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Preparing to Know Christ Deeply Through Suffering | Messages | Churchisonline.com

by John Piper
Sharpening Our Axe


Philippians 3:1–14,

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the
same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for
you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the
false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship
in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no
confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence
even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in
the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of
Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the
righteousness which is in the law, found blameless.

But whatever
things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the
sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be 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 in order 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.

Not that I have already obtained it, or
have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay
hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but
one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to
what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the
upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The Bible Promises Suffering for God’s People

We are focusing in this message on the need to prepare for
suffering. The reason for this is not just my sense that the days
are evil and the path of righteousness costly, but the promise of
the Bible that God’s people will suffer.

For example, Acts 14:22 says that Paul told all his young
churches, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom.”
And Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you”
(John 15:20). And Peter said, “Do not be surprised at the fiery
ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though
some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). In other
words it is not strange; it is to be expected. And Paul said (in 2
Timothy 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ
Jesus will be persecuted.”

So I take it to be a biblical truth that the more earnest we
become about being the salt of the earth and the light of the
world, and reaching the unreached peoples of the world, and
exposing the works of darkness, and loosing the bonds of sin and
Satan, the more we will suffer. That’s why we should prepare. And
that’s why I am preaching in these weeks from texts that will help
us prepare.

The messages deal with four purposes that God has in our
suffering in his service. One is the moral or spiritual purpose: in
suffering we come to hope more fully in God and put less confidence
in the things of the world. Second, there is the intimacy purpose:
we come to know Christ better when we share his sufferings. That is
our focus today.

The Purpose of Greater Intimacy with Christ

God helps us prepare for suffering by teaching us and showing us
that through suffering we are meant to go deeper in our
relationship with Christ. You get to know him better when you share
his pain. The people who write most deeply and sweetly about the
preciousness of Christ are people who have suffered with him

Suffering in the Life of Jerry Bridges

For example, Jerry Bridges’s book, Trusting God, Even When Life
, is a deep and helpful book about suffering and going deep
with God through affliction. And so it’s not surprising to learn
that when he was 14 years old, he heard his mother call out in the
next room, totally unexpectedly, and arrived to see her take her
last breath. He also has physical conditions that keep him from
normal sports. And just a few years ago his wife died of cancer.
Serving God with the Navigators has not spared him pain. He writes
with depth about suffering because he has gone deep with Christ in

Suffering in the Life of Horatius Bonar

Over a hundred years ago Horatius Bonar, the Scottish pastor and
hymn-writer, wrote a little book called Night of Weeping,
, When God’s Children Suffer. In it he said his
goal was, “to minister to the saints . . . to seek to bear their
burdens, to bind up their wounds, and to dry up at least some of
their many tears.” It is a tender and deep and wise book. So it’s
not surprising to hear him say,

It is written by one who is seeking himself to profit by trial,
and trembles lest it should pass by as the wind over the rock,
leaving it as hard as ever; by one who would in every sorrow draw
near to God that he may know Him more, and who is not unwilling to
confess that as yet he knows but little.

Bridges and Bonar show us that suffering is a path deep into the
heart of God. God has special revelations of his glory for his
suffering children.

The Words of Job, Stephen, and Peter

After months of suffering, Job finally says to God, “I had heard
of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee” (Job
42:5). Job had been a godly and upright man, pleasing to God, but
the difference between what he knew of God in prosperity and what
he knew of him through adversity was the difference between hearing
about and seeing.

When Stephen was arrested and put on trial for his faith and
given a chance to preach, the upshot was that the religious leaders
were enraged and ground their teeth at him. They were just about to
drag him out of the city and kill him. At just that moment, Luke
tells us, “Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and gazed into
heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right
hand of God” (Acts 7:55). There is a special revelation, a special
intimacy, prepared for those who suffer with Christ.

Peter put it this way, “If you are reproached for the name of
Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God
rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14). In other words God reserves a
special coming and resting of his Spirit and his glory on his
children who suffer for his name.

