“But whatever things were a gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish (lit. crap) so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own, derived from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:7-11
Truly this is a passage that we should linger on until it moves us deeply to action.
This incredible passage of Scripture is a sort of magnum opus from our Father Paul, a member of the great cloud of witnesses before the Father in heaven. In these rich verses Paul describes the process of losing his face. Paul describes the face he once had, and then declares that this fleshly face known to many has become unknown and forgotten, intentionally drowned under by the tidal face of Christ. Paul’s life had completely vanished into Christ Jesus where he had purposely lost everything to gain nothing but Christ alone. What an immensely beautiful thing! Certainly we all long for this same reality. Paul’s face, the face that had been chiseled so delicately into Pharisee, circumcision, and zealous law-perfection had been swallowed whole into the endless bright and shining abyss of the face of Christ. We must also fall facefirst into this grand chasm in order that we might gain Christ and attain to the resurrection from the dead!
Many years ago this became a paramount passage in my life, although I am still seeking to see it realized as truth within me. This hurts my heart, and this post is a plea to ask you to allow it to hurt yours also.
I grew up in a Christian home, with Christian parents, and went to a church that actually represented authentic Christianity to me. The people were broken. The people were sinners, saved by grace! There was transparency and truth represented from the pulpit and even public confession of sins on multiple occasions. I grew up knowing that this was the way of the Cross––totally opposed to the idea that we could deliver ourselves through our own righteousness!
I worked in the youth group after High School serving as a sort of associate youth pastor in this church as well as a worship equipper for a few years. I loved leading youth because self-righteousness was rarely an issue. However, during that time I began to emphasize before others a sort of spiritual face. I distinctly remember boasting that my quite-time in the morning was two hours, when most peoples was one. I took pride in this, and noticed that it surprised people in the way I wanted it to. I received their surprise and praise gladly. My face began to be recognized as intense.
This same boasting was evident in my life when I left the Lord for a few years and went headfirst into as much sin as I could handle. I boasted of the amount I could drink. I boasted in the women I manipulated. I boasted in musical talent. I boasted that God had called my name, and although I was in sin now, I would one day turn back to Him. This was yet another face of boasting and receiving praise from men.
When I did return to the Lord I went headfirst into one of the most intense large-scale ministries in America. Again, I began to slowly let me face be articulated by works. I was known as the “guy who fasts,” and even a “well of wisdom” to which I gladly bowed in thanks on my stage of glory. My spiritual intensity was now at the zenith of its sacrilege. The vanity in my heart was so hidden under the disguise of false humility that no one noticed. But even my humility was a sham–– a facade of what was truly inside. Even I was deceived, unaware of my own disgusting sin.
At times I would sit in the front of the room where we all gathered together to pray with my eyes closed. In my mind, I would dream of the day when God would finally confirm my spiritual purity and zeal by having me levitate off the ground in front of everyone, stamping His approval of my spiritual life in the eyes of everyone. It’s ok, I know you’ve never thought such things. But I, you see, was the chief of sinners without any knowledge of it. Oddly, the deception grew to new levels.
During this time I tried to climb the ladder within the ministry, trying to make my face slowly become more recognized, while maintaining it’s appearance of humility. I did well. I am a decently good looking guy, with an overly extroverted personality and natural leadership gifting. I have a likable charisma. With these things in place, it’s fairly easy to climb the ladder in a ministry. Have you ever seen an ugly person without charisma leading large-scale ministries? I didn’t think so. This is wickedness and opposed to the truth of the Cross. I was so locked in the deception of the love of self that I just kept trying to climb higher and higher… the spiritual rungs becoming the praise of men I continually sought.
Every time however that the door would seem ready to open for my big promotion God would do crazy things that would shut the door in my face and force me to go lower and lower. At one time, when there was opportunity for promotion the Lord actually made me leave the ministry for a season only to return with no status whatsoever. During that season God began to break me down and reveal my depravity. He began to reveal my need for the Cross. I cried at the realization and repented for my self-righteousness. As soon as the season was over though, I returned to the ministry and got right back on the ladder. The mystery of my depravity runs deep.
After five years of this spiritual zeal resulting in burn-out and spiritual fatigue in season after season, I began to wonder what was off. No matter what I did, how much I gave, how many fasting’s I accomplished––I didn’t feel pleasing to God! I also didn’t feel pleased with myself because I always lived under the accusation “you could have given more.” This is what was championed from the pulpit, and it was what I believed. I came to a desperate point. I was internally frustrated. I didn’t understand. I was finally broken.
And there… the most amazing thing happened… even now it brings tears to my eyes!
I “Beheld the Man.”
