Summary: Whatever advantage you think you have, consider it a loss, so that you may know Christ and be found in him.
Tim Keller has said that there are three ways to live. One is the way of the rebellious. The second is the way of the religious. And the third is the way of the redeemed. You can see all three of these played out in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a story that Jesus told about two brothers.
One brother, the younger of the two, was impatient for the inheritance he was to receive after his father’s death. So he went to his father, and he asked him for his share of the estate. And his father gave it to him. So, the boy took the money and ran. He ran as far away from home as he could, and not only did he spend his money. He wasted it. He exhausted all his funds in riotous living. He is as good an example as you’ll find of what Keller calls the rebellious way of living.
The older brother was the exact opposite. He stayed at home, worked hard, and always did his duty. He wasn’t that happy about it, but he did what he thought he was supposed to do. He represents the religious type. Now, when I use the word “religious,” I need you to understand that I am using it in a very specific way. I am thinking of people for whom religion is a matter of external compliance with rules and rituals. They do all the right things, but they do them for the wrong reasons. Their hearts aren’t in it. They’re just fulfilling an obligation they feel. That’s how it was with the older brother in Jesus’ parable. It probably won’t surprise you that he didn’t like his younger brother very much – maybe not at all. That’s the way religious types are. They can be smug and self-righteous, and they often look down on people they think aren’t as good as they are.
Both of these types are separated from God. When it comes to the rebellious types, what separates them from God is how bad they are. When it comes to the religious types, it’s how good they are!
The real issue – good or bad – is where we place our confidence. If the rebellious types say, “I don’t obey anyone else’s rules, and I don’t need God to accept me,” the religious types say, “I obey all the rules, and I expect God to accept me.” Both types place their confidence in themselves.
Paul uses his own case to show what a dead end that is. Starting in verse 4, he says, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh” – that is, if anyone else has a right to count on themselves when it comes to their standing with God – “I have more.” Then he gives us his resumé. And you can tell right off that he is a religious type.
He starts with what he has inherited, the advantages he was born with – he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” – and then he tells us what he has done with all those advantages, the position he has earned for himself over time. He has become a Pharisee, a member of the strictest sect in Judaism, and not only that, he has been a zealous Pharisee, and, when it comes to conventional morality, he is practically perfect – a great older brother.
But all that has changed, as Paul says, “because of Christ” (v. 7). If Paul were to take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle, and if he were to list all his losses on one side and all his profits on the other, everything he prided himself in before he met Christ would be listed among the losses: pedigree, accomplishments, awards, prestige, you name it – all the things that he prized at one time, now considered negligible. In fact, Paul takes the whole list and calls it “rubbish” (v. 8). And on the “profit” side, there is but one listing: Christ. “Whatever gains I had,” he says, “these I have come to regard as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 7).
This is quite a remarkable shift, when you think about it. What would happen if you made a similar list? What is it that you really value? What do you count on for your security? What do you depend on for your significance? A lot of us would have a list a lot like the list Paul had before he met Christ. We would likely put a lot of stock in who we are and what we’ve accomplished, just like he did. And we would probably think we were okay as long as we maintained a certain level of moral respectability – especially if we supplemented it with a degree of generosity and showed ourselves to be at least a little charitable toward others.