What Is It Like to ‘Know Christ’?

Cities Church | St. Paul

Do you remember your first conscious “favorite song” as a child? Maybe it was a single, or an album, or a specific artist.

I remember hearing a particular song on the radio as a four- or five-year-old and saying out loud to my parents, “That’s my favorite song.”

Now, I realize I’m one of the older people in the room. So, I’ll ask, but I don’t expect many to raise a hand. Does anyone know the name Larnelle Harris?

Hands down, gospel singer Larnelle Harris was my first favorite singer. In January of 1985, Larnelle released an album called “I’ve Just Seen Jesus,” and the first song on the cassette was called “How Excellent Is Thy Name.” I loved that song.

The reason I mention Larnelle is that two years later, in 1987, he released another album, and tucked away fifth on the cassette was a song based on Philippians 3 called “I Want to Know Christ.” Still today, this song moves me deeply. Something about this song captured my six-year-old heart. I could tell its subject matter was unsurpassed. A song about “knowing Christ” felt so much bigger than your standard-fare Christian music of the 80s — or any decade. It went so clearly to the very heart of what God made us for.

I’ll read you the chorus, and you can hear our text this morning, as well as the “pressing on” we’ll look at next week in verses 12–14:

I want to know Christ
I keep Him before me
I lift up my eyes
I drink in His glory
I press toward the goal
His goodness unfolds
March on, O my soul
I want to know
I want to know Christ

Deep, Personal Knowing

At the end of the sermon last Sunday, Jonathan set the table so well for us for today. In fact, I hope this message will simply flesh out what he said near the end — that Philippians 3 doesn’t just want us to be right with God (which is penultimate) but to know Jesus. Knowing Christ is the final goal, the ultimate goal; it’s what makes heaven to be heaven:

Jesus is not just the means to get you what you want, but Jesus also becomes what you want. Jesus is means and end. To know Jesus is of surpassing worth. That is what is most valuable — to know “Christ Jesus my Lord.” . . . This is a deep, personal knowing. It’s real experience in real relationship. Intimacy.

I see three pieces here that map onto what we might call a (kind of) past aspect in verse 9, and a present aspect in verse 10, and a future aspect in verse 11.

So, here’s how we’ll proceed this morning: we’ll start by rehearsing what we saw last week in verse 9 (the penultimate), then jump to verse 11 and the future, and then come back to verse 10 and linger over what it means to “know Christ,” even now in this life, in the present. I hope to shoot as straight as I can about what it means to know Christ, and what that experience is like, and how we go about seeking to know him and enjoy him in our everyday Christian lives.

So, we start with the penultimate in verse 9.

1. We are fully accepted by God in Jesus.

I’m not sure we used the word “justification” in the last two weeks, but this is the reality we’ve been talking about. Verse 3 mentions “boasting in Christ Jesus” and “putting no confidence in the flesh.” This is justification talk. It raises the question, What is the grounds of your right-standing with God, your acceptance before God? How can an unrighteous sinner get right, and stay right, with the righteous, holy God?

Justification is God’s declaration over sinners like us, “You are righteous in my sight. I declare you to be in the right with me, fully accepted in my presence.” How? Not because of anything we’ve done to deserve God’s favor. But rather, because of what Jesus has done to win for us God’s favor and the verdict “Righteous!”

Start back in verse 7, and get the flow of thought into verse 9:

Whatever gain I had [and remember his amazing list of Jewish gains in verses 5–6], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Three pieces here help us get clarity on this justification by faith alone.

First, what is not the grounds of Paul’s justification, and ours, before God: our own merit. He says, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” The problem is not the law; it is holy, righteous, and good. The problem is us. We are sinners through and through. We are not holy, righteous, and good, and so even our very best efforts at obeying God’s holy, righteous, and good law cannot win his righteous favor and get us right with him.

Second, then, what is the grounds of our justification? Answer: having the righteousness that “comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Faith in whom? Faith in Christ. Righteousness from whom? Righteousness from God, through our believing in Jesus.

But still, one piece is missing, and it’s easy to overlook, at the beginning of verse 9: “found in him.” This is relational language, and it’s part of an interaction or an exchange. Paul has been talking about gaining Christ, getting Christ, and now he talks about Christ getting him, his being found in Christ. It’s almost like, “I am my beloved’s, and he is mine,” from the Song of Solomon. I get Christ because he got me.

Which means the ground of our justification is Christ alone, not our doing. And the instrument that connects us to Jesus is faith alone, again not our doing. And the context or the location of that faith is our being “found in him,” our being united to him, by the Spirit, through faith.

