Teaching Philippians: The Surpassing Worth of Knowing Jesus
We are excited and humbled to announce the launch of Rooted Reservoir, an online platform featuring Gospel-centered video training and Bible Study curriculum created by youth pastors, for youth pastors. Over two years in the making, this labor of love offers also features an online community for ministers and a robust bank of illustrations to use in teaching and making the story of a Jesus come alive for your youth.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul teaches the church at Philippi a master class in discipleship. He gives a wonderful encouragement to God’s people in the midst of suffering. He even encourages us with a heartwarming exposition of what the Christian life looks like after the Cross and before the Second Coming. But above all those things, Paul’s letter to the Philippians redirects the gaze of his Philippian brothers and sisters away from their circumstances and toward the Lord Jesus.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Paul’s letter to the Philippians is just as relevant to the modern church, and modern youth groups for that matter, as it was to the first century church. Christians, and especially young Christians, have all the same spiritual needs that Christians had in the years right after Jesus’s life and death. Even when we’re not in the throes of a global pandemic and social unrest, students need to have their gazes redirected from their circumstances—whether they be image issues or injustice—to the perfect, sufficient, and just Lord Jesus Christ.
The Worth of Christ in Life and in Death
Even the most superficial reading of Philippians shows us that Paul is going through a lot. He’s writing from prison (1:12-14) and in the midst of serving out that sentence, he’s having to deal with opponents who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry” (1:15). Suffering is old-hat at this point in Paul’s life, and he warns the Philippians that this will be their experience as well (1:29). If we’ve read Paul’s other letters, or if we’re familiar with Paul’s story as it’s set down in the book of Acts, we might think that if anyone could be forgiven for despairing, it would be the apostle Paul.
Surprisingly, his response to his situation is not to sing the blues—far from it. He says, before he even makes it out of the first several sentences, that “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). In other words, despite Paul’s terrible suffering, he’s concerned first and foremost to say to the Philippians that either in life or in death, what matters most to Paul—what is ultimately worth whatever happens to him—is his intimate, relational knowledge of Jesus. See, as long as Paul breathes on this earth, he’s saying, “For me to live is Christ…” The direction of his life is always Godward. In every aspect, Paul is trying to draw deeply from the well of Christ and allow God’s love for him to trickle down into his interactions with others, and he encourages the Philippians to find their source of life in the same place (2:5).
And yet, Paul is realistic about the prospect of his own death in the very same verse (1:21). This death, though, isn’t nihilistic at all. Just as he’s nearing the end of his earthly life, there seems to be a way in which the death awaiting Paul is in fact a new beginning. Dying is gain, for Paul, because he’ll no longer be constrained by this fallen world and his fallen body. He’ll experience, in the fullness of glory, the very Christ that he spent his entire life worshiping and exalting. There’s a whole lot of encouragement here for youth pastors and their students. Regardless of the obstacles set before us, we have a sure reward: life with God in a redeemed creation free of all injustice, sickness, and sin, and being at home with the Lord in the meantime (2 Cor. 5:8). This doesn’t mean that there’s no sadness, pain, or injustice in the here and now—far from it. What it does mean, though, is that sadness, pain, and injustice do not have the final word.
More Glorious than Your Résumé
Paul undoubtedly considered the person of Jesus to be much more glorious even than the life he spent so many years building. Paul says, “I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh” (3:4). He was circumcised on the eighth day, an Israelite from Benjamin’s tribe, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church, and blameless under the law (3:5-6). Paul is daring someone to say that they have more good works to their name than he does.
So, what of these good works? What do they do for someone like Paul? Absolutely nothing. Paul says, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:7-8). Even when considering his own life—decades worth of accomplishments and untold hours worth of work—he can’t trade his own false “righteousness” for Christ’s true righteousness quickly enough. He’s so captivated by the person of Jesus that no decision has ever been easier.
If Jesus is better than that CV you or your student has worked so hard to create and maintain, then a great deal of pressure is taken off your shoulders. If Jesus has brought you into a relationship with himself, then your biggest problem—sin—is solved and your deepest thirst for a relationship with the God who created you is quenched. It might still hurt if you don’t get into that college or get that new job, but those things don’t make you any more or less accepted before God. If you know that God is pleased with you whether you go Georgetown or Georgia State, you’re free to receive his love instead of proving yourself worthy of it.
What Does this Mean for Us?
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is shows us an incredible vision of the Lord Jesus. He forces us to see him so clearly and magnificently that there’s no option but to grow in love for Christ, and the more we grow in our knowledge and love of Jesus, the more we’ll be conformed to His image.
Thomas Chalmers called this “the expulsive power of a new affection.” See, our affections for things that aren’t Jesus—whether those things are sinful, or good things which simply hold an ultimate place in our hearts—can only be evicted by a deeper affection for something better: Jesus.
So, what is Paul teaching youth ministers (and Christians at large) in his letter to the Philippians? He teaches us that we must give our kids Jesus. We must show him to them in all of his glory and beauty. He is more glorious than that college acceptance letter or that scholarship offer. In fact, he shows us as youth ministers that Jesus is more glorious than our attendance numbers or ministry success. He makes it vividly and wonderfully clear to all Christians that whatever it is in our lives that we’re worshiping, Jesus is better.