The Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 1 - A Great and Effectual Door

Reading: Philippians 1.

"I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ" (Phil. 3:8).

The Fight for a Continent

The letter to the Philippians will mainly occupy our attention, but before we come to it, actually we shall be more in that chapter which brings before us the establishing of the Lord's Testimony in Philippi, namely, chapter 16 of the book of the Acts. I think that very few of the Lord's people who have read it thoughtfully have failed to be impressed very deeply with the little letter to the Philippians. It is one of the gems of Scripture, and perhaps its outstanding feature is that more than in any other instance the Apostle found it possible to open his heart widely, and just pour out a stream of affection. In no other place do we find him in that matter so unrestrained.

There are special things about these Philippian believers which make that possible, and which so draw him out. When that is recognised as over against his great difficulty in opening his heart in many other directions - the longing, but the inability because of prevailing conditions, because of so much which had to be waded through of what was not according to the Lord's mind, all of which straightened him in his desire to get into the closest personal touch in the life of the Lord - I say when we recognise that, we are bound to conclude that the Philippians represented something very precious for the Lord. They stood in a position which - if the Apostle himself reflected the Lord's own relationship to them - brought great joy to the heart of the Lord. We have come to know this letter as the letter of triumphant joy.

There had just streaked across the horizon slight vapours. At one point it seemed almost that a cloud crossed the sky, a cloud of very unpleasant memory. But apart from those passing clouds or vapours, the letter is just full of joy, wonderful, overflowing joy. And if these Philippians were the occasion of it, as undoubtedly they were, remembering the conditions and the position of the Apostle at the time, then surely they present something in which the Lord has great delight, something which stands for the Lord as being of great value to Him. That being the case, it is always good to look at the history of such a people, and especially at the commencement of their spiritual history, or of their relationship to the Lord. Thus we turn back to chapter 16 of the Acts, to see something as to the spiritual origin of the assembly of believers in Philippi.

A Great and Effectual Door

We know that Philippi was of very great strategic value so far as the Gospel in the nations was concerned. We know that Philippi was the door into the Western world, into Europe, and it was through that door at Philippi that the Gospel came to us, and into these Western nations. So that, so far as this world is concerned with the Gospel, Philippi was of great strategic value. You are not surprised, therefore, that the opening of that door, the passing through it, and the establishing of the Testimony on the other side of it, was fraught with terrific conflict; a conflict in which it seemed that all the cosmic and universal forces became engaged.

The Divine Mind and our Sanctified Common Sense

Glance through chapter 16 with that thought in mind and you will be impressed with the forces which were active in relation to the Testimony being established in Philippi. You begin with - we will not say a conflict - but a difference between a good sanctified human judgment, and the revealed will of God. That is where things commenced. You find that Paul and his companions, Silas, Timothy and Luke, were moving in a certain direction, and their own minds were undoubtedly working with certain fields of labour in view. There was the great, and apparently wonderfully fruitful, field of Asia. Think of all that there was in Asia! Wonderful possibilities! Their minds were moving in that direction as the field of activity. Then we are told that they were forbidden to preach the Word in Asia. Then they assayed to go into Bithynia. The mind is working in another direction, and has definitely decided that that would be a fruitful field for the Gospel. And so they follow - or assay to follow - that sanctified human judgment. We mean by that that all their powers are on the Lord's side, mind, heart and will, spirit, soul and body. There is no question about that. They are wholly consecrated men. There is no working for themselves; there are no ambitions of their own; they have no personal enterprises and interests to realise; they are wholly out for God, and in that devotion to the Lord, and in that full consecration of their entire being, they contemplate certain things, they assay to move in certain directions. Then even so they come up against something else, which transcends even a consecrated human judgment, and they are forbidden to preach the Word in Asia, and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not to go into Bithynia. That is something to think about!

You see you have laid down a law, established a principle, right at the outset, by which the fulness of Christ is to be realised. I believe that that is a basic law to this very thing which we have in view; the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. We have no wish to stay with that very long; we mention it as something to take account of. We hear people reason that way in these days. "Well, use your sanctified common sense!" they say, as though that were the last word in direction. But here it is clearly revealed that there is something which transcends sanctified common sense. There is a revealed will of God which is other than the very best consecrated human judgment.

