“Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8 NLT)
The apostle Paul, before his Damascus experience, measured his life according to some of the same things many people use to identify themselves even today. Paul grew up clinging to his religious upbringing, his participation in traditions and doctrines, his national heritage, and his cultural heritage. By his own effort in following the law Paul sought to define himself as a righteous person. By righteous, I mean a person who seeks and acts out justice with integrity. Isn’t that how everyone wants to be seen? These things were so important to Paul’s pursuit of righteousness, he refers to his desire to maintain them as zealousness. It was not enough for Paul to hold an inner peace about his national identity and his cultural heritage, his zeal demanded that he persecute others who appeared to violate that identity in themselves or threatened to dilute it. So, Paul writes to the church in Philippi, “I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church” (Phil. 3:6) The church represented a threat to Paul’s religious and national identity, so it was an act of justice in Paul’s mind to arrest and persecute those who violated it. I want to note here, that while zealousness is sometimes viewed as a positive thing, and it appears Paul considered it a positive himself, things did not work out well for those who encountered a zealot. Sometimes zeal is misdirected (Rom. 10:2)
When Paul encounters Christ Jesus he experiences a radical change to his core. In meeting Jesus, Paul came to understand that the righteousness achieved by his own effort in the law could not compare to knowing Jesus. This is not to imply that Paul no longer valued his Jewish Identity, quite to the contrary, Paul continued to have a deep connection with Judaism (Rom. 9:2-3). It was after all a valued part of his identity. Nevertheless, when Paul encounters Christ Jesus, his way of thinking about identity and righteousness change dramatically. The righteousness bestowed by God through faith in Christ Jesus is not a work of human effort and protected by his zeal, but a gift that empowers people to live with justice and integrity. Paul describes this change in him when he writes, “…I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:9). He describes this same change in the church in Philippi when he writes, “May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God” (Phil 1:11).
In Jesus, Paul sees that his value and righteousness, two things he has tried his whole life to obtain through human effort, and protected zealously, are gained by faith in Christ. Modern readers of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi are not immune to the same misguided zealotry that tries to preserve itself through intolerance, separatist behavior, and violence. We are very vulnerable to it when righteousness is defined by wealth, status, and birthright. It is, however, my belief that God seeks to make us righteous through faith in Christ. God, through Christ, is gathering us all to himself and empowering us all to share the same character which he possesses, and we see in Christ Jesus. This is possible because Jesus overcomes, the chaos and evil of this world. Jesus reveals the ultimate destruction of the oppressive and coercive powers in which people place their identity with misguided zealotry.
So, Paul says he counts everything as a loss compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ. In Christ Jesus we all find salvation from the chaos but also salvation to a life with God. Until that day when we know Christ face to face, Paul offers this guidance to the church in Philippi, “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me” (Phil. 4:8-9a)