The Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ

by T. Austin-Sparks

Chapter 2 - The Secret of this Knowledge

"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).

"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21).

"The excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus..." Clearly that means that the knowledge of Christ in the case of the Apostle Paul far transcended all other knowledge. For him it was a knowledge which outstripped in its value all other knowledge which he had had or conceived himself capable of having. He sets the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord over against every other thing, and just as the candle light pales when the sun shines, so for him the most powerful light and glory which man is capable of having faded in the presence of Christ Jesus his Lord. Such words were not just words in the case of Paul. This was not some fine flourish of language. Coming from such as he was they carried tremendous weight, not because of who he was but because of the life out of which the words sprang.

The Life-History behind the Words

To really get something of the power and the strength, the depth, the fulness, the wonder of this phrase, this language, it is necessary to turn and contemplate this man's life for a few minutes, and see the background of his words. Words are of value in proportion to the reality of a man's history, the history which lies behind his words and relates to his words. We may say things, and those things may be worthless, because there is nothing behind them in ourselves. We may say things and those things may carry with them some tremendous weight of meaning and value, because of what lies behind them in the person of the speaker. We must remember then that when Paul said these words he was practically at the end of his earthly course, and that a whole life crammed with spiritual history lay behind every syllable. But what a life! Everything culminated and was gathered up into these final utterances.

Look at him personally.... Here is a man worn and feeble, upon whom there has broken, and upon whom there has rolled, waves, mighty and continuous waves of every kind of suffering that you could think of if you sat down to try and catalogue the sufferings of man. A victim of gross perjury, the prey of many contending enmities, a broken and enfeebled physical frame, in circumstances of deep affliction, vexed with hundreds, possibly thousands of opponents, having now remaining very few real friends. He has placed on record some of his experiences of adversity. They run like this: In afflictions, in necessities, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings, chastened, sorrowful, poor, having nothing, in prisons, in stripes above measure, in deaths oft, "five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep," (think of that! That does not mean in a boat in the deep, that means in the deep overboard, in the sea before picked up); "in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in labour and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches."

There are many other touches as to the experiences of this man of God. He lightly refers to them and passes on. "I who am rude of speech," (that is what some had said about him) "I who am despicable in presence," (that is what some had said about him). The yea and the nay man, that is, the man who vacillates, at one time says yea, and at another time nay. Sending requests to a beloved yokefellow he says: "Bring the cloak which I left at Troas," clearly showing that he was knowing coldness.

This letter to the Philippians arose out of the deep appreciation of his heart in prison because the Philippians had remembered his need; and there is something invidious, because there were believers in Rome, many of them, and here is the man in need, in cold and in hunger, in prison in Rome, and the Philippians seven hundred miles away have heard, and they have sent by the hand of Epaphroditus gifts to meet his daily necessities. It has touched his heart, and he is so appreciative that this letter sprang out of it, and in the course of his letter he said: "I have no man likeminded... for they all seek their own." That is a reflection of the state of the believers in Rome around him. They were seeking their own, and just the Philippians far away remembering him. If you look amongst his writings and in his history you accumulate a tremendous amount which points to his history of suffering, of trial, of adversity. In the end he says: "All they in Asia have turned away from me"; "Only Luke is with me."

The Great Exchange

Then see what he had given up for that; see that for which this is the exchange from the human side. Look again at "Philippians." He tells us in the third chapter of what his natural advantages were; how that he had a reason and occasion to boast more than any other: "If any man thinketh to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more (more than any man): Circumcised the eighth day," (that is, he was born a Jew, he was not a proselyte), "of the stock of Israel," (not a graft, but the original stock), "of the tribe of Benjamin," (after the name of the tribe, the next most distinguished name is that of Saul, the first king, who was of the tribe of Benjamin. He bore that name, 'Saul of Tarsus' of Benjamin; that is royalty in his blood and in his name), "a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the Church." All that represented position, advantage, influence, reputation, something in this world which provides a basis of honour and success, a name and a place amongst men. He had exchanged that for all this of which we have spoken, and much more.

