Within the next few weeks we will be concluding our study in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Prior to this in depth study for me, it has been a book of the Bible that contained a lot of key verses that I had committed to memory, a lot of very powerful phrases and concepts from the apostle Paul. But having now gone through the book verse by verse, thought by thought, has brought greater clarity and unity to the book for me.
Even before embarking on this study, most people are aware of a couple of things when looking into the letter. We recognize that it was written by the Apostle while he is imprisoned. We know that there is an ongoing theme of “joy” throughout. And we know that with statements like, “for to me to live is Christ and die is gain” reveals a godly perspective and zeal on the part of Paul.
What I didn’t expect, however, was the overwhelming sense of striving side by side for the gospel, the emphasis on unity and humility. I never noticed how prominent the community effort was until digging in deeper. There are repeated references to one mind, one accord, side by side, together, coworkers, co-soldiers… for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To recap, we recall that Paul began by indicating this letter represents the thoughts of himself and Timothy. It was directed to the church at Philippi who he identifies as saints in Christ Jesus. In his thanksgiving, Paul reminds and encourages his readers in their purpose. Because they are partakers with Paul of God’s grace, they are also partners for the gospel. He also informs them that he has come to the realization that his imprisonment has not hampered the spread of the gospel, but providentially, God used it for the benefit of the proclamation of Jesus.
Paul calls his listeners to a life of integrity because of the gospel. He wants to ensure that their life confirms their convictions. And in this Paul will be encouraged. And he hasn’t asked them to do anything that he himself has not done. And beyond this, he points to Jesus as the ultimate example of humility and obedience.
As the Philippians took the exhortations to humility, and unity, and the absence of grumbling and questioning, they would establish themselves as bright lights in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation. And to serve as their encouragement, they would recall that the living God was active in their lives.
And while Paul was in prison and unable to visit, he would hope to send Timothy and Epaphroditus to them for mutual encouragement. For Paul views these men as those who serve humbly and sacrificially for the cause of Christ.
And then we saw last week that Paul laid the groundwork for our text today. You will remember that Paul felt the need to remind the Philippians of their need to watch out for the Judaizers and their teaching. He wanted to ensure that they were firm that anything external was not something to boast in. By outward appearances, Paul would have found plenty that he could have been proud of. And yet he considered all his achievements and position as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.
Paul reiterated that he counted all these as rubbish in order to gain Christ. He had been the recipient of the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ – and not his accomplishments. Because of this, Paul desires even more to know Christ, the power of his resurrection, and even share in his sufferings in order that he may attain the resurrection of the dead. And this is where we find ourselves this morning.
We’re in Philippians 3.12-4.1. READ. In this passage, Paul is strongly exhorting his readers to Stay Focused! There is great danger in thinking that a believer has arrived. This portion of the text will follow up the previous section with the action that a believer must take in order to be faithful to the end. He exudes great passion and warning for the Christian. Allow the strong words of Paul, and the example of his life to challenge your walk with Christ this morning!
Looking at our text this morning, I see at least three objects of our focus. Important to realize at the outset is the importance of a target. If as believers we do not have a target to shoot for, we will be needlessly wandering or, worse yet, completely off course. If you don’t know what you’re shooting for, you will certainly miss the target.
The first point is Focused on the Prize. We will find this in verses 12-16. In verse 12, Paul begins by looking back at the previous section. He wants to make clear that he does not consider himself to be perfect or to have obtained the resurrection. Though he longs for the day, he realizes that he has work to do. Paul understands that God will work through him and (I think even more significantly in this passage), God will continue to work in the apostle. The verb is a passive verb and notes that it is God who will “perfect” Paul.
We have seen repeatedly in this book how there is a double-sided activity that occurs within the believer. Paul constantly exhorts the believer to action. And at the same time he indicates that God is the One who works in the Christian. He began by saying that God will finish what he started in the believer. He calls the Philippians to work out their salvation and then immediately follows that with the explanation that it is God who is at work within. And here he states that he expects God to perfect him and immediately refers to his responsibility. He says he presses on to make it his own.
Now Paul realizes that perfection will not be possible this side of his eternity with God. But this is still the goal. We are called to be holy as God is holy. This is our lifelong pursuit. We know it is not ultimately attainable, but there is an expectation of our pursuit. We’ll spend a bit more time on this momentarily. But notice Paul’s reason for the pursuit here. He indicates that he presses on because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Paul wanted to pursue that great purpose for which Jesus had taken hold of him when he confronted him on that Damascus road years before he finds himself in prison. He has progressed to the point that he is more joyful in prison as a Christian than when he was free and persecuting Christians.
Then in verse 13, Paul says “brothers.” He adds a personal element to his pleas. In this context, it is a reference to brothers and sisters. And then Paul reiterates that he has not achieved what he is set out to do and to be. But… one thing I do… Can you just hear the emphasis in that clause? It’s like, “here is my purpose for living. You want it in a nutshell? Are you listening? One thing I do. I’m not looking back. I’m moving forward… zealously… for the prize. I can see it. I know what I’m after. It is the culmination of the whole work of salvation.”