Although the Lord had continually interrupted my seasons trying to drive me to the Cross, I always “returned the favor” by trying to give Him more spiritual zeal. Whenever He showed me a little bit of His face I wanted to show Him that mine was just as beautiful as His through my works. I tried to go harder for God. I failed. Finally! When I beheld Jesus face on the Cross and the liberating understanding that He was the only means by which the Father accepted me JUST AS I AM, I slowly began to be set free. I slowly began to lose that face I had tried so hard to make.
Spiritual zeal and self-righteousness is like religious plastic surgery. You have the power to make your face look however you want it to. You can look a certain way, and it costs a lot for that to happen, but in the end your face is stiff instead of soft and a false representation of what you actually look like. You smile, but your cheeks don’t really move. You wonder why others don’t think you’re smiling when you’re trying so darn hard to look happy.
The beauty of the Cross is that we all stand there crushed beneath the beautiful force of relinquishing any and all forms of self-deliverance! We “behold the Man” God, there––naked, despised, dirty, and rejected. We realize that this is the true state of every mans heart and that Jesus became our horrid reality for all to see. Thus, we come out of the darkness and confess the depraved state of our own hearts entering into the glorious light of His freedom beaming from the Cross.
This is the foundation for the exhortation hereafter. When we come to a passage like Philippians 3, we need to first confront the face that we each have sculpted from our own works of self-righteousness. If we first do this, then the Bible can do its work.
We should first understand that what Paul is saying in Phil. 3 does not objectively apply to each one of us simply because we identify ourselves as “Christians.” Indeed, what Paul is saying here is overtly subjective in its context pertaining to the truth about himself. This verse is true about Paul, and for it to be true about us there is a lot of dying to be done. If I am honest, as this passage confronts me time and time again, the reality of its truth is still in very small seed-form in my life.
Let us seek to crystallize what losing one’s face is in Scripture. In Philippians 2 Paul begins his thesis of reputation and what becoming faceless was in his own mind. To paraphrase and add a little helpful context, he says: If you are a Christian, become like Jesus. He had the reputation of Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and yet He lived on the earth without His creation recognizing Him by this reputation. Most of His life was lived in the quiet city of Nazareth where He grew up as a child obeying His parents. He walked down Nazareth’s streets and stood in its public square and no one ever fell down to worship Him. There was not a whisper from Him of His NAME or the truth of His power. Jesus did not fight to be seen by His true identity, or to be given the worship and credit He deserved, but instead He let those accolades lay neglected and silent in the throne room of His Father where the angels still were day and night proclaiming them aloud. He became known as Servant on the earth He created, and even His title of Healer and Prophet were refuted by the onlookers at Calvary–”Physician heal yourself!” and “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!” Instead of feeling the need to reprove their contemptuous voices He laid down His life to death on the Cross, silent before His accusers. The sign above Him would speak loud enough of the validity of His true identity although He never declared it with His own mouth: The King of the Jews. This was what Paul saw in Jesus’ face.
There is helpful perspective in understanding the loss of ones face by defining what keeping one’s face is. In the first several verses of Philippians 3 we see Paul announce the golden medals that once hung from his neck, the honors that he thought would deliver him into eternal life by means of his own righteousness. He gives his qualifications: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. Paul is giving what was beheld in the eyes of the world as achievements. He carefully explains the details of his face and how it was recognized. He believed that who he had made himself to be had accredited him righteousness. In hindsight he calls this confidence in the flesh.
“Thus says the LORD, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the LORD,” (Jer. 17:5).
So, we see that losing one’s face is tied to two things. The first is losing your reputation and praise in the eyes of man for the sake of gaining Christ’s reputation. The second is refuting the idea that any reputation you now have (within your own eyes or the eyes of others) contributes in any way shape or form to you inheriting eternal life––your self-deliverance must be laid wholesale upon the delivering shoulders of the Savior.
You are probably thinking, as I once did, “Glad that’s not me!” Paul once thought that also… and then a Man standing in blinding light knocked him off of his high horse. The blindness that came upon his eyes would allow him the three days needed to see into himself and mine those horrible caves of self-righteousness in his heart. When his eyes opened again I suppose he might have looked into the mirror and wept desperately at the horrid image of his own face. It would be vividly apparent to him that he looked nothing like the man he saw on the Damascus Road. He would come away from the experience Paul, as Saul was executed daily.
“I die Daily.” ––Paul 1 Corinthains 15:
Proverbs 16:2 is one of those verses we don’t allow to stick vibrantly at the front of our minds, but we should: All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives. That stings. Everything Paul thought he was doing for God was clean and righteous in his own sight, but he was actually only doing everything for himself and for the praise of men. He would not have inherited eternal life based on the biblical formula because Paul’s strength was from, for and of himself. However, it is in that blinding incident that Paul is made to see––just as the blind man in John 9. Jesus’ words to the Pharisees there (and by relation to Paul) ring out – “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (v. 41).