How does Paul feel about it? See the extremes in this man's life; the extreme, on the one hand, of honour and earthly glory, that in which men pride themselves, that which from this world's standpoint was to his advantage. It went a long way. On the other hand, the opposite extreme. Think of it! A man like that, with royal blood in his veins, standing out amongst men in a place of conspicuous honour, and privilege, and influence, beaten with rods, thrashed with a whip, flung into prison, stoned, and all the rest. What does he feel about the exchange? What is his attitude to the whole thing? At the end of a life like that, how does he sum it up? Oh! this is the thing that gives the letter to the Philippians its real salt. When you realise that this is one of the last things from his pen, and that through this short letter the one throbbing note is: "Rejoice in the Lord," rejoice, rejoice. You say: There is something behind these words! These are no empty words. Put a history, an experience, like that behind an utterance, and the utterance counts for something. It is amazing. If we stayed long enough to meditate upon it, it is calculated to bring us down to our knees in shame. There is no complaining, no repining here, no saying: I have given up everything (and it is a big "everything") for Christ, and look what He has brought me to; see what I have got! No! there is not a sound nor a sign of complaining about it all. If he says: "Sorrowing" (and he does) he immediately couples with it: "Yet always rejoicing." If he says: "As having nothing," immediately he says: "possessing all things." If he says: "As poor," he instantly says: "and yet making many rich." His attitude toward the whole thing is not one of complaint but rather the opposite, glorying, rejoicing and bidding others rejoice. Alone, forsaken, enemies all around, his life-work being torn to pieces by those enemies, universally suspected, all friends leaving him, alone in prison - rejoicing, glorying, exulting.

This goes a long way beyond us. But what is the explanation? Our passage is the explanation, whether we can speak out of our experience or not. Perhaps for the moment that is not the question, because we are feeling thoroughly ashamed of ourselves already; we are not standing up to this at all; the more we think about it the more we shall feel how small and contemptible we are alongside of this man. Well might we regard ourselves as grasshoppers beside this giant. But whether or not we feel that we understand something of Paul, and we can in measure stand alongside of him, we look for the explanation of that which is so much more of triumph than the best of us know. What is it? It is the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. The knowledge of Christ; to know Christ as He may be known; to know Christ as He is open to be known; to know Christ as He desires to make Himself known; that is the explanation, and Paul had come into that in large measure. He is saying this, in other words: It is possible to know Christ in such a way that, although to begin with you may lose everything that is precious in this world in the eyes of men, you have something infinitely more; and to go on with, it is possible so to know Christ that no matter how many may be the forms of suffering, how deep the suffering may be, how inexplicable some experiences may be, how continuous, right on to the end, the adversity may be, yet that knowledge of Christ is something which keeps you above, and well above, that you are not submerged. Although these mighty seas of sorrow, and suffering, and adversity may throw their weight against you, they break; but they do not break you, they break on you. It is possible to know Christ like that. That is what he is saying, if we understand him aright.

Most of us will have to confess that too often the problem has shaken us, the suffering has brought clouds of questionings and doubts into our hearts; we have not stood up to it like this. But our object is not just to see Paul doing this thing, neither is it to measure ourselves to a disadvantage at the side of Paul, but it is to see that Paul's Christ is our Christ, and what was possible to Paul is possible to us, and Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever; He is a Christ Who is knowable in exactly the same way as Paul knew Him.

The Secret of this Knowledge

There are two or three things to be said summing that up. The first is this, and it is a very simple thing and yet, after all, the very essence of things. It is Christ being known as a Person, and not as a doctrine, a creed, or a theology. I wonder very often if the fact that our tremendous knowledge about Christ, our tremendous doctrinal apprehension, failing to lead us into triumphant joy, failing to result in something of this contagious spirit of triumph that was about Paul, does not imply that it is something which is not Christ personally with which we are occupied and taken up. We are getting to know Christ purely by a book knowledge, and a Conference knowledge, an address knowledge, an historic knowledge; that really, apart from our Conferences, our books, our studies, our addresses, and all these things, in the secret place, in the secret history back of it all, we are not living on Christ Himself, and out from Christ, and knowing Christ. So much of our Christian life is a matter of teaching, of things about Him.

We recognise the simplicity of that word, but we are quite sure that you understand what we mean, because you have known a a very great deal about Christ in doctrine, and then you have discovered something of the Lord Himself, and you have discovered the tremendous difference. There is nothing more uplifting than to come into a personal experience of the Lord, a knowledge of the Lord, in a living way, to have Christ ministered to your heart by the Holy Spirit. Then you discover that there is something there which is more than all your suffering, and which makes suffering worthwhile, and which robs suffering of its deadly sting. It is Christ. Paul lived on Christ: "For me to live is Christ." Now what might have been put afterward? For me to live is to be able to go to meetings! For me to live is to be able to have fellowship with other believers! If I am cut off from them I cannot live! If I cannot go to the meetings I cannot live! You can put in anything else: For me to live is to have encouragement in the work, to see results for my labours! You can cover a great deal of ground, if you are going to cover the ground of our demands in order to be triumphant. But Paul looked out, and he saw his work being injured, damaged, outwardly destroyed, his old friends being alienated and led to doubt and suspect him. Oh! he saw enough to take the heart out of any man at the end of such a life, but he did not say: for me to live is to see my life work standing as a monument, intact; to have all my old friends faithful and around me; to know that my message has had universal acceptance and appreciation! No! "For me to live is (when all these things, and many others, have gone) Christ"!

