So, the last two weeks we’ve been looking at Paul’s pursuit of knowing Christ, his life’s ambition, his magnificent obsession. First, he talked about desiring it strongly, so strongly that he had been willing to give up everything else. That was in vv. 4-10. “I want to know Christ” Paul cried.
Then, he points out that we must have a perpetual dissatisfaction with where we are in our pursuit of knowing Christ. We aren’t dissatisfied with Christ, or the spiritual blessings we have in union with Him, but we are dissatisfied with the progress we’ve made in coming to know Christ Jesus as Lord.
A. W. Tozer has said: “to have found God and still to pursue him is the soul’s paradox of love.”
Or as St. Bernard sang it:
We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.
Matthew Henry is right: “Wherever there is true grace there is a desire for more grace.”
Saving faith is an ongoing preference for Christ over all other values. The pursuit of Christ is the evidence of genuine faith in Christ as our treasure.
Third, we must devote maximum effort in pursuing this prize. Paul said he “pressed on,” which speaks of chasing after and not giving up. There is no half-hearted attempt if we want to have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We must be all out.
Today we want to talk about Paul’s focused determination in reaching his goal of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.
Paul expresses this in verses 13-14 of Philippians 3:
13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The writers of Scripture, and especially Paul, used the imagery of athletics to communicate the essence of Christian growth.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul says…
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
Also in 2 Timothy 2 Paul challenges Timothy:
5 An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
And the writer of Hebrews picks up this imagery in Hebrews 12:
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Runners know that they cannot afford to pay attention to the scenery or the crowds or even the other runners if they expect to win. Their concentration must remain focused.
Paul begins verse 13 by reiterating, “I do not consider that I have made it my own.” By this repletion of the same message in verse 12 Paul is seeking to drive home the reality that this is a race that continues on. In our microwave mentality we too often perceive the race to be a quick sprint when in fact it is a marathon.
“I haven’t made it to the finish line yet, so I keep on running.”
Paul had been converted for at least 30 years when he wrote Philippians. There is no question that he is one of the outstanding believers of all times. Yet over and over he reveals his mind-set, that he was still in the process. God was not finished with him yet.
This was not the subjective confession of an oversensitive, overwrought soul who is blinded to his own progress. Rather, it was grounded in facts that are verifiable. He had not yet attained to the perfection of the resurrection of the dead.
In other words, while I have life and breathe left in me, as long as I am left on this earth in this body, I keep running.
You may have been a Christian for 40 or 50 years, but you can’t start thinking, “I don’t need to grow any more” and stop running. But the Christian life is not a sprint, but a long-distance race.
If we believe that the Christian life is a sprint, we will look for quick fixes that will only leave us disappointed.
Understanding that the Christian life is a marathon helps us to be patient with our progress. We may not be totally satisfied with where we are—Paul wasn’t—but we can be patient with ourselves.
We can also be patient with others. Because we know that the Christian life is a marathon, we can be more patient with the progress, or lack thereof, that others have made.
You expect babies to dirty their diapers and to burp in your face and to cry in the middle of the night. Now, if your teenager is still dirtying his diapers and burping in your face and waking you up with his crying in the night, you’ve got a problem! If a brother or sister is growing, we need to be patient and gracious, realizing that it is a lifelong process.
The most important thing we need to be asking, first about our own growth progress and then with the growth progress of others is: “What can I do to keep growing?” or “How can I help you keep growing?”
You see this for Paul even in his final days, when he was in the dungeon in Rome, and he wrote to Timothy asking him to bring his coat, and then he adds, “and the books, especially the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Here he was facing execution, but he wanted his books so he could keep growing!
Paul never stopped, and neither should we. No matter how old we are, or where we are in life, we can and should keep growing.
We can see Paul’s laser focus when he says, “But this one thing I do…” Since the race is not over, he keeps focused on “one thing.”
In the 1991 film “City Slickers,” there’s an exchange between the resident cowboy, Curly (Jack Palance), and vacationing urban greenhorn Mitch (Billy Crystal). Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret to life is?” Then he holds up one finger, looks at it, and says, “This.” Mitch responds, “Your finger?” Curly shakes his head, then replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean (anything).”
Giving Curly his full attention, Mitch asks, “That’s great, but what is the ‘one thing’?” Then Curly smiles and answers, “That’s what you have to find out.”
While Curly doesn’t tell Mitch what the one thing is, he does point out the importance of being totally focused on what is important.
On a more serious note, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One thing and in it he had a prayer that went like this:
“So may Thou give to the intellect wisdom to comprehend that one thing. To the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding. To the will, purity that wills one thing. In prosperity, may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing. Amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing. In suffering, patience to will one thing.”
In that prayer Kierkegaard reveals several of the chief culprits which sabotage most of our attempts at spiritual growth—prosperity, distractions and suffering. In other words, there are so many things in life, both good and bad, that can steal away our attention for Christ.
In order to be single-minded, i.e., “this one thing I do, not these many things I dabble in,” the Christian must do two things: (1) forget what lies behind, and (2) strain forward to what lies ahead.
“Forgetting what lies behind” means first of all that we keep our focus on what lies ahead. A runner cannot afford to be looking back, or looking around, or he or she will be passed by the other runners.
