“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. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
He’s never been one to hide who he is or what he thinks. He is often rather earthy in his choice of words. He seldom beats around the bush, but he’s not above using hyperbole to make a point. As he lists his many accomplishments, it sounds to many as though he is boasting. In the face of opposition, he’s been known to use some forceful and colorful language, including name calling.
No, I’m not talking about one of our current candidates for the highest office in the land. I’m talking about the apostle Paul. With a three-fold “look out,” Paul warns against threats to the Philippians’ spiritual safety. “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.”
Paul uses three different terms to refer to the enemies of the Gospel against whom he is warning the Philippians here, but all three refer to the same enemies—the Judaizers. Judaizers were Jews who claimed to believe in Jesus as their Savior, but they also taught that in addition to believing in Jesus, it was necessary to keep the Old Testament ceremonial laws, especially circumcision. In doing so, the Judaizers confused Law and Gospel. They robbed New Testament believers of the freedom from the Old Testament laws and ceremonies that Jesus won for them, and they continued to plant in human hearts the damnable idea that human beings can somehow make a contribution toward our own salvation. These Judaizers were a very real threat to the life and faith of the early Church.
The idea that Jesus’ atoning work is not quite enough, and human beings must add something of our own to it is no less of a problem today than it was in the apostle’s day. This error of works righteousness continues to endanger faith and lead people away from Christ and salvation.
To the Judaizers, fleshly things like ethnic background, rituals, and outward displays of human piety meant everything. They labored under the perverted impression that their salvation depended on those earthly things. Paul does not want the Philippians to be deceived by that kind of thinking. So, he uses his own life as an example of how perverted such thinking really is. If Paul chose to argue along with the Judaizers on their own terms, he would have greater reason for boasting than any Judaizer could ever have.
Were the Judaizers concerned about circumcision? Well, Paul had been circumcised on the eighth day in strict accord with the ceremonial law. Were the Judaizers concerned about ethnic purity? Paul was of 100% pure Israelite blood, He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, one of only two tribes that had remained intact after the Jews returned from exile.
Paul was a true Hebrew among Hebrews, a genuine Israelite through and through, with a genealogy that would put many of the Judaizers to shame. His family had remained strictly faithful to the ancestral religion and had even retained the Hebrew language, which many other Jews had forgotten.
If the Judaizers were concerned about the outward keeping of Old Testament ceremonial laws, Paul could boast that he had been a Pharisee, a member of the strict Jewish sect that prided itself in keeping the laws of Moses to the last detail. Even Paul’s father before him had been a Pharisee, and none of his contemporaries came close to being as good a Pharisee as Paul had been. During his years as a Pharisee, Paul, then known as Saul, had diligently kept and upheld all the Pharisees’ laws and regulations. His zeal for those laws, in fact, had been so great that it led him to persecute the infant Christian Church, because it taught a way of salvation contrary to that which the Pharisees taught.
As measured by the standards of righteousness that the Judaizers upheld, Paul was therefore practically faultless. And if heaven’s gates could have been opened by any combination of these outward things, Paul, both by what he had inherited and what he had attained, would have been able to walk right in.
At one time, Paul had considered all these things advantages that would help him gain eternal life. But, by God’s grace he had been led to see all these outward things in their true light. All those supposed advantages did not gain real righteousness for him. They only led him away from the righteousness that saves. So, like a ship’s captain tossing cargo off a foundering ship so it will not sink, Paul got rid of all the things that had been so important to him. He realized that the things he had discarded were nothing but garbage, rubbish, a worthless mess, for they had stood in the way of his knowing and trusting in Christ.
In losing those earthly things as the object of his trust, Paul had, through the Holy Spirit’s work in his heart, gained Christ. During the 30 or so years that had elapsed between his experience on the Damascus road and the writing of this epistle, Paul’s knowledge of Christ had grown and matured. The more he knew of his Savior and the more deeply he came to rest his confidence on Christ, the more the apostle realized that nothing can be compared with knowing Christ.
It is important for us also to realize that some of the things we might regard as advantage or gain can actually be loss for us if they stand in the way of our knowing and trusting in Jesus. Being born into a Christian home, being instructed and confirmed, receiving a Christian education, and being members of a Christian congregation are all great blessings and advantages in themselves, but we cannot regard them as tickets to eternal life. Likewise, other legitimate blessings of the Lord—like intelligence, money, charm, education, even our own personal moral victories—can actually become hindrances to our salvation if, for any reason, we put our trust in them instead of placing our whole confidence in Christ.
