Philippians 3:12-16 January 7, 2018
In the Meyers’ home, we love competition. We manage to turn just about anything into a competition, in which we seek to lovingly outdo one another. And so, of course, we also love sports. We love watching sports, coaching sports, talking about sports, and of course playing sports.
And it’s no secret that the Apostle Paul was, also, a sports fan. He loved sports, probably played sports, and obviously understood sports. By the time Paul was born the annual Greek, and then Roman, Olympics had been taking place for centuries, and some have speculated that Paul, who was a tentmaker by trade, made tents for the visiting athletes who required them each year at the Games.
It is clear that Paul loved and understood sports because of his frequent use of athletic metaphors, including in our text today. In 1 Corinthians 9v24 Paul challenges Christians to live the Christian life like a runner running to win a prize; then, in v25 he admires a successful athlete’s exercise of self-control; And then in v26 he uses a boxing metaphor. Over In Galatians 2:2 Paul compares himself to a long-distance runner, and in Ephesians 6:12 Paul likens the Christian life to a wrestling match.
In our text today, Philippians 3:12-16, Paul, again, uses a sports metaphor, and it’s very helpful, even for those of you who don’t like, or even understand, sports. It’s even helpful for those of you who think a touchdown is worth 5 points.
Here’s our game-plan this morning – We’re going to think with Paul, athletically, about the Christian life. We’re going to consider the runner, the race, and the reward, because Paul mentions all three. Paul, and all other Christians, are runners. The Christian life is a race. And heaven is the reward. So those will be the headings we work under, and Paul has some profound insights for us.
But before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me. “Father, send your Holy Spirit to help us now. We need help understanding your Word, your Will. We need help applying your Word, your Will. We know our minds will be dark and our hearts cold without you, so give us light and heat we pray, Amen.”
Please open your Bibles to Philippians 3, which, if you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find on page 637
Let me read the text in its entirety one more time before we begin. Philippians 3:12-16. This is the Word of God:
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 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. 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.” Amen.
Take up your Bibles and look at this little paragraph with me. In vv12-14 Paul is telling the Philippians how he thinks about the Christian life. And then, in vv15-16 he calls (or exhorts) the Philippians to follow his example and think the same way. V15: “Let those of us who are mature think this way.”
In other words, if you are a mature adult, or you want to be a mature adult, this is how you need to think about your life. Paul is saying: “If you want to act like an adult, if you want to grow up, if you want to leave childish ways behind you, this is how you’re going to need to think.” That’s what Paul is saying in vv15-16.
So let’s go back to vv12-14 and understand how Paul wants us to think about this life. And of course, don’t forget, Paul is not just writing his own thoughts here, he is writing God’s thoughts. He’s an inspired author of Scripture – an Apostle, a Prophet. So remember, this is how God wants you to think about your life.
You are like a runner. That’s the first thing. Paul is the runner in this metaphor, and here’s what he says in the first part of v12: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…” He’s starting with a clarification. As a runner, he wants us to know that he hasn’t crossed the finish line yet; he hasn’t finished the race; he hasn’t arrived.
To understand what the “this” is he has “not…already obtained” we just need to go back and read the couple verses right before, Philippians 3:10-11:
“…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul, we know, based on those two verses, was looking forward to dying, being resurrected, and seeing Jesus face to face. He was looking forward to the knowledge of God he would have in heaven, and he was looking forward to the sinless perfection he would have in heaven. And he’s reminding his readers in v12 “I’m not there yet.” “I haven’t arrived.” “I have not yet crossed the finish line.” “I’m not perfect.” He reiterates this in v13 when he says “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.”
And he probably made this clarification because of a false teaching called perfectionism – which is the belief that a Christian can, in this life, become perfect. I’ve actually read and heard Christians say that it had been years since they last sinned.
So there were probably some false teachers, most likely the Judaizers, who were telling Christians they could become perfect if, in addition to their faith in Jesus, they strictly observed the OT ceremonial law. Many Christians have believed that, but not Paul.
There is a story of a preacher who preached a sermon during which he said he had achieved a state of sinless perfection. A wise man in the congregation came up to him afterward and asked “Do you mind if I ask your wife whether you’ve achieved the state of sinless perfection?”
Believers should be glad to hear Paul say this. We might read Paul’s words in vv8-9 and be discouraged when we compare our own maturity to his. But Paul wants his readers to know he is one of us. Paul struggled. Paul sinned. Paul was not where he wanted to be, and it’s good for discouraged Christians to hear that, because as time goes on, a mature Christian actually believes they are more sinful than they previously realized.
Can you imagine if I stood here and reported that I had not sinned in three years? For those of you who didn’t laugh, if you actually believed that, you would end up deeply discouraged as you grew in your awareness of your own sinfulness.
Unbelievers, it’s also good for you to hear that, because some of you have met Christians who you consider hypocrites because they sinned against you, some of them terribly. Well, Christians do not believe they are perfect. We believe the church is full of sinners, but repentant sinners, and that’s the only difference.
So that’s the runner. That’s Paul. And that’s us. We are runners in a race, and we have not yet crossed the finish line. We have not already obtained what we’re after, and we are not perfect. Let’s read on now about the race itself.
Look at v14 with me. Here is Paul’s description of the race itself. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” “I press on [that is Paul running] toward the goal for the prize [that’s the finish line, and here is his description of the actual race] of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul describes this race as “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That is a good summary of the Christian life. Christian, you have received the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. You have received, literally, a “call to come up.”
Many of you can remember a day when you had not yet been called up – a day when you did not know God, you did not love God, and you were indifferent to God. And then, God called you. Peter says, in 1 Peter 2:9, God “called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light.” He, according to Galatians 1:15, “called [you] by his grace.” He, according to Romans 8:30, “predestined [you], then called [you], then justified [you], and will one day glorify [you].”
