Pressing towards the Mark

Reading: Philippians 3

Sometimes we meet a person who says, “I don’t plan or hope for anything. That way I am never disappointed!”

But is that how life is meant to be? We solve our problems by denial. We end up achieving very little.

No, it is important that we have aims and goals. Not just any aims and goals, of course, but the right ones! And it is important that we adopt those strategies that will enable us to achieve them! That is a commonsense approach to most of the ordinary tasks of our life. Things don't get done by themselves without our conscious thought, planning and effort.

This same principle applies to our spiritual life too. In a large measure, our spiritual goals and how we endeavour to achieve them are a sign of where we are in our relationship with the Lord.

Paul's Position before God

In Philippians 3, Paul reveals how he had thought of himself as a good-living Jew. He could point to all his good credentials with truthfulness and pride. Surely God must be pleased with him!

He was circumcised when he was a week old, as every Jewish boy was. His parents had been careful about all that should follow too... He was an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew. Following the great persecution of Jews in the time of the Maccabees in which many devout Jews lost their lives, a number of people from other races began to take a great interest in the Jewish religion – there must be something in it if people are prepared to die for it. Some of these people attended the synagogue services as “God-fearers”. Others became “proselytes” – undergoing instruction, circumcision and baptism and being permitted to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Paul was not one of these “half-Jews” – he was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”.

So he born into the right nation and family. And he took his religious upbringing with the utmost seriousness. As far as keeping the Jewish Law was concerned, he was a Pharisee. We tend to regard the Pharisees as harsh extremists. We need to understand something of the background of the Maccabean period – between the Testaments – in which they developed.

Alexander the Great had campaigned to spread the Greek language and culture throughout the whole of the ancient world. Following his death, the Hellenistic Empire was divided among his generals. Antiochus Epiphanes had control over the section which included Palestine. Listen to the record – “Then the king issued a proclamation to his whole kingdom that all were to become a single people, each renouncing his particular customs. All the pagans conformed to the king’s decree, and many Israelites chose to accept his religion, sacrificing to idols and profaning the sabbath. The king also sent instructions by messenger to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah directing them to adopt customs foreign to the country, banning burnt offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings from the sanctuary, profaning sabbaths and feasts, defiling the sanctuary and the sacred ministers, building altars, precincts and shrines for idols, sacrificing pigs and unclean beasts, leaving their sons uncircumcised, and prostituting themselves to all kinds of impurity and abomination, so that they should forget the Law and revoke all observance of it. Anyone not obeying the king’s command was to be put to death... Many of the people – that is, every apostate from the Law – rallied to them, and so committed evil in the country... Any books of the Law that came to light were torn up and burned. Whenever anyone was discovered possessing a copy of the covenant or practising the Law, the king’s decree sentenced him to death... Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death according to the edict with their babies hung around their necks, and the members of their household and those who had performed the circumcision were executed with them. Yet there were many in Israel who stood firm and found the courage to refuse unclean food. They chose death rather than contamination..." (1 Macc.1.41-67).

Little wonder that the Pharisee sect arose with a strong determination to ensure that the whole Law be kept, no matter what. So Paul is saying, I had a strong and very particular concern to observe all the Law. And I was so zealous that I persecuted the church. His persecution of Christians arose from this background. After all that we have gone through, we don’t want anyone bringing in new doctrines to lead us away from a strict observance of the Law.

Paul could even claim that, as far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, he was without fault. That’s a rather bold claim to make!

“But”, he says, “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

So what is important for Paul now? Knowing Christ, gaining Christ and being completely united to him, having a right relationship (or righteousness) with God on the sole basis of faith in Christ...

In the previous chapter, Paul had spoken about the mind of Christ and a time when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Now here is Paul doing just that – laying all his personal credentials aside and acknowledging the sole Lordship of Christ. No longer will he plead where he has come from or what he has done. From now on his sole glory is what Christ has done for him.

And his goal in life?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.” No longer his spiritual credentials but knowing Christ – restored into personal relationship with Christ because of his death for our sins on the cross. Paul extends this by going on to speak of sharing his sufferings and becoming like him in his death. On the one hand we share his sufferings when we receive for ourselves what he alone can do for us by his sufferings. And we become like him in his death when the principle of sin is rooted out of our lives.

On the other, Paul had suffered as a disciple of Christ. Listen to his record from 2 Corinthians 11 – “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers...” (vv. 24-26). Jesus did warn us, “In the world you will have trouble” (Jn 16.33). He did say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Mt 5.11-12).

But Paul is not one of those queer people who enjoy suffering. He accepts that he has suffered and will suffer for the cause of Christ. But his confident goal is that he will experience the power of his resurrection and that he will be raised from death to life. Christ died for my sin. I am forgiven. But I want to experience the resurrection – the complete overcoming of sin in my present life. I suffer for the cause of Christ. But my confident hope is that beyond suffering and death I will experience a resurrection into the life to come.

Pressing towards the Mark

So Paul has told us what he wants in life – the “all I want” as the Good News Bible puts it. How far has he gone towards achieving it?

He tells us plainly, “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. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

As long as this life continues, Paul knows that his great quest is not complete. He needs to know Christ more. He knows he is forgiven, but longs for more of the redeeming grace of Christ in all areas of his life. He may be in prison for his faith, but knows that he has still to serve his Lord, no matter what the cost. He affirms that he belongs to Christ – Christ Jesus has already taken hold of him. But he knows that he still has a race to run, a prize to attain, and he will continue to press forward to reach it.

Life isn’t a sprint but a marathon. It is easy to get distracted. We have seen on television the marathon runner who glances over his shoulder, only to be passed at that very moment. We don’t deny the past – either the negatives of our own sins and failures and hurts that others have done to us or the positively amazing grace of God towards us. But God calls us forward – forward to a life transformed into what he always meant us to be.

To be spiritually mature, Paul says, is to have this attitude that continually strives to go forward.

Sadly, Paul knows some who call themselves Christians but whose lives make them enemies of Christ’s death on the cross. They are not moving forward in a disciplined way. Their destiny, Paul is saying, is destruction, because their god is their stomach – their bodily desires... they think only of the things of this world.

But, Paul says, we are citizens of heaven. We know where we belong. We know our destiny and our goal. We know our Saviour and long for the time when he will change our weak mortal bodies and make them like his own glorious body. We are not proud of the evidences of our weakness. Our desire and goal is that these be overcome through the power of Christ within us.

Two Focal Points

In this chapter Paul has given us two important focal points for our lives – all I want... and the one thing I do...

All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so to attain resurrection from the dead. This is the goal of Paul's life.

The 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 heavenward in Christ Jesus. Paul is actively pursuing his goal by the grace of God in Christ Jesus and in the power of his Spirit.

Where are you now in the spiritual race? Never forget that your goal is to know Christ! And don’t forget that the finishing line is up ahead! Christ has redeemed you. Christ is with you. But he is also there at the finishing line waiting to give you the prize! Keep pressing forward!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Kennedy, 24 March 2007
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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