the knowledge’. The nouns ‘knowledge’ and ‘excellence’ are closely related. What is this ‘excellence’? The answer is ‘knowledge’! What is the nature of this ‘knowledge’? The answer is ‘excellence’! Thus, ‘excellence’ and ‘knowledge’ are the same thing.