I want to know Christ…

April 9, 2018 Author: Dr. Manuel Rebeiro OCD 0 Comments


“I want to know Christ…” (Phil 3:10), and “…I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, …” (1Cor 2:2). These words of Paul elucidate his greatest quest and desire in life. Ever since the encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus,[1] Paul struggled to know him, love him, gain him, imitate him and finally to be identified with him. Throughout his life, Paul tried to conform himself to Christ even to the point of taking up all sorts of sufferings for the sake of Christ and thus to complete what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24). It is the same Jesus whom he encountered and experienced that he continued to proclaim. In this article, let us take a brief look at the nature of Paul’s knowledge of Christ.

1. Jesus Christ who encountered Paul

While Saul was travelling on the horseback of authority and pride with the plan to imprison and persecute the Christians that the fatal event took place (Acts 9:1-20; 22:1-22; 26:9-24; Gal 1:11-17). The one who decided to imprison the Christians was himself imprisoned by Christ. Thus, all his plans and goals were upset, his ambitions overthrown, and his dreams shattered. The one who had thrown him out of his horseback and blinded him had called out his name: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He then responded: “Who are you, Lord?” The reply was: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). From this encounter with the risen Jesus, he came to the awareness of the very identity of Jesus Christ – as the one being persecuted; the identity of every Christian – in whom Jesus Christ is present (for Saul did not persecute Jesus Christ but the Christians); his own identity – as the persecutor of Christ and Christians in whom also Jesus is present. That Jesus Christ is present in every Christian and that he still undergoes suffering and persecution whenever and wherever his followers are persecuted and that the same Jesus Christ must be in him as well is a strong conviction Paul would have received from his conversion experience. Matthew Thekkekara rightly observes, “The Damascus event is an experience he never forgot in his life. It was an experience in which he encountered the Risen Lord (1Cor 9:1) who made him his slave (Gal 1:10). As such there exists a perfect harmony between him and the gospel of his Master. Even his theology bears the distinct stamp of the above encounter.”[2]

2. Paul’s struggles to know Christ

Even if Paul and Jesus were contemporaries,[3] they definitely would not have met each other during their life and Paul would not have made any attempt to know him either. Being a Pharisee, Paul was very zealous in defending his religion and its practices and that is why he ventured to destroy the newly originated Jesus Movement termed as the Way (Acts 9:2; 18:25-26; 19:9.23; 22:4; 24:14.22). If the Damascus event was a life transforming experience for Paul, yet he had to strive hard to deepen his knowledge of Christ.

2.1. Why did Paul want to know Christ?

From his conversion experience, Paul had understood the value of knowing Christ and so he gave highest priority to Christ in his life. He has “decided to know nothing… except Jesus Christ” (1Cor 2:2). He is even ready to forsake everything for the sake of knowing him. That is why he wrote: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:7-8). This knowledge is not, however, from a human point of view (2 Cor 5:16). Neither is it a skin-deep knowledge nor an intellectual knowledge but rather a deeper knowledge gained through a personal relationship and intimacy with Christ. Hence, it is not a knowledge about Christ that is acquired generally from talks, classes, lectures and readings, but a knowledge of Christ gained through lived experience and intimate relationship with him. His desire to know Christ, certainly, stems from his life transforming experience. He wanted to know the one who found him, encountered him on the road, who had known and loved him before he ever came to know and love him, the one who gained him through his blood, and thus had made him his own.

2.1.1. Because Christ has known and loved him

Paul was quite conscious that the one who encountered him on the road would have known him and loved him even if he himself had never met him prior to that event. If he had not known him, how could he call out his name? The one who encountered him surely had a plan and purpose. It was revealed to Paul only gradually (Gal 1:11-24), although it was partly made known to Ananias: “But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”.” (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul knew that what is revealed in one’s calling is nothing but God’s own foreknowledge and love. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Rom 8:28-29; Cf. Eph 1:3-4).  Indeed, God has manifested his great love by forgiving our sins and bringing us alive in Christ. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved…” (Eph 2:4-5; Cf. Rom 5:8). And Paul is of the opinion that nothing can separate us from this love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:35-39).

It is only in deep faith that a person will be able to understand the love of Christ to a certain extent. This is even more so for Paul as Fuller testifies, “Faith in his Master was the power that charged his energies, the star that shaped his course, the wings that gave him flight.”[4] Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus is that they may have the ability to comprehend the various dimensions of this love. “…and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). Since his life has become Christ centered, Paul could grasp as well as live in this love relationship with Jesus and so he could firmly state that “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). It is this realization that Jesus had known him and loved him even before he ever came to know and love Jesus, prompted him to make all efforts to know and love Jesus and be intimately united with him. And thus, Paul could invite all of us to follow his course: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1Co 11:1). “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:1-2). And he expects that all should have “an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 6:24).

2.1.2. Because Christ has found and gained him

Long before Paul had found Jesus, it would have been Jesus who found him. This might have happened not just merely on the road but surely even before his birth (Gal 1:15). Jesus has not only found Paul but has found him within Jesus himself. This awareness was already implied in the response: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). Since Jesus has found Paul within himself, Paul too wanted to find himself in Jesus. This would be possible only through an inward journey of deeply knowing, tenderly loving and closely following Jesus. Jesus had not only found Paul but also has gained him through his suffering and death. This idea continuously recurs in his writings. If Jesus has gained Paul, it is now his own turn to do so. And he knew that without giving Jesus the first and primary place in his life involving a process of self-emptying and self-sacrifice, this would not be feasible. And so, Paul could boldly write: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil 3:8-9).