We are quite helpless when we try to explain that. That is just where you come to a standstill. If you are going to give an address on some phase of truth, you can get on with it, but when you come to try and explain Christ, reveal Christ, uncover Christ, impart Christ, you can only talk about Him and say things that you see. You cannot make people appreciate it. There is something to be done in their hearts. Anybody who knows leaps to it and says: I know a little of what you are talking about! Yes, I know Christ; I know what Christ can be: I am coming more and more to know what Paul meant. If you doubt that this was the explanation of Paul's triumphant joy, read the letter to the Philippians once more, and you will have to meet the name of Christ fifteen times in the first chapter only; and predominances anywhere are always significant. They at least indicate what the thing is about. And so you find that the answer to the question as to how Paul was triumphant in the midst of such a history, you simply say, it is Christ. I cannot go beyond that. I can only say that that Christ can be the same to you and to me. There is something there of reality.

How is Christ going to become our Christ livingly? In what way shall we come to the same position as Paul, the excellency, the super-eminence of the knowledge of Christ? There are two ways. Shall we say, there are two sides to one way. There is our side, and there is the Lord's side. There are always those two ways. Those two ways held good in the case of this man, and they hold good in our case. The way to the transcendent knowledge of Christ is for us the same as it was for the Apostle Paul. Let me say, before I indicate that twofold way - or, that double-sided way - that it is not some mental vision of Christ in Person that we are talking about. It is Christ Himself becoming resident within our being.

That would take a long time to explain. A man's writings as a rule indicate a man's knowledge, and his experience, or what is most real to that man. Now if you take up the writings of Paul, these letters of his, you can see that there is a predominating note in every one of his letters, and that predominating note has to do with some feature of Christ, something which Christ is to the believer.

Life in Christ

What is the predominant note of the Roman letter; that which Christ becomes to the believer as pre-eminently set forth in the letter of Paul to the Romans? It is life! That around which everything circles there is: "The wages of sin is death... the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ." And there are two sides to the letter. There is the death side of the letter to the Romans: "Dead in trespasses and sins." All have sinned, and all have, therefore, died. That is the universal verdict - sin and death; one half of the letter to the Romans. The other half is life through righteousness in Christ; and Paul's note of triumph, so far as the whole of that letter is concerned, is: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death." So that it is Christ our life, because He has dealt with the sin question, and brought righteousness in for us. It is life; and Paul entered very livingly into the meaning of that. His whole history gave him a very good background for appreciating "no condemnation." If you had lived as a Jew, under the law, and been smitten every day of your life by that law, you would have rejoiced in the fact that the law was got rid of and out of the way, and that you could live instead of having a sword hanging over your head all the time. That is no living at all; that is merely existence. Paul sees the whole of that ground of fear done away in the Cross of the Lord Jesus, and the sword dismissed.

Love in Christ

From the Roman letter you pass to Corinthians, and in the Corinthians you have a situation calculated to provoke - I was going to say, the greatest saint. Read the first Corinthian letter again, and see how a Saul of Tarsus would stand up to that situation. See what they say about him and against him. See how they behave after he has spent so much energy upon them. See their attitude to him and toward one another, and the terrible dishonour to the Lord by reason of what is going on there, an utter and terrible misrepresentation of Christ. Put a man in the flesh up against a situation like that, and those people will have to sit up; I do not know what might happen to them. But what is the triumphant, dominant note in Corinthians? Is it not love? Is not everything headed up into that matchless thirteenth chapter: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love...." Love, love triumphant, in the presence of the most terribly provoking contradictions, denials. What a change has taken place in Paul! What a different man, to meet a situation on that ground of love! "Love... taketh no account of evil." "Love suffereth long, and is kind... doth not behave itself unseemly.... Love never faileth." This is a different man from the man you met on the Damascus road! And when you know that something like that has happened in you, when you recognise that Christ has made that difference, Christ is very, very precious. Such a knowledge of Christ is worth having, and worth suffering for.

Liberty in Christ

Pass from Corinthians to Galatians, and you know the note: "Our liberty in Christ." Christ has liberated, emancipated, set us free.

Strength in Christ

From Galatians you pass to Ephesians. What is Ephesians? "The exceeding greatness of his power to usward." It is Christ our strength.

Joy in Christ

From Ephesians you pass to Philippians, and there you have: "Rejoice in the Lord alway." Christ our joy.

