Every Christian is in the race. You can’t opt out in favor of spectating until you meet the Lord. 1 Corinthians 9:24 says run as if we want to win. By God’s grace the run can be a joy. Pressing toward the goal is pressing toward the prize. The word “press” in Philippians 3:14 means to mark out something. We set our eyes on the goal that is the prize. It brings great joy. The prize is not an award handed to you, but a prize you get to enjoy with all the other winners in the race. The great prize is Jesus Christ our Lord and access to God the Father. It is an upward call, incomparable to anything on earth. The response to our present condition can only be one of sanctified dissatisfaction with how far we have to go until we are perfected.
Fruitfulness in the Christian life is linked to hard work. I just watched a Penn State player intercept a pass and run it back 99 yards. If he had strained just a bit harder, it might have been a legendary play. As it happened, the half ended while he was running, and getting tackled a yard short of the end zone means you get nothing but a few seconds on the highlight real. He went into the locker room wondering what might have happened if he’d just tried a bit harder. Paul didn’t want to have that feeling when the horn sounded the end of his life. He was straining forward, looking ahead, reaching out with his hands, and running with all his might. This requires a constant attitude of straining forward no matter what happens to your circumstances. That’s where Paul shines. He tells us he is straining forward with all his might for what lies ahead, while imprisoned and prevented from doing the work that was his life’s calling. If anyone knew how to strive while sidelined, it was Paul. In a day when idleness is the reward for hard work, Philippians 3:13 is a welcome corrective.
Paul’s “one thing” in life had two parts. The first involved forgetting. He says in Philippians 3:14 he completely forgets everything he had confidence in. He chooses not to consider all his works as a Jewish Pharisee. The illustration Paul uses is that of a race. Once you pass your competition you forget them. Let’s be clear, other Christians are not your competition. You leave behind your old self, sin, failure, and foolishness that defined you before Christ. We also don’t look back to what we used to do for Christ. We can’t live like the Devil and then point to the night at camp when we were 11 years old and walk down the aisle to throw a pinecone in the fire. If we point back to an event that has produced no fruit, we need to question what happened. Good deeds need to persist. Bad deeds need to be forgotten. All has been forgiven in Christ and to look back on the old man with feelings of guilt is to depreciate the magnificent work of God in your life. It calls into question the value and sufficiency of the sacrificial death of Christ on your behalf.
Most successful people are focused. Intentional or not, they limit the scope of their activity to one main thing. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:13 he is that kind of person. He embraced the reality of Justification in the past, Glorification in the future, but was intensely focused on Sanctification in the present. This should be the norm. Any Christian who abandons the path of sanctification and throws off the yolk of obedience should never be viewed a person who lost their salvation, but a person who never was it to begin with. Real Christians mature. Some do it faster than others, but eventually it happens. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” (6:1). Is this taking a shot at the Gospel? Absolutely not. He is simply encouraging his fellow believers to move on from it to full maturity. Paul is saying the same thing. If sanctification becomes the one thing that underscores everything else, then maturity will be the natural consequence.
In Philippians 3:13 Paul makes an amazing statement. He tells the church that he is not where he wants to be spiritually. This may come as a surprise given the fact that Paul was an Apostle. Most of us would assume that meant he was rather satisfied with his progress, but this would be a wrong assumption. He addresses his fellow Christian brothers with a personal note of encouragement regarding his own situation. He says, “I do not consider”, meaning he looked back on the process and calmly drew this conclusion. It’s not an emotional reaction. It’s not even depressing. It’s a simple fact of life. He wants his fellow Christians to understand that he still hasn’t fully captured the one who had captured him. Instead he battles the world, the flesh, and the devil every day, just like the rest of us. The error of perfectionism has been alive since the days of the Philippian church. Undoubtedly part of the reason Paul writes this part of the letter is to attack that lie. He has not been made sinless yet, and none of the Philippians had been either. It’s all about striving before arriving.
