“I Want to Know Christ”
I like people with ambition.
For twenty years I worked with young adults: first at the college and then with the Academy of Preachers. I met and talked with hundreds of students. I often asked them this question: what is your ambition? I have been stunned at how many of them had no answer, had never thought about it, had nothing to say.
What is your ambition: to own your own company? to write a book? to read a book, to raise a family? to travel to Paris, or London, or Jerusalem?
What is your ambition?
Sometimes we tag ambitious people as ruthless, or selfish, or willing to run over others to get to some lofty place. For years, I have said to those around me, especially those I supervised or led, “My ambition is to help you get where you want to go.” That is the way I feel as a pastor, even an interim pastor: I want to help you, the congregation, get where you want to go, become what you want to become. And I feel that way about you as individuals: do you have ambitions for life, for work, for health, for faith?
What is your ambition as a believer? How would you state your deepest desire about spiritual things? I want to forgive some people who wronged me. I want to understand the Bible. I want to have more confidence to talk to people about Jesus. I want to have a spiritual ministry to people. I want to work through my doubts and embrace great faith. I want to know my purpose in life.
What is your ambition in the things of Christ?
Paul the great apostle writes a good word to us today.
He writes, “I want to know Christ.” It is a simple, straightforward expression of his ambition. He goes on: “I want to experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection; I want to share in the sufferings of Jesus; and I want to attain, at the end of the age, a place in the resurrection of the righteous.”
These three ancillary statements flow out of his fundamental desire to know Christ.
Paul did not always have this ambition.
When we piece together his life—when he was known as Saul—we can surmise that he had, first, ambition to be a scholar. He left Tarsus in Asia Minor and came to Jerusalem to study the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. He became a student of the leading Torah scholar of his day, Gamaliel. Saul was exceedingly bright, and disciplined, and ambitious.
These, I can tell you, are wonderful traits in a student. Too many students at all levels of learning are dull, careless, and indifferent. God give us more students who are bright, disciplined, and ambitious!
Saul had ambitions to be at the top of his Torah class, a scholar of note, a person of intellectual power. This is a good thing.
But this ambition did not satisfy Saul.
As we read between the lines of the gospel material, we learn that Saul was overtaken by another ambition: to protect Judaism from distortion, from error, from change. Like many conservatives in all arenas of life, he sensed the threat of new ideas, new leaders, new movements. New things challenge the old order; new ideas threaten the old orthodoxy; new ways of thinking and doing undermine the old ways of thinking and doing. This is particularly true in the realm of religion.
Saul took up the defense of the old ways. He watched the Jesus movement take root and spread. He listened to their ideas, their stories, their parables and was alarmed. “This will upend everything,” he surmised.
We have no evidence that Saul ever met Jesus, that he ever saw Jesus, that he ever heard Jesus teach or preach or question the authorities. Saul did not know Jesus the rabbi of Nazareth, Jesus the miracle worker, Jesus the populist preacher of the rule of God, the community of faith, the good news of shalom. Saul did not know Jesus, the son of Mary, the brother of James, the friend of sinners far and wide. Saul did not know Jesus, full of the spirit and speaking a fresh word from the Lord.
But the Jesus he heard about frightened him. Saul was fearful of the message of Jesus, Saul was fearful of the success of Jesus, and Saul was fearful of the movement that emerged after the death of Jesus.
Saul embraced a new ambition: defend the faith of his fathers! Saul took on a new task: suppress this populist movement that had spread from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Syria, to Damascus, to Antioch, perhaps even to Rome itself.
Saul threw all his considerable talents and energies into this new calling: stopping the gospel movement known simply as The Way.
“Send me to Damascus,” Saul told the Jerusalem authorities. “I will put a stop to this Jesus nonsense, this pseudo-Jewish religion, this distortion of our faith. Give me the power and I will force these deviants to renounce their ideas and abandon their ways.”
Saul had a new ambition.
It is not a bad thing to change.
It is not a weakness of the self to start in one direction animated by one vision of life, then to change directions, to respond to new influences, new opportunities, new joys. When we are young, we think one thing; but often as we grow, we think another thing. We change our minds. We change our loyalties. We change our values. WE change jobs, careers, vocations. This is a good thing.
Except for Saul, it was not a good thing. He went from good to bad. To his intense religious nature, he added the worst of all dispositions: violence. We first hear of Saul in this report from The Acts of the Apostles:
“The religious leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation against them, and they shook their fists at Stephen in rage. But Stephen, full of the holy spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God. He saw Jesus standing in the place of honor, and he said, ‘Look I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand.’ Then the religious leaders rushed at Stephen and dragged him out of the city and began to stone his. His accusers took of their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
They took their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Here is the genesis of his change of attitude. Here is the beginning of his new ambition. Here is the launch of his new purpose in life. He put aside his spiritual and intellectual gifts and took up the sword and spirit as defender of the faith.
