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A New Testament Study - Philippians 3:12-14

The Race


12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

In the previous verses, Paul expressed his desire to know Christ, to be conformed to Him, to be in full fellowship with His Lord: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11). Lest his audience think too highly of him, Paul states here: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (vs. 12). It would be tempting for us to think of Paul as the "perfect" Christian. After all, he gave up his life for the work of the gospel, to the point of (as he wrote this epistle) sitting in chains for his faith, fully expecting to die for it. Had not he attained perfection in the Christian faith? Paul in this passage answers resoundingly, "Not yet!"

Despite the achievements of Paul's faith, he still had a long way to go. Paul still struggled with sin, still struggled with the desires of his flesh. In his letter to the Romans, Paul described this struggle: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. . . So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members" (Rom. 7:15-19,21-23). Paul summed up his state: "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24).

As Paul exemplifies, even the most mature Christian struggles with sin, struggles with desires of the flesh, struggles with temptations of the world, and is in constant warfare with the evil one. This struggle is and always will be with us in this world. If Paul had not yet been "made perfect", we certainly have a long way to go. It is a sign of Christian maturity to recognize our imperfections in the sight of God. The mature Christian says with Paul: "What a wretched man I am!" Ironically, the recognition that Paul struggled as we do can be an encouragement to us: if Paul experienced the same struggles that we do, and yet served God so mightily, so can we also serve God mightily.

Paul did not rest in his imperfections, but used them as an impetus to strive for perfection. He said: "I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." This is the essence of the attitude that mature Christians should have: not satisfied with past achievements, ever striving to be sanctified, desiring ever more to continue to strive to do the will of God. The term, to "press on", that Paul uses in this passage is used to describe the struggle of a runner in a race. The life and service of a Christian is often described in terms of a struggle of one sort or another. For instance, Christ said: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door" (Luke 13:24); and "Do not work for food that spoils, but [work] for that endures to eternal life" (John 6:27); the writer of Hebrews exhorted: "We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure" (Hebrews 6:11); and Paul earlier in this epistle said: "Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). This is not to say that our labor and works of service save us, but we should labor as if they did!

As mentioned, Paul here compares our lives as Christians to a race, a race that does not end with our salvation, but rather begins with it. The Christian life is compared to a race a number of times in the New Testament. For example, the writer of Hebrews exhorted: "[L]et us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (Heb. 12:1); and Paul said elsewhere: "Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (I Cor. 9:24-27). Paul, when making these comparisons, is not speaking of just any race, but a race of champions. There are many ways that the Christian life is like such a race, and that we the participants are like the athletes that run the race:


* Conditioning - The successful athlete is well-conditioned. He has rid himself of unnecessary flab. So too we should rid ourselves of unnecessary flab: the flab of the world that drags us down, worldly lusts, worldly desires, worldly diversions, worldly influences. Unnecessary flab makes the race much too difficult. It is a heavy burden.


* Diet - The successful athlete follows a special diet, eating what is best for his body, abstaining from what harms his body. So too we should build our diet on the foundation of the Word of God, and abstain from dieting on those things that are harmful. As Paul says later in this epistle: "[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things" (Phil. 4:8).


* Pacing - Successful athletes must pace themselves according to the length of the race. And so too we. Most of us, just like inexperienced runners, got too fast a start in this race, and then started to flag. We need a second wind, a renewal by the Holy Spirit, so that we may finish the race as strong as we started.


* Progress - No racer would even think of turning around and backtracking. His eyes are ever forward, looking toward the goal. Why must we in our race find it so hard to keep from going backwards?


* Energy - The successful athlete expends a great amount of energy. So we too should expend a great amount of energy in our race, in our service to God. Many serve God lazily and apathetically. Does any successful athlete run his race half-heartedly?


* Affliction - Training for the race, and the race itself, can be extremely painful. World-class athletics is extremely punishing on the body. Despite this, world-class athletes do not complain about the pain they experience as they run, they do not quit the sport because of the toll in pain that it takes on their body. Rather, they endure the affliction bravely, and overcome the obstacles, in light of the glory before them. And so should we.


* Staying on Course - Quite obviously, the racers must stick to the course in order to win the race. So we too must stick to the course, the course that God has laid out for us. Wouldn't it be foolish for an athlete in a race to carelessly stray from the course? Why then do we so easily stray from the course laid out for us?


* Forward-looking - The best athletes don't look back; rather, they have their eyes on the goal: the finish line. Each look back hinders their progress, disrupts their pace, causing them to lose ground. Paul exemplifies this in his race: "But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus" (vss. 13-14). There are two ways that looking back can hinder us as Christians. We can get discouraged by the past as we look back on our failures. Or, we can be hindered as we look back on and rest in our good deeds of the past. Paul says (in effect), "Don't look back." Paul says, "Forget what is behind" and "strain towards what is ahead." No matter how we have failed in the past, or no matter how much we have achieved in the past, we must press on: our race is not finished!


* Singlemindedness - The best athletes train and run the race with one thing in mind: victory. Paul exemplifies similar singlemindedness. He says: "One thing I do" (vs. 13). If we read the history of Paul's life, we can see this singlemindedness. David also had the same singlemindedness. He said: "One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple" (Psalms 27:4). Christ Himself commended Mary (Martha's sister) for such singlemindedness: "[O]nly one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:42). Paul said, "One thing I do"; David said, "One thing I ask"; Christ said, "One thing is needed." What is your "one thing"? Is it to singlemindedly pursue the will of God? We are not called to be "jacks-of-all-trades"; we are called to a single purpose, to fulfill the will of God. This should be our "one thing", the driving purpose of our lives. Seek this one thing; master this one thing, just as a champion athlete masters his event. If you do, your success in the eyes of God is assured.


As Paul points out elsewhere, the result of our successful race is much more valuable than that of even the best athletes: "They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (I Cor. 9:25). This reward is Paul's impetus in the race: "I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus" (vs. 14). We all have a calling from God to do His will during the race, but we also have a calling "to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenwards in Christ Jesus." This prize is variously described throughout the New Testament. For instance, from Romans: "For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30); from Thessalonians: ". . . God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 2:13-14); from Paul's letter to Timothy: "Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses" (I Tim. 6:12). Though the race be long and painful, there is an end to it; and at the end there is a great prize "to which God has called us." May the Lord be praised!


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