Text: Philippians 3. 4-14.
Unless otherwise stated scripture quotations are taken from The New King James Version
As a former enemy of the Christian community, Paul expresses amazement that he, too, will share in the coming resurrection, ‘If, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead’. The apostle forcefully confirms his confidence in the coming glory by stating, ‘We also eagerly wait for the Saviour … who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body’, Phil. 3. 20, 21. There is a sense of wonder that overcomes the apostle as he meditates on God’s grace that called him into that glory in spite of all that he had done.
About thirty years before, writing to the Christians in Philippi, Paul had a life-changing encounter with Christ. He met Him, he talked with Him and he knew Him. The exceptional thoughts, ‘that I may gain Christ’, ‘be found in Christ’ and ‘know Christ’, that Paul has already shared with his friends in Philippi, do not cancel out the Damascus encounter. Instead, they build on it. The apostle quickly affirms that he has not yet achieved all these aims; he has not yet reached that goal. Yet, there is no doubt that he is running towards that end.
Unfortunately, there are always those who believe they are part of a spiritual elite. Some of them troubled the church in Philippi, forming a group who had ‘confidence in the flesh’, Phil. 3. 2-4. Paul was once part of that world. The apostle uses very strong language for those who claim to belong to a higher religious class affecting the Christian community negatively. He exclaims, ‘Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation! The first term is part of their language to describe those who disagree with them. Paul knows that, for he once thought that same way.
Although Paul takes us into the mind of God, he is quick to state, ‘Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected’. Paul affirms that he has not yet reached the fullness of these wonders related to Christ. As he moves in that direction, he will not be part of any spiritual elite. But humility has nothing to do with carelessness, drifting, or apathy. In that race, Paul unashamedly declares, ‘I press on’. Just drifting along is hardly acceptable. True spiritual progress is imperative until this earthly life finally draws to a close and we enter the eternal realm. Gently, the question should be asked, ‘How far forward in the race have we run in the last year, the last five years, or the last ten years? With due respect, Paul, because of the unbelievable sufferings he endured, is a battered and scarred old man. Yet, as we read his words, we cannot miss the note of excitement, of expectation, and of longing. Nor can we miss the fact that near the end of his life he is in no mood to just drift along.
There is nothing impersonal about this. Paul is writing out his own very personal thoughts on these matters. He writes, ‘I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me’. The phrase, ‘to lay hold of’ has two principal meanings. First, to lay hold of someone or something literally, with your hands; second, to understand with the mind a concept, a principle, or a thought. Outside of Damascus, the Lord Jesus literally stopped Saul of Tarsus in his tracks. From the transcendent glory, He reached out to Saul. Now, after thirty years, Paul is still doing his best to understand all the implications of why the Lord Jesus laid hold of him. He is definitely not going to slow down now with the goal in view. Paul knows that regardless of the years we live, there is not sufficient time here to grasp the magnitude of Christ’s glory. Yet he runs, in the quest of comprehending as much as he possibly can right now.
Paul was running with passion, for he states, ‘One thing I do’, that is, I am focusing all my energies on this one thing. This ‘one thing’ has two parts. First, ‘forgetting those things which are behind’. The apostle did not live on memories. Nor is Paul a prisoner of the past, whether of failures or triumphs, a message for all of us who are senior citizens. Second, ‘straining toward what is ahead’ NIV. Philippians chapter 3 verses 8-11 contains the three elements we have already noticed more than once – that I may gain Christ, that I may be found in Christ, and that I may know Christ. For Paul, these are the blessings of incalculable value that lie ahead. By walking with God now, we are aiming for a heaven that is filled with Christ and His glory. As a result, our lives on earth will be enhanced with purpose, significance, and hope.
