Cover artwork by Abigail Jeyaraj (@handsxpens)
Written By Paul Wong
Paul is the campus pastor at Singapore Management University’s Christian Fellowship (SMUCF). Prior to that, he was a ministry trainee at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, London, where he spent two years in full-time ministry training, having previously worked as a corporate lawyer in the City of London. In his free time he enjoys photography, reading popular history, and spending time with his family. He is presently thinking about exercising more.
Jesus doesn’t really make life better
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8-9, ESV)
The man who penned those words wrote them from a cold, lonely prison cell in about AD 60, chained 24/7 to a Roman guard. As he writes the letter, his reputation and good name are being dragged through the mud by rivals, jealous of his influence over the churches in Asia and Macedonia. Indeed those very same churches he planted, including the one at Philippi to whom he’s presently writing, are under the threat of persecution or apostasy. In short, much of what this man has labored for, and achieved, in the last decades of his life is under attack and at risk of being destroyed.
So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus (c.5–c.64/67)? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. But not in a good way.
When Paul writes that he has suffered the loss of all things, he really means it. Status, security—all of it gone. And all because he has spent much of his adult life in the single-minded proclamation of salvation through faith in Jesus.
So the big, gaping question for us has got to be: How could he consider that “gaining Christ” was of “surpassing worth” when compared to the loss of literally everything? Why does he describe his previous comfortable life as “dung” (as the old King James Version translates it), when he now languishes in jail? Those are extraordinary things to write.
I think Paul would have said that it has all to do with his deep assurance of the love that God has for him, and how that love was ultimately displayed when Jesus showed up. Paul knows something which, for him, changes everything. ‘Tis the Season, so I’ll try and explain it in Christmassy terms.
Christmas I: Forgiveness and relationship
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea (today’s West Bank) that first Christmas, He came for a reason. The events surrounding His miraculous birth attest this. One eyewitness record of His life tells us that He is named Jesus (meaning “God saves”) “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That means that His singular purpose on earth was to rescue men and women from the punishment that we deserve for our rejection of God.
I wonder what you think of that. Perhaps the concept of a creator is so alien to you that you think this is all hogwash (in which case I’d encourage you to read some of the other articles in this series). Perhaps you think you’re a good person at heart—so this idea of punishment for “sins” is just ridiculous.
But Paul of Tarsus would look you in the eye and ask you to be honest with yourself: are you truly “good”? Who gets to decide anyway? Paul would say to us that in virtually everyone’s books he was a good person—blameless under his understanding of the Jewish laws (Philippians 3:4-6)—and yet a total failure in the eyes of a holy and righteous God.
Here’s why: God doesn’t merely view “sin” as the bad stuff you and I do wrong every day. What he says is far more offensive. He says that we are living in darkness and in rebellion to Him. Humanity is living in His world (trashing it even), using His stuff and breathing His air, all without any reference or deference to Him. And that’s a problem because if God is holy and just and good, and if I’m living as if He’s a nobody, then that kind of behavior deserves judgment—just ask any parent.
But God, in His deep love for His creation and His desire for a relationship with His people, administers the antidote Himself by sending Jesus. God provides forgiveness and a way out from our otherwise inevitable judgment. And the way that happens is by Jesus dying on a Roman cross, taking on our behalf the punishment that we deserve for living in God’s world as if he didn’t exist. Jesus’ sacrifice secures our forgiveness. He stands in our place—condemned as a sinner so that we might be pardoned. Christmas happened for Easter, as my old pastor puts it.
Trusting in that sacrifice means that God now sees us as He sees Jesus. The Bible describes Christians as being “hidden with Christ”. Incredibly, God no longer sees our sin, but the righteous perfection of His Son instead. Crucially, repentance (turning from our rebellion) and faith (trusting Jesus) bring us into relationship with God. As a Christian I can listen to Him speak in His Word, the Bible, and speak back to Him, knowing He hears me because I trust in Jesus.
This is the knowledge that changes everything.
Because he is a Christian, Paul of Tarsus can be sure that he need not fear the judgment of God. He is certain of the forgiveness won on his behalf at the cross. So even as he sits in a dirty jail cell, incredibly, he cannot help but rejoice at the receipt of this free gift. He might die condemned as a criminal, but ultimately he knows that he has been made right with his maker.
What difference does believing in Jesus make? He offers forgiveness for our rejection of God, and a relationship which begins now and lasts forever. And that is everything.
Christmas II: A different time frame
For Paul though, that’s not the end of the story (though there is plenty to cherish already!). The rest is all to do with the time frame.
Before Jesus died, He promised to return. There are two Christmases if you like, and the second is still to come.
Jesus promised that when He returns, He does so as judge of the world. And for those who trust in Him, there is a promise of eternal life—but not here on this broken world. In a place where the frustrations of this life will be a distant memory. A perfect heaven without sin, suffering, or pain.
Now here’s the thing. Being a Christian doesn’t make your life better now. In fact in all sorts of ways it makes your life more difficult (just ask Paul!). But what being a Christian does is to radically shift your time frame. It stretches this idea of “life” past our short 70-90 years on earth and into eternity.
Crucially what Jesus promises is a relationship with Him that is satisfying and soul-quenching because it is not temporary. It’s a relationship with the God of the universe which begins now but stretches on beyond your death, which means that Christians are those who will eventually be satisfied forever. That is knowledge which changes everything.
That has been my experience. Living life as a committed Christian in the world today isn’t a walk in the park (I doubt it has ever been for any Christian through the ages). The fight against sin brings me to my knees in prayer.
My work as a campus pastor is often very busy, and sometimes stressful and discouraging. Some of my non-Christian family continue to describe my job as useless. There seem to be challenges and discouragements at every turn. I do sometimes wonder how life could be more stable and secure if I had stayed on as a corporate lawyer. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be, humanly speaking!
But these wobbly moments are steadied in the face of the glorious truth that I am already forgiven, and headed for a better, brighter, eternal future with my savior. If the Bible is true (and I encourage you to test its veracity), then the frankly infrequent difficulties of being a Christian are but a blip on God’s eternal timeline.
The words of Paul are comforting: For I consider that the sufferings (if you could even call them that!) of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV; parenthesis mine)
So, what difference does believing in Jesus make to Paul of Tarsus? Well, in one sense you could say: quite a lot. And in the best way possible. When Paul writes that knowing Jesus is of surpassing worth, he really means it. Forgiveness assured, relationship with God secured, and an eternal happiness to look forward to. And all because of salvation through trust in Jesus.
Can I ask: will you consider putting your trust in Jesus this Christmas?
Editor’s Note: This is the last article in a four-part series on who Jesus is. Read the first article, “Why Do We Even Need A Savior?” here, the second article, “Why Did Jesus Have to Come As A Human?” here, and the third article, “How Was Jesus Both God and Man?” here.