Through Christ, Paul obtained a righteousness that enables sinners to stand before the judgment seat of God. Before he came to know Jesus, Paul trusted the righteousness that he thought he was earning by the kind of life he led. But once the Scriptures were opened to him, the apostle came to realize how worthless all human righteousness really is.
In Christ, Paul had found real righteousness. Jesus earned this righteousness for sinners by his work as mankind’s substitute. Individual sinners personally receive this righteousness by faith, which the Holy Spirit kindles in their hearts through the very Gospel message that announces and offers this righteousness. On the basis of this righteousness alone, God accepts sinful human beings as His children. Paul knew that in Christ he had obtained that marvelous righteousness from God. He was not about to give it up or again foolishly place his trust in the worthless human righteousness that had intrigued him before. Nor did he want the Philippians to be deceived by the Judaizers into giving it up.
Twenty centuries later, these words also urge us to place our confidence in the righteousness of Christ alone. We are encouraged to count everything else as loss for the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ and finding in Him the righteousness that avails before God.
We, who possess Christ’s righteousness and feel His love in our hearts, will, want to grow in our knowledge of Him. We will want to experience His love ever more deeply and respond to that love with lives of loving service to Jesus.
The Lord blesses such growth in us through His means of grace. As we regularly find Christ in His Word, remember our baptisms, and receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit reveals the Savior to us in ever clearer focus. He binds us ever more closely to that Savior, filling us more and more with the Savior’s love and the desire and power to serve Him. Through the Spirit’s work in our hearts, we experience the power of Christ’s resurrection, receiving the spiritual strength to overcome sin and grow in Christian living.
We also experience, as Paul did, that we are able to “share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.” We cannot atone for our own sins by suffering and dying, but we share in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering and become like Him in His death. We share this when we endure the scorn and ridicule and even at times the physical persecution of the hostile world, when we daily crucify our own sinful and selfish nature with its lusts and desires, and when we joyfully and uncomplainingly follow our Savior on our path of suffering and trouble in this sinful world to the glory of eternal life with Him. Toward that great goal Paul constantly pressed; toward that great goal every believer, including us, also strives.
Like a determined athlete, Paul concentrated and pressed on so that he could take hold of that for which Christ Jesus had taken hold of him. Paul was a believer because Christ had redeemed Paul with his blood and called Paul by the Gospel to be his own and to serve the Savior with his life. Motivated by the fact that Christ had reached out in grace and taken hold of him, Paul pressed onward with never-wavering concentration and all-out effort toward the blessed end to which Christ had promised that his life of faith would lead.
Paul realized that he himself has not yet reached spiritual perfection nor would he achieve perfection in this life. That did not mean he became lazy or despaired or gave up striving for perfection. As we read his epistles, we see quite clearly that during his entire life as a Christian, one holy passion filled the apostle’s soul. He wanted to serve the Lord Jesus. He wanted to do it constantly, perfectly, and without distraction. “One thing I do,” he says, as he sums up that holy passion, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Looking back while running ahead is dangerous for a runner in a race. It can only result in a loss of speed and direction. In the race of his Christian life, the apostle did not look back either. He did not look back with pride on past accomplishments, which he knew could not earn him anything in God’s sight. Nor did he look back in regretful brooding over past sins, which had been washed away by Jesus’ blood. With each new day he put forth every effort to press ahead, to grow in his Christian living and service to Christ.
The long-distance runner strains and stretches every muscle, expending even more energy if at all possible, as he draws closer to the finish life. Similarly, Paul was expending all the energy he possessed as a Christian, straining with all his spiritual might as he drew ever closer to the goal and the prize of eternal life.
Every Christian should run the race of his life in that way, No, we won’t reach perfection here on earth, because we are sinners, but there is no limit to the spiritual growth we can achieve by the grace and power of Him who has called us to serve Him as we press on toward the Resurrection. When God calls Christians and brings us to faith, He sets that prize and goal before us. He encourages us to always keep that goal and prize in mind as we run the race of Christian life.
For Christians, being called, running, and reaching the goal are all “in Christ Jesus.” Without Christ’s atoning work for us, there would be no goal, no eternal prizes. Without His Spirit’s work in our hearts, we would neither run the race nor reach the end and goal of our faith and take full possession of that for which God has taken hold of us.
So, press on toward the Resurrection. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.