Three Observations from the Text

So the focus of today’s message is on this intimacy factor in
suffering. One of the purposes of the suffering of the saints is
that their relationship with God might become less formal and less
artificial and less distant, and become more personal and more real
and more intimate and close and deep.

In our text (Philippians 3:5–11) I want us to see at least three

  1. First, Paul’s preparation to suffer by reversing his values;
  2. Second, Paul’s experience of suffering and loss as the cost of
    his obedience to Christ;
  3. Third, Paul’s aim in all of this; namely, to gain Christ: to
    know him and be in him and fellowship with more intimacy and
    reality than he knew with his best friends, Barnabas and Silas.

1. Paul’s Preparation to Suffer

In verses 5 and 6 Paul lists the distinctives he enjoyed before
he became a Christian. He gives his ethnic pedigree as a
thoroughbred child of Abraham, a Hebrew of Hebrews. This brought
him great gain, a great sense of significance and assurance. He was
an Israelite. Then he mentions three things that go right to the
heart of Paul’s life before he was a Christian (at the end of verse
5): “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the
church; as to the righteousness which is in the law, found

Paul’s Values Before He Met Christ

This was Paul’s life. This was what gave him meaning and
significance. This was his gain, his fortune, his joy. Different
strokes for different folks — and Paul’s was that he belonged to the
upper-echelon of law-keepers, the Pharisees, and that among them he
was so zealous that he led the way in persecuting the enemies of
God, the church of Jesus, and that he kept the law meticulously. He
got strokes from belonging, he got strokes from excelling, he got
strokes from God — or so he thought — for his blameless

And then he met Christ, the Son of the living God, on the
Damascus road. Christ told him how much he would have to suffer
(Acts 9:16). And Paul prepared himself.

Paul Counted His Prior Values as Loss

The way he prepared himself is described in verse 7. “But
whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as
loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul looks at his standing in the
upper-echelons of religious society, the Pharisees; he looks at the
glory of being at the very top of that group with all its strokes
and applause; he looks at the rigor of his law-keeping and the sense
of moral pride he enjoyed; and he prepares to suffer by taking his
whole world and turning it upside down, by reversing his values:
“Whatever things were gain to me [that’s verses 5–6], those things
I have counted as loss.”

Before he was a Christian he had a ledger with two columns: one
that said, gains, and another that said, losses. On the gain side
was the human glory of verses 5–6. On the loss side was the
terrible prospect that this Jesus movement might get out of hand
and Jesus prove real and win the day. When he
met the living Christ
on the Damascus road, Paul took a big red pencil and wrote “LOSS” in
big red letters across his gains column. And he wrote “GAIN” in big
letters over the loss column that only had one name in it:

And not only that, the more Paul thought about the relative
values of life in the world and the greatness of Christ, he moved
beyond the few things mentioned in verses 5–6 and put everything
but Christ in that first column. Verse 8 says, “More than that, I count
all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing
Christ Jesus my Lord.” He started by counting his most precious
accomplishments as loss, and he ended by counting everything as
loss, except Christ.

Normal Christianity

That’s what it meant for Paul to become a Christian. And lest
anyone of us think he was unique or peculiar, notice that in verse
17 he says with his full apostolic authority, “Brethren, join in
following my example.” This is normal Christianity.

What Paul is doing here is showing how the teaching of Jesus is
to be lived out. For example, Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is
like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and
from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that
field” (Matthew 13:44). Becoming a Christian means discovering that
Christ (the King) is a Treasure Chest of holy joy and writing
“LOSS” over everything else in the world in order to gain him. “He
sold all that he had to buy that field.”

Or again in Luke 14:33 Jesus said, “No one of you can be my
disciple who does not take leave of all his own possessions.” In
other words, becoming a disciple of Jesus means writing “LOSS” in
big red letters over all your possessions — and everything else this
world offers.