He had a new ambition!
When it comes to ambition, I’ve had a conversion or two.
I grew up like all boys in Kentucky with dreams of playing for Adolph Rupp or playing in Rupp Arena. My son Allan is here today, and he actually lived that dream, playing in Kentucky state basketball championship tournament in Rupp Arena.
I had to give up my hoop dreams and settle for preaching…like Billy Graham. In those days, we all wanted to be like Billy Graham. My earliest speeches in high school tournaments were all about the style and substance of Mr. Graham.
Then I met Dale Moody. He died 30 years ago but for almost 50 years he was the preeminent theologian among Baptists in the South. He came to our college to speak, and I was mesmerized; he was on sabbatical in Jerusalem when I lived there, and he said to me, “I’m saving you a seat in my theology class.” For the next decade or two, I aspired to be like Dale Moody: biblical, evangelical, and ecumenical, learned in every way and in command of every lectern and pulpit. He preached my ordination, supervised my dissertation, and believed in me from start to finish.
But I am neither Billy Graham nor Dale Moody!
It takes time to find yourself, to embrace your own gifts and callings, to be content with who you are, where you are going, and what you can do. This is a great journey: for me, for you, for Saul the scholar, Saul the soldier of God.
Saul discovered himself one day on the road to Damascus.
Yes, I know, we often describe this event as his discovery of Jesus. But it was more than that. On that journey and in the days that followed, yes, Saul discovered Jesus, but Saul also discovered his own purpose in life. Saul discovered himself.
He was on his way to investigate rumors of a renegade group of Jews, reading Torah, talking Jesus, perhaps even hobnobbing with Gentiles!! On the road, he was blinded by a light and surprised by a voice. “Who are you?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus!” came the answer.
It was a stunning turn of events. That episode was the road sign for a new direction in his journey, a new purpose for his considerable powers, a new ambition for his consequential life.
From that day, Saul dates his calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles; and from that day, Saul embraces his new ambition, to know Christ, his resurrection power and his redemptive suffering. When others opposing this new mission threw him into jail somewhere in the Mediterranean World, perhaps Rome, perhaps Ephesus, perhaps Caesarea, Saul wrote this little letter to his friends in Philippi and also to us and summed up his convictions, his purpose, his ambition in life: “I want to know Christ.”
I would like to meet Jesus, wouldn’t you?
Sometimes I fantasize about hosting a dinner party of people I really want to meet: historical figures, like Marco Polo, Joan of Ark, and Abraham Lincoln; influential thinkers like Socrates, and Augustine, and Einstein; biblical personalities like Abraham, Esther, Isaiah; or celebrities like Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, and John Prine.
I’d like to be able to say, “Oh, yes, I know Dolly Parton. I know Michael Jordan. I know Jimmy Carter.”
Yes, I’d like to have a one-on-one with Jesus. I have a lot of Nicodemus in me. I have a lot of questions. I am full of curiosity. “What do you mean, Jesus, when you talk about ‘born again’? What is this kingdom of God you keep referring to? Are you aware that people want to kill you?”
Yes, I want to know Jesus in this way. Is his hair long like mine? Does he wear it in a ponytail? Will Jesus listen to my questions? Are his teeth straight, his beard trimmed, his hands groomed? Can Jesus tell a joke? Can he take a joke? Does he like BarBQ? Ice cream? Is he a vegan?
That would be wonderful, don’t you think?
But today, I want to know Christ: his spirit, his attitude, his disposition. I want to sense his presence and feel his love. I want to hear Christ when he speaks to me. I want to do what he wants me to do. I want to be what he wants me to be.
More than that, I want to hear Christ when he speaks to others.
I want to listen as he speaks to the lost and the saved, to the Jew and the Gentile, to the Christian and the Muslim. I want to listen as Jesus Christ talks to the committed and to the curious, to the seeker and the skeptic, to the one who has just discovered Jesus, perhaps just baptized all the way under and up dripping wet, and to the one who is walking away discouraged and drained.
I want to eavesdrop as Jesus speaks to you.
I want to sit still as Jesus listens to you. I want to feel his curiosity, his compassion, his commitment to your wellbeing. I want to watch as Jesus walks along side you and behind you and before you, loving you all the way. I want to imitate Jesus as he sings with joy and lives with hope.
I want to know Christ. Because as I know him, I know myself. As I know Jesus, I know my purpose in life. As I know Christ, I embrace the one true ambition for life.
I want to know Christ.