Let’s Go Back to the Start: Becoming (More) Like Christ

‘Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be so hard / Oh, let’s go back to the start’ (Coldplay, ‘The Scientist’).

‘To know him – both the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings – by being conformed to his death, so that somehow I might attain the resurrection from the dead’ (Philippians 3:10–11, AT).

Back in April 2019, when the world was relatively normal, I was a spectator at the (then Virgin) London Marathon. Having watched some of my gifted running friends fly through Bermondsey shortly before the halfway point, I resolved to go and position myself at a lonelier part of the course towards the end. Helpfully warned by my friend that running through the Rotherhithe Tunnel was a very bad idea, I settled for the Overground over the Thames and alighted at Shadwell. From there, I ran over to Limehouse, catching sight of the elite men – including Mo Farah – passing the other way. I decided to position myself at the mile 21 marker (see photo) for some time to offer whatever encouragement I could to those running.

Although there were only just over five miles left, many experienced runners were starting to struggle – some were even beginning to crack. You could see the concentration and effort etched on their faces. Everyone was gearing up for those final few miles: admittedly some were looking strong and ready to take them in their stride; but others were resigned simply to do what they could to get round. A few were no doubt regretting that they had even started that day. I also saw one or two stepping off the road.

I have never run a marathon, but I feel I can relate to the experience: like many who have undertaken PhDs, I found the final miles very tough. I remember on some of these days of struggle trudging up to my desk singing or thinking about the lyrics from the song ‘The Scientist’ by Coldplay: ‘Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be so hard / Oh, let’s go [or: take me] back to the start’.

When approaching the finish line of a race, regardless of how it is going, it is foolish to wish to return to the start line. In terms of a big project like a PhD, it would be similarly foolish to rip up all of one’s work to start a differently conceived project, when you had written practically all the chapters. There is, however, a sense in which to finish, one can go back to the start in one’s mind. On a difficult day towards the end of the PhD, someone helpfully asked me: “Why did you start it?”. That simple and disarming question is sometimes enough to help us move forwards towards completion in anything difficult we undertake.

Some of you might even remember that I wrote a whole blog post about my hopes as I started the PhD. I did, in fact, occasionally return to it to motivate myself. In this blog, I am going to leave aside the six hopes which were more explicitly tied to research life and go back to the start by thinking about my seventh and final hope, which I believe any disciple of Jesus Christ should have: becoming more like him. With the help of one of my all-time favourite passages of the Bible, Philippians 3:8–14, I am going to dwell on how one might become like Christ. Inevitably, some of this will be self-directed in the light of some of my recent experiences while researching. Yet I also hope it can encourage others whose faith in Jesus might benefit from being reignited and be thought-provoking for those who don’t follow Jesus. I shan’t claim I’m trying to fix you.

1. Becoming like Christ flows from knowing him.

Philippians 3 is one of the apostle Paul’s most personal sections in his letters; he speaks autobiographically about his past and present.  His past was as a highly eager Pharisee who strove to keep the Jewish law as befitted his upbringing. Paul even considered himself to be successful in this mode of righteous living: he was ‘blameless according to the righteousness which comes in the law’ (Phil 3:6). Yet when it was revealed to Paul that Jesus was the messiah or Christ, this led him to re-evaluate the means by which he and others – notably those who weren’t Jews – became righteous. His previous ethnic privilege was now more of a loss than a gain because of Christ and his saving action. While Paul didn’t necessarily abandon the law that defined his past as a Jew, his life was re-oriented and his utmost priority or guiding principle was ‘knowledge of Christ Jesus, my lord’ (3:8).

In other words, Paul’s life was now firmly directed towards knowing Christ. This knowing Christ was clearly in a personal and relational sense: Jesus, my lord. While there is a sense in which one is called to know Christ rationally and theoretically, this will never be as powerful as knowing Christ relationally and experientially. I have become even more aware that while trying to know Christ academically is a noble undertaking, there is no guarantee that such research will bring you closer to Christ or make you more like him.

The way to know Christ fully is through relationship with him. Paul goes on talk about how he is resolved to be ‘found in him [Christ]’ (3:9), and from there, to know him. The notion of being found isn’t all that common in the New Testament, but it is noticeable that Luke’s final image in the parable of the lost (or prodigal) son is that this son had been hopelessly lost, but was now found (Lk 15:32). In this way, the relationship between father and son is fully restored. I have found myself asking: where am I found most of the week? In the library? In the office? In school? In the hospital? Do I know that wherever I am, I am found in Christ, and from that able to know him and, therefore, able to become like him?

2. Becoming like Christ involves dying and rising with Christ.

For Paul, he has come to realise that in order to become like Christ, one has to know Christ. In the next section, Paul expresses what that means for him now. In many ways, his vision might shock and surprise us, as his first comment is that knowing Christ involves conformity to the death of Christ (3:10).

There is a lot in contemporary discourse that encourages us to become whomever we want to be. While there is nothing wrong with ambition and wanting to flourish as individuals within communities, the last few years have seen the rise of narratives that tell us we can become whomever we want to be at little to no cost. If, say, any aspiring young girl in England wants to make the national football side and goes ‘all in’ on that aim, such a narrative suggests that this should not only be achievable, but require little denial of other things. In reality, it turns out that becoming a professional player is highly competitive and might require relocation and curtailing of other activities to achieve this status.