What This Means Practically

Now what does that mean practically? I think it means four

  1. It means that whenever I am called upon to choose between
    anything in this world and Christ, I choose Christ.
  2. It means that I will deal with the things of this world in
    ways that draw me nearer to Christ so that I gain more of Christ
    and enjoy more of him by the way I use the world.
  3. It means that I will always deal with the things of this
    world in ways that show that they are not my treasure, but rather
    show that Christ is my treasure.
  4. It means that if I lose any or all the things this world can
    offer, I will not lose my joy or my treasure or my life, because
    Christ is all.

Now that was the reckoning that Paul reckoned in his soul (v.
8): “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Christ is all and all else is

Why Is This a Way of Preparing to Suffer?

Now let’s stand back a minute and get our bearings. I am still
dealing with the first point; namely, that this is Paul’s way of
preparing to suffer. Why do I say that? Why is becoming a
Christian, and writing “LOSS” across everything in your life but
Christ, a way of preparing to suffer?

The answer is that suffering is nothing more than the taking
away of bad things or good things that the world offers for our
enjoyment — reputation, esteem among peers, job, money, spouse,
sexual life, children, friends, health, strength, sight, hearing,
success, etc. When these things are taken away (by force or by
circumstance or by choice), we suffer. But if we have followed Paul
and the teaching of Jesus and have already counted them as loss for
the surpassing value of gaining Christ, then we are prepared to

If when you become a Christian you write a big red “LOSS” across
all the things in the world except Christ, then when Christ calls
you to forfeit some of those things, it is not strange or
unexpected. The pain and the sorrow may be great. The tears may be
many, as they were for Jesus in Gethsemane. But we will be
prepared. We will know that the value of Christ surpasses all the
things the world can offer and that in losing them we gain more of

2. Paul’s Experience of Suffering

So in the second half of verse 8 Paul moves from preparing for
suffering to actual suffering. He moves from counting all things as
loss in the first half of verse 8 to actually suffering the loss of
all things in the second half of the verse. “ . . . for whom [that
is, Christ] I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them
as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ.” We are going to see
this next week: Paul had experienced so much actual loss of the
normal benefits and comforts of the world that he could say that he
was not merely counting things loss; he was suffering loss. He had
prepared by turning his values upside down, and now he was being
tested. Did he value Christ above all?

3. Paul’s Goal (and God’s Purpose) in Suffering

So let me close by riveting our attention on Paul’s goal and
God’s purpose in this suffering. Why did God ordain and Paul accept
the losses that it meant for him to be a Christian?

Paul gives the answer again and again in these verses so that we
cannot miss the point. He is not passive in this suffering loss. He
is purposive. And his purpose is to gain Christ.

  • Verse 7: “I counted them loss for the sake of Christ.”
  • Verse 8a: “I count all things to be loss for the surpassing
    value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
  • Verse 8b: “For him I have suffered the loss of all
  • Verse 8c: “And I count them but rubbish in order that I may
    gain Christ . . . ”
  • Verse 9: “ . . . and that I may be found in him [so as to have
    God’s righteousness, not my own] . . . ”
  • Verse 10a: (still giving his aim in accepting the loss of all
    things) “ . . . that I may know him”
  • Verses 10b–11: (followed by four specifics of what it means to
    know Christ)

    1. “ . . . [to know] the power of his resurrection”; and
    2. “the fellowship of his sufferings”;
    3. “being conformed to his death”;
    4. “in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the

In other words, what sustains Paul in suffering the loss of all
things is the confidence that in his losing precious things in the
world he is gaining something more precious: Christ.

And two times that gaining is called a knowing — verse 8a: “ . . .
in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Verse 10: “That I might know him.” This is the intimacy factor in
suffering. Do we want to know him? Do we want to be more personal
with him and deep with him and real with him and intimate with
him — so much so that we count everything as loss to gain this
greatest of all treasures?

If we do, we will be ready to suffer. If we don’t, it will take us
by surprise and we will rebel. May the Lord open our eyes to the
surpassing worth of knowing Christ!

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