Fulness in Christ

From Philippians into Colossians. There it is Christ our fulness.

Hope in Christ

Then you finish with Thessalonians. What have you here? That you sorrow not as those who have no hope, that Lord is coming. When everything of this earth is breaking up and going, that is not the end. He is coming, Christ our hope!

Christ was all that in a living way to Paul; that is, Christ was set over against the other background. It was what Christ was, Christ becoming something in the life, and becoming the very life of the life, the very love of the life. It is the imparting of Himself, so that He becomes in us what He is in Himself.

What is the way to this knowledge? On the one hand there is our side, and I think the answer is just here in Philippians 1:21: "For me to live is Christ." How will you know Christ in fulness? How will you know Christ as He can be known? Only on this basis, that for you to live is Christ. What does that mean? Paul went into Arabia for three years after he met Christ on the way to Damascus, and during those three years he had ample time in solitude to face the implications of his new relationship; and for him it became perfectly clear in the course of three solitary years that it was going to cost him everything. All these issues of Philippians 3 were faced out then. For him it became simply and ultimately a matter of life and death. It meant this: "Everything that I have on this earth, in this world, has got to be held for the Lord, for Christ, and if in the course of my relationship to Him, all or any of these things have got to go, then I settle that now. If it means suffering, persecution and death itself, I come there now, accept it all, so that for me to live will not be home, family, friends, reputation, acceptance, influence, but if it means none of these things at all, the loss of all things, then the very motive of my being in this world will be none of these things, but Christ, Christ the dynamic of life!" In other words, Paul would say: "For me to be on this earth simply means Christ! I will accept what He may give with gratitude! If He gives something, or allows me to retain something here, I will be grateful for it, but if all has to go then it does not make any difference, Christ is the object, the dynamic, the motive of my being on this earth, and only Christ!"

When we have settled things like that, when it is really brought to that conclusiveness of issue that for us to live is Christ, then the Lord has a very open way to become everything to us. Is it not true in our case that too often our relationship to the Lord, our Christian life, being Christians, bringing us into difficulty, resulting in suffering, has led us to stand still or draw back for a minute, and say: Ah, well, I did not expect that it would mean this! I do not know that I am prepared for that! Something like that has very often happened with us, has it not? Suffering the loss of all things is easy language, but really only a man who has put everything once and for all into the balances can know Christ in fulness, utter fulness, and say: I suffer the loss of all things for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ!

It just means this: the utterness of Christ to us requires our utterness for Him. If we are holding anything instead of Christ, apart from Christ, contrary to Christ, we are limiting our own knowledge of Christ.

That is one side, our side: "For me to live is Christ." We have failed, we have broken down in this matter. And yet our hearts are bent and set upon one thing (I trust they are), that when we have passed this way, which we pass only once, the eternal verdict will be that our having lived was Christ. It is a solemn thing to bring into view: I am passing this way! What is going to be the effect of my having passed this way when I have passed? Unto what have I lived? What will the end of my life represent as the result of my years? What will eternity show, and what will time show as to the value of my having gone this way?

From this time may the Lord put into our hearts a deep and intense purpose that the verdict shall be: Christ! He lived, and his living was Christ! She lived, and her living was Christ!

When we are utter for the Lord like that it gives the Lord the opportunity of the other side. Paul spoke of it to the Ephesians. He says he prayed for them that the eyes of their heart might be enlightened that they, being rooted and grounded in love, might be strong with all saints to apprehend the breadth, and length, and height, and depth, and to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ. That is only another phrase for the super-eminence of the knowledge of Christ. "The eyes of your heart being enlightened." "That he would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him." There is the Divine side. I am sure that if the human side is right, and there is utterness for the Lord, the Divine side will be all right; but between the two there comes a test, there comes a point where the whole issue of life is focused upon one full-orbed decision: Am I going to be in this world with any interests of my own whatever, or is it going to be, no matter what it costs and what the way may be, Christ? That is very often headed up in a practical test; not a mental test, not whether the Lord asks us to say a thing, but to do it; and everything as to our knowledge of Christ in fulness hangs upon an act, sometimes one act which commits us.

We may recognise the implications; ostracism, persecution, defaming, misrepresentation, suspicion, loss of influence, loss of reputation, loss of place, launched out in a way in which comparatively few will go with us, in which we shall be misunderstood. That may be the way of the challenge of the Lord, and of His highest interests. The question is: Are we going to stand back and say, No, I cannot go that way! Or is it going to be: "For me to live is Christ"? If so, and we put that into the required act, we shall know the excellency of Christ, and have the most excellent knowledge of Christ, Christ excelling. May it be so with us all.

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