‘The excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’1
A common definition for knowledge is the accumulation of information, facts. Students accumulate information and facts for writing a thesis for a master’s degree or for a dissertation for a doctoral degree. A great deal of time and effort are put into a project like this. However, this is not the meaning of ‘knowledge’ in Paul’s mind in this verse.
Paul’s concept of ‘knowledge’ is reflected in the participle ‘knowing’, a concept filled with commitment, love and joy. It is much more than just the accumulation of information – even Christian information. Paul is writing about a personal relationship with the Lord that is spontaneous, joyful, sincere. We do not doubt that Paul’s use of ‘knowledge’ includes the mind, yet the emphasis falls primarily on the heart. ‘Knowledge’ as the ultimate value of life is knowing the Lord Jesus, knowing personally that Christ, the Messiah, is Jesus, or that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.
There is a picture in the Old Testament that illustrates the wonder of this truth. It is seen in that beautiful moment when all the people helped in financing the building of the temple. The question was asked, ‘Who then is willing to consecrate himself this day to the Lord?’. The answer is beautiful, for ‘the leaders … the captains … with the officers over the king’s work, offered willingly … Then the people rejoiced, for they had offered willingly, because with a loyal heart they had offered willingly to the Lord; and King David also rejoiced greatly’. The bountiful offerings received that day came from many individuals truly consecrated and committed to the Lord. With their hearts, that is, with all that they were, they joyfully gave their abundant offerings. No wonder King David also rejoiced.
We go back to Paul’s conversion experience outside Damascus. If Jesus is in the midst of the divine glory, He is the Messiah. It is in Christ Jesus that one truly meets God. We note again Paul’s insight into what happened on that occasion. He wrote, ‘Yes: the God who said, “Let light shine forth out of darkness”, is the God who has shone in our hearts to illuminate them with the knowledge of His glory reflected in the face of Christ’.2
What is the meaning of the phrase, ‘the knowledge of Christ Jesus’? Scholars tell us that there are two possibilities. First, it can mean ‘to be known by Christ’ or, second, ‘to know Christ’. ‘To know Christ’ is the preference of most scholars. To know the Lord Jesus is to know God. We are not surprised to know that COUNT ZINZENDORF (1700–1760), founder of the Moravian movement, wrote, ‘I have one passion only: It is He! It is He!’.3
It is possible that the apostle on purpose uses this phrase, ‘the knowledge of Christ Jesus’, precisely because it can be understood in both senses. If so, then the ‘excellence’ of which he writes is both the truth that the Christian is known by the Lord Jesus and also that the Christian knows the Lord Jesus. This, then, becomes the overwhelming, extremely precious treasure that any human being could ever have. It is the treasure of knowing personally, that is, in his or her own experience, the Lord Jesus and, wonder of wonders, understanding that He knows each Christian personally. Paul is stating that there is nothing in human experience that can be compared to this astonishing reality. As one translation expresses Paul’s thought, ‘Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus My Lord’.4
The apostle expresses the wonder of this personal relationship with Christ by speaking of ‘the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord’. Only here in all of his writings does the apostle use this term, ‘my Lord’. First of all, it is a statement concerning the dignity of Christ’s person. Again, the words of Thomas are relevant, for when he saw the Lord Jesus raised from the dead after a brutal Roman crucifixion, he exclaimed, ‘My Lord and my God!’.5 Where else could the disciples place Jesus except within the mystery of the transcendent God?
The term ‘Lord’ is not a harsh title. It is evident that in our world there are cruel, sham ‘lords’. They will go to any extreme, including some who employ deceit and fraud to enrich themselves at the expense of those less fortunate, or others who employ reprehensible forms of torture and murder of innocent people to further their own agenda. In the case of Thomas and his fellow-disciples they were shaken to the core of their beings when they finally understood who Jesus was. And Paul’s whole life evaporated in a moment when he saw the glory of God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth.