2.1.3. Because Christ has made him his own

Behind all the efforts of Paul in knowing Christ, is his deeper conviction that Christ has made him his own. If Christ has made Paul his own, it is now Paul who has to make Christ his own. Towards its realization, Paul is willing to undertake any sorts of hardships. This is very obvious from his own words: “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. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:10-12).

2.1.4. Because Christ is the power and wisdom of God

Since ‘knowing Christ’ has become the highest priority in Paul’s life, he also came to accept and proclaim the revelation of God in Christ. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that his preaching was about Christ crucified who is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor 1:23-24) to all those who are called. “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”.” (1Cor 1:30-31). He is also confident that what is revealed in and through the life of Jesus Christ is nothing but the power and wisdom of God that was hidden for ages.Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1Cor 2:6-7). Paul’s prayer is that God may grant us this spirit of wisdom and revelation that would help us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17-19). Hence for Paul, knowing Christ and possessing Christ will also bring one to “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3).

2.2. Paul wanted to know the crucified Christ

Being gripped by Christ,[5] Paul started to preach in the synagogues about Jesus that “He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:19-22). Jews would not have been very happy to hear such a proclamation as it is a blasphemy according to their standards of belief. One of the charges brought against Jesus was that he claimed to be the Son of God (Jn 19:7). In fact, this truth is at the heart of the gospels, that is, the gospels proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.  Being a Jew, Paul would not have dared to proclaim it either. It definitely stems from a tradition related to Jesus to which Paul had access or from a revelation which he might have received.

Even if Paul would have abided by the tradition in his proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God, his ardent desire was to know the crucified Christ. That is why he wrote to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1Cor 2:2). Why Paul desired to know the crucified Christ? It may be because of the revelation he had received through the conversion experience, in which the risen Lord had communicated to him that “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5). It is this Jesus who is constantly being persecuted and crucified, that Paul wanted to know, love, imitate, proclaim and to bear witness.

3. Paul wanted to imitate Christ and to be identified with him

A conversion experience alone would not suffice to maintain an intimate relationship with Jesus without continuous efforts to remain in it. Hence Paul had to constantly strive to make it a reality. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor notes that “Paul’s second conversion certainly involved the intention to model his life on that of Jesus. To this end he consciously accumulated information regarding the words and deeds of the historical Jesus (Gal 1:18).”[6] Paul is convinced that the knowledge of Christ must lead him to the imitation of Christ which is not possible without an identification with him. Hence Paul will not rest content unless and until he reaches this intimacy with Christ. He is also quite aware that it is not an easy task as it is a life-long process involving Jesus’ own life, suffering and death. In other words, Paul knows that this is possible only by identifying with Jesus’s life, suffering and death.

Paul wanted to achieve it by all means, even by undergoing all sorts of sufferings so that the life of Christ may be made visible in his body: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:8-11). He is also prepared to become like Christ in his death by sharing in his sufferings (Phil 3:10-11;1Cor 1:3-10). This imitation and identification also requires to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and to avoid the gratification of the flesh (Rom 13:14) as well as to live in harmony with others and to be welcoming like Christ (Rom 15:5-7). It also demands that we ought to have the same mind of Christ and his attitude of humility and service (Phil 2:5-11). Commenting on Paul’s relationship with Jesus, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor observes that “He is so committed to Jesus as his role model that he mirrors the Jesus that he invites others to follow: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1Cor 11:1). The resemblance to Christ is rooted, not in any superficial similarity in the successive events of their lives, but in his success in “putting on Christ” (Gal 3:27).”[7]


Since his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Paul dad been on a life-long journey of deeply knowing, tenderly loving, intimately experiencing, closely following, firmly proclaiming and authentically witnessing the one who encountered him on the road. Knowing Jesus Christ had always fascinated Paul and so he gave him the primary place in his life and activities making his life totally Christ centered. He knew that it will bring him to “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3). This deep knowledge enabled him to be identified with Jesus – in his life, suffering and death. And so, he could boldly declare: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Finally, Paul’s desire to be identified with Christ reached its zenith when he was poured out as a libation (Phil 2:17; 2Thim 4:6) as he surrendered himself to suffering and death. Down through the centuries, Paul’s life had been an inspiration and challenge to thousands of men and women and even now he continues to do so. He challenges all of us, priests and seminarians, who are supposed to resemble Christ by conforming ourselves to Christ (Rom 8:29; Phil 3:21) and thus becoming another Christ. If Paul could achieve it, could we not try it? The following questions would aid us in our attempt to do so. If Christ has encountered me on my life’s journey, have I encountered him? If Christ has known me even before I was born, how much have I known him? If Christ has gained me through his suffering and death, have I gained him? If Christ has found himself in me, have I found myself in him? If Christ has loved me with an everlasting love, have I loved him enough? If Christ has made me his own, have I made him my own?


[1] The expression ‘on the road to Damascus’ has become an idiomatic phrase, meaning that someone is at the cross roads or at a turning point in one’s life.

[2] Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity, Bangalore, 2002, p.23.

[3] Cf. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives, Mumbai, 2008.

[4] R. C. Fuller (ed.), A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, London, 1975, p.896.

[5] Sigfried Estborn, Gripped by Christ, London, 1965.

[6] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives, Mumbai, 2008, p.143

[7] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives, pp.142-43.

Author: Dr. Manuel Rebeiro OCD