THAT I MAY KNOW HIM
A Sermon by Kenneth W. H. Howard
“That I may know him.” Philippians 3.10.
This, of course, is part of a longer statement which begins at verse 8.
“Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.”
The only justification I can find for selecting those few words as a text by themselves is the fact that they are the central and key words; they are the crux of this whole long sentence that runs through these four verses. I am well aware that the apostle speaks of other things. He speaks of the power of the resurrection, but no man knows the power of the resurrection until he knows Christ. No man knows the fellowship of His sufferings until he knows Christ. The kingpin in the whole of this great and glorious statement is essentially these words at the beginning of verse 10 which sum up everything in verses 8 and 9 and which lead to the rest of verse 10 and verse 11.
“That I may know him”, Jesus Christ. Most men have an aim in life. One desires wealth, another possessions, another fame. Paul may have had other aims and objectives in life but this was his supreme aim, to know Christ. You may say: Surely Paul knew Christ already, he was after all a Christian apostle. Yes he did! He was in the blessed position where he could say – as he did on another occasion – “I know”. There was no hesitation about it, “I know whom I have believed”, and yet he felt that his knowledge was imperfect. Whatever knowledge of Christ he had, there was more to be known and so he pressed after a deeper, fuller, richer knowledge of his Lord. “That I may know him”. There are three kinds of people who stand to benefit from this word it seems to me, and each one of us is in one or another of these categories.
The first category is: non-Christians. Sinner, unbeliever, you are not a Christian and you know you are not a Christian. You may not think it, but to know Jesus Christ is the greatest need in your life and you will never be happy until you do know Him.
Or you may be included in another category: those people who are spiritually anxious. You know you are a sinner and you know Christ is a Saviour. You know that by grace God redeems His people in Jesus Christ and yet you are not sure whether you are among them. Well, this has to be said of you: your anxiety will disappear only when you know Him.
The third category is: those who are the Lord’s people, who, like the apostle Paul, know Him already. But like the apostle Paul they are aware that they need to know Him more. They are aware of the fact that they need to repel anything and everything and anyone that would seek to deter them or dampen their acquaintance with Jesus Christ. Do you see, this is a word for every one of us. May the Spirit of God apply His word to our hearts according to our needs. Do not concern yourself with the other person. Listen to what God is saying to you.
There are set before us in these few words, either by statement or by inference from the immediate context, three great things which I would set before you as I may be enabled.
The first thing that is set before us is this: the knowledge of Jesus Christ is the most excellent knowledge there is. The world is full of knowledge, never more so than today. Our sociologists of a hundred and fifty years ago declared that if you educate the masses you will solve the problems of society. Well, we have educated the masses but have we solved the problems of society, the family, the nation, the individual? If the world can be saved by mere knowledge then surely it should be today, but is it so? Does not every news bulletin and newspaper tell you loud and clear every time, that although knowledge runs to and fro as it never did, “evil men and seducers wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived”? And while men are better off materially than they ever were, they are no better morally than they ever were. Whatever you may think of Christianity, my friend, this proposition is incontrovertible, that human knowledge does not solve human problems. Never was our society so sick as it is in this day when knowledge and information is more freely available than ever.
The world is full of knowledge, but clearly there are different kinds of knowledge. The ultimate distinction is between natural knowledge and a knowledge that comes in a spiritual way. There is no knowledge to compare with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I am afraid that a great many people who know much do not have the best knowledge. Many people who know much about Christianity and churches do not know Christ. An interest in Christianity is one thing and an interest in Christ is another. In His great High Priestly prayer our blessed Lord said, “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ”. To know Him is the most excellent, the most elevated of all knowledge. Let me try to give you the reasons why this is so. I cannot give you them all but I will just make a beginning.
The knowledge of Jesus Christ is the most excellent of all knowledge because: it is brought to us by the most Excellent Messenger. All knowledge comes to us by some messenger, some means, some media. It may be a teacher, it may be a book, it may be a visual means of communication. All those means are fallible. But the Messenger by whom the knowledge of Jesus Christ is brought is the Holy Spirit of God, and being God He is infallible. He does not err in what He communicates and we are indebted to the Holy Spirit for all we know of Jesus Christ.
You read about Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Who caused the Scriptures to be written? The Holy Spirit! Do you understand what you read about Jesus Christ in the Scriptures? If you do, it is because the Holy Spirit takes it out of the page and enlightens your mind. You cannot know Jesus Christ by your own unaided effort. I care not how brilliant your brain or how determined your will and purpose, you cannot know Christ for this reason: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned”.