On August 7, 1954, during the British Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada, the greatest mile-run matchup ever took place. It was touted as the “miracle mile” because Britisher Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy were the only two sub-four-minute milers in the world. Bannister had been the first man ever to run a four-minute mile. Both runners were in peak condition.
Roger Bannister, M.D., who became Sir Roger Bannister and master of an Oxford college, strategized that he would relax during the third lap and save everything for his finishing drive. But as they began that third lap, the Australian poured it on, stretching his already substantial lead. Immediately Bannister adjusted his strategy, increasing his pace and gaining on Landy.
The lead was quickly cut in half, and at the bell for the final lap they were even. Landy began running even faster, and Bannister followed suit. Both men were flying. Bannister felt he was going to lose if Landy did not slow down.
Then came the famous moment (replayed thousands of times in print and flickering black and white celluloid) as at the last stride before the home stretch the crowds roared. Landy could not hear Bannister’s footfall and looked back, a fatal lapse of concentration. Bannister launched his attack and won the Empire Games that day by five yards.
John Landy’s lapse was as old as antiquity. The sports-knowledgeable Apostle Paul would have seen Landy’s mistake in a flash because he knew that to be successful a runner must not look back over his shoulder — he must “forget what lies behind” — because when a runner turns even slightly to glance back, there is a momentary loss of focus and rhythm, incurring the critical loss of a fraction of a second or even seconds.
There are several negative illustrations of looking back in the Scriptures:
Lot’s wife looked back to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26; Luke 17:32).
The children of Israel looked back to Egypt in the wilderness wanderings, wishing they had the leeks and onions, thinking those were the “good ol’ days.” (Numbers)
Jesus also talked about the dangers of disciples looking back in Luke 9:62.
Paul had experienced Demas turning back to the world (2 Timothy 4:10)
Much of the book of Hebrews, and even Galatians, is about the danger of turning back to Judaism.
There are two things we cannot afford to be occupied with if we are to pursue a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ and a greater likeness to Christ.
That are past failures and past successes.
For most of us it is the bad things that we have done or have happened to us in the past that trip us up and leave us lying on the ground, wallowing in self-condemnation or self-pity instead of getting back up and running.
When we make mistakes, we incriminate ourselves, failing to believe that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Two of our hymns have these words:
My sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more.
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within- upward I look and see Him there who made an end of all my sin.
Also, when we have been wounded by others, we replay those wounds over and over in our minds rather than deciding to forgive that person for what they did to us.
I know that some have been wounded deeply, and you have experienced unfathomable trauma. But your freedom comes in being willing to forgive.
A. W. Tozer has written:
“It is one of the devil’s oldest tricks to discourage Christian believers by causing them to look back at what they once were. It is indeed the enemy of our souls who makes us forget that we are never at the end of God’s love. No one will make progress with God until the eyes are lifted to the faithfulness of God and we stop looking at ourselves! Our instructions in the New Testament all add up to the necessity of looking forward in faith and not spending our time looking back or just looking within. Brethren, our Lord is more than able to take care of our past. He pardons instantly and forgives completely, and his blood makes us worthy! The goodness of God is infinitely more wonderful than we will ever be able to comprehend. “
In this context, it is probably not the negative things, the past sins and wounds, that Paul means us to “leave behind,” but rather the past successes—the victories, the things we are proud of.
It has been said that “success is the great enemy of future success.”
Remember that Paul had started out listing his accolades and achievements in relation to his commitment to Judaism. All of those things were good things, things to be proud of, BUT they kept him from pursuing Christ.
If he kept those past successes, he would be proud of who he was, and would not have much impetus to pursue Christ.
So we not only have to leave behind the negative experiences, but also our positive experiences.
Some people have experienced some great experience with the Holy Spirit, which can be very dangerous if we point back to that and depend upon it, but do not run forward in pursuit of Christ.
Paul is saying, don’t let either your weaknesses and failures, or your victories and successes, keep you from pressing on to know Christ.
Now, let me just make something clear before we move on. When Paul says “forgetting what lies behind” he means to not pay attention to anything which hinders your pursuit of God you should put out of your mind.
Don’t take this to mean that memory has no place in our spiritual artillery. It does. Some battles are won by remembered mercies (Psalm 77:11; Hebrews 11). The point is not: never look back. The point is: only look back for the sake of pressing forward.
Memories of successes can make you smug and self-satisfied. Memories of failure can make you hopeless and paralyzed in your pursuit of God. Never look back like that. Give humble thanks for successes; make humble confessions for failure; then turn to the future and go hard after God.
In almost every sport, to be successful, you have to focus your attention. Runners have to keep their eyes looking ahead to the finish line. Ball players have to “keep your eye on the ball.”
A Christian must keep his eye on the goal — fully surrender to and fellowship with Jesus Christ. If our eyes slip to the temporal world, we lose focus on the spiritual world and lose our bearings. Forget what lies behind. Keep your eye on the goal!
As Paul ran, he shifted into the high gear of forgetfulness — forgetting his achievements and his failures. Paul ran in the liberating freedom of his “one thing” (v. 13). He was flying in his forgetfulness.
There is instruction for everyone here across the spectrum of age and experience. For those who have some miles on them and are battle-worn and perhaps have some striking accomplishments, God calls you to selective amnesia so that you will not be lulled from your stride. For all, young and old, do not look back. Lift up your eyes. Look straight ahead. Focus on Jesus Christ, for He is worthy of all of our attention and all our affection.