We ended our last study with Paul writing that he desired to know and experience two things intimately: the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of suffering. These two—power and suffering—we learned, are inseparably linked.
This week we move from our having a proper attitude (continually rejoicing!) to the actual work required to advance the gospel. Pastor Trev, an accomplished nationally-recognized weight lifter, has given us the key to successfully lifting heavy weights: mental and physical preparation, combined with maximum physical effort, are required to achieve success. In other words, it takes an equal measure of both in order to lift the bar—weighing, perhaps, 700 pounds or more!
Similarly, Paul, having laid a strong and confident spiritual foundation, now moves his readers to the mental and physical effort that is also necessary in order to actually live out the Christian life as God intends.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
Much as Pastor Trev has used the contest of power lifting to encourage us in a victorious walk with Christ, Paul uses the Greek sport of running; specifically of a runner giving his all to win first place. Paul cautions that none of us, not even Paul himself, has achieved perfection.
Paul, by this time, had been a Christian for around thirty years. He had won many spiritual battles and had grown much over the decades, but he still had more to achieve.
We may look at Paul, this giant of the faith, and think, “Wow, if he can’t achieve it, what chance do I have?” And, in fact, Paul does encourage us to look at his life. Later in this letter he says, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice.” (Philippians 4:9)
But we must remind ourselves that neither Paul, nor any other human, is the standard by which we measure ourselves. The standard is God. He’s the perfect standard. If we look and see someone else achieving more for the kingdom than we are, that should not deter us from giving our all. I think Paul may have had Jesus’ words in mind, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
We often throw around words like “good,” “better,” “bad,” and “worse.” We use these words as adjectives or adverbs to compare one thing or person with another. For example: Mother Teresa is better than Adolph Hitler. I doubt I would get much argument from that statement, but the breach between each of us and God, who is perfect, compared to the gap between these two mortals, is immeasurably larger.
Even though we cannot attain perfection, Paul says that we should not stagnate in our walk. We should “press on,” because we have been bought by Christ. In today’s vernacular it might sound like this: “It’s not who you are, but whose you are.” We are Christ’s, if we have put our faith in Him alone to make us right (and righteous) with God, and he has paid a great price for each of us.
The Greek word for “press on” is diōkō, which means to run swiftly (sprint) in order to catch a person or thing. To get the proper image, think of a policeman chasing a bad guy who just stole an elderly lady’s purse. Giving it all he has, the officer is in hot pursuit. That’s diōkō.
Going back a few studies, we talked about sanctification; growing in holiness. As he presses on, Paul pursues sanctification with all his might, straining every spiritual muscle in his attempt to win the prize. He encourages each of us to do the same. No strain, no gain!
Paul’s view is forward. He places special emphasis on this when he says (verse 13), “But one thing I do.” Paul has given much instruction in this letter, but he boils it down to the most important of the lessons; if you only hear one thing, hear this: press forward! Don’t look back!
In looking back and fixing our thoughts on the past, we risk one of two dangers: we focus and become paralyzed by past failures, or we rely on earlier successes, becoming lethargic in the present. We can enjoy the memories of previous victories, and learn from our past mistakes, but we cannot make either our primary focus. The best analogy I’ve heard is that of the large windshield and the small rear-view mirror in every vehicle. While it is important to periodically glance in the rear-view mirror, the front windshield and its view of what’s ahead, absolutely demands our primary attention and focus.
Jesus instructed his disciples not to look back when he told them, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62). I’m certainly no farmer, and I don’t believe any of those first disciples were either, but I can quickly see the dilemma. If I’m on the old trusty John Deere plowing the field and I’m constantly looking back, the rows are probably not going to be very straight, and at some point, I’ll doubtless crash. Much wiser to focus forward. Jesus agrees.
Paul is looking forward, so much so that he is straining. The Greek word for straining is epektasis, which has the idea of stretching to reach a goal. Picture the sprinter in the Olympics stretching for all he’s worth to hit that tape at the finish line ahead of the other runners. That’s the effort Paul is exerting, and he encourages us to do the same.
The “prize of the upward call” is that prize we can only obtain when Christ calls us into heaven and into His presence. The prize is unattainable in this life, yet we strive to achieve it. We give it our all with the full knowledge that we will gain it in the end.
Paul, in encouraging us to put everything we have into it—straining for the prize—knows the secret: we cannot lose! We press forward, not resting on the laurels of past accomplishments, or stuck in the mire or previous failures, because we have been promised that “He who began a good work in us will complete it.” (Philippians 1:6)
Jim Eliot, a missionary who gave up everything to reach remote tribes in Central America, understood Paul’s challenge. Before he was martyred by the very people with which he sought to share the gospel, he declared, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Eliot won the prize of the upward call on an isolated beach in Equator. He did so, giving his all.
Paul now speaks (verse 17) to “those of us who are mature.” Again, the idea of sanctification is present; growing in holiness. As we grow spiritually, just as with anything that grows in nature, we mature. Interestingly, the Greek word for “mature” used here is teleios, the very same adjective translated “perfect” in verse 12. In essence, Paul says, “If you are really perfect/mature, you will realize you are not yet perfect/mature!” And, if you are offtrack in your thinking, Paul says God will reveal the truth to you.
The Greek word for reveal (apokalyptō) means to uncover or unveil. It literally means “to pull the lid off.” In English it is where we get the word apocalypse and it is the same word used for the title of the last book of the Bible; Revelation. Many listened to Paul and learned from him. They recognized the wisdom that God had given him, and they knew the sacrifices he had endured, to press on, sharing the gospel no matter the cost. Yet not all mature by following Paul’s example. Some will have to learn, perhaps the hard way, from God directly. God in His faithfulness will bring the maturity by revealing the truth to them eventually, perhaps through discipline. But it will be discipline dispensed with love.