The ‘Lord’ that Thomas, Paul and other early Christians knew was the ‘Lord’ who in amazing grace came to their rescue and suffered for them. He is ‘Jesus Christ the righteous (who) … Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world’.6 In the history of the world earthly ‘lords’ do not do this. In most cases they live off of those over whom they are ‘lords’.
Jesus is authentically Lord, for having humbled Himself ‘to the point of death, even the death of the cross … God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name’, and, one way or another, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess ‘that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.7 Because of what He did for us through His death, He is a life-giving Lord. Paul writes, ‘So you will be saved (you will have life eternal), if you honestly say, “Jesus is Lord"’ 8
Calling Christ Jesus ‘my Lord’, Paul confirms that his relationship with Christ Jesus was one of gratitude, obedience, love and loyalty. His commitment is total, for he knows that all that he is and will be for eternity springs out of the incredible grace and love of Christ Jesus. Writing to the Galatians he shares with them another deeply personal and perceptive insight into his thinking. He speaks of ‘the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’.9 Is there any other way we can respond to the fact that His death was for each one of us personally, individually, but by joyfully recognizing that He is our Lord?
There was a personal cost involved for Paul because of his commitment to Christ and he does not shy away from sharing it with us. He states, ‘For whom I have suffered the loss of all things’. This is the third time Paul mentions loss. If anyone thought he was just making a theoretical comment, this time he clarifies very carefully that he did suffer the loss of all things. The readers of this letter to the Philippians in the past and we in the present are left with no doubt that he really did lose all things for Christ. How did this happen? The news soon arrived in Jerusalem of Paul’s conversion and that among his countrymen he was energetically, powerfully arguing that Jesus was the Christ. The religious leaders undoubtedly expressed their intense displeasure and hatred against Paul. There may have been a meeting of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, the same group that had empowered him to destroy the followers of the Lord Jesus. Without Paul being present, they may have formally stripped him of all the power and authority they had invested in him. More likely, Paul himself, in view of the glory of God so clearly displayed in Jesus, simply turned his back on all his former gains and walked away from them. In either case, he literally ‘suffered the loss of all things’. Paul knew these were the things that had kept him from God. There is no complaint from Paul. He was glad to see the end of them.
The Lord Jesus writes to the church in Ephesus, saying, ‘Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love’.10 What happened to the church in Ephesus? Were the members of the church captivated again by the glory of Ephesus? The truth is that the city was ‘a crossroads of civilization’. They started well, for the term ‘first love’ indicates a true commitment to the Lord Jesus. Yet the believers in Ephesus, while still loving Him, had lost their first passion. One writer comments, ‘Loving devotion to Christ can be lost in the midst of active service, and certainly no amount of orthodoxy can make up for a failure. “First" love would suggest that they still loved, but with a quality and intensity unlike that of their initial love’.11 They started the race well but as time went by they slacked off for the lack of total commitment. What happened to Demas?
Paul sadly comments, ‘Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica’. Why did he go to Thessalonica? He was with Paul and Paul was on death row. Perhaps just to be with him was dangerous. Demas left Paul ‘having loved this present world’.12 Love for the Lord did not necessarily disappear, but it did wane and another love pulled at his heart. Commitment to Christ was no longer paramount in his life.
This can only happen to congregations like the Ephesian church or to individuals like Demas when they are unable to truly say with Paul, ‘For to me, to live is Christ’, when Christ no longer remains greater than anything the world can offer. Paul’s commitment to Christ revealed in Philippians chapter 3 makes it difficult to believe that what occurred in the church in Ephesus, or in the case of Demas in Rome, could ever have happened to Paul. He was not a super- Christian. He was a committed Christian. In his own words, Paul was wholly dedicated ‘to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand’. Through many adverse circumstances and near the end of his life, he still runs towards Christ, for he knows that ‘the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth and supreme advantage'13 for anyone in this life is to know Christ.
How deep, how real is our commitment to the Lord Jesus?