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Running The Race

Pressing Toward the Mark (Philippians 3:12-16)

PRESSING TOWARD THE MARK

Rev. Benjamin D. Boeshaar | Philippians 3:12-16

 

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

(Philippians 3:12-16, NKJV)

For Paul, the reality of his sins being forgiven and an eternity in Heaven with Christ was a glorious reality! The truth that he was given the perfect righteousness of Christ by faith in place of his self-merited, feeble attempt at being righteous, made him anything but complacent as a Christian and follower of Jesus.

Paul was a hater of Christ and His church. He was in the process of persecuting them when suddenly, the Lord of glory stopped Saul in his tracks and put an end to his zealous striving to establish his own righteousness. The gift of grace from the risen Lord Jesus shattered Saul’s “confidence in the flesh” as he says in verse 4, and released him to rest in assurance of God’s favor in Jesus the Messiah.

Dennis Johnson writes the following about Paul in his commentary on Philippians,

Nevertheless, as Saul rested in a righteousness not his own, the surprising result was that his assurance became a stimulant, not a sedative, to his passion to follow God’s will and further God’s glory. Paul is grateful for the gifts of a cleansed conscience and a record expunged of guilt before heaven’s Judge. The Spirit of God has begun a good work in Paul, as he has in the believers of Philippi (Phil. 1:6). Yet these first tastes of grace only whet Paul’s appetite for the whole feast of fellowship with his Savior that he describes as “gain[ing] Christ,” “be[ing] found in Christ,” and “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8–11). Paul could sing with Jean Sophia Pigott, “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what thou art.” Yet Paul’s resting is, actually, restless. The grace that has seized Paul’s heart has set him in a lifelong race. This is the imagery he evokes in our text. Paul is overjoyed to be forgiven, but not content to stop short of the completion of the Spirit’s renovation project in his life “at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). [1]

The grace that Paul received and that we have received as believers, invites us to a greater grace that God has ahead for us, namely perfection in Christ. But this perfection is something that we will not experience while alive on this earth. This is something that Paul knew to be truth. 

Johnson again writes,

Scholars debate whether Paul’s emphasis on his own imperfection was correcting a specific expression of “perfectionism” that was endangering the Philippian church. Some believe that Paul was thinking of observant Jews who were still where Paul once was, confident in their covenant heritage and conscientious law-keeping. Such Judaizers might have boasted, as Paul once did, that they had achieved a “blameless” status through circumcision, commandment-keeping, and sacrificial rituals (Phil. 3:6). Others suspect that Paul was counteracting a different group, who misbehaved sensually, indulging physical appetites and boasting in shameful acts (3:18–19). Such people might base their boasts of perfection not on exemplary behavior but on claims that their superior knowledge or mystical experience made their treatment of the body and its pleasures spiritually irrelevant. Such views, which came to full flower in Gnosticism over a century later, threatened the church even in the apostles’ day. The apostle John warned against people who claimed to be without sin (1 John 1:8–10), on the one hand, while refusing to keep God’s commandments, on the other (2:4; see 4:20–21). Ancient dualistic philosophies and religions so segregated spiritual realities from physical activities that such a blend of self-perceived innocence with lawless behavior was not at all far-fetched. Just as Las Vegas, America’s legendary “sin city,” advertises itself with the absurd motto “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” so ancient dualists alleged that “what happens in the body stays with the body,” leaving one’s spirituality unaffected and undamaged. [2]

Since Paul’s time, other versions of perfectionism have arisen. Sincere Christians have taught that a specific crisis of personal resolve or encounter with God’s Spirit can usher believers up to a higher plateau of spiritual experience, above all known sin. Wearied as we are by our ongoing struggles and stumbling into sin, we can empathize with believers who thought they had discovered a shortcut to the goal for which we all long.

In this text, Paul invites us to view our Christian life, from its beginning in God’s call of grace all the way to its climax at our death or Jesus’ glorious return, through the metaphor of an athletic race. Twice he declares, “I press on,” repeating a verb that describes pursuit with the aim of laying hold of someone or something (Phil. 3:12, 14).

One commentator makes the following comment,

Often in the New Testament, the word expresses pursuing persons for harmful purposes, and in those contexts it is aptly translated “persecute” (Matt. 5:10–12, 44; Acts 9:4–5; 22:4, 7–8; Rom. 12:14; Phil. 3:6; etc.). Here, though, Paul’s pursuit is driven by a praiseworthy motive, as in other passages in which he calls us to pursue righteousness, love, and other positive objectives. Our word, pursue, captures Paul’s purposefulness in running the race. His “pressing on” is not merely stoic stubbornness but a persistent quest for a goal. He surrounds his second declaration, “I press on,” with imagery drawn from the footraces of the Olympic athletic competitions for which Achaian cities, seven hundred miles south of Philippi, were renowned: “straining forward to what lies ahead,” “the goal,” and “the prize. [3]

What then must we understand when it comes to this race in the Christian life and the process of sanctification that all of us must experience?

1)     SANCTIFICATION IS A VERY REAL AND BIBLICAL DOCTRINE

Philippians 3:13—Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,

Romans 7:21–24—I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

2)    RESTING IN CHRIST IS THE FOUNDATION OF SANCTIFICATION

Philippians 3:8–11—Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

3)    REFUSING TO LOOK BACK AND PRESSING AHEAD IS THE REALITY OF SANCTIFICATION

Philippians 3:13–14—Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

4)    HOPE, PATIENCE, AND HUMILITY ARE ANCHORS IN SANCTIFICATION

Philippians 3:16—Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

Ephesians 4:11–13—And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;

5)    KNOWING CHRIST IN HIS FULLNESS IS THE PRIZE AND GOAL OF FINAL SANCTIFICATION

Philippians 3:12—Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.

Philippians 3:10–11—That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

CONCLUSION:

Benjamin Franklin developed a set of disciplines which he hoped would enable him to attain moral perfection. He drew up a list of twelve virtues which he considered essential to achieving the good life. He ruled each page with seven lines. Daily he appraised and recorded his behavior. During a conversation, Franklin shared his profile of excellence with an old Quaker, who quietly informed him he had omitted the virtue of humility.[4]

None of us will be perfect this side of Heaven…that is a reality! What is also a reality is that God is in the process of making us perfect and we are all in different parts of that journey. Let me encourage you about a few things as we close:

  1. Don’t be discouraged by your failings. Rest in Christ and move ahead!
  2. Remain hopeful and humble at all times. We have not arrived and we are always learning. We can be confident that God will continue to perfect us as needed.
  3. Keep the main goal as your focus. Make your it your passion to know Christ now so that you can enjoy Him even more in Heaven.

 

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[1] Dennis E. Johnson, Philippians, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, 1st ed., Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 205.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid, 206

[4] This illustration was taken from my files. I found it some years ago while browsing some short stories about the founders of the USA.

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