You might want to rethink the absolute importance of that bungee jump, the trip to Newfoundland, or those ukulele lessons.
I spent some time looking at suggested New Year’s resolutions and then a couple of bucket lists. There were things on each ranging from tandem skydiving to hiking the Appalachian trail. Riding a mechanical bull actually made someone’s bucket list. A number of ideas were good (I’d like to do them myself), but mostly unimportant stuff. It’s amazing what people feel they need to do before they leave this world.
The older you get, the more the things on the “Very Important List” shrink inexorably down to one thing. The idea is to identify that one thing now and live for it.
We’ll get some help from the Apostle Paul, as he presents his New Year’s resolution and bucket list from Philippians chapter 3. Verse 10 says, “that I may know him.” He’s talking about Jesus Christ. We might well respond to the Apostle, “What? You don’t know Him, Paul? You’ve written half of the New Testament.” But if this is what we’re thinking, we’ve forgotten who Paul is talking about getting to know.
Christ is like the Pacific Ocean. You can know that ocean from different parts of it. For instance, there’s a kid on a Pacific beach, standing in calf-high water. He’s holding a sand bucket and enjoying the breakers crashing into his legs. He’s getting to know the Pacific. At the same time, there’s a submersible down in the Pacific depths, and the team onboard report the mysteries of uncatalogued new species living around volcanic vents–amazing stuff. Both the deep sea team and the kid in the surf are in the same ocean. But all the talk of mystery will sound strange to the boy. The only mystery the Pacific has shown him is the starfish that washed up on the sand.
Christ is One, but known in different ways and at different depths. The Son of God defies easy embrace, refuses any sort of mastery, as though He were a thesis or subject of study.
When Paul says “that I may know Him,” he’s speaking from a different place in the Pacific. It’s not from the beach where one finds out the foundational facts of Jesus. Paul specifies what he means to know Him, when he mentions “the power of his resurrection,” but again, this is not the basic facts of Christ’s resurrection, such as being raised on the third day, etc. No, he’s talking about resurrection as realized in the matrix of disappointment when it pulls you down (Remember, Paul is writing this letter from prison), and he wishes to know the riches of daily rising up in newness of life.
Paul also said knowing Christ meant to “share in his sufferings.” That doesn’t mean the apostle expected to bear the sins of the world together with Jesus, because that would have been impossible. But there are peripheral sufferings related to that cross, connected to the spread of the gospel, the building up of the churches, the care of the believers. Paul hoped to share those sufferings, because in them he would get to know Christ. You really don’t know somebody until you find out what motivates them. Paul was willing to suffer inconveniences, and discomforts as long as it meant entering the heart of Jesus. Whenever I hear somebody claim a walk with Christ, but with no interest or commitment to the church, I know they’re on the beach where there are gulls and picnic baskets, and beach balls. But no depth.
Finally, according to Paul, knowing Christ means “becoming like him in his death.” Paul didn’t want to be a nice religious person, running around trying to serve God. He wanted to be a man whose fleshly impulses were nailed to a cross, whose old constitution was pinned and immobilized, making way for the power of God.
Verse 11 says, “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Paul was confident that his knowing Christ today would influence everything even after death. He determined to bring with Him the only thing that lasts beyond the grave–his knowledge of Christ. That is the coin of the realm on the other side.
Paul was focused on a person, but sometimes the way Christians talk, it seems like the chief resolve of the faith is to go to heaven. Although that sounds good, it can actually minimize the centrality of Christ. We’ll talk about seeing dead relatives there, and sometimes even cherished pets that have passed away. And…oh yeah, we’ll see Jesus there, too.
When we subtly move Christ from the center of the Christian life, it cheapens even heaven. Heaven becomes a place of uber special effects where you get to do the things you like to do now, except then it will be without limitation. Where I’m concerned, that would mean bass fishing. Maybe for you it would mean Bowl victories and National Championships, ad infinitum.
That’s really poor, though, and hardly apostolic. Paul would want for you in this upcoming new year exactly what he wanted for himself–the best–an intense and fully orbed relationship with Christ.
How does this look on a daily basis?
He said, “It is not that I have already obtained this, or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers I do not consider that I have made it my own, but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind…” (v. 13).
Every one of us has baggage in our past. Obviously that includes bad habits, toxic attitudes, and sins. Forget it. Leave it behind. But Paul added a category of good things earlier in this chapter–pride of race and pedigree, religious accomplishments, anything that might cause him to feel entitled to God’s blessing, anything Paul might feel tempted to lean on. This was all unnecessary baggage that he was compelled to forget about.
Jesus warned that the way is narrow leading to eternal life. The problem is, our bags are often too wide to fit. At first, so to speak, we start the Christian life with several giant international suitcases, a carry-on, and a personal bag. But then the way narrows. We’re forced to abandon some of our stuff. It’s either that or find ourselves stalled somewhere, loving the bags more than Christ. Thankfully, Jesus convinces us to trust Him, to let Him deal with our extras.
Meanwhile, He urges us forward. And this is the positive side of what Paul did: “straining forward to what lies ahead” (v. 13). We won’t end up lamenting the fact that all we have left is a paltry carry-on item. We’re headed somewhere deeper, better, more mysterious than ever before. Paul wrote, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (vv. 14-15).
If you’re not inclined to maximize the importance of knowing the resurrection, the sufferings, and the crucifixion of Christ, if you’re not willing to forget the lesser things, and stretch forward into those greater things, God has ways of showing you that your thinking isn’t right.
There was a time years back when I was a ministry intern, and was sent with two other ministry interns to plant a new church. Between the three of us, there was a lot of “thinking otherwise.” One of us found it very important to show off his ministerial effectiveness. He was a one-man show, always trying to carve off a piece of the church for himself. No one could say “Boo” to him, because he had his “ministry.” That’s what he was thinking.
Meanwhile, I felt I had to stop him. That meant I became full of suspicions and unease. Every time I saw him, I wondered why he was talking to particular people in our fellowship–who was he recruiting, and for what? That’s what I was thinking. The third fellow among us interns was the most mysterious of the three. He was married with kids, but was secretly pursuing an immoral lifestyle on the side. That’s what he was thinking.
But remember what Paul wrote: if you think in terms other than penetrating into deeper knowledge of Christ, and have instead wandered off the reservation, God will reveal that to you (My paraphrase). And that is exactly what God did. The church imploded. The first fellow ended up at odds with a whole bunch of other people, and finally went to jail. The third fellow with the secret life, lost his family when his indiscretions were discovered. And me? I got shipped off to Timbuktu.
I remember right at the end of the whole sad process, just for a moment, a glimmer of God speaking to me: You know the power struggle you think is so important? It isn’t.
In fact, for the first time I wondered if I had run afoul of Philippians 3.
If you really want to follow Jesus, this will happen. Be ready for course correction. But how do you make plans for this? What does it look like as a New Years resolution? Well, maybe we don’t need to worry about controlling it so much. God already has it on His resolution list for you. Perhaps the only thing left for you to do is to be aware that every situation is designed to take you further into Christ, especially when life doesn’t play out the way you want it.
The fact is, God gave His Son to us two thousand years ago, and He doesn’t have anything better to give us this coming year.
You’ll thank Him for it.