“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
Paul writes these verses immediately following his description of his old life as a law abiding Jew, three time winner of Pharisee of the Year, and zealous persecutor of the church. But, times have changed. Paul isn’t the poster child for adherence to the law anymore. He calls all of his past accomplishments “rubbish,” and says, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
The funny thing is that, as a Pharisee, Paul knew a lot about God. He knew that God is righteous and holy and loving. He knew God judges and God forgives. He knew God is powerful and he knew God is one. He probably knew and understood these facts better than almost anyone else in Israel at the time, and he believed them passionately. Yet, with all this knowledge, I think Paul would say that he didn’t really KNOW God.
We are taught to talk about God in certain terms, attempts to describe his qualities and his behavior in ideas that make sense in our little human minds. We are taught that God is infinite, God is omnipresent and omniscient and omnipotent, God is holy. But even these words only go so far in helping us know who God is. What does ‘infinite’ really mean, except that God is not finite as you and I and my pet cat and your car and this world all are? No matter how much hard thought and brain stretching I put into it, I cannot grasp what infinite means. (Trust me, I’ve tried. It always goes something like this: ‘Ok, so infinite means God always existed. But what was he doing all that time? Wait, infinity means there is no time, right? AHHHHHGH! It hurts my thinker!’ And then I give up.)
And what do all the omni- words mean, except that we are omni-nothing? What does “God is Holy” mean except that there is a quality to God that we do not have. Our descriptions of God rest in saying how he differs from us. We are an unholy people. God is different; he is holy. Just as I cannot truly grasp his infiniteness in my finiteness, I cannot grasp his holiness in my sinfulness. I’m left knowing what God is, but not necessarily who he is.
None of this is to say that these words we use to define the attributes of God are unhelpful. No, they do tell the truth about who God is, in a way I sort of understand. Unfortunately, though, they don’t go all the way. They help me know about God, but they don’t help me to KNOW God. How can I know something I can’t even entirely understand?
A couple weeks ago I started listening to a band called mewithoutYou. So far my opinion is that they are one of the best Christian bands I’ve heard yet. Some people I know think they are sort of weird, but that mostly just means that their music is unique and their lyrics are not always straight forward. You have to think about what they are saying. If you’ve ever heard them, you know what I mean.
One of their songs has captivated me more than the rest these last few weeks, called “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate.” I think it’s a sort of parable, and while I wouldn’t usually try to explain what difficult song lyrics mean, I want to use this song as an example of what I am talking about.
The song tells the story of a brush fire set by workers on a coconut farm to burn off the dead leaves. It makes perfect sense to us as humans. However, for the beetles that live on the estate, the fire is a Great Mystery, something powerful and dangerous which they cannot quite comprehend.
The King Beetle offers a reward to whichever of his subjects can go and discover once and for all what exactly the fire is. A professor volunteers, and the story continues as follows,
“One Beetle emerged from the crowd
in a fashionable abdomen shroud:
‘I’m a Professor, you see, that’s no mystery to me…
I’ll be back soon, successful and proud’
but when the Beetle Professor returned
he crawled on all six, as his wings had been burned
and described to the finest detail all he’d learned
but there was neither a light nor a heat in his words”
The King isn’t satisfied with this answer, and he still isn’t satisfied when one of his lieutenants returns, singed and giving the same descriptions,
“The Beetle King slammed down his fist:
‘why, your flowery description is no better than his!
we sent for the Great Light and you bring us this??
we didn’t ask what it seems like, we asked what it IS!’”
The exasperated King finally decides to find out for himself what this Great Mystery is. His investigation, however, is different than that of the Professor or the Lieutenant, who tried to experience the flames from distance. Instead, the King flies “headlong into the fiery unknown.” The rest of the Beetles exclaim that the king hasn’t died, but has rather been “utterly changed into fire.”
He is consumed (quite literally) in the knowledge of what the Great Mystery really is. The King KNOWS fire.
The song concludes with a question for the listener, “Why not be utterly changed into fire?”
Fire has always been a symbol of the Lord’s presence. From God coming down in fire on Mt Sinai to the tongues of flame that appeared above the believers at Pentecost as they were filled with the Holy Spirit, fire has been a chosen symbol for expressing God’s presence in the midst of his people. The author of Hebrews wrote, “For indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (12:29)
If someone gives themselves up to fire, they will be totally consumed in the flames. This is what Jesus was asking us to do when he said that his disciples would deny themselves and take up their crosses and follow him. He was asking us to be totally consumed in the fire of his presence in our lives. He was asking us to be utterly changed into fire.
When Paul the Pastor talks about knowing God in Philippians 3, he avoids talking about the attributes of God. Instead, he talks about a knowledge that comes through a shared life with Jesus. He knows God through the power of the resurrection and through sharing in the sufferings of Christ. He knows God through a death to himself. He has been consumed, changed.
Paul’s words about his knowledge of God do carry with them a light and a heat, unlike the Beetle Professor’s words and unlike many Christians who try to talk about God without ever getting close enough to God to really be changed. Paul didn’t experience the resurrection of Christ by standing at a safe distance and piecing together observations and attributes into a systematic theology which told him Christ had been raised. No! He experienced the resurrection of Christ by completely being consumed by Christ’s Spirit and by experiencing resurrection from his own life of sin and death!
Our task as Christians is to come to know a mystery, someone we can never fully grasp or understand. We should expect some things about God to always remain a mystery. His greatness will always be unfathomable to us.
But, if we really want to know our unfathomable, indescribable Creator, we cannot remain at a safe distance. It is a risky business to go beyond the point where we are nicely warmed, maybe even singed a bit by his fire. It is a risky business to be consumed by someone who will change us and use us. It is a risky business to really KNOW our God. Yet, it is the risk that Paul and countless others have taken, trusting that when they were burned and consumed they would come out safe in the hands of God on the other side.
If our words to the world about who Jesus is have no light or no heat, if they are only flowery descriptions that show we know about God, but we don’t really KNOW him, then our words are meaningless. No one will care. If we want people to be attracted to the Gospel message, then we must be being consumed in the truths it says about God’s power and might. His grace must be making us different. The same light and heat that burns in the presence of his Spirit must be burning in us as well.
I readily admit that I’m not there yet. I still hold on to parts of my life that I need to let go of, but I pray that I will release these to God, be utterly consumed in the purifying fire of his Spirit, and know him. I pray the same for you. I pray those things so that others may come to know him through the fire he sets in us.
So, why not be utterly changed into fire?