Today’s Reading: Philippians 3
We mentioned this powerful Kierkegaard quote in an earlier day’s reading, but it bears repeating, because it fits the apostle Paul. Kierkegaard said, “It is so much easier to become a Christian when you aren’t one than to become one when you assume you already are.”
This statement seems to fit clearly with Paul’s evaluation of himself pre- and post-conversion in today’s reading. His assessment may shock you because it seems somewhat reversed. Here is how the apostle thought of himself before meeting Jesus in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus. As a reminder, in Acts 9, he was on his way to imprison and kill Christians. Let me read Philipians 3:4-6:
It’s true that I once relied on all that I had become. I had a reason to boast and impress people with my accomplishments—more than others—for my pedigree was impeccable. I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. (Philippians 3:4-6, TPT)
Verse 6 in the New American Standard Bible says that “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, [he was] found blameless.” Found blameless? He was killing Christians, but he said he was innocent of any wrongdoing. One of the strongest deceptions of sin is that we exaggerate our goodness and importance and we become dismissive of our behavior. That’s exactly the lie of being a Pharisee.
The New Testament will use this word, the flesh. It does not mean human skin. It means human effort. It deals with human energy to make our humanity acceptable and exceptional, especially to God. In the Bible, God is clear that human effort, the flesh, cannot make God like us any more than He does already.
Here’s the part that Paul found as a hurdle to trusting his life to God—his flesh. Paul was saying, I had good flesh, or my flesh was making me look exceptional. That’s why Paul said if anyone could have bragged or boasted on how well he was doing it was Paul. This is what happens to a lot of moral people—they believe they are good and don’t see their need for a Savior.
In the book A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis profoundly observed, “All [of us are] equally bankrupt, but some have not yet declared.” Lewis was telling us that whether our flesh is good or bad, we are all bankrupt and need God. That’s our starting place with God—acknowledging, “I am bankrupt.”
Now I want you to see the difference between pre-conversion Paul and post-conversion Paul. He encounters the resurrected Jesus and has a new assessment after declaring bankruptcy with God:
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. (Philippians 3:12-14, MSG)
Before he was blameless and innocent. Now he recognizes he doesn’t have it all together anymore and is not even close. When we think about it, we would think the opposite should happen. Before we become a Christian, we feel like we don’t have it all together and after we become a Christian, we have everything together. And Paul shows us the opposite happened to him.
As C. S. Lewis wrote, “History . . . [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” You will never find that happiness even when you are doing your best without God, because you will realize something is missing and something is hollow inside. The best man, the apostle Paul, got it. I hope you get it today.