It may seem controversial to say anything is more important than conversion. However it communicates a vitally important aspect of the Christian faith, namely the often-neglected reality of future resurrection. This is the true source of joy. All the joys we experience imperfectly now will be fully realized when we are given new bodies. The Christian life is more than just an improved life. It is certainly not our best life now. It is better, but if we died and ceased to exist, what difference would that really make? In the end, being a Christian is less about being saved from temporal bondage to sin, and far more about the eternal reality of being saved to ultimate resurrection. Consider the similarities of our post-conversion existence to that of unbelievers. We have both sinned, will both die, and both keep sinning until we die. The real difference will not be fully appreciated until the redeemed soul escapes from corrupted flesh and puts on incorruptible flesh. Therefore we exalt the promise of Christ over conversion. We cannot lose sight of the future resurrection, and how it was made possible by Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
When Paul was saved, he reappraised his religious assets. Faith resulted in a new accounting of his life, and past achievements are now counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Encountering the risen Savior destroyed his self-confidence. He gives it all up for the sake of Christ. He didn’t say for the sake of religion. Multitudes of people suffer loss for the sake of religion. They give up earthly pleasures and comfort in order to fit in a system. He doesn’t say for the sake of guilt. This isn’t psychological. Many people kick bad habits, even really bad ones. In the end it was for Christ alone he cashed in his stock in himself. Everything he would use to prove to a fellow moralist that he was better is now shown to be useless anyway. Even if he did win the award for most righteous Pharisee, the righteousness wouldn’t have amounted to anything. All the individual pieces of righteous gain are fashioned into an idol of achievement, and then burned to the ground as one collective failure and loss. Only a true understanding of the gain of the Gospel will make us gladly throw away our tarnished treasures.
During the financial crisis in 2009 the accounting term Mark-to-Model worked its way into the common vernacular. The implosion of monolithic investment banks was blamed on the fact that assets were valued according to a theoretical model rather than what the market was actually willing to pay. The result was a collective revelation that some of these historic financial institutions were actually insolvent. The principle applies to religion as well, and especially the value of good works. Paul admits in Philippians 3:7 that he had a portfolio of assets, and according to the Jewish model, they had great value. He would have operated just like his fellow Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. He was obedient to the Law of Moses, and the traditions and tithing that defined Pharisees of his day. However, when he met Christ these gains were immediately revalued. Jesus ruined his religious balance sheet and forced him to radically reshape his entire way of thinking. This must have been a breathtaking paradigm shift, but Paul proves you can be wiped out and still rejoice. If works are valued according to a false religious system, you must sell and start over. That’s Paul’s testimony.
To love the Word of God is to want to study it deeply for a purpose. We read to understand. We read to move forward in our Christian walk. It was encouraging to be at church last night where so many were gathered for the purpose of teaching, learning, enjoying, and memorizing the Word. This all contributes to our purpose in life, namely a deeper knowledge of God in Christ. If this is consistently neglected, as is the pattern for some professing Christians, then Jesus Christ himself becomes a stranger. He takes on the appearance of an intruder, frightening and oppressive. Even his motives and intentions are questioned. Doubt creeps in. Indolence in our pursuit of Christ results in losing ground in the area of sanctification. The world, the flesh, and the Devil never rest. If we stop marching forward, the moving sidewalk of a fallen world slides us quietly back into sin.
Christianity is not about individuals or their accomplishments in the flesh. It is instead a relationship between a slave and a master. The loss of identity and credit are a welcome part of the joy that comes from faith. Through grace a more precious identity, and heavenly rewards far in excess of anything we could imagine are ours in Christ. The church is also not about individuals. Last week I was on my way to the harbor for fish and chips with an Englishman…makes you want to hear more, right? We drove by a vacant parcel of land for sale and the sign said, “build to suit”. That’s great if your attracting a fast food restaurant, but when churches have a “build to suit” attitude, it’s proof they’ve lost sight of the glorious purpose for our assembly. User friendly churches get used. Individual Christians, and the Body of Christ collectively are to have one driving obsession. We want to gain Christ. We do follow him to get something, and we do gather together to get something, but the something we want is really someone. Anything else may leave us feeling cared about, related to, or respected, but not truly satisfied.