So often a position like this arises, and we assay to proceed along lines which are commended to us by our very devotion to the Lord. We are all out for the Lord; we are consecrated to the Lord; we are quite sure that we are not actuated by personal ambitions, and it is not that we have plans of our own that we are trying to carry out, but we really are for the Lord; and because of that we would allow our own activities of mind, and heart, and will, in the interests of the Lord, to dictate our course, to create our policy, and we would think that zeal for the Lord, devotion to the Lord, heart consecration to the Lord warrants our doing anything that comes into our mind for the Lord. Even so we often live to discover that that is not the most fruitful way, that even that zeal for the Lord may mean that the fruit is much less than it ought to have been.

The Things which Differ

We are seeking, by the enablement of the Lord, to keep very close to the text of the letter to the Philippians, and in that chapter it seems that (although we do not suggest that this relationship was in the mind of the Apostle) in the mind of the Holy Spirit there is an underlying relationship between what we have just mentioned as a principle and that word of the Apostle to the Philippians: "That you may be able to discriminate between the things which are excellent." The Apostle is saying that it is not a matter of discrimination between right and wrong, good and bad. That is not what is in view at all. He is speaking in the excellencies. There is a very high level here. He speaks about the excellency of the knowledge. The word really is "super-eminence." There may be very eminent things in Christ and in the Christian life, but Paul is after the super-eminence, the transcendence, the excellency of the knowledge of Christ, something above the average. And so he says to them, not that they may be able to discern, judge, discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong, the things which are of the Lord and the things which are not of the Lord, but that they may be able to discriminate between good things and better things, or the best things and the things which do not just reach the best, but which are superior. It is good to be wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord, thoroughly consecrated to the Lord. It is very good to have consecrated spirit, soul and body, mind, heart and will, and all your powers to the Lord. But there is something above that, and the something above that is that the Holy Spirit may be even better than our very best consecrated and sanctified judgment. The Holy Spirit may even go one beyond our most ardent devotion to the Lord and swing us in the opposite direction from that in which our devotion would take us. We are not to make our consecration to the Lord and the fact that we are out for the Lord, the governing factor in the planning of our life and in the arranging of our course.

Every Need is not a Call

The Lord's servants thought of preaching the Word in Asia. Very good! Ephesus, for instance, needed the Gospel, and was a great field of opportunity. Yes, in Asia there was a great field, and perhaps prompted by a sense of the need in that direction, and a desire that Christ should be fully known there, they felt for the moment that was the thing to do. Then, being forbidden in that direction they turned to Bithynia. Bithynia needed the Word; Bithynia needed the Lord; surely the situation in Bithynia constituted a call. No! Not every need constitutes a call. A good many of the Lord's servants think that because there is a need that is a call. Bithynia will have what it needs in the Lord's time, so will Asia, but just at the moment the Lord has other things, and if you run off to Asia or to Bithynia out of the Lord's time you will find that you miss the Lord's transcendent best, and something may be lost there, time may be lost there, the Lord's plan may be upset. The thing which comes in unto that transcendent fulness of Christ is that there must be something even more than our devotion to the Lord; there must be an absolute government by the Holy Spirit, even of our consecrated judgment. We must at times be prepared to put aside all our most devoted and passionate reasonings and desires for the Lord's glory, to take perhaps another course. The door into the fulness of Christ, the supremacy of Christ, is the absolute mastery of Christ.

That is how Philippi came in. It is wonderful to see Philippi coming in in that way. They owed everything, and Europe owed everything of the Gospel to the fact that here were men who were passionately devoted to the Lord, and were willing to subject their judgment to the Spirit of Jesus.

Do you want to know the excellency of Christ? You will have to come one step further than consecrated common sense. What is that? The absolute Lordship of Christ to dictate everything, even if that means contradicting your best and most sanctified human judgment.

The whole thing commenced there for Philippi and for Europe. It commenced with, not a conflict, because there was no conflict, there was no battle over it, but a recognition and acceptance of a difference. Very often it is a conflict with some people. We have known of a real battle going on between this consecrated common sense, this sanctified human judgment, and the dictates of the Holy Spirit. Very often there is a battle on that ground, but in this case there was no battle. The fact of the difference is made perfectly clear, and everything for Philippi and the Western world, so far as the Gospel is concerned, had its rise in the establishment of that truth of Christ even above the best, most devoted judgment as to what would serve the Lord s interests most.

