We have been focusing on this wonderful passage in Philippians 3 where Paul talks about how he pursues knowing and becoming like Jesus Christ. Paul has talked about how strongly he desired it (v. 10), how he knew he hadn’t yet attained it (v. 12), how he devoted maximum effort to this goal (v. 12) and how he gave focused determination in doing this “one thing” by forgetting past failures and successes, so he could stay focused on Jesus Christ (v. 13).
Today we’re going to continue to look at how Paul speaks of his focused determination. Not only did he forget what lies behind but he was
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.
He refused to look behind him so that he could strain forward. This word strain, or stretch, forward is a compound word consisting of the verb ekteino, meaning to stretch a muscle to its limit. Then there is a prepositions attached to the front, which serves to intensify the action even more, to the uttermost.
Adam Clarke says:
“The Greek word points out the strong exertions made in the race; every muscle and nerve is exerted, and he puts forth every particle of his strength in running. He was running for life, and running for his life.”
Peter O’Brien observes that this is “a vivid word, drawn from the games, and it pictures a runner with his eyes fixed on the goal, his hand stretching out towards it, and his body bent forward as he enters the last and decisive stages of the race. Again, the present tense of the participle is appropriate, for with this verb it powerfully describes the runner’s intense desire and utmost effort to reach his goal.”
You get the picture of a runner nearing the finish line with head bent forward and arms back in that last burst of energy to try to cross the finish line first.
So Paul is encouraging us: “Don’t get tired; don’t give in. Keep on going and give it your last ounce of energy right up until the finish.”
C[harles]. Simeon, of Cambridge, says in one of his last letters, alluding to his still abundant toils, “I am so near the goal that I cannot help running with all my might.”
Yes, the Christian journey is difficult. It requires focused and determined energies to make it to the finish line.
The way to go hard after God is with all the discipline and self-denial of an athlete. I doubt that there has ever been a Christian who reached heights of knowledge and joy and obedience without a plan and discipline and self-denial. God does not promise his riches to aimless people. Paul did not run aimlessly or beat the air. He lived with spiritual goals in view and controlled his passions for the sake of those goals.
Here’s an example of how Jonathan Edwards followed Paul’s example. Sereno Dwight writes,
He carefully observed the effects of different sorts of good, and selected those which best suited his constitution, and rendered him most fit for mental labor . . . In this respect he lived by rule, and constantly practiced great self-denial; as he did also with regard to the time passed in sleep. He accustomed himself to arise at four or between four and five in the morning: and in winter spent several of those hours in study which are commonly wasted in slumber. In the evening he usually allowed himself a season of relaxation in the midst of his family [and then retired back to his study.]
Whether you follow Jonathan Edwards or not, I urge you, on the basis of Paul’s example, to be like an athlete. Set yourself a goal to know more of the Word of God, to grasp more of the will of God, to love more of the wonder of God; and then make a plan of prayer and study and worship and go for it with all your might.
Develop a holy dissatisfaction with your spiritual attainments, put out of your mind anything in the past which hinders your pursuit of God, strain forward like an athlete in 2020.
That is how the Christian should be; always throwing himself forward after something more than he has yet reached, not satisfied with the rate at which he advances, his soul always going at twenty times the pace of the flesh.
Why did Paul pursue holiness with such concentrated purpose? Because he felt God had called him to it. He aimed at the prize of his high calling.
With the final clause, the goal (the finish line) comes in view as Paul concludes, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). “It is the vision of the end of the race that ever directs and speeds his hastening feet” (J. H. Michael). In terms of the modern athlete, he sees the yellow stripe fifty yards ahead, and his adrenaline jolts for the final last-gasp kick. He runs faster, his arms pumping, pushing off his toes.
What keeps Paul striving and moving forward is a goal, to know and become like Jesus Christ.
Even though the word “heaven” is mentioned in verse 14, heaven is not the goal. Heaven is already a done deal through justification, we just haven’t experienced it yet. But heaven wouldn’t be heaven without Jesus Christ. Heaven is not the goal, Jesus is.
The goal, then, is to be like Christ. The prize is when it actually happens.
At some point we will experience the “upward call” (which may be the rapture), that call to “step up” to the winner’s podium and hear a hearty “well done” and receive the rewards of a life that was lived in pursuit of Jesus Christ.
God has called every believer to salvation so he or she may obtain that prize. However, only those who run the race as Paul did, namely, to gain an ever-increasing experiential knowledge of Christ, will obtain it (1 Cor. 9:24).
The rewards are not the prize, but they are given because we’ve pursued and finally receive the real prize—eternal communion with our bridegroom and finally becoming completely like Him (except for His divinity).
As John says in 1 John 3:2, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
For Paul, the greatest reward was to know Christ fully and to experience perfect fellowship with him and to become like Him.
J. Sidlow Baxter notes:
“See how in this third chapter Christ is the believer’s goal in a threefold way: The goal of our faith — verse 9. The goal of our love —verse 10. The goal of our hope — verses 11-14, etc. He is the goal of our faith for a heavenly righteousness. He is the goal of our love for a heavenly fellowship. He is the goal of our hope for a heavenly blessedness.”
Notice also that Paul locates the power for pursuing this “prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As with every part of our life—from our justification, to our sanctification, to our eventual glorification—it is all done “in Christ Jesus.”
The legalists could have claimed to pursue God’s “well done” and eternal rewards, but they were making that pursuit in their own strength, not “in Christ Jesus.”