There is only one method by which this most excellent knowledge is brought to the heart and spirit of man, and that is by the infallible Holy Spirit of God. He may use the preacher in the pulpit to convey the knowledge. He may use the printed Word to convey the knowledge of Christ. He may use the spoken or unspoken testimony of some godly life to bring home to your soul something of this most excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, but no man of wisdom or knowledge, and no man of grace can actually convey to you the knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is imparted solely, exclusively by the Holy Spirit.
Another reason why the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ is the most excellent of all knowledge is: because Jesus Christ Himself is the most excellent person. Scan the pages of history or read your biographies and you will read about many great men on a natural level, good men, moral men, philanthropists and benefactors of the human race, but nowhere in history or in biography will you read of a man of whom such things were said as were said of Jesus Christ: “He is altogether lovely”. That has never been said of anyone else. Look at His person as it is set down in the Word of God. Who is He? The self-existent God, supreme, giving being to all and deriving His being from none, yet coming to earth and becoming a real man, sin alone excepted. In that incarnate state He was Prophet, Priest and King, for the redemption of His Church. There never was a person like this and that is why the knowledge of this person is the most excellent knowledge.
Well might Paul say, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord,” and Paul was no fool, he was an educated man. Quite aside from his tuition by the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the Scripture, Paul was an intellectual man, a man with an acute brain, but he says, “I count all things but dung that I may win Christ”. Why? Because of what He is and who He is, the Ancient of Days who became the infant of days, passing by the nature of angels and taking on Himself the nature of Abraham, the seed of Abraham’s human nature. He is an able and a willing Saviour, “able also to save them to the uttermost that come to God by him” and equally willing to save any and every sinner who trusts in Him. There was never anybody else like that in the history of humanity.
Let me give you another reason why it is true that the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ is the most excellent of all knowledge, and that is: because of the effect that the knowledge of Christ has upon a man’s life. Now all knowledge has some effect upon those who have it. Whatever we know, good or ill, right or wrong, worthwhile or flippant and useless, it all has some effect upon us, but what about the effect of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ?
The knowledge of Jesus Christ is something that touches the heart in an inimitable way. That knowledge does something to a man’s mind that any amount of knowledge of the arts and sciences never does or can do. Those who truly know Him will tell you that He has enthralled their hearts, laid claim to their affections, and they gladly and willingly would have it so. They will tell you that He has won their love, their loyalty, their esteem, and reverence. This knowledge inspires spiritual confidence.
The effect is cumulative. The more I know Him the more I trust Him, the more I trust Him the more I am at peace with Him, the more I am at peace with Him the more I am at peace with God and with myself. These are the effects that this most excellent and incomparable knowledge has upon a man’s soul. Not only that, to know Christ sanctifies the soul, that is to say, makes it holy. It not only separates it from evil and sin but brings in a principle of positive holiness, which the soul wholly desires but does not have by nature. It gives the spirit higher aims, that it does not have by nature. It creates in a man’s soul a hatred for sin which he does not possess by nature; indeed it puts within him a hatred especially for his own sin. It has a sanctifying effect, an effect that is wholesome and elevating, holy and spiritual. I discover that the more I know about this world the more I become dissatisfied with this world, but the more I know of Jesus Christ the more enthralled with Him, His person, His grace and His character I become. To know Him is the most excellent of all knowledge.
The second thing, it seems to me, that is most clearly implicit in our text, viewed in the light of its immediate context is: the desire or appetite or inclination for this particular knowledge. This most excellent knowledge is something in the apostle’s mind that he cannot be impartial about. He cannot be academic about it; he cannot sit on the fence and be unmoved by it. There is a thirst, a hunger, an appetite for it. It is lovely to see a young person growing up and the natural faculties developing, showing perhaps a gift in one field or another, and later you see the natural faculty blossoming out. There is an appetite for this particular field of knowledge and learning. I take that just as an illustration of what the apostle means when he says “That I may know him”. He knows Him already and his interest in Christ increases and develops. Job says, “Oh that I knew where I might find him!” and David says, “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee”.
