Text: Philippians 3:8-14
This morning I want to talk about finding Jesus. I suppose this might sound a little bit like trendy spiritualism or even like that old time religion, and it might be a little of both, but it is, nonetheless, one of the most basic issues in any Christian’s life. We not only have to seek after Jesus, but we have to lay hold of him. We have to grab Him and never let go. But there’s a bit of a twist to this.
You see, woven into the Apostle Paul’s message in this section of Philippians is the somewhat topsy-turvy point that you don’t actually find Jesus. He finds you. In fact, what you find is yourself as Jesus finds you. Indeed, you find yourself in Jesus as He lays hold of you and brings you into the fellowship of suffering and conformity with his death. This is the mode of communion with God which we must all realize, and it is the necessary precursor to being able to obey Christ and walk according to His rule.
You must find God through Jesus Christ
Now before examining the passage in Philippians more closely, I would like to make a few basic points so that the groundwork has been done. Perhaps these points are too obvious, but I’ve found that it is usually worth it to repeat the obvious. The first basic point is that God wishes to be found. You may never have stopped to think about that, but it is true. The Bible tells us that God wants lost people to look for Him and to find Him:
[He] has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Acts 17:26-28)
So, not only does God want us to look for Him and to find Him, but He wants us to realize that He is already there. Wherever we think we should go to find God, we should realize that He has always been there already. He is always already here.
But as we find God, we also learn that we must find Him through His Son:
The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:35-36)
Jesus himself preached this very thing:
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. (John 6:37-39)
Our salvation is something that has been given to Jesus by God, and this is so because we have been given to Jesus by God. We are also told that “in Christ” we are “made alive” (1 Cor. 15:21). This is because “everlasting life” is resurrection life, the life brought into the world through Christ’s own resurrection. And so if we wish to find God, if we wish to be free from the wrath of God, and if we wish to live on after death, then we must do all of these things by coming to Christ.
You only ever find Jesus when He finds you.
Having now established what it is, or Who it is, that we are looking for, we now must again make the point that we only ever find Jesus when He finds us. Paul makes this point indirectly in our text today saying, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). Christ laid hold of Paul, and He did so for a reason: that Paul might lay hold of the goal of perfection. In short, Jesus laid hold of Paul in order to bring Paul to salvation, to eternal life, to God.
But when did Christ lay hold of Paul? It was on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). And what was Paul doing at that time? He was persecuting the church, literally at enmity against God. And yet God through Christ laid hold of him and transformed him into a new man. This is the message of the gospel in action. Christ reconciled God and man, while man still fights against God.
Of course, it is also worth remembering that at the time, Paul didn’t think of himself as being at war with God at all. He thought he was at war for God. As he says in earlier in our chapter, he was full of “zeal” and “blameless” in the sight of the law (Philippians 3:6). But it turned out that he was quite wrong. And so we can say that Jesus found Paul, not only when Paul wasn’t looking to find Jesus, but when Paul thought he was perfectly alright with God but was deceived through his self-righteousness. Sometimes God lays hold of people, shakes them up, and totally recreates them without any thought on the part of the person that any of it needed happening at all. This too is God’s grace.
Yes, God has a way of finding folks who aren’t looking for Him. As He says through the prophet Isaiah, “I was sought by those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ To a nation that was not called by My name” (Isaiah 65:1). God found the Gentiles when they were not seeking Him, and He finds us before we ever seek Him. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This too is the gospel. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Jesus finds you when you are empty
Now we can say a bit more about Paul’s argument here in Philippians. He is assuming that Christ laid hold of him in a dramatic gracious way, and that this encounter means that self-righteousness must be forever renounced. And all of this continues to be an imitation of the example of Jesus, the mind of Christ. Just as Jesus emptied Himself to come down and take on the form of a bondservant, so too we must empty ourselves in order to be found by Christ. We find ourselves in Jesus when we stop finding ourselves in ourselves. We have to become empty in order to be filled up by Jesus.
Listen again to Paul’s words:
Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)
Paul is saying here that he has renounced all of his earthly “gains” and is willing to actually lose them in order to gain Christ. This includes both his genuine good things and his pursuit of self-righteousness. The genuine good things are not problems in themselves, but Paul is still willing to put them to the side in order to first find Jesus and be filled with Him. And all of this is in order to achieve an eternal goal: to attain to the resurrection of the dead. Paul says that he will get to this goal, the resurrection, by knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection, by knowing the fellowship of His sufferings, and by being conformed to His death. This too is an emptying.
