“Called to Suffer and Rejoice: That We Might Gain Christ”
A Sermon Delivered by Dr. John Piper on August 23, 1992
“Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:1-14
The Bible Promises Suffering for God’s People
We are focusing in these weeks on the need to prepare for suffering. The reason for this is not just my sense that the days are evil and the path of righteousness costly, but the promise of the Bible that God’s people will suffer.
Acts 14:22 says that Paul told all his young churches, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.”
And Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).
And Peter said, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). In other words it is not strange; it is to be expected.
And Paul said (in 2 Timothy 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
So I take it to be a biblical truth that the more earnest we become about being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and reaching the unreached peoples of the world, and exposing the works of darkness, and loosing the bonds of sin and Satan, the more we will suffer. That’s why we should prepare. And that’s why I am preaching in these weeks from texts that will help us prepare.
The messages deal with four purposes that God has in our suffering in his service. One is the moral or spiritual purpose: in suffering we come to hope more fully in God and put less confidence in the things of the world. Second, there is the intimacy purpose: we come to know Christ better when we share his sufferings. That is our focus today.
The Purpose of Greater Intimacy with Christ
God helps us prepare for suffering by teaching us and showing us that through suffering we are meant to go deeper in our relationship with Christ. You get to know him better when you share his pain. The people who write most deeply and sweetly about the preciousness of Christ are people who have suffered with him deeply.
Suffering in the Life of Jerry Bridges
For example, Jerry Bridges’ book, Trusting God, Even When Life Hurts, is a deep and helpful book about suffering and going deep with God through affliction. And so it’s not surprising to learn that when he was 14 years old, he heard his mother call out in the next room, totally unexpectedly, and arrived to see her take her last breath. He also has physical conditions that keep him from normal sports. And just a few years ago his wife died of cancer. Serving God with the Navigators has not spared him pain. He writes with depth about suffering because he has gone deep with Christ in suffering.
Suffering in the Life of Horatius Bonar
Over a hundred years ago Horatius Bonar, the Scottish pastor and hymn-writer, wrote a little book called Night of Weeping, or, “When God’s Children Suffer.” In it he said his goal was, “to minister to the saints . . . to seek to bear their burdens, to bind up their wounds, and to dry up at least some of their many tears.” It is a tender and deep and wise book. So it’s not surprising to hear him say,
It is written by one who is seeking himself to profit by trial, and trembles lest it should pass by as the wind over the rock, leaving it as hard as ever; by one who would in every sorrow draw near to God that he may know Him more, and who is not unwilling to confess that as yet he knows but little.
Bridges and Bonar show us that suffering is a path deep into the heart of God. God has special revelations of his glory for his suffering children.
The Words of Job, Stephen, and Peter
After months of suffering, Job finally says to God, “I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees Thee” (Job 42:5). Job had been a godly and upright man, pleasing to God, but the difference between what he knew of God in prosperity and what he knew of him through adversity was the difference between hearing about and seeing.
When Stephen was arrested and put on trial for his faith and given a chance to preach, the upshot was that the religious leaders were enraged and ground their teeth at him. They were just about to drag him out of the city and kill him. At just that moment, Luke tells us, “Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). There is a special revelation, a special intimacy, prepared for those who suffer with Christ.
Peter put it this way, “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14). In other words God reserves a special coming and resting of his Spirit and his glory on his children who suffer for his name.
Three Observations from the Text (Philippians 3:5-11)
So the focus of today’s message is on this intimacy factor in suffering. One of the purposes of the suffering of the saints is that their relationship with God might become less formal and less artificial and less distant, and become more personal and more real and more intimate and close and deep.
In our text (Philippians 3:5–11) I want us to see at least three things:
- First, Paul’s preparation to suffer by reversing his values;
- Second, Paul’s experience of suffering and loss as the cost of his obedience to Christ;
- Third, Paul’s aim in all of this, namely, to gain Christ: to know him and be in him and fellowship with more intimacy and reality than he knew with his best friends Barnabas and Silas.
Paul’s Preparation to Suffer
In verses 5 and 6 Paul lists the distinctives he enjoyed before he became a Christian. He gives his ethnic pedigree as a thoroughbred child of Abraham, a Hebrew of Hebrews. This brought him great gain, a great sense of significance and assurance. He was an Israelite. Then he mentions three things that go right to the heart of Paul’s life before he was a Christian (at the end of verse 5): “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.”
Paul’s Values Before He Met Christ
This was Paul’s life. This was what gave him meaning and significance. This was his gain, his fortune, his joy. Different strokes for different folks—and Paul’s was that he belonged to the upper-echelon of law-keepers, the Pharisees, and that among them he was so zealous that he led the way in persecuting the enemies of God, the church of Jesus, and that he kept the law meticulously. He got strokes from belonging, he got strokes from excelling, he got strokes from God—or so he thought—for his blameless law-keeping.
And then he met Christ, the Son of the living God, on the Damascus road. Christ told him how much he would have to suffer (Acts 9:16). And Paul prepared himself.
Paul Counted His Prior Values as Loss
The way he prepared himself is described in verse 7. “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul looks at his standing in the upper-echelons of religious society, the Pharisees; he looks at the glory of being at the very top of that group with all its strokes and applause; he looks at the rigor of his law-keeping and the sense of moral pride he enjoyed; and he prepares to suffer by taking his whole world and turning it upside down, by reversing his values: “Whatever things were gain to me [that’s verses 5–6], those things I have counted as loss.”
