Summary: If we're not careful, we can get caught up in the world's system of polishing that pedigree. Rather, like the Apostle Paul, we need to surrender all to the great goal of knowing more intimately Christ our Lord. Everything else is secondary.
Surrendering Credentials to Christ
Any top-blockers here? Any type-A personalities? Any hard chargers who consistently rank in the top percentile? The military is basically an up-or-out system, so it attracts into career service those who are driven to succeed. Many of you are one or have been married to one.
Today we’re going to look at a type-A personality from the Bible, the Apostle Paul, and how his priority system got literally turned upside down when he met Jesus. He gives his bio in verses 5 and 6, beginning with his birth. He was circumcised on the proper day for Jewish male babies, the eighth day of life. Although he grew up outside the Holy Land, he emphasizes he is “of Israel,” a direct descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not only that, but he is part of the favored tribe of Benjamin. It was the tribes of Benjamin and Judah that stayed faithful to David’s heirs and formed the southern Kingdom during ancient Israel’s Civil War.
Paul calls himself a Hebrew of Hebrews, meaning he has Hebrew parents and has maintained the traditions of his faith. He says he was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish religious elite who zealously applied scriptures to everyday life. The Pharisees were to the Jewish religious community like our Special Ops folks are to the military: the best funded, the best trained, looking down their noses at everybody else. (Maybe that’s unfair to our Special Operators.)
At the end of verse 6, Paul sums it up with a self-appraisal. He says, “As for righteousness based on the law,[I was] faultless.” The “law” referred to all of God’s commands in the Old Testament. Paul was a typical Pharisee who strove to keep the letter of the law but missed the spirit of the law entirely. He basically thought he could earn his way into God’s good graces.
So Paul has the pedigree. His chest is full of ribbons. He’s a stract, squared away, trooper. His performance lacks nothing. But actually, Paul says it lacks … everything! In verse 7 he says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” Notice how he uses the past tense: “But whatever ‘were’ gains to me…” All those former gains are now losses. These two words, “gains” and “losses,” sound like accounting terms, don’t they? That’s because they are. Paul borrows from business jargon here, just in time for tax season. He has discovered that his lifetime of polishing the portfolio, of earning those merit badges, of seizing those below the zone promotions—all the things he thought were in the gains column—they are actually in the loss column, for the sake of Christ. Next to Jesus, Paul says, nothing else matters. It all counts for nothing.
Yet if you ask the average person off the street, “How do you get into heaven?”, do you know what most people will say? Try it here this week. Take your own survey. Most people will say something like, “Well, you just have to be good enough, I guess.” There are two problems with that: First, no one knows how good is good enough. And secondly, no one is good enough to go to a perfect place like heaven. Not even Mother Theresa could make it in. There is only one person who has walked this earth who is good enough to go to heaven, and that is the God-man Jesus himself, the One who never sinned. Nobody else can make it. It’s impossible, apart from God.
So Paul came to a place in his life where he realized that credentials no longer cut it. Next to knowing Christ, nothing else really matters. I know we have some general officers and admirals and sergeants major around here, and more colonels than you can shake a stick at. When I first arrived at Fort Sam Houston nearly six years ago, I was disappointed to find not a single colonel’s parking spot at the PX or Commissary. Why is that? Because there are far too many of them! So being “generally an officer,” I parked in that spot labeled “General Officer.” (Just kidding.)
As much as I respect rank, we won’t take it to heaven and it’s not the main thing now. Some here read the Bible more than others. Some may even understand some Greek or Hebrew. Some may go to church more than others. Those are good things, but they won’t get you to heaven and they alone won’t give you the abundant life you need right now. Paul says all his previous gains are now losses for the sake of Christ. He even calls them “garbage” or “rubbish.” That’s how much they’re worth compared to Christ.
And then, beginning in verse 8, Paul hones in on what is truly important. He talks of “knowing” Christ, and he chooses a word that means to know personally, by experience, such as how well you know your spouse or your best friend. Like Erma Bombeck once said, “Never be in a hurry to terminate a marriage. You may need this person to finish a sentence.”