The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11) That term “a harvest of righteousness” speaks of maturity; when a crop has fully ripened and is ready to be picked.
Paul concludes his thought with the reminder that we should hold fast to the truth that we have attained righteousness in Christ. Not a righteousness of our own making, but a gift from God. Paul says, that knowing this truth, we should press on, maturing together, continuing to do so, right up until Christ calls us to be with Him in heaven.
17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. 4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
Paul encourages the Philippians follow his example and to imitate his relentless pursuit of Christ. Paul was not perfect. He said as much in verse 12. But, as has been the theme in this entire section of Scripture, his admonition is to move forward, press on, and to not look back. If they were not sure how to do this, Paul encourages them to keep their eyes on those who have proven themselves, including Paul himself. Recall that in our last study, Paul drew attention two examples of other godly men the Philippians could, and should, imitate: Timothy and Epaphroditus.
What an encouragement and challenge that should be for each of us. In truth, all believers are imperfect, but there are those that are less imperfect than others. And it is these imperfect earthly vessels that God uses to preserve, defend and spread the gospel. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
Though we may, at times struggle and feel ineffective, if we look around, we can find those who are doing better, those who are more mature in the faith. We can then do our best imitation of their attitude and their actions. In copying others who are more mature in the faith, I believe God, in His incredible grace, will even allow us to “fake it ‘til we make it.”
At any given time, I have at least three men in my life that I can turn to for encouragement and strength when I’m feeling ineffective. I thank God for these men of faith, and I hope that I can be a similar model for others. It is unwise and unhealthy to live as a “lone ranger” Christian. We need one another, mindful that “iron sharpens iron.” (Proverbs 27:17)
Following the encouragement to seek others to imitate in Christ-likeness, Paul gives a warning: not everyone who appears to be righteous is what they profess. There are those who are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing. There are probably two groups that he has in mind; Gnostics who keep trying to drag the Philippian believers back into legalism, and those who are libertines, “free thinkers” who behave without moral principles. At times they may appear godly and even offer to help in ministry, but below the surface they are worldly-minded.
Paul calls out one such man in his second letter to Timothy, “Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:10)
It breaks Paul’s heart and brings him to tears when he thinks about these “enemies of the cross of Christ,” which he has warned the believers about often in the past, and continues to do so now. These evil dogs talk about following God, but, in truth, their god is their belly and the things of this world.
David had similar misgivings as he looked out and saw the evil ones of his day prevailing, getting fatter and richer by the day. It made no sense until God gave David a glimpse into God’s sanctuary, then he understood their final destiny; utter destruction. (Psalm 73)
Paul concludes his tearful lament with a prophetic declaration, very much echoing David’s words: “Their end is destruction.”
With this warning, Paul directs the believers to focus their minds on the eternal rather than the temporal, to their promised destination—citizenship in heaven—the place where God dwells and Christ is present (John 14:1-3).
The Greek term for “citizenship” refers to a colony of foreigners. It was used to describe a city that kept the names of its citizens on a register. God has a register; the Book of Life. When we accept Christ through faith, our name is immediately written is this register. Once our name is written, we become eternal citizens. Our names are written in ink, and there is no Wite-Out in heaven! We are sealed with Christ for eternity!
For now, we must wait for that blessed hope when we will take up residency in heaven with Christ. In the meantime, Paul says we should wait eagerly, with keen anticipation. Like children on Christmas Eve, we should wait with tiptoe anticipation. Waiting eagerly translates from the Greek word, apekdéxomai, which is a triple compound word that sums up our study quite nicely: apó, “away from,” déxomai, “welcome” ekdíkēsis, “out of.” Together, these three give the composite meaning: “welcome from and out of”; waiting that decisively “puts away” all that should remain behind. In summary, we eagerly wait with anticipation for Jesus’ return, not looking back, but forward, mindful that there are those who will do anything to rob us of this joy.
Now it’s time for Paul to give his closing argument. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!”
Paul makes one final illusion to the idea of runners sprinting for the prize. The Greek word for “crown” (the prize) is stephanos, which is the runner’s wreath or victor’s crown. Sometimes called the laurel wreath, it is a symbol commonly associated with victory and achievement. In ancient Greece, a wreath of laurel leaves was awarded to victorious athletes as a symbol of their excellence and achievement.
Of course, Paul had an even greater crown in mind, the victor’s crown of righteousness. He wrote to Timothy about this glorious crown: “The victor’s crown of righteousness is now waiting for me, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on the day that he comes, and not only to me but also to all who eagerly wait for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8)
The crown Paul has earned, which will be given to him by Jesus Himself, will be his reward for the effort he has expended in overseeing and caring for the Philippian church. He’s done this directly and by proxy, using his trusted brothers, Timothy and Epaphroditus. His conscience is clear and his heart is full. His sole motivation has been his deep and profound love for the Philippian believers.
He then gives his final instruction; stand! Stand firm in the Lord. You may recall that Paul gave the same instruction to stand in his letter to the Ephesians. To the Ephesians, it came right after his call to put on the spiritual armor so that they could effectively battle the enemy and live victoriously. Armed with military-like covering, Paul said the next step was to stand. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
To the Philippians, he gives the instruction to stand following his encouragement to run a good race, and his warnings to be on the lookout for “wild dogs” who want to harm them. Paul reminds the Philippians, and us, that with God, we don’t have to go out and start turning over every rock to see if there is an enemy combatant hiding out. Instead, we should stand firm. While we stand, we should listen. We should listen to see if the Spirit wants to do something through us, or if He wants us to simply watch and see what He is about to do.
With Paul, let us stand together.