Whether you are a sinner or a seeker or a saint, it is a sign and evidence of spiritual health if you have an appetite for Jesus Christ, if you know what it is to be hungering and thirsting after the righteousness that is in Him and only in Him. If you have this authentic appetite and craving for Christ one thing is certain: you will not be put off with anything else. If you can accept substitutes in place of Jesus Christ there is some evidence that you are playing at religion and you are not in earnest. If a babe is crying for milk you may offer it all the gold in the world but it will not satisfy, there is only one thing that will satisfy. That is the picture of a person brought to spiritual birth by the Spirit of God. He is given a deep, burning thirst after Jesus Christ, His person and His work. Such a soul will then refuse to be pacified with anything less.
A living soul demands a living Christ and it says in one way or another: give me Christ or else I die. You may have home comforts, you may have money comforts, you may have the comforts of friends. You may hardly know the meaning of trouble in the ordinary, common, human sense of that term, but if this Heavenly Messenger, the Holy Spirit of God has created in your heart this appetite for Jesus Christ, you will not allow anything else in the world to attempt to satisfy you. If Christ is absent when using the means of grace, attending chapel, or even reading the Word of God, your soul will be hungry and unsatisfied. How do I know whether I have an authentic soul thirst and appetite for Jesus Christ? I know it if in my spiritual life and outlook and exercises I have an absolutely transparently clear and sincere disposition of soul that nothing satisfies me but Him.
A second thing that will tell you whether you really have this appetite for Christ is this: you will do everything in your power to satisfy it. If you crave for Christ, in practical terms you will go to those places where you know Christ is most likely to be found, and where is that? Among His people, in His house, around His Word. If your heart is hungry for Christ you will do those things that you know already will be most likely to lead you to Him.
The sovereign election and predestination of God in no way overrides the fact that a soul who has an appetite for Christ knows that God in His mercy has provided certain ways and means, the means of grace as they are usually called. Such a soul will not sit back with a fatalistic inactivity, knowing that only the Holy Spirit can communicate that most excellent of knowledge. That soul will nevertheless use every opportunity that God by His grace has put into his way to this end. If you have a true appetite for Christ you will read the Word, you will pray and you will engage in spiritual contemplation. If you have this true appetite you will see to it that your days are not so incessantly busy that you do not have time to read and pray and attend God’s house to hear His Word preached.
Why do I search the Scriptures daily? “That I may know him” who is revealed therein. Why do I pray? “That I may know him”. Why do I go to hear God’s Word preached? Not just to please the minister, not just to keep up with those who expect me to go. The Christian does these things not even merely to satisfy conscience, not as routine duties, but with a heart and soul that knows that in one way or another a faithful ministry cannot but lead to Christ. How do I know whether I have the appetite for this most excellent knowledge? Do I refuse all substitutes? And secondly, do I use all the means that God has provided and made available to me?
There is a third thing to be said in answer to this question. How do I know whether I have an authentic soul thirst and appetite for Christ. If you have it, you will make this discovery: the more your appetite is satisfied the bigger it becomes. Does that sound contradictory too? Does that sound paradoxical? Well, it is in terms of human reason, but it is absolutely true. The more I know Him the more I want to know Him. The more I discover of Him the more I discover myself to be ignorant concerning Him. The more I know Him the more I discover there is to be known of His glorious being. That is what Paul found when he said, “I know whom I have believed”. He found that his desire was increased every time it was satisfied. Not the fact that the satisfaction did not satisfy in itself, but that it satisfied him so much that every step forward opened the vista wider.
It is like climbing a mountain, you usually find that you come to, as it were, a little peak and you think you have got to the top of the mountain but you have not, you find there is a little valley and then it goes up again, and so it is repeated on and on. And so it is with the acquisition of this most excellent of knowledge. That is why the apostle can speak as he does in Ephesians chapter 3 verse 19, “And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God”.
A man who has this authentic appetite or desire for Christ makes the discovery that the more knowledge of Christ he enjoys the more he wants. In the world nothing satisfies, so you flit from one thing to another. You go from this to that and it all becomes blase and unsatisfying, but not so with Jesus Christ. The more He satisfies the more he reveals of Himself, and soul thirst for Christ is something that grows as it is satisfied. David was inspired to write, “I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness”, and John wrote, “When he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”. Show me a man who tells me he is a Christian but does not have this appetite. He cannot say I want Christ more than I want anything else. I tremble for him.
The third thing that arises from this text, I submit, is this: the unusual tuition by which this knowledge is communicated. How is this knowledge brought? Listen to John Newton:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.