So, justification, in verse 9, is our being fully accepted by God in Christ. United to Jesus by faith, his righteousness is ours, and the Father’s full acceptance of him is ours.

Brothers and sisters, to know, really know, the grace of justification by faith alone will make you want to stand on your head for joy — and remember, verse 9 is penultimate. Justification is not the end. It’s not the final goal or reality. Justification, amazing as it is, is the means — the means to knowing the one in whom we are justified.

So, number one, we are fully accepted by God in Jesus. Now bounce ahead to verse 11 and the ultimate goal.

2. One day we will fully know Jesus and be satisfied in him forever.

That is, we will live forever, together, in ever-increasing bliss, in the unobstructed presence of and ever-deepening relationship with Jesus.

“Justification, amazing as it is, is the means to knowing the one in whom we are justified.”

We call this “glorification.” One day soon, when we see Jesus — the risen, glorified God-man — face-to-face, we too, like him, will be glorified. In that day, says verse 21, Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”

Let’s read verse 10 to verse 11. As we’ve seen, Paul is celebrating being united to Christ by faith and declared righteous in him:

. . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

So, verse 11 speaks to a future reality: our attaining, our reaching, our arriving at, our coming to the resurrection from the dead. Just like Jesus rose again bodily to a new indestructible, risen, glorified body — the same temporal earthly body that went into the grave, then raised and transformed into an eternal heavenly body — so we too who are in Christ will one day rise again bodily to glorified, transfigured resurrection bodies.

And in these perfected, indestructible bodies, we will live eternally with Jesus, experiencing to the full the life God made us to live. We will have eternal life, which won’t only mean living in the same new world as the risen Christ, but it will mean knowing him. Union with him by faith now leads to communion with him forever. This, at its heart, is what eternal life is, like Jesus said in John 17:3:

This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

Note two stunning moves in this statement: (1) Jesus puts knowing God at the heart of eternal life; then (2) he puts himself at the center of knowing God: “and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Remember the new-covenant prophecy that we saw in Hebrews 8, from Jeremiah 31, that “they shall all know me”? The coming of Jesus, God himself taking human flesh, dying for us, and rising again as the glorified God-man forever, is how God draws near to us that we might know him — “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

So, with Christ’s perfect work finished, justification by faith alone is the ground beneath our feet; and seeing him face-to-face is ahead of us, when we will be in the same space with the God-man — no distance, no obstructions, no remoteness, no more knowing in part but then knowing in full. But what about in the meantime? What about now, between our justification and glorification?

3. We know Jesus even now and want to know him more.

We’ve seen penultimate and ultimate, and so finally we come to “deep, personal knowing, real experience in real relationship,” even in this life. Verse 10:

. . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death . . .

What does it mean to know Jesus — not just know about him but know him, right now, the living Christ on the throne of heaven? Do you know him?

What does it mean to know Jesus, when, unlike his disciples, you’ve never seen him with your own eyes, or touched him with your own hands, or heard his human voice with your own ears? How do you know a person who is at present physically inaccessible? How can you know him?

One thing to make clear about Paul’s expressed desire “to know him” is that Paul is pressing way beyond minimal saving knowledge to maximal satisfying knowing. He’s not asking, What’s the least I need to know to be saved? Rather, he’s talking about maximally knowing and enjoying a real, living, breathing person, who has made himself knowable both as God and as man. This is maximal personal-knowing, not minimal information-knowing.

Struggle as we might to capture in words what it means to know Jesus, we all know experientially as persons what it’s like to know another living person. You don’t know a person simply by being in the same room. Two people can sit in silence in the doctor’s office waiting room and not know each other at all. Or two people thousands of miles away can know each other profoundly through the sequenced exchange of words. Shared space is not the essence of how we come to know each other, but interaction. Communication. Self-revelation. Exchanging words is typically the main channel through which persons know each other.

Our words reveal the unseen inner person, and so words heard and responded to in kind enable us to dialogue and interact and so know each other in and through the exchange. We come to know a person by listening to him and then, in the rhythms of relational interaction, speaking back to him with questions or our own self-revelation.

And don’t miss this: getting to know a person well also involves other people. You see more, and hear more, and know a person more by enjoying him with others. Other people draw out previously unknown aspects of the person. Also knowing someone deepens as you experience life with him, and especially life’s ups and downs, both triumphs and defeats.