The confrontational nature of Scripture is that it confronts. You and me, the most wicked of sinners, are therein confronted–– standing face-to-face with perfect truth and its piercing gaze into our hearts––forced to either look away or respond. Those who respond inherit eternal life. Those who do not might believe they will inherit eternal life, but the Scripture cannot bear witness for them as for the former. As we read above in Jeremiah 17–– trusting in your own strength is actually a heart that is turned away from the Lord. This is the end-game of a deceitful heart that never allows the light of Scripture to pierce too deeply. In those deep dark chambers lie the most wicked of monsterous ambitions which glory in everything other than the Cross. Unless we allow those chambers to be exposed by the light of Christ the teeth of that beast will gnaws away at our soul. As Christians we must therefore allow the Scripture, moreover welcome it, to trouble, torment and distress us that we might be converted to living its words instead of merely reading them so as to enter the kingdom of light on that day. James reminds us that this is the goal:
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. James 1:22-25
Maybe there is a helpful picture here emphasizing our discussion. In Paul’s case, there is a purposed erasing of one’s face and reputation post the horse knock-off experience. On that day, rest assured that righteousness as he had never seen in himself or any other Pharisee questioned him from the divine radiance. From then on Paul held everything up to the reflection of purity he beheld looking up from the ground that day so that it truly shone light on how disgusting his fleshly ambition towards righteousness was. He was confronted by Jesus’ illuminating glory to believe the Scripture and to turn away from that mirror remembering his ugly face must be lost in the beauty he saw within the blinding light of Christ. For us, Christ’s face is shown in vivid beauty in the pages of Scripture, so we become those pages in daily practical life to glorify His work on the Cross. This wonderful albeit slow progression will not fail to consume your fleshly ambition if you allow it. It did so with Paul. On the contrary, another man looks into the mirror of Scripture and thinks his face is pretty good looking. He then turns away and believes that what he saw needed no improvement and lives on as he likes never conforming himself to Scripture because he believes he is already what he reads. I fear that this is the dreadful state of many of us and confess that I too am often found turning around forgetful of my heinous appearance.
Now let’s drive the point home.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Galatians 2:20
Here, yet again, Paul makes a decisive statement about himself that does not simply translate to every believer. You might perceive this as odd, but let me explain. Often times this verse is used as a general statement about Christians. However, do we not see many people bear the name “Christian” whose lives are very clearly not crucified with Christ? There is no need to name names here, we should instead insert our own. Paul’s radical statement “I no longer live,” is actually true about him because this is the Bible without flaw or error. I cannot say the same for myself. Here I am once again confronted with the question: Have I yet been crucified with Christ? In the agonizing of my own heart I often see the truth. No, no I haven’t been. Too much of Stephen is still alive. But God I want to be! … Please help me Father to further lay down this life of mine to find Christ!
In the wake of Jesus’ Cross, forsaking all human ambition, zeal and self righteousness as the means to deliver us into eternal life is the goal of Christianity. In doing so we also despise the praise of man for we know what men see in us is held up to the infallible light of Christ. It is He that presents us faultless before the Father, it is we that hang our heads low as Mephibosheth and cry “What did you ever want with a dead dog like me?!” There was no confusion in the son of Jonathan’s mind––he couldn’t even carry himself into the presence of King David! As he would have laid on that floor and thought the King would surely kill him, the king’s merciful reception of him to his table would have erased Mephibosheth’s face of shame forever. From then on he would be known as son of David’s household, and member of the King’s table. His once identity of cripple was forever removed in the palace of King David when Mephibosheth had not even taken a step in his own strength to get there nor his lame reputation done anything to gain him entrance (couldn’t resist the pun).
The strength of the flesh is seen in the preservation of a face. Man’s ambition to do things for God instead of die to himself and be found in God are starkly opposed to each other in Scripture. Paul’s hatred for such gross sin is where such an intense symphony of pure words pour off the page of Philippians 3. Let us not only listen, but become one of the instrumentalists playing this magnum opus with our friend Paul the chief apostle to many and the chief of sinners to himself.
May Philippians 3 plague you as deeply as it has plagued me. Let it torment and distress you. Take a month and meditate on this chapter to see if there is any of your face remaining in your confidence before God. What are you recognized and known for? Take that and hold it up to the light of Christ and let it be consumed there in shimmering glory. Everything that remains that is you, take the hammer and nails and drive it into the wood of His Cross. You may find that you come away blind, whereas before, you were one who could see.