Thursday, February 10, 2011

Gain, Find, Know, Attain - Part 3

Yet 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 3:08-11, NKJV).

In addition to knowing Christ relationally, and through that, experiencing the power of His resurrection, as was discussed in the previous post, the Apostle Paul also desired to know, in that same experiential way, the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death. Does that mean he wants to suffer and die in the same manner that Christ did? Does it mean he sees spiritual value in purposely going through pain? Is he encouraging self-inflicted suffering and even crucifixion? Some might think so. Indeed, each year, there are stories of a few of the "faithful" being voluntarily nailed on a cross to obtain some kind of elevated spirituality or cleansing. Are they wrong? 

To answer these questions and obtain the full import of what Paul is saying here, it is instructive to peel away some of the connotations associated with the English words chosen by the NKJV translators. This is not to imply that they chose inaccurately, or precipitously, but it is to suggest that it is possible that our modern understanding might be enhanced by digging a little deeper into the original language.

As stated, Paul wants to know these things not just intellectually, or factually, like someone knowing the Table of Atomic Elements, but he wants to know them in such a way that includes both mind and heart, intellect and experience. To the paired elements of knowledge already examined in Part 2 of this exposition, (Christ, and the power of His resurrection), he now adds perhaps the most profound aspect of his pursuit, Christ's suffering and death.

First, the word, fellowship. This is that deeply meaningful concept termed, koinonia (koy-nohn-ee'-ah), in Greek. In addition to fellowship, it has been translated variously, based on context, as communion, communication, distribution, contribution, to communicate, to associate or be in association with, community, joint participation, intimacy, and sharing. Clearly, it is a rich word that does not readily lend itself to a simple one-to-one translation. With the passage above in view, the most meaningful expression might be this: intimate partnership. As in most human partnerships, it does not mean that each member undergoes the exact same events or circumstances, but rather, that the communication, understanding, and deep association between and among partners makes what one member experiences, in a very real sense, shared by all. This is true in marriage especially, where the two become one flesh; and in the church, where, when one member weeps, all weep, and when one rejoices, all rejoice. In that sense, we who are Christ's, desire to know the fellowship of His suffering because it informs us very profoundly of the "what" and the "why" of His death on the Cross.

His murder becomes, not just an event in history, but a common foundation from which the Christian worldview proceeds. He became a man to die. That death of God's Son on the Cross was absolutely necessary for sinful man to obtain salvation. There was no other way for God to be both just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. In that death, the eternal Second Person of the Trinity became separated, for the first and only time, from the Father and the Spirit, with whom he had been in perfect koinonia from all eternity past. Christ's motivation to voluntarily lay down His life on our behalf, in loving obedience to the Father, speaks volumes of His immeasurable love and grace, and expresses for us in ways that otherwise we would never begin to understand, the Father's heart. To know all that is to have within our grasp a greater understanding of the nature and character of our God. That Christ came first as a sacrificial Lamb, as a prerequisite for His Second Coming as Judge and Executioner, broadens our understanding and appreciation even further. The end result is a deepening faith, accompanied by an ever-growing love for Him. That is at least part of what the fellowship of His sufferings is all about.

It cannot mean, and does not mean, that we are to endeavor to physically suffer and die in the same manner. Nor are we to inflict physical punishment on ourselves, as some monastic orders seek to do. That is tantamount to putting us in Christ's place, usurping His position as Savior of the World, and adding our own feeble, misdirected efforts to the divine plan of redemption. May we never be so arrogant or presumptuous to think that we can in some literal way, substitute ourselves for Him. That is blasphemy. Nor does doing so honor Him. Instead, it draws attention to ourselves and away from His suffering and death on our behalf. While for some, martyrdom may be in God's will for their lives, for those acts to be self-inflicted is theft and self-worship, pure and simple.

Proceeding further, thee word, conformed, literally means to take the same shape as something else, but again, not necessarily, or even predominantly, in the exact outward, physical appearance. In the verses above, it speaks more to an inward conformity to the essential nature of Christ's death, and in doing so, making us eligible for a similar conformity to the counterpart resurrection from the dead (more on that aspect in a later installment). As before, this points to something beyond the actual physicality of His death, to the motivation and humility behind it. Imagine what it means for God to die; to become part of His Creation for the express purpose of rescuing it from His rebellious creatures through His suffering and ignominious death on the Cross. He who know no sin became sin for us. He who knew not death, had to take on a mortal nature in order to die. He made the very Universe, galaxy, solar system, planet, hill and wood upon which those, who had been lovingly created in His own image, murdered Him. He chose to do this - to take the form of a bondservant, to come in the likeness of men, and to be found in appearance as a Man. And being found as a Man, he humbled Himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the Cross.

That kind of humility, that kind of obedience, that kind of sacrificial motivation is part of what it means to be conformed to His death. It is to allow the knowing and fellowship to work its transformative power in our hearts, minds and will, so that we become increasingly like Him. Shaped like Him. That is God's plan for His children. The desire to to accomplish this, through giving up everything else in order to know Christ, and these miraculous things about Christ, is what Paul is writing about.