You see, we can’t actually seek to share in Christ’s sufferings and be conformed to His death if we are still hanging on to our lives. Our lives are exactly what we have to be willing to sacrifice. We have to completely rearrange our self-esteem, our values and goals, and our conception of who we are and what we are here for. Our job is not to find ourselves but to be found in Christ, and we do that by moving from ourselves to Christ. In the words of John the Baptist, He must increase and we must decrease (John 3:30).
And so how do we do this? What does this look like? We should be clear about this. This is not just pious language. We aren’t just calling you to put a “new spin” on the same sort of lifestyle you were living. No, this sort of self-emptying ought to be a practical spiritual discipline. It is how we “press on” towards the goal of the resurrection of the dead:
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
What we should notice here is that Paul’s goal is still in the future. He has not “already attained.” He presses on in order to “lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” And so we should be clear about this ourselves. Our salvation is still in the future. It is waiting on us at the end of our lives and, ultimately, at the end of history. But don’t we have it now, you might ask? Well, yes, we have it now insofar as Jesus has achieved it for us. He has “laid hold” of us, and in that we have assurance. As Jesus says in John’s gospel:
And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one.” (John 10:28-30)
Our salvation is secure because it is ultimately a gift given to us by God Himself. But that salvation includes things which are still in our future, and so we have to understand that we have these “not yet” realities in the “already” precisely by “faith.” We believe that we have them. We believe the future is established and secure. But this is all faith.
Our earthly experience is always one of progression, moving towards our eschatological goal. And this is why we must “press on.” What does pressing on mean? First it means that we “forget what is behind.” Don’t go back to your sinful desires and lusts. Don’t be the man you used to be. And also don’t go back to self-righteousness. Don’t try to prove that you are saved through your scrupulous adherence to the law. Don’t try to self-justify.
It’s not even enough to be angry about your old way of life and mad at sin. You have to also leave the false ways of trying to fix things. Instead, leave it all, acknowledge your need to be laid hold of, and then “reach forward to those things which are ahead.” Consider your future and reach out to lay hold of it. Press “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
This upward call is most likely our spiritual ascension to be with Christ in heaven, but it also includes the fullness of the resurrection at the last day. As Paul is about to say in the upcoming verses, our true identity is in heaven with Christ, and so it is our duty in the here and now to begin finding that heavenly identity in ourselves on earth. We need to begin looking like what we are going to look like. And this is important because it teaches us how we are to understand who we are. The most effective way to get rid of the old ways of self-salvation is to understanding who we are in Christ.
We have been laid hold of by Christ. We “are known by God” (Gal. 4:9). God has sent His Son to die for us, and He has poured out His own Spirit into us. God is at work in us, and He is working in us throughout our lives. “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). And so we have to start seeing God in us and seeing ourselves in God through Jesus.
So the application ought to be making itself clearer now. We need to put off our old man. We need to stop finding our identity in the flesh, our birth, our natural talents, our old friends, our old loves, and our habits. We need to toss that stuff aside, even if some of it still looks pretty good. And we need to find ourselves anew in Christ. We need to consider what He has done for us and why, and we need to start asking what He wants of us. Indeed, we need to ask what He is doing in us right now, how He is working in us, and how He is bringing us towards the goal of the resurrection. And since this is all of grace, we should ask Jesus to do this for us. Can you pray that God will empty you?
C.S. Lewis said that humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. This is what we need to do in regards to our relationship with Jesus. We don’t need to merely think less of ourselves. We don’t have to grovel and tell ourselves that we are terrible, no good, very bad people all the time. What we need to do is simply stop starting with ourselves in the first place. Let us begin by thinking about Jesus. What does He want? Where does He figure into this? What does He want from me, and what is He doing in and through me? You should ask yourself regularly, “How is Jesus bringing me closer to the resurrection of the dead?”
And whatever the particulars or you life at the moment, the answer to that question is always going to be “By bringing me to know Him.” Jesus is bringing you closer to the resurrection of the dead by continually revealing Himself to you, by teaching you more about Him, by showing you the power of His resurrection, and, of course, by allowing you to share in His sufferings and to be conformed to His death. What will this look like in your life? Well, I can’t say precisely, but I can say that it will involve sufferings and death-like experiences. You will go with Jesus into the grave. Is that something you were told about on the front end? Did you sign off on that kind of a Christianity? But of course that’s the only kind there is. As Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” How are you dying in your walk with the Lord?
Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. He wants you to die. Jesus is going to kill you. But you know this. It’s no surprise. Jesus is brining you down to death precisely so He can raise you from the grave and make you into someone new. Believe that. Trust in that. Let that be the comforting answer to your soul’s questions. And through this whole process, look for Jesus, find Him as you find yourself in Him, and as He lays hold of you, take comfort in knowing that He lays hold of you in order to not let you go but to bring you to perfection in Him. Let us pray.