Before he was a Christian he had a ledger with two columns: one that said, gains, and another that said, losses. On the gain side was the human glory of verses 5–6. On the loss side was the terrible prospect that this Jesus movement might get out of hand and Jesus prove real and win the day. When he met the living Christ on the Damascus road, Paul took a big red pencil and wrote “LOSS” in big red letters across his gains column. And he wrote “GAIN” in big letters over the loss column that only had one name in it: Christ.
And not only that, the more Paul thought about the relative values of life in the world and the greatness of Christ, he moved beyond the few things mentioned in verses 5–6 and put everything but Christ in that first column: Verse 8: “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He started by counting his most precious accomplishments as loss, and he ended by counting everything as loss, except Christ.
That’s what it meant for Paul to become a Christian. And lest anyone of us think he was unique or peculiar, notice that in verse 17 he says with his full apostolic authority, “Brethren, join in following my example.” This is normal Christianity.
What Paul is doing here is showing how the teaching of Jesus is to be lived out. For example, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). Becoming a Christian means discovering that Christ (the King) is a Treasure Chest of holy joy and writing “LOSS” over everything else in the world in order to gain him. “He sold all that he had to buy that field.”
Or again in Luke 14:33 Jesus said, “No one of you can be my disciple who does not take leave of all his own possessions.” In other words, becoming a disciple of Jesus means writing “LOSS” in big red letters over all your possessions—and everything else this world offers.
What This Means Practically
Now what does that mean practically? I think it means four things
- It means that whenever I am called upon to choose between anything in this world and Christ, I choose Christ.
- It means that I will deal with the things of this world in ways that draw me nearer to Christ so that I gain more of Christ and enjoy more of him by the way I use the world.
- It means that I will always deal with the things of this world in ways that show that they are not my treasure, but rather show that Christ is my treasure.
- It means that if I lose any or all the things this world can offer, I will not lose my joy or my treasure or my life, because Christ is all.
Now that was the reckoning that Paul reckoned in his soul (v. 8): “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Christ is all and all else is loss.
Why Is This a Way of Preparing to Suffer?
Now let’s stand back a minute and get our bearings. I am still dealing with the first point: namely, that this is Paul’s way of preparing to suffer. Why do I say that? Why is becoming a Christian, and writing “LOSS” across everything in your life but Christ a way of preparing to suffer?
The answer is that suffering is nothing more than the taking away of bad things or good things that the world offers for our enjoyment—reputation, esteem among peers, job, money, spouse, sexual life, children, friends, health, strength, sight, hearing, success, etc. When these things are taken away (by force or by circumstance or by choice), we suffer. But if we have followed Paul and the teaching of Jesus and have already counted them as loss for the surpassing value of gaining Christ, then we are prepared to suffer.
If when you become a Christian you write a big red “LOSS” across all the things in the world except Christ, then when Christ calls you to forfeit some of those things, it is not strange or unexpected. The pain and the sorrow may be great. The tears may be many, as they were for Jesus in Gethsemane. But we will be prepared. We will know that the value of Christ surpasses all the things the world can offer and that in losing them we gain more of Christ.
Paul’s Experience of Suffering
So in the second half of verse 8 Paul moves from preparing for suffering to actual suffering. He moves from counting all things as loss in the first half of verse 8 to actually suffering the loss of all things in the second half of the verse. “…for whom [that is, Christ] I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ.” We are going to see this next week: Paul had experienced so much actual loss of the normal benefits and comforts of the world that he could say that he was not merely counting things loss; he was suffering loss. He had prepared by turning his values upside down, and now he was being tested. Did he value Christ above all?
Paul’s Goal (and God’s Purpose) in Suffering
So let me close by riveting our attention on Paul’s goal and God’s purpose in this suffering. Why did God ordain and Paul accept the losses that it meant for him to be a Christian?
Paul gives the answer again and again in these verses so that we cannot miss the point. He is not passive in this suffering loss. He is purposive. And his purpose is to gain Christ.
Verse 7: “I counted them loss for the sake of Christ.”
Verse 8a: “I count all things to be loss for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Verse 8b: “For him I have suffered the loss of all things.”
Verse 8c: “And I count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ…”
Verse 9: “…and that I may be found in him [so as to have God’s righteousness, not my own]…”
Verse 10a: (still giving his aim in accepting the loss of all things) “…that I may know him”
Verses 10b–11: (followed by four specifics of what it means to know Christ)
- ” . . . [to know] the power of his resurrection”; and
- “the fellowship of his sufferings”;
- “being conformed to his death”;
- “in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
In other words, what sustains Paul in suffering the loss of all things is the confidence that in his losing precious things in the world he is gaining something more precious—Christ.
And two times that gaining is called a knowing—verse 8a: “…in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Verse 10: “That I might know him.” This is the intimacy factor in suffering. Do we want to know him? Do we want to be more personal with him and deep with him and real with him and intimate with him—so much so that we count everything as loss to gain this greatest of all treasures?
If we do, we will be ready to suffer. If we don’t, it will take us by surprise and we will rebel. May the Lord open our eyes to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ!
Sermon/ Article Above Used by Permission. By Dr. John Piper. © 2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org