Paul’s ambition is centred on knowing and becoming like Christ, but interestingly he makes no promise of self-actualisation. Instead, the process of knowing Christ firstly involves being conformed to his deathor ‘becoming like him in his death’ (NIV).[1] Being a disciple of Christ carries with it participation in the sufferings of Christ: we should not go looking to impose sufferings on ourselves in an ascetic sense; but we should not be surprised if sufferings come our way.

Yet while suffering is an important part of the process, it is not the end of it: in the same breath, Paul also talks about knowing Christ’s resurrection power and the future promise of attaining, like Christ, the resurrection from the dead (3:11). In truth, doing a PhD in New Testament often feels more like dying or, at least, drowning in an ocean of scholarship; but I occasionally found there to be moments of vitality, rebirth, and seeing afresh. Although not quite the same as the dying and rising that Paul describes here, it is perhaps analogous to it. One need not undertake serious research, however, to know Christ as died and risen, and become like him. One of my favourite worship songs from the last few years paraphrases Paul very well here: ‘If the cross brings transformation, then I’ll be crucified with You / ‘Cause death is just the doorway into resurrection life / And if I join You in Your suffering, then I’ll join You when You rise’ (‘Christ Be Magnified’ by Cody Carnes).  

It is important to stress that knowing Christ is not a question of death or resurrection, but death and resurrection – in that order, in participation with Christ, and so becoming like him.

3. Becoming like Christ is ongoing and involves staying in the race.

We have been following the stages of Paul’s earnest spiritual career in Philippians 3: from its start as a Jewish Pharisee who blamelessly kept the law, to its development when he came to trust in Jesus as messiah, and to how he now desires to know Christ through participating in his life. In verses 12 to 14, Paul describes what he intends to be the next and even final stages of this career. He does so by using much racing terminology. Paul’s race is ongoing: he explicitly says that he has not reached resurrection status; he is still being perfected. Christ has fully taken hold of Paul, but Paul has not fully taken hold of Christ. This outlook leads to his fixed resolution for these final stages of the race: ‘but this one thing I do: forgetting the things behind and stretching out for the things ahead, based on a goal, I pursue the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3:13–14, AT).

Paul is becoming more like Christ, but still has some way to go. We can all learn from this. On the one hand, it should teach us humility. In gaining another year today, I would now say that I have been trying to follow Christ for over twenty years. Yet I know that I don’t have the maturity and wisdom that people even double or triple my age in faith years possess. On the other hand, Paul’s desire to look ahead towards the goal can encourage us to continue in faith with confidence. I believe that one of the enemy’s greatest lies is to tell us that we’re not progressing in faith. Yet as long as we are remaining in Jesus Christ, we shall become more like him. We often hear that you’ve got to be in a race to win a race – in it to win it – and I wonder if we might also say that when we are in Christ, we are definitively won by Christ.  

In these verses, Paul is visualising the end, but as he does so, he does not lose sight of the start: knowing Christ. In an earlier letter, Paul had written about Christ as the one ‘who did not know sin, yet [God] made sin for our sake’. The outrageous yet wonderful outcome of this ‘interchange’[2] was that ‘we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Cor 5:21). In this section to the Philippians, he moves from the start to consider the resurrected end: ‘the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.

In short, we might say that in seeking to know and become like Christ, Paul goes back to the start. After some journeying into death, Paul ultimately finds the direction towards Christ to be ‘up and up’. Had Paul lived to meet Chris Martin from Coldplay and heard his songs, he might occasionally have nodded his head along to the rhythm of the life and resurrection of Christ.


[1] While this translation is helpful, it doesn’t quite capture the Greek verb, summorpheo, which implies a shaping together.

[2] See the influential essays by Morna Hooker in From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul (1990).

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Go Back to the Start: Becoming (More) Like Christ

  1. Hi Alex,

    Happy Birthday! I hope you haven’t spent all day writing, but have been able to enjoy some convivial time with your family and friends?

    I have just enjoyed reading your blog and want to extend a huge congratulations, once again, on reaching the finish line with your PhD. What a long marathon that was! Well done for persevering, even through the dead zones.

    I’m glad that you can still say, after all your academic study, that our real hope comes from being in and becoming more like Christ. I read an article from Premier that was sent to me by email today as well. The writer was answering the question, What’s the best thing about being a Christian? Of course, it’s our relationship with Christ – knowing Jesus. I think God’s hammering that home again today!

    Incidentally, we must have stood at a very similar spot in the London marathon this year, having seen Hannah go by on the north side of the very busy Tower Bridge, we headed to Shadwell area, where we had a much better view, to cheer on weary runners with only 5 miles to go and wait for Hannah to come bounding past. Definitely a spot we’ll go back to if ever we’re cheering on Hannah (or you?) in any future marathon!

    Every blessing, and Happy Birthday again!

    Tania

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tania, thanks so much for reading and encouraging! Rest assured I’d written this before my birthday, so there was plenty of time for conviviality yesterday.
      I’m so glad that you took away that our true hope comes from being in and becoming like Christ. That’s basically all I wanted the blog to convey. I nearly mentioned John Wimber on faith: ‘the way in is the way on’ 🙂
      Blessings, Alex.

      Like

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