Listen to the way he puts it: But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. If only we can all get to the point where this is our perspective for life. I’m trying. I’m not there yet. Hold this thought. We’ll come back to it.
Paul says that he forgets what lies behind. I think that this is important for a couple of reasons. I don’t think that he would mean that there is never a reason to look back. We’ve got lessons learned, milestones in our Christian walk, influential people to learn from in history. But, I think that Christianity is largely a forward-thinking pursuit. For Paul (and most of us, all of us) have a “before Christ” existence. Whether or not we recall vividly the moment we were saved by Him, we have spent some of our lives unable to please him. We have failed him miserably – in either blatant or subtle sins. And now, having experienced the grace of God, we no longer stand under the condemnation for our opposition to him.
If you’re anything like me and have regretted wasted years for the sake of your Savior, this should bring great encouragement. You see, I am often tempted to look back on a decade of my life where I abused drugs and alcohol, caused my parents a lot of anguish, manipulated people for my own benefit. Interestingly enough, much of this time period is vague for me. And I think this may be a blessing from God so that I am protected from despair. I remember enough to know that I regret this time in my life.
But now I read in Philippians 3 that Paul can say that he forgets what lies behind. Not sure if Paul would have had similar problems and sins that I had, but he used to persecute Christians. And, in effect, opposed God. And if he can leave the past behind, I suppose I should be able to as well. And so should we all. If you have trusted completely in Jesus’ provision on the cross, repented of your sin and trusted in him for salvation, you no longer are under the condemnation of your past. Amen? Nor should we allow the Enemy to count this against us.
This thought also refers to any achievements from our past. Perhaps you don’t have as dramatic a past as some others do. Perhaps you have been a faithful Christian for much of your life. I think that this statement also eliminates any temptation to sit and rest. There is no retirement in the career of the Christian. There is never a point in time or spiritual maturity when we can say that we’ve studied the Bible enough, prayed enough, served enough, given enough. Praise God that he’s given you even more opportunity. Forget what lies behind and strain forward!
Paul is straining forward. This is a picture of an athletic contest or chariot race. For Paul, every fibre of his being was set on the goal and purpose of his Christian life. Oh that I could say and live the same! I have the image in my head of the sprinter who leans forward as much as possible in order to break the tape before the second place runner. Except perhaps this should be the entire race, not just the finish line. I think that if we truly understood our brevity on earth, we would also understand the importance of giving everything we’ve got.
I recall a particularly challenging episode of a video study we watched in the 9:00 hour some time back. The question was posed from teacher to the students, “When we stand before our Saviour, do we want to have anything left in the tank?” In other words, can we say that we’ve left it all on the field for Jesus? Does that hit home with you as it does me? What is the point of holding back if our time here on earth is so short?
Paul uses this packed statement to refer to the goal. It is the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. What is that? I think that the prize is clearly the culmination of the whole work of salvation. All the implications of this would take more time than we have. Perhaps Romans 8.28-29 would sum it up for us. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The future glorification would be the culmination.
Worth pointing out as well is the upward call of God. Paul constantly recognizes that his salvation is completely dependent on God’s calling him. In fact, this is true for all believers. If God had not called, we would not have received the grace of God and would not anticipate any form of salvation. So, in this Paul is giving God the glory for his entire pursuit of him.
I have stated a fair bit of late the importance for the believer in Jesus Christ to regularly ponder the miracle of his or her salvation. This pursuit draws us deeper into the glories of Calvary (a song that we regularly sing here). We don’t “ponder” enough in our day. We have too many activities to slow down and ponder. This is a great detriment for the believer. If we don’t meditate on the gospel that called us out of darkness, our affections do not grow adequately. And if our affections are stagnant so will our pursuit – our straining forward.
The next verse presents us with a couple challenges. Paul says “let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” If Paul is referring primarily or exclusively to this previous thought, it would be rather obvious that he would receive unanimity. What Christian is going to disagree with this thought?
I am persuaded that Paul is referring to the great theme of the letter and not just the immediate thought. As I mentioned at the outset, I believe Paul to be appealing to the Philippians to grow in humility that will lead to unity with one another. He had said in 2.5 to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Be humble. Be unified. Partner for the gospel, in one accord. And he says, “let us hold true to this. This is what we have attained.”
Let me introduce a passage in Ephesians that seems to draw a lot of this together. Listen for the themes we have been discussing: unity, maturity and growth… community project language. The church functioning as she ought. Ephesians 4.11-16 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the tuth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Doesn’t that fit so well with our study? The goal is that we all attain the unity of the faith. This comes upon our knowledge of the Son of God. Paul wants to know him and increase in his knowledge of him. This leads to maturity. We may no longer be children. The whole body… when each part is working properly… makes the body grow… in love. Can you envision this? Can you see the importance of the contribution of each individual and how it relates to the whole body?
