Graduates, today is a great day for us. It is a day that we get to recognize your accomplishments and commission you to continue to do the work of the Gospel throughout your life. Some are graduating from high school while others from college, and still others receiving advanced degrees. I remember going through high school. I remember college, and I realize something even now as I am pursuing my degree at the master’s level. I often think about whether or not school is actually worth it in the long run. What good is the slip of paper I receive at the end of a long four years? Surely this recognition is a poor testimony to what I have learned, what I now have to offer, my skill set, my personal strengths, my ability to relate, my work ethic or moral ethic or my ability to serve and love people well. A piece of paper cannot tell us any of that, only that we turned our work in on time and took tests well (whether or not we actually knew the information). Yet, in our society this piece of paper seems to determine whether or not we are accepted as beneficial members and citizens. I cannot help but wonder how much time I have wasted getting a piece of paper when I could have been doing something meaningful and actually beneficial. I also cannot help but dream of where I will be when I have completed my next level of education.
In Scripture, we are introduced to this character named Paul. Paul was impressive. He was a Jew and a Roman Citizen. He seemed to be educated in both the Old Testament Scriptures and in Hellenistic Philosophy. He followed the Law closely, had excitement as he pursued his life goals, his aim seemed to be the top and he would not back down. In some sense, we are all like Paul. Society raises us to aim for the top: to get the highest level of education so that we can get the best job so that we can make the most money so that we can get the best stuff. Then, we fight for more education so that we can get a promotion so that we can make more money so that we can get better stuff. This is the American Dream and this is why most of us pursue higher education or overwork ourselves trying to make more and more money.
In this society, or in this money and comfort driven culture, I have to ask whether or not a formal education is actually worth it. Is that piece of paper worth my time and effort? Is that promotion at work worth my sweat, tears and blood? Is it worthwhile for me to aim for the top and to try and get ahead in this life?
Philippians 3:1-16 (HCSB)
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you.
Watch out for “dogs,” watch out for evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh — although I once also had confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he has grounds for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised the eighth day; of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; regarding the law, a Pharisee; regarding zeal, persecuting the church; regarding the righteousness that is in the law, blameless.
But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ — the righteousness from God based on faith. My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead.
Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore, all who are mature should think this way. And if you think differently about anything, God will reveal this also to you. In any case, we should live up to whatever truth we have attained.
Gains in this world
If anything is a prize to be achieved in this world, it is no doubt a degree or a diploma; but there are many prizes to be won in this life.
- The prizes we seek are status: such as the graduate, the status of teacher, the status of boss, the status of CEO, the status of parent or provider.
- We seek recognition: desiring to be recognized for the good that we do, for the number of lives we impact, our GPA, the number of degrees we have, the ways in which we use our talents and we wear our busyness like a badge of honor.
- We seek riches: devoting our entire selves to education or work so that we can make money.
- We seek glory: yearning to fulfill our dreams, make something of ourselves, or have an impact in this world.
When I graduated from high school, the whole world was ahead of me. I hurried to get out of my parents’ house, to live on campus and to begin changing the world. I loved to be recognized for doing things as a student, and so I did much. My prize was my dream job, I was recognized as the outstanding student in my area of study. I sacrificed sleep in order to do all the things that I desired to do. I hear that in college there are three options: have good grades, get rest, and have a social life; and we must choose two of these. This was absolutely true for me and I did not choose rest. As I read through this passage of Scripture, I realize Paul was much the same way:
- His prize was once the status of Pharisee.
- He once sought recognition as a defender of the Jews.
- The glory he once sought was in defeating people whom he considered to be enemies of God.
While Paul might have been one of the greatest Jewish and Roman success stories there were, he takes these earthly prizes, this worldly recognition and the glory of this life and makes a statement that was very revolutionary in the Roman world and would be very revolutionary now: “But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7-8a HCSB).
Counted as loss
Considering this, I can take my status as a pastor, my awards in school and my degrees, the busyness that I sometimes wear as a badge of honor, my paycheck, and even my own dreams to make an impact in this world. I can know that it would be worth sacrificing in order to gain Christ and to know Christ more.
Paul was a man who had everything to gain and nothing to lose and he counted what he did have as loss because of the transforming power of Christ and because pursuing Christ was worth more than any level of status, any prize, any paycheck, any recognition, and any earthly glory.
With this, I might issue this warning from the text: No matter how appealing the world looks, it is not worth gaining if we must place our own relationship with Christ on the altar in order to gain it. In fact, it would be better to gain nothing in this world and have a good relationship with Christ than to even gain a little and miss one iota of what Christ has for us. Everything that we have in this world, we count as loss because of Christ. Nothing that we gain in this world matters in eternity.
Finally, we might arrive at some sort of conclusion for this section of the text. Paul writes that he reaches forward to what is ahead, forgetting everything that is behind. By this he means that he is constantly reaching for Christ and the promise of everlasting life, forgetting himself and his own worldly goals because Christ is worth it.
This is not quite the message of earthly prosperity that some try and make it. It is a message of self-sacrifice because we live for God and for eternity, not for self or this temporary world. We might consider our jobs, our earthly possessions, our statuses, our level of formal education, our dreams, our passions, our hobbies, our paychecks and the recognition we receive. Maybe you have just started a career. Perhaps you are moving on to the next level of education. You might be pursuing your dream as an athlete. My question remains: Is it worth it?
If Paul counted everything as loss, the best way we can answer this question might be: No. Nothing in this world is worthwhile when this world is the end goal.
If school, athletics, a career, a paycheck, recognition, glory, busyness, or even our hobbies lead to a worldly prize, then we will never be satisfied or fulfilled. We will spend our lives fighting to get ahead and fighting to get the things that we want, and we will find that in the end we are still empty.
When we live with Christ as our goal and eternal life as the prize, we will find both satisfaction and fulfillment no matter what we gain or lose in this world. Considering this, I want to ask you this simple question and issue this simple challenge:
Whatever it is you treasure in this life, does it keep you from knowing Christ more? If the church is the body of Christ and is under the authority of Christ, we might also ask if there is anything keeping you from meeting with your brothers and sisters in the faith, for we cannot love Christ if we forsake His church. Does your busyness keep you from a quiet-time with God or keep you from engaging Christ with a local body of believers? Does your pursuit of education keep you from knowing Christ more or from serving in a local church? Do athletics keep you from devoting your entire self to Christ or from being with your brothers and sisters in the local body? Does your career limit your walk with Christ or your fellowship in the local church? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then there is something in this temporary world that is keeping you from knowing Christ more deeply and investing in your everlasting life. This may be something that we need to forget so that we can reach forward to Christ and to life as it will be forevermore.
If we are unconvinced that Christ is worth more than anything we could hope to gain in this world, let us remember Paul’s words at the end of this passage: “Therefore, all who are mature should think this way. And if you think differently about anything, God will reveal this also to you.”
For those graduating and moving on, the challenge remains: Do well in school. In fact, strive for greatness; but do so to honor Christ. Guard yourselves so that the temporary things of this world will not keep you from knowing Christ more or from a local body of believers.