He had the appetite, the desire. The Holy Spirit was at work in him, but he goes on:
‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust, has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
That is it! The strange and mysterious tuition. The school of Christ is different from every other school. We are taught to know Christ by a better knowledge of ourselves. A paradox, but perfectly true. The trouble with men is that they think they know themselves and they do not. Remember that Newton later goes on to say, ‘He made me feel the hidden evils of my heart’.
Never was man more studied by man than in this age of psychology. Modern man thinks he knows himself and understands himself, but he does not. Even the ancient Greek philosophers knew that man by nature does not understand himself. They set up as their watchword, ‘Man, know thyself. In other words they were saying in their pagan philosophical way, you will never know the meaning of life until you understand what you are, where you have come from and where you are going. Man by nature thinks he knows himself and therefore usually thinks very well of himself. Is that what he ought to think? This man Paul, who longed to know Christ, said of himself, “O wretched man that I am”. That is how you come to the acquisition of this most excellent knowledge. You know Him only as you come to know your own heart’s wretchedness. If you believe you are good you will never learn of Christ. If you believe you are as good as those who go to church or chapel, you will never have the knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are taught to know Christ by means of a better knowledge of ourselves, a knowledge that leads us to the point at which we decrease and He incrcases in our own view. The people who think most of Christ are those who think least of themselves.
When you read of the deathbed experiences of eminent Christians, men greatly used of God in the conversion of sinners and in the establishment of His Church, you will find they had nothing to rest on but the sinner’s Saviour. They learned their own heart’s wretchedness. William Carey was dying in Serampore after a lifetime of sacrificial labour and service for God and His gospel. When his friends gathered round his deathbed to thank him and honour him for the way his work had been used in the blessing of their hearts and lives, Carey’s answer was very short and to the point: “When I am gone say nothing of Dr. Carey but say much of Carey’s Saviour.” His orders were that on his tombstone there were to be inscribed only those two lines from Isaac Watts’ hymn:
A guilty, weak, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall.
Such men go from time into eternity like little children, simply trusting unreservedly in Jesus Christ.
I am a poor sinner and nothing at all.
Jesus Christ is my All in All.
When we get the right knowledge of ourselves we are on the right road to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. Mysterious tuition, is it not? So out of joint with every other way of the communication of knowledge and information, but that is the way the Lord answers the earnest cry of the soul for Himself; by giving us, on the way to that knowledge, a better, a truer, more authoritative knowledge of ourselves. “That I may know him” means that I must know that I am a sinner in the hands of an angry God, and yet apprehended by Christ Jesus.
Here is another thing that I can only just mention. This soul thirst and appetite is very often answered in or after a time of sorrow and trouble. Spiritual sorrow and trouble – yes – but it may be providential sorrow and trouble as well. It may not be so in your case, and I am not saying that it will be, or that it must follow a particular pattern, I simply say that in general this is the pattern. There is a night of sorrow, a night of conviction, a night of condemnation, a night when the soul can see nothing but the blackness of its own heart. “Weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.” As the hymnwriter says:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
He brings us through the fire; He brings us through the furnace, and sometimes when the furnace is heated seven times more than usual it becomes the gate of heaven, and in retrospect we bless God for the furnace. Is your soul athirst for Him? Is it? Then I say, Seek Him. Seek Him who sought you by giving you the thirst. Come to Him who came to you and gave you the desire for Himself. Believe on Him who came and gave you the revelation of your ignorance: the revelation that you did not know Him, and that to know Him and Him alone, was the way to life eternal.
Use all means you can to know Him, and as you feel your way to Him, be prepared for surprises. This most excellent knowledge is not taught in book fashion, it is not book knowledge. It is taught in the school of experience, the school where you will learn to read, among other things, your own evil heart of unbelief. In this school you will wrestle with giant Apollyon in the way. You will suffer great losses in terms of your own pride and arrogance and ego, but when by God’s grace you are brought to graduate, you will say with the apostle: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ, Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith”. “That I may know him.”
May God write such a desire upon our minds and spirits, and if He writes it there by His blessed Holy Spirit, He will not write it in vain. “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Blessed be God for Jesus Christ. Blessed be God for the salvation that is in Him. Blessed be God for the Holy Spirit who communicates this most excellent knowledge. May He have all the glory and may He be pleased to grant us such blessed knowledge. Amen.