Recently I was interacting with a pastor about the meaning of the expression “to know him”, i.e. Jesus, that Paul used in Philippians 3:10. What did Paul signify by using this expression to define his spiritual quest? Are we to interpret this in accordance with statements such as Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son” (Matt.1:25), defining the most intimate of relations? Or is this to be understood more in terms of cognition, more in line with “learning Messiah” as Paul states it in Ephesians 4:20?
When we canvas Paul’s usage of this verb “to know” (ginōskein), we discover that Philippians 3:8-10 is the only context where Jesus, referenced by the pronoun, occurs as its object. I would conclude from this that Paul, in stating his intent “to know him (tou gnōnai auton), is saying something important but in an unusual way.
Several times Paul used the expression “knowing God.” However, often he employs this idea when discussing non-believers. For example, he criticizes human beings who “although they knew (gnontes)God, neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). Again in 1 Cor. 1:21 Paul explains “since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know (egnō) him,…” And there is his description of the Galatian believers in Gal. 4:8-9: “Formerly when you did not know (eidotes) God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know (gnontes) God – or rather are known (gnōthentes) by God….”
In several other contexts Paul used the noun gnōsis in relationship to God and the Lord. This combination in Romans 11:33 describes the vast and limitless knowledge that God possesses. Paul praises God who has enabled human beings to discern “in the face of Christ” the very glory of God, and thus acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. This “knowledge (gnōsis) of the glory of God” is life changing (2 Corinthians 4:6). Further, Paul resists every proposition or idea that “sets itself up against the knowledge (gnōseōs) of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Anything or anyone that challenges the truth that God has revealed is rejected. All wisdom and knowledge (gnōseōs) is “hidden” in Christ, who is the mystery of God (Colossians 2:3), so if people want to know what God is up to, they will only discover it in Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 5:16 Paul describes a change in the way he knows Christ.
But that’s about it, until we encounter Philippians 3:10.1 In most instances this knowledge refers to understanding God’s plans for human salvation as revealed in Jesus. So what is Paul up to in his letter to Philippians when he claims that everything should be regarded as garbage in comparison to “the ultimate value of knowing (gnōseōs) Christ Jesus” (3:8) and his assertion that he “wants to know (gnōnai) him, both the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,…” (3:10)? Paul seems to be saying something unusual here, using language that he rarely, if ever, uses elsewhere in his writings.
Context is important here to understand Paul’s meaning. He is comparing what he once valued as a Jewish believer, with what he now has come to value as a follower of Messiah Jesus. The neuter, substantive participle to huperechon (v.8) defines that which is of superior or ultimate value. Despite the great privileges that he possessed in Judaism – status, power, apparent religious certainty of God’s program (to the point of persecuting the church, v.5-6), and complete devotion to a Pharisaic interpretation of the Law – he has come to regard all of that as zēmia, something worth losing. It has no value in comparison with the ultimate value of the knowledge of Messiah Jesus.
When did Paul’s knowledge (gnōsis) of Jesus Messiah change? In 2 Corinthians 5:16 he admits that he once knew (egnōkamen) the Messiah “from a worldly point of view (kata sarka).” But something happened and “we no longer know him [this way] (vuv ouketi ginōskomen).” The dramatic alteration occurred on the Damascus Road (Acts 9). He discovered by direct revelation that Jesus indeed is Messiah, fully vindicated and authorized by Yahweh. His knowledge of the Messiah experienced a total makeover, from the ground up. What he now knows about the Messiah Jesus and about his own personal inclusion in the Messiah’s program makes him value everything as worthless in comparison. This knowledge of Jesus Messiah he has shared in condensed form in Philippians 2:5-11. Paul’s life is now “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God” (1:11).
Paul defines more clearly what “the knowledge of Messiah Jesus” entails in vs. 8b-9. First, it means that he “gains Messiah” (8b). If Paul had persisted in his Jewish ways, he would have “lost Messiah.” What greater tragedy could happen to a Jewish person than to lose the opportunity to be part of the Messiah’s mission and work! This was the whole focus of Jewish hope, at least for a Pharisee. The only way for him to “gain Messaih” was to confess that “Jesus is Lord.” But when he “gained Messiah,” Paul became a true son of God, the residence of the Spirit, the heir of God, free from sin’s condemnation. Secondly, Paul, in knowing Messiah Jesus, “is found in him” (9a). As he goes on to explain, this unusual terminology expresses the new reality of righteousness. He lives within the realm of God’s righteousness now, because he is part of the Messiah and possesses the Messiah’s righteousness through faith. Perhaps the metaphor Paul used elsewhere of putting on Messiah Jesus like a suit of clothes is what he intends by this turn of phrase here. When he is discovered “within the Messiah,” the righteousness of Messiah also covers him over completely and thus he no longer stands guilty and condemned before God (2 Cor. 5:2-3). Paul has given up all attempts to demonstrate his own righteousness.
Finally, Paul sums this all up in the infinitive of purpose that begins v.10 “in order that I might know (gnōnai) him.” He adds two other elements to this new knowledge – “the power of the Messiah’s resurrection and participation in his sufferings.” Space does not allow more explanation of these elements, but in sum they express the entirety of the Christian hope. To know Christ, in the intimacy of personal faith, brings confidence of resurrection and commitment to deny self and sin (c. 3:10b-11).
For Paul “the knowledge of Messiah Jesus” includes the totality of salvation, sanctification, and glorification. Because the Messiah Jesus is the only way to discover peace with God and receive the promise of the Spirit, everything else must be regarded as vile as rotting garbage (skubala 3:8). This is knowing that includes wisdom about God’s person, power, and plans; it includes knowing that is personal, divine companionship experiencing the most unselfish love; it requires “the ‘yes’ of the whole personality to the fact of Christ.”2 Paul’s knowledge of the Torah and Judaism led him to rebel against Yahweh’s will in Messiah Jesus. Only God’s direct revelation of Jesus to Paul on the Damascus Road enabled him to know Messiah Jesus in this saving way.
- we live in an information age, but what good does all of this information do us if it leads us away from God, instead of towards Him. We must consider all ways of knowing and all kinds of knowledge useless, if they do not enable us to know God and Messiah Jesus. What aspects of knowing today are preventing you from knowing Jesus Messiah as God intends? What ways of knowing enhance this relationship?
- that God makes it possible for a human being to “know” his Messiah Jesus in such a profound way truly is remarkable. In what ways is our knowledge of Messiah Jesus being deepened and expanded? How does this occur in your life on a regular basis?
- 1John’s Gospel presents a very different picture, but he probably writes several decades after Paul. As well, the author of 2 Peter urges his audience to “grow in the grace and knowledge (gnōsei) of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (3:18).
- 2Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians. Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), 141.