It is worth remembering that Paul expresses himself like this while confined to a jail cell. While recognizing his present limitations, no jail cell will hinder Paul from running towards Him. True, this present life is so short and cluttered with obstacles it may seem impossible to really grasp the greatness of the Lord Jesus. Yet the adversities of this short life never hindered Paul from running towards Him with all the strength of his being. The apostle is running towards the goal with his eyes clearly on the mark. With our eyes on the goal-marker we move in the right direction. What significance does the term ‘goalmarker’ have for the Christian? Perhaps a good definition would be to focus on those things that help us to go in the right direction spiritually and to continue right on to the end. For example, the importance of God’s word in our lives, for it is His word that will keep us from distractions and from stumbling. Similarly, from his own personal experience, Paul exhorts us to ‘pray without ceasing’, 1 Thess. 5. 17. There is value to assembly meetings, for we are all exhorted not to forsake ‘the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some’, Heb. 10. 25. We need each other. We need to encourage one another. We add to the list the importance of friends. Paul was not a loner. He lived his Christian life and he worked in God’s service surrounded by friends.
To finally reach the goal is to come to the end of life in this world. Paul could almost touch the goal-marker when he wrote to Timothy, saying, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’, 2 Tim. 4. 7. Paul knew his life here was about to end. There would be no more travel, no more preaching and teaching, no more letters. He was reaching the moment of ‘the upward call’.
What happens when the race comes to an end? In the Greek games a wooden platform stood near the goalmarker. On the platform was a chair for the judge of the games. When the first runner crossed the finish line, the judge gave his name to the young man beside him and he, in a booming voice, announced the name of the winner to all the spectators. That was the upward call for the winner to climb the steps and present himself before the judge who then gave him the prize, usually a simple crown made of green leaves.
What is the prize? The apostle has written pointedly of three great experiences which he is passionately anticipating, first, to gain Christ, then, to be found in Christ, and, wonder of wonders, to know Christ. Christ Himself, then, is the prize! How beautiful to grasp that in Christ all other possible suggestions about what the prize might be are included. In Christ, and because of Christ, we will be dressed in the perfection of God’s holiness forever. We will enter a state of total glory, for even now we ‘rejoice in hope of the glory of God’, Rom. 5. 2. Because we are in Christ and, because we are united to Christ forever, we never will be in a state of partial knowing again, for, as already noted, we shall know as we have been known.
Paul has great insight into the future, but John may help us as we seek to understand the prize, ‘Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is’, 1 John 3. 2. To see Him as He is and to be like Him forever truly staggers the imagination! Paul anticipates that day with joy. We begin to understand Paul’s passion when, in a modern translation, we read, ‘I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize’ NLT. Like a runner stretching out to the limit of his powers he is running towards that moment.
What will it be like to see the Lord Jesus for the first time, to see Him as we have never seen Him before? We ask the question because Paul clearly writes about gaining Him, of being completely found in Him and of knowing Him, not by faith but by sight. The moment will be so personal, so precious, so overwhelming that scholars, commentators and writers usually, perhaps wisely, put down their pens. In that reverent silence the poets dare to go a little further. E. GRIMLEY writes,
O what shall we feel
in Thy presence when first
The visions of glory
upon us shall burst!
Since now our soul longeth
and seeketh for Thee;
O when, blessed Saviour,
Thy face shall we see?
We see Thee, Lord Jesus,
with glory now crowned,
And waiting Thy coming,
in peace would be found;
The visions of glory
have turned all to dross;
For Thee give us grace
to count all things but loss.
As we finish these meditations on Paul’s relationship with the Lord Jesus, we remember the Lord asked Peter three times, ‘Do you love Me?’ John 21. 15-19. Peter answered affirmatively each time. True, he stumbled. In spite of how clearly the Lord Jesus shared with the disciples His imminent death, Peter, like his companions, was not prepared for what happened at Calvary. Yet, Peter proved through many years of committed service to his Lord how much he loved Him. To both author and reader the Lord’s question, ‘Do you love Me?’, is still relevant. Let us answer affirmatively. Let us love Him with commitment and passion. That is the only way to run the race well, a race that will finish with a very personal and eternal encounter with the Lord of glory.