A RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST
by Bob Wheeler
We sometimes hear it said that what we need is not religion, but a relationship with Jesus. The statement, however, is a bit disingenuous. If “a relationship with Jesus” is not “religion,” then what is “religion”? Jesus was, after all, a highly regarded religious teacher, and to most people’s minds a relationship with Jesus is certainly religion. So when people make the statement, how exactly do they mean by the world “religion”? Usually they leave it undefined. Presumably it is whatever bad experience one may have had with a church in the past.
There is, however, an element of truth to the charge. It is sad but true that much of what passes for religion these days in the typical, modern institutional church has very little genuinely spiritual content. The typical church functions as a social club, the pastor is a trained professional who is paid to perform certain administrative duties, and the Sunday morning service is little more than a mere formality. Ironically there is very little sense of the presence of Jesus. What is lacking is a meaningful relationship with Christ.
But what, then, is a relationship with Christ? What does one look like? The apostle Paul gives us a picture in Philippians chapter 3 in which he describes his own relationship with Christ.
By almost any measure Paul led a remarkable life. Called to be the apostle to the Gentiles he preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece. But in so doing he encountered ferocious opposition along the way, and his path eventually took him to the city of Rome where he suffered martyrdom. His letter to the Philippians was written from a prison.
But what led him to take such risks, and expose himself to such dangers? Why would anyone in his right mind persist in such a hazardous course? In Philippians chapter 3 pulls back the veil a bit to give us a glimpse into his own heart.
He begins by describing his own religious background as a devout Jew. He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6; NKJV). In other words his religion consisted almost entirely in what he was what he did.
But when he became a Christian his whole perspective on life changed dramatically. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yes 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, that I may gain Christ” (vv. 7,8)
But why? What is so special about Christ? Paul goes on to explain.
Paul says that he wants to be “found in Him” (v. 9). This is a reference to union with Christ. When a person repents of his sin, puts his trust in Christ, and is baptized, he becomes one with Christ; he is “in Him.” And this, in turn, has several implications.
The first of these is the forgiveness of one’s sins, or “justification by faith” as Paul puts it elsewhere. Here Paul draws a contrast between “my own righteousness, which is from the law” and “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (v. 9). In other words we are made righteous in the sight of God (justification) by an imputed righteousness. Having been united to Christ by faith we are counted as Christ Himself. We are credited with His righteousness.
But does this mean that having been forgiven we can go out and live like the devil? Not at all, because union with Christ means several other things as well. For Paul goes on to say “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (v. 10). Note: Paul said that he wanted to “know Him,” not merely know about Him. What he aimed at was a personal acquaintance with Christ, a meaningful relationship with Him. This, in turn, means knowing something of “the power of His resurrection” – the life-giving power that transforms lives, the spiritual life within.
But Paul goes on. He also says that he wants to know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (v. 10). To follow Christ means to go where He went and experience what He experienced. And Christ was eventually crucified. And so too we are told that we must experience persecution. “’A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
Paul goes on to compare the Christian life to a foot race in which “forgetting the things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13,14). It is a life of determined purpose and strenuous exertion in which we press on to the goal that lies ahead, and do not allow ourselves to be distracted by lesser things.
Paul goes on in the end of the chapter to lament the presence of certain false teachers who, he says, are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18). He describes them as a bunch of hedonistic materialists (“whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” – does this not sound like the typical, modern consumer oriented American?).
Christians, however, have a different perspective on life: “. . . our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20). We belong to a different realm or state; and we live for the future, not the present, viz., the Second Coming of Christ “from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus,” who will release us from our present ills and inaugurate a glorious future. In the words of the old gospel hymn,
“This world is not my home,
I’m just apassing through.
My treasures are laid up
Somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me
Through heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home
In this world anymore.”
The problem with many churches today is that they have a “religion,” but it mainly consists in external observances. There is very little real spirituality about it. But God calls us to have a relationship with Christ. Christ is supposed to be the focus of our attention, the object of our worship, the driving force in our lives. A real relationship with Christ begins with a sound conversion – repentance, faith and the new birth; and it is fostered by a life of prayer and personal Bible study. A relationship with Christ transforms us inwardly – gives us a new perspective, new values and new desires. It leads to holy living and a life of non-conformity to the world.
May God send His church a revival!