Keeping up with the metaphor, think of it this way: “The upward call of God” was the starter pistol for Paul, and it was the starter pistol for you.
So that’s the runner and that’s the race. Paul is running, and we are running, and we haven’t yet crossed the finish line. And the race we are running is the Christian life – we are responding to the “upward call of God.” Now third, let’s look at the reward.
Look at v14 with me: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” There is a goal in the Christian life. There is a finish line. The goal of the Christian life is to persevere in your faith. Listen to what Paul says at the end of his life in 2 Timothy 4:6-7: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
And then Paul says, for those who persevere, for those who keep the faith, there is a prize. “I press on toward the goal for the prize.” He calls it a “crown of righteousness” in 2 Timothy 4:8. He calls it an “imperishable wreath” in 1 Corinthians 9:25. James calls it the “crown of life.”
Think about this with me. Ultimately, what is the prize for a Christian? It’s Jesus. Isn’t that what Paul wants more than anything? “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” He wants, more than anything, he told us in 3:9-11, to know Jesus and see him face to face. The Psalmist said in Psalm 73:25-26 “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” For the Christian, God is the great reward. We have not come to Jesus to get money or power or success or respect or possessions, but God. The best part of heaven is God.
So there’s a summary of Paul’s metaphor – Paul is running, and he wants us to know he has not yet crossed the finish line. The race he is running is the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. And he’s after a reward, the prize of seeing Jesus face to face.
Now, there’s something else very important here, and it’s what we will spend the rest of our time on. It’s the main point Paul is making here, and so it’s the main point I want to leave you with. Here it is: Press on!
In order to cross the finish line, and receive the reward of eternal life with Jesus, you must press on. You must fight. You must battle. You must work.
Now, let me make a very important clarification – I’m not saying, and Paul is not saying, that you are saved by your works. You are saved by faith alone. But real faith works. Real faith presses on. Or as James put it, “faith without works is dead [faith.”
Paul says it twice, in v12 and in v14. Look with me: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own… (v14) 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Not everyone wins. Not everyone who calls themselves a Christian gets the prize, but only those who, through faith, persevere. And in order to persevere, you will need to press on. You will need to fight. You will need to work hard. In Philippians 2:12 Paul called us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9, where he is using the athletic metaphor, “Don’t just run. Run to win. Run to get the prize.” Listen to his words in 1 Corinthians 9:24: “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.”
This is my problem with sports that don’t keep score and give out trophies for participation. Sports that don’t keep score and give out trophies for participation cease to become metaphors for the Christian life. Participation trophies are the athletic version of universalism.
You have to press on. You have to, (James says), “remain steadfast under trial.” You have to “[stand] the test” in order to receive the crown. You have to, (according to the author of Hebrews), “lay aside every weight” and “run with endurance.” You have to, (as Paul says elsewhere), “fight the good fight of the faith.”
This is why Paul uses the athletic metaphor here. In order to succeed athletically, you must work hard. Concentrated and determined effort is absolutely essential.
My son Brady is 13 and he is a gifted basketball shooter. There are times when he is shooting beyond the arc and gets into such a rhythm that he seems incapable of missing, and every shot looks the same from perfect start to perfect finish. It’s beautiful – legs and shoulders balanced, shooting elbow tucked in, eyes fastened to the rim, follow through. And often, his shot will hit just the right spot, with just the right rotation, making a glorious snapping sound, and the backspin will flick the bottom of the net up, through, and over the rim where it just hangs as a testimony of the magic that just happened.
Now, Brady is gifted when it comes to his shot, but do you know how much hard work that takes. Rain or shine, for years, that boy is out in the driveway, shooting, shooting, shooting.
In order to succeed spiritually, you must work hard. Concentrated and determined effort is absolutely essential.
You can’t cruise into heaven. It’s hard work. The race is grueling. It’s a fight Paul says. It’s a war Paul says, and if you’re going to reach the goal of the prize you will have to press on.
Now, one last insight from Paul before our conclusion, and it’s in verse 13. He gives us a key to pressing on in the faith. He says this: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,..”
There are two important elements there:
- Forget what lies behind.
- Strain forward to what lies ahead.
If we’re going to press on; if we’re going to reach our goal; if we’re going to win the prize, we must “strain forward to what lies ahead.” What lies ahead? Jesus. We must keep our eyes on Jesus. Hebrews 12 says the same thing.
And now most of you know this, but we can’t look forward and backward at the same time. So, Paul says “forget what lies behind.” Forget what?
If you’re going to press on toward Jesus and cross the finish line, you will need to forget past hurts, past wrongs (real or supposed), past failures, and even past successes. Which is a hang up for you?
As far as I can tell, there is really one thing God tells us to remember over and over again and don’t forget, and it’s his good words toward us.
In Conclusion, lest you think we’ve forgotten the gospel. Remember, though you have been called to fight and work hard, it is not by this hard work you are saved. We are saved by grace, and not by works.
We strive, but we strive by grace and from grace. It is all of grace. We want to grow, not so that God will love us and accept us, but we want to grow because God loves us and accepts us!!!
This is the crucial truth Paul mentioned, which we glossed over, in verse 12: ““Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Paul said “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” The word literally means “lay hold of” or “take hold of” or “arrest” or “grasp” or “apprehend.” A Christian is someone who has been apprehended by Christ. Our security as Christians is not based on how well we do, but on our union with Christ.
Is God revealing in you an apathetic attitude toward your Christian life?
Have you become passive in your sanctification?
Undisciplined in your Bible reading?
Are your prayers treating God like a vending machine?
Half hearted witnessing?
Attitude need adjustment?
Are you working hard at Knowing Christ, Pursuing Christ, Being like Christ (holiness)?