The second point is Focused on the Cross. Verse 17 reminds us of the importance of following in the footsteps of others. Paul repeatedly emphasizes these things. He has already admitted that he is not perfect and yet can confidently exhort his readers to imitate him. He has said elsewhere to follow him as he follows Christ. The implication is that the fellow believer imitates his life and doctrine insofar as it emulates Jesus Christ.
If you haven’t noticed to this point, this seems to be the preferred method of maturing in our faith. We talked a couple weeks back about the universal mandate to make disciples. This is the primary objective of the Christian church. We are called to proclaim the gospel and raise up disciples to maturity in Christ. This is done as we baptize and teach all that Jesus has commanded. Culturally speaking, this was not done primarily in a classroom setting, but rather teaching through spending much time together and living it out together. And we recognized the importance of our lifestyle confirming the very things that we teach. This is “discipleship” – teaching and modeling.
But our text will also point out a danger and exhortation in this pursuit. We need to have the right people to imitate. Paul seems intent on making sure that the Philippians imitate himself and those who walk in accordance with Paul’s life and doctrine. In fact, Paul’s use of the word to “keep your eyes on” emphasizes concentration and singleness of purpose that are required for this growth. Stay Focused!
For… there are many… of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Well, we certainly don’t want to be looking there for our examples to imitate! So this is important. The Philippians would need to make sure they knew clearly what Paul taught and what his lifestyle consisted of, and also the faithfulness of others in this task. For the better they knew the proper example, they would be able to identify the wrong example.
Admittedly, it is difficult to know precisely who these people are. It has been suggested that they would be the Judaizers in the earlier verses of this chapter. Some would suggest that they were more libertine in that they might understand Christianity in more of a sense of accepting Jesus and do what you want.
But I think the issue is clear that they did not properly exemplify the humility and unity that Paul was calling for in the letter. I find myself thinking that it may be the latter group who profess knowing Christ, but are not living properly. And for Paul this greatly affects him – even to the point of tears.
It would seem as though many have not found in the cross their salvation and way of life. They misunderstood and thought that they could continue to serve themselves instead of picking up their cross and following Jesus. The cross is at the very centre of Christianity. We rightly believe that it is through the death of Christ on the cross that we have a way of forgiveness and acceptance with God and eternal life with him. Too often we misunderstand that it is also central for our discipleship. We forget that we no longer belong to ourselves because we have been bought with a price.
It would seem that some have shown themselves to be false converts to Christianity. They are enemies of the cross of Christ and their end is destruction. They have not truly counted the cost and their god is their belly. They glory in the very things they should be ashamed of. They are consumed with earthly things. It is a sad and familiar story. We read about examples in the gospels. We know it from present day experience. There are many who show themselves to not be Christians at all. Does this move you to tears as it did the apostle?
What relevance does this have for us today? I can think of several implications for us. First, we need to be focused on the genuine disciple. There are many who claim to be Christians and yet their lifestyle does not coincide with their profession. Remember, being a disciple is also to take up a cross, obey what Jesus has commanded. If we readily throw out clear biblical expectations, do we know him? This is why it is important that we are diligent in our understanding of Him through his word so we can identify who is a model worth imitating or not.
Second, we need to make sure we communicate the gospel effectively. The gospel is not accepting Jesus and living like we’re no different. The call of God should bring radical change – not necessarily immediate, but continual growth. Let’s make sure that we are clear that we give Jesus everything. Remember what Paul said previously? Philippians 3.8, “8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” THAT’s the Jesus we proclaim. He is the One who alone is worthy of throwing everything else aside. There is nothing greater. Why would anyone want to serve themselves when they can grow their relationship with Christ?
Thirdly, for those who genuinely have given their lives over to Jesus, let’s confirm it with our lives. As we strive to serve him and not ourselves, we will humbly pursue unity with one another in the church family. This is unattainable when our gods are our physical appetites, when we glory in the wrong things, and our minds are focused on earthly things. I don’t think I need to spell these out.
Our third point this morning is Focus on the Glory of Heaven. I believe the contrast is clear from verse 19 to verse 20. The antithesis of a mind set on earthly things is a mind set on heavenly things. When we have trusted Christ, our citizenship changes. We know this on a smaller scale. When we are citizens of a country, we have an obligation and desire to support our country. We are supplied a lens with which to interpret events. The same is true on a purer level when we consider that we have a different destination than we once had.
The question is do our actions confirm our allegiances and citizenship? Do we live our lives with eternity in view? Or are we consumed with the temporal? True Christians know that their life and citizenship is even now in heaven with Christ. Ephesians tells us that we are blessed with spiritual blessings in heavenly places, that we are somehow seated with Christ in the heavenlies.
Colossians 3:1–4 sums up this perspective nicely when Paul writes, “1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
And so it is in our passage this morning. Jesus Christ will appear and we will appear with him in glory. Paul says here that this Savior that we await is the Lord Jesus Christ who will transform our lowly bodies to glorified bodies. No more will we experience the consequences of our sinful bodies, but will undergo radical transformation and will no longer experience pain, sickness, or death. And this is certain because the One who has promised to do this is the same Lord who has control over all of creation. All things are subject to our Lord, even our own bodies.
“Therefore” Paul says in 