We saints “work out our salvation” and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” only because God is “is working in us” (through our union with Christ Jesus) “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Paul didn’t depend upon his own willpower to keep him running, but rather God put the desire in him.
Paul didn’t depend upon his own efforts to keep him running, but rather God put the energy, the power, within him.
And God does the same for us!
A successful coach reported that he lived by a very simple creed he found one time. Apparently it originates with Calvin Coolidge.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Of course, President Coolidge was only considering human willpower and determination, not divine desiring and doing like Paul meant.
Paul says, “Keep your eyes on the goal” and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A young black teenager, age 13, was growing up in Cleveland, in a home which he later describe as “materially poor but spiritually rich.”
One day his junior high school coach, Charles Riley, who happened to develop quite a lot of good runners for the US, brought to his school, Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio, a man who at that time was known as the “World’s Fastest Human Being,” Charles Paddock, the great United States sprinter famous for his leaping lunge at the finish of every race.
Afterward the coach asked him, “Well, what do you think about him?” He said, “Well, gee, coach, I sure would like to be known as the ‘World’s Fastest Human Being’ some day.” So, then, Charles Riley told him something he never forgot.
“Everybody should have a dream,” he said. “Every man must remember that dreams are high and that you must climb a ladder to reach them. Each rung of that ladder has a meaning of its own as you climb. The first rung of that ladder, of course, goes back to one important point — just how dedicated are you? How much of what you have are you willing to give to the dream? And the next rung of the ladder is your determination to train yourself to reach the dream at the top. And the third rung of that ladder is the self-discipline that you must display in order to accomplish all this. The fourth rung, which is one of the most important rungs in that ladder to your dream, is the kind of attitude you have in going about all this. By this I mean, are you capable of giving every moment that you possibly can to making this dream come true and of throwing your whole heart and soul into the effort?”
The result of that challenge is that this young man went on to win four goal medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, much to the chagrin of Adolph Hitler. He won the 100 meter dash and broke the Olympic and world records for the 200 meter. His broad jump record lasted for 22 years. His name? Jessie Owens.
Athletes continue to amaze us by breaking records as they train hard for years and then perform to their utmost ability.
Here is another example:
The year was 1923, and the competing track teams of Scotland and France were neck and neck. But among the events remaining was the 440. As the runners, clad in traditional 1920s white, came to the first turn, they were bunched tight, shoulder to shoulder, when one of them was pushed to the ground and off the track. For a second he was down — and then up again, running (though twenty meters behind), his knees high, his head back —flying. And as the leaders sprinted to the finish line, he emerged ahead to win! It was a famous win, by Eric Liddell, immortalized in the movie Chariots of Fire.
What would most runners have done? Most would have waved a fist, dusted themselves off, and watched the outcome. Perhaps there would have been a few words exchanged after the race. But the athlete in question was beyond the ordinary. It was as if he had been reading this very passage — forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I focus all my energy on the race; and seeing the goal, I fly to the finish.
This is the way everyone who is in the grip of Christ’s grace must live. Listen to Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
Apart from a failing mind or body, we are called to relentlessly press on toward the finish line for the full and complete gaining of Christ, the resurrection, and ultimate perfection. Getting old and tired? Put the pedal to the metal. Young and full of boundless energy? Be a man or woman of “one thing.”
Dr. Howard Hendricks used to tell about an elderly Christian woman he knew who would come into a social gathering, where everyone was chit-chatting about nothing significant, and say, “Tell me, Howie, what are the five best books you’ve read this past year?”
Even though she was up in years, she was still actively growing in the Lord. When she died in her nineties, her daughter discovered on her desk that the night before she died in her sleep, she had written out her personal goals for the next five years! Like Paul in prison, right up to the end she wanted to be growing!
I heard about a mountain climber whose epitaph was, “He died climbing.” That ought to be true of every Christian.
If you want grow as a Christian, make sure you’re in the race–that Christ has laid hold of your life and saved you from sin. Make sure you have the right attitude–that you haven’t arrived, but you’re in the lifelong process of moving ahead. And, give it the proper effort–focusing on the goal of being like Christ, and doing everything in light of that high calling.
Paul next turns to the mental framework that is necessary to pursue Christ:
15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Now, back in 3:12 Paul said that he is not perfect, but in 3:15 he implies that he and some of his readers are perfect. He isn’t contradicting himself within four verses. Rather, in 3:12, he means that absolute perfection is not attainable in this life. In 3:15, he uses the word in relative terms to mean “mature.” We can become mature, and the mature Christian will share Paul’s view that he is setting forth here, that we haven’t arrived, but that we can and must keep growing. Maybe a better way to say it is that we should always be “maturing.”
But Paul recognizes that some will not share his attitude because they are not mature. To those who disagree with him, Paul says, “Stay teachable and God will show you where you need to grow” (see 3:15).
A teachable heart is humble and submissive.
Paul knew that some would think they were already “perfect” and didn’t need to put any more effort into pursuing Christ. That is dangerous and Paul will talk more about them in verse 17-21.
Paul doesn’t want them to lose ground, but to keep on running, pursuing the prize of knowing and becoming like Jesus Christ.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I pursuing the prize with all my energies, removing distractions, open to challenges and disciplining my life?
- What is one area that I need to grow in?
- Where is it in your life that you most need to forget something from your past?
- Where is it in your life that you want your future to be different?