As we get to know a living person, it often happens first in big chunks and then through endless refinements over time. You never exhaust knowing a living person. Yet over time we can genuinely say that we come to know a person’s heart, their essence, who they really are. So, when someone else talks about a person you know, “Yes, that’s him.” Or you might say, “No, I know him, and that doesn’t sound like him.”

And of course, Jesus is no ordinary person, so there’s a special note to strike here: vital to our knowing him, and coming to know him more, is something unique compared to every mere human person we know. Those whom Jesus knows, he puts in them his own Spirit. If you are in Christ, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and (as we’ve seen in Philippians 2:13 and 3:3) he is “the Spirit of Christ” (1:19). We hear Jesus’s voice in his word by the Spirit, and we pray to him in the Spirit, and we come together as his people through the Spirit. Which leads to Paul’s next phrase in verse 10.

Resurrection Power

What does it mean, then, to “know him and the power of his resurrection”? Jesus not only died in our place to forgive our sins; he rose again, and he is alive. He is alive to know, right now, as a living person, as the God-man seated on heaven’s throne, because of the power of the resurrection. So, to know the living Christ is to know him in the power of his resurrection.

But it also means to experience his resurrection power in our own person by his Spirit and be changed by him. It means to interact with him and so be transformed by him.

In knowing Christ, in being united to him and communing with him, his resurrection power doesn’t leave us unchanged. We are sanctified. We become more like him.

Which means in coming to know Christ better, in his holiness and grace, we also come to know ourselves better in our sin and need. Knowing Jesus has major life entailments. Knowing Jesus will change us. In fact, knowing Jesus is the engine of true Christian change. But — get this straight — we don’t change in order to know him; we know him and his resurrection power and so begin to change.

Knowing Christ transforms the fight against sin and our striving to be like him by putting it in the right perspective. When you know Christ and want to know him more, reading the Bible and meditating on Scripture is not a chore to be completed but a means of God’s grace in the pursuit of knowing Jesus more. Prayer is not a box to check, but speaking back to the one we know, in the power of his Spirit, having heard his voice in his word. And fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ becomes a precious corporate context in which to see and hear what fresh glories they bring out about Jesus in their words and prayers and obedience to him.

But we close with one more striking and unexpected means in verse 10 for how we know Jesus and come to know him more.

Fellowship of Sufferings

Look at verse 10 one last time:

. . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death . . .

Now, what we’ve said so far about knowing Christ is true, but the accent Paul adds here is suffering. How we come to know most deeply the risen Christ — his nearness, his pattern, his obedience, his holiness, his heart, his grace — is not in life’s easiest times and our most comfortable moments but in our sufferings.

What Paul has in mind here relates to what he’s just said about Christ’s example in chapter 2: “He humbled himself” (2:8). I don’t think that “becoming like him in his death” means that Paul anticipates a crucifixion for himself, or for us, but that he wants to know Christ by echoing Christ’s heart and “mind” (2:5):

[Being] in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death. (2:6–8)

That’s the pattern Paul wants to be conformed to. He wants to know Christ by sharing in his sufferings, walking in the footsteps of his self-humbling, and experiencing Jesus’s help and fellowship and nearness and resurrection power on the path of obedience when it’s hardest.

We know Jesus not only as we walk with him in triumph but also — and typically all the more — as we cling to him in our suffering and find that he draws especially nearer to us in our suffering.

So, we might sum it up like this. There are two big parts to knowing him: Sunny days and stormy days. Bright days and dark days. Happy seasons and heavy seasons.

In the bright, sunny, happy seasons, we establish the steps of our lives. We learn to walk with him and get to know him as we walk with him. We cultivate habits for hearing his voice in his word by the Spirit and speaking to him in prayer in the fellowship of others who know him. Oh my, how vital are our fellows in Christ for knowing more of Jesus!

What we’re doing in those bright and sunny days is establishing trust and getting to know Jesus better so that when the rainy, stormy, dark, difficult days come, then we go especially deep with him. As many in this room know, it is often the times when we know him in our sufferings that we really know him best and come to know him more.

Supper Together

And we know him through eating with him at this Table. Here we know ourselves afresh as sinners, desperate, condemned apart from him. And we know his grace here — not just know about grace, but know grace, experience his grace. And through his grace, we know Christ himself.

So, while this Table is by no means the only practical avenue of knowing him, it is a vital one as we come here together week after week and eat and drink in faith. Which is why another name for the Lord’s Supper is Communion. We don’t just come here to eat and drink the grace he provides; we come here to encounter him. To know him.