Past Present Future
It’s the last day of the year. Isn’t it amazing how fast it went, yet again? 2017 is over before we even realized it!
The last week of December already brings us to a place of self-examination. After perhaps some days of self-indulgence, of eating perhaps a bit too much and exercising a bit too less, it is time to count the costs, to evaluate, to do the inventory.
There is something magical about New Years Eve. All of a sudden you can flip the page. In an instant moment you start all over again. 365 days to pursue that old dream that was tucked away. 365 days to work on a better version of yourself. Not so for everyone. The quest of good intentions is not appealing to everyone. In fact, many don’t bother to come up with New Year Resolutions. Why change what cannot be changed?
Where does this inner struggle come from? Start over? New chances…
The Romans had their version in the god Janus. Many years before Christ came this god was worshipped as the god of beginning and endings. The image of this god is very interesting. He had two faces (front and back). It was believed that Janus had the power to look both forward and backward at the same time. So on December 31 this deity could look into the near future, but he could also look back into what had already passed. Interesting fellow!
We, as human beings, subject to time, decay, past, present and future, from time to time reflect on where we are in life and also where we perhaps ought to be in life. It is in this tension between what was, what is and could or should be, that we make plans to chart a different course in life. It is very much in our human psyche. Psychology shows us that there is indeed something powerful about turning a page on New Year, start all over.
Perhaps some of you have tried something. Give up a habit that you know that is just not helping you. Or, affirming the positive, for 2018 you finally want to take up that long-desired hobby or dream. 2018 will, after all, be your year. Finally!!
The apostle Paul wrote some words about this tension field between past, present and future in his letter to a group of people we know as the community of the Philippians. To Paul a specific ministry was entrusted by God to reach out to non-Jews after having persecuted Christians for a long time. Paul had blood on his hands and he knew it. Like a modern ISIS warrior, he thought he was doing it for a noble cause. He had zeal and passion and knowledge, but not for the right cause and certainly not for the God that loves people. His radical conversion led him to see, through blindness first, that everything he knew about God, had to go through a major, major overhaul.
Looking back, with hindsight, he saw that all that zeal, passion and even knowledge about God, was rubbish. In fact, the word he uses I would rather not say here. Rubbish is probably the polite word.
Philippians 3:7-8 reads this
“But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss, for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish…”
Paul came to the understanding that walking with God had nothing to do with being very zealous for Him. It wasn’t about being a good person to please Him. And it certainly wasn’t about being proud of that knowledge, zeal and passion. It was as if he finally realized that he came to the end of himself and now came to his final conclusion: “I cannot do this on my own strength”.
New Year resolutions. Trying to better yourself, finally pursue that lost dream. Reality often shows that it just doesn’t work to self-help yourself out of your current situation. Bookstores beg to differ for sure. The self-help resources are readily available and even if some of what is offered could be beneficial, there remains a big, big issue that can never, ever be resolved by just trying harder, with better strategies or self-knowledge. It’s the issue of being right with our Maker. The nagging voice in our minds that says that we are not good enough constantly drives people to perform more, harder and better.
Just imagine. You have made up your mind to hold your tongue a bit more with others. January 1 passed by. January 2, 3,4. So far so good. Then you get that nice phone call of a dear relative that just happens to get under your skin and…you can’t resist. It happened again!
Paul knows what his rubbish was, what wasn’t leading him to freedom. Yet, he also knew what was liberating him. He knew what truly could set him free.
He continues like this:
“…that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Let me unpack this because there is a lot to understand here. Understanding that right-standing with God is not a self-help approach, is one thing. Now we also need to understand what Christ actually did. Christ has the power to transform us, through the power of His resurrection. He died so that we might live. He suffered death so that we could be united with Him again.
There is one word in this passage that is so important to understand. It’s the word ‘to KNOW’. We can know many things about a person. After almost being married for 17 years I can safely say that I know my wife. You know a lot about her and some of you may know more personal matters about her. Still, there is a huge difference between knowing stuff about someone and actually knowing the person intimately. With God that is very similar.
You see, many people, Christians or not, are craving to actually know God and to be known by Him. In a sense this is more than just head-knowledge although it is part of it. It is also experiential. You can’t know about the power of His resurrection. You have to actually experience it to understand what Paul was talking about.
Let me quickly unpack ‘knowing God’ in three other passages. One of Jesus Himself and two of the apostles Paul and John.
First we listen to what Jesus understood with knowing God.
John 17:3 says this: “And this is eternal life, that they (the disciples) may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
Did you get that? What is eternal life? A place somewhere up in the sky where we, one day, hope to be? NO, not really. It is actually about knowing God and His Son. To be intimately familiar with His ways, how He thinks, feels and responds. That is eternal life! Eternity is here already and death is merely a portal to the other side of eternity. God desires to transform us here and now already and it all starts with knowing Him.
Sometimes I listen to preachers on the internet that have been walking with God for many years and I feel like I am just a student, a beginner. Don’t you have that sometimes? Take for example the prayer warrior called George Mueller, a man who prayed and saw thousands of requests being answered by God. He recorded over 50,000 prayer requests that were granted by God. This man led an orphanage in the U.K. many, years ago. The needs were ever-present, the reality was for orphans back then were very grim. Nevertheless, this man knew God and even more, he was known by God and through his ministry many lives were changed. I envy that with a holy jealousy. I desire that.
Two other verses I will quickly highlight here as well.
First, the apostle John, the man that knew Jesus intimately, wrote this in 1 John 2:3:
“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”
Very simple. Jesus Christ is your Saviour? You say you are following Him? Then it’s His call, not yours. You obey.
He says: “GO and make disciples.” That was not a suggestion. It was a commandment.
He says: “Forgive one another.” That was also not a multiple-choice question. He asks us to do this.
I can guarantee you this already. 2018 will bring some hardships. It just will. But it also can be a year to know God intimately. It can also be a year where you are really following Him as He is transforming you from the inside out.
Finally we go back to Paul. He said in Ephesians 3:19 where he expresses his desire that the Christians of this community may ‘know the love of Christ which passes knowledge’. That is profound. How can you know the love of Christ that goes further than knowledge? It is simply this; an intimate, on-going relationship. Knowing God’s love simply enjoying being in His presence.
It is one thing to know that God is good. It’s something else to experientially know that He is. It is one thing to know that God is faithful, but it is something different to actually have experienced His faithfulness when we go through tough times in life.
So we had the PAST – knowing that all that we think that we can do on our own efforts has to go. It is rubbish according to Paul.
Then we also have the PRESENT. It’s knowing God intimately every single day of your life. But, hang on. Isn’t that too hard? Doesn’t it even sound a bit legalistic? Paul helps us out when he now turns to the third part of his understanding of the Christian life: the FUTURE. He writes this in verses 12-14
“Not that I have already attained (being conformed to the image of God – it is still a process), or am already perfected (in the absolute sense of the word); but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended, but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I PRESS TOWARD the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
What does that mean? Well, we understand that our Christian walk is still in a tension of what has been accomplished and what will be in the future. We call it also the already and not yet.
Already we are saved from the penalty of sin, but our mortal bodies are not yet
Already we can experience the foretaste of heaven, but there is in many ways still brokenness.
That’s why we understand that we are pilgrims that are all on a journey. God is giving us the strength, so it is not self-help. Yet, we do have a role to play. It’s not ‘God you do it while I just take a back-seat’. Our part is to commune with God, to desire and strive to be in His presence. It is in this close relationship that He faithfully transforms us.
What do you desire for 2018? What do you want to let go? What do you want to pick up? Paul is telling us to keep on walking. Keep on going. Never, ever give up!