After all, that is only a negative side; but when that is settled you have opened the way for something else. You make a positive aspect possible. I am quite sure that there will be a great deal of arrest as to the positive side of the Lord's purpose until this matter is once and for all settled.

The Cleft-Stick Test

The next thing you see, having cleared up all that and having completely obeyed the Lord, is that you must remember there was a gap (even if there were only a gap of hours) between what we have called the negative and the positive. Put yourself into the position of these four men, having been forbidden to preach the Word in Asia. They might have said, very well, we only meant it for the Lord, we were out for the Lord's interests, our hearts were set upon the Lord having all that He could have in Asia, but the Lord does not want it. What is your reaction to that? I was aflame for the Lord, to be used of Him for His glory in a certain direction, and the Lord simply shut the door in my face. You can take two lines in the presence of a situation like that. You can say: Well, evidently the Lord does not want me there, and I had better give it all up; it is quite clear that the Lord does not want my service! Or you can say: Evidently the Lord has got something else; I will wait for the Lord!

These men swung in another direction to see if that was the way, and a similar thing happened. It was a two-fold setback to devotion, to zeal.

While that state of negation lasts it is a perplexity. With some it lasts a long time. But they accepted it; they knew it was the Spirit of Jesus Who was at work, holding them up. They knew quite well that this was the Lord, and that the Lord would justify Himself "Wisdom is justified of her children," and these are the children. Even these negations are the children of a Divine wisdom, and they will justify the source. And so they held on in the perplexity, but they accepted the situation as of God; and they did not reason and give it up; but they maintained a positive attitude of faith. The Lord had something else, and while they held on definitely the Lord was not setting them aside, He was only turning them in more fruitful directions. They held on in faith. They opened the way for the positive side.

Then a vision appeared unto Paul, and he saw a man of Macedonia, and he heard that man say: "Come over into Macedonia and help us." It had seemed that Asia was saying: Come over into Asia and help us! It seemed that Bithynia had been crying in the same way, but it proved not to be so. That was their own conclusion about the situation. But here a man of Macedonia cried, and so they took their course in the direction of Macedonia assuredly gathering that God had called them to preach the Word there. Then the course of the journey is given to us.

Universal Forces in Motion

Now you see the forces at work. You have the forces which could be conflicting forces, even in the consecrated natural man, and the government of the Holy Spirit. But here, in the first place, you have the absolute Sovereignty of the Spirit of Jesus. And then another force, a vision appeared unto Paul. Heaven is coming in through the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in life. How true to principle this is in the Word of God. Jesus coming up out of the water and praying, the heavens were opened to Him, the Spirit lighted upon Him, the heavenly voice was heard. The heavens come in through the Spirit into a life which is utterly under the heavenly government. The vision - that is heaven! But you never get a situation like that for long before hell makes itself manifest. Just as in the case of the Lord Jesus, the Spirit of heaven coming in the wilderness and the devil soon following, so here Satan comes into view next, and we have various forms in which he works. We simply mention them and pass on.

There is this poor girl, this slave of the temple, possessed by an evil spirit, under the domination of the devil; and a very subtle move of the devil, patronising the servants of God. We can always afford to be suspicious when the devil patronises the servants of God and the Gospel, and allies himself to the things of the Lord. She cried: "These men are the servants of the Most High God, which proclaim unto you the way of salvation." This she did for many days. Then there is the action of the Apostle, touching the most sensitive point in civilisation, a man's pocket, and the uprising of the powers that be on this earth. You see the different instrumentalities and methods of the enemy. The end of that phase was that Paul and Silas were in the dungeon, in the prison.

Mark the movement. The human spirit subjected to the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit taking charge on that ground, bringing into what is positive of the Lord's will, a heavenly vision; the forces of evil and darkness rising up to counter that, using all means available, men and women governed by the enemy as instruments of his; then in the inner prison. The next thing you know of is an earthquake. Oh, how many forces there are at work! It seems that the very universe is in a state of activity; heaven, earth and hell are bound up with this issue; God, men and devils.

It is always like that when God has a great door in view. Heaven is taking a lively interest in the whole thing. The necessity, when great Divine issues are at stake, is for man to be absolutely under the government of the Holy Spirit, and not following his own mind, even though that mind be for the Lord. The enemy rises up from beneath, and earth becomes involved. All the forces of the universe are found active when a door like this is the issue.

The Significance of Prayer

What is the point that we are seeking to reach at this moment? The point is this, that there is seen to be here something which is God's way of realising His end, and which touches all these factors and features of the situation. It touches heaven; it changes man; it upheaves the situation as it is; and it provokes hell. What is it? If you look closely you will see that it is prayer. Three times in Chapter 16 you have a reference to their praying. They arrive in Philippi, and they are wondering why the Lord has so strangely brought them there, and you are told that the very first activity is that they went out on the Sabbath day by the river, supposing that there was a place for prayer. They have a purpose in mind, and that purpose is prayer, and they are seeking to put that purpose into operation, to find a place for prayer. Prayer is their objective. You may say that prayer is the basis of everything here. So prayer comes in as the first thing in their activity in relation to this great, strategic door, and they go down by the river, which was a mile away from the city, to get to prayer.

Others evidently resorted thither on the Sabbath day, for certain women were found there, and these servants of the Lord spoke unto them the Word of the Lord. It seems, from the language, that they all spoke the Word of the Lord, but Paul was the chief speaker; and the Lord opened their hearts to give heed unto the things which were spoken by the Apostle. We are not following up the course of things into the house of Lydia, and so on, but what we note is that the first movement was through prayer. Prayer was opening a door into a Continent through human hearts. Their hearts were opened, and Lydia welcomed them to her house. They received the Word, and she and they of her house were baptised. The Testimony has started.

The man of Macedonia turned out to be a woman.

The next thing you read is that as they were going to prayer this young woman with the spirit of Python followed them. The enemy knows when you are going to prayer. He always knows when you are going to prayer, and if he can, he will divert you. Do you see now the subtlety of the enemy's work to patronise them, to popularise their ministry? To make prayer unnecessary! Get your ministry popularised, and prayer loses its necessity, its power, its force. When you are getting on, when there is success, what a peril that is to prayer. You never lay hold of God so desperately when things are going with a swing. So the enemy would come along through this woman, and it seems that this is wonderful. If the natural judgment takes it on, why, it looks as though this very person is an asset to the Gospel. It almost appears that God has sent along this person, who has a great influence in this city amongst people, to pave the way for the Gospel. Might not that have turned them away from prayer? That was a subtle move, and very clever; just like the devil. "As they were going to the place of prayer"! He knew what that prayer meant, and he would, by this clever move, try and draw them off. Prayer is governing this whole situation, and it is good that they were not turned aside from prayer, because undoubtedly it was their close walk with the Lord in prayer which disclosed the real nature of this thing, that it was not of God, though it looked like it. This was not some Divine facilitating of the progress of the Gospel. This was a Satanic subtlety deeply laid in terms which looked like being an ally to the Gospel. Prayer is getting underneath the enemy's deep subtleties. Prayer initiated this matter in Philippi, and prayer is continuing it.

We know what happened over the girl, and the demon, and the uproar, and the prison, the stripes, the chains, the dungeon. Then at midnight they prayed and sang praises. Prayer is going on to consummate this thing, as it has initiated and continued it; and prayer does consummate it, because it was in that final praying and praising that the issue was settled. Suddenly heaven came in again, and there was an earthquake. The rest of the story is familiar, the jailor and his [household], believed and were baptised. The Testimony is established, the history of the Philippian Church is commenced.

Now we have said two things. Firstly, if the Philippians represent something very precious to the Lord, and if Paul's attitude toward them is a reflection of the Lord's attitude of great joy over them, this spiritual condition has as its foundation this prayer life by which all the forces of the universe are brought into operation, but which brings a mighty issue. Secondly, what tremendous things hang upon prayer. What a vital place prayer has. Therefore, will not the enemy utilise every means and opportunity of frustrating prayer? I do not think we are far from the truth if we say that one thing that the Lord's people are finding in these days more than ever is the battle for prayer. It is becoming more difficult every day to get that prayer life maintained clear and strong. By preoccupations and diversions, by breaking in to scatter the thoughts and divide the mind, by pressure, deadness, weariness; oh, by anything the enemy will seek to weaken and destroy the prayer life. This mighty uprising in Philippi on the part of the enemy is strangely and significantly related to their prayer purpose in life.

The Holy Spirit makes no mistake. When He speaks of their prayer life three times in one chapter you may be sure that that stands for something, that explains a great deal, and it was as they went to prayer that hell rose up and sought to destroy them, to put them completely out of action, to put them into a place where they would never be heard again, right out of the way in that dungeon. And have we not found that the enemy has tried to put us into a dungeon like that when we have purposed to pray. Is it not in relation to our prayer life that the enemy seeks to force us into some dark, dead place? Yes, it is! We know a lot about that; but let us remember that it is upon this matter that the great strategic opportunities and purposes of God hang.

Here is a Continent touched by this prayer life in Acts 16. The opening of the door into a new world with the Gospel is bound up with this praying, this purpose of prayer, and it is always like that. You have to battle through into every new sphere, into every new bit of territory, by mighty prayer; and if the enemy can thwart, baffle and cripple that prayer, he has got that door closed, or maintained closed.

We have to face this thing in a new way. Many of us are conscious of the truth of that which we have been saying, and that there are big issues for the Lord yet in His interests in this world hanging upon the prayer life of His people, and the enemy is out against that prayer life, because of those issues. Oh, that the Lord would lay it upon our hearts that not only (and by this we do not belittle the matter) in getting an entrance for the Gospel, but in bringing a people to the fulness of Christ, the reaching of that excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, there will be a mighty withstanding, and there will be a call for tremendous purpose and persistence in prayer. There may be a point reached where it seems that the enemy has scored and we are in the dungeon, but we shall have to refuse defeat, and even though we feel that the enemy has, for the time being, shut us up and cut us off, faith there must lay hold of the Lord and stand for the final accomplishment of that which is in His heart.

The Battle over Saints

I am persuaded that in our day there is just as big a battle being fought by the enemy against the saints coming to the full knowledge of Christ as ever there was against people coming to any knowledge of Christ at all. If there have been battles, and the enemy has put forth his power to hinder the Gospel reaching certain territory, he is doing the same with intense activity against those who have received the Gospel coming into the fulness of the Gospel. It seems that he has a great deal in his hands too in this realm, and that he uses it well; and he will use good against the best. "Oh, we are saved, we have the Lord, we know that our sins are forgiven, we know that our standing with God is all right, what more need we? Let us get on with the work of leading others to know Christ in the same way!" And that is only a quiet way of brushing aside the great realms of that fulness of Christ of which the Apostle speaks here.

Here is a man at least sixty years of age, after thirty years of the most intense quest for Christ, saying that more than ever in his history it was his passion to know Christ, the excellencies, the super-eminence of Christ Jesus, his Lord. Paul would not have agreed with people who said, It is good enough to be saved; do not let us worry about anything else, but get to business to see others saved! There is infinitely more beyond being saved in that initial sense, and it seems that the enemy does use the good (it is good to be saved) against the best. And so the Apostle is saying: That you may be able to discriminate between the things that differ. It may be an excellent thing to be saved, and it is; but there is a super-eminence, and the enemy is against that super-eminence of Christ, that excellency, that which really excels all the excellencies. He is against that, and there is a great battle, and those of us to whom the Lord would commit the ministry of leading, not only souls to the knowledge of salvation, but His own saved ones into the fulnesses of Christ, will find that the devil fights that with terrific force, and the only way through is prayer, and more prayer, and still more prayer; and it will be the very prayer life itself which is the object of the enemy's antagonism and activity.

As we say these things to one another, oh, we know them very well, but we shall have to see to it that everything is founded upon that. Where did it all begin? Well, of course, it began in the eternal councils of God, in the sovereign acts of God, but there is the other side. Even the eternal councils and the sovereign acts of God are dependent upon our prayer life. If you were an Apostle Paul, elected, chosen for your work, you could not automatically and mechanically fulfil your life purpose ignoring prayer. And even the Christ of God finds the accomplishments of His great redemptive purpose requiring nights of prayer. And how much more is it necessary for us.

The emphasis, then, is the cosmic impact of prayer, the universal power of prayer, the strategic value of prayer. Remember that tremendous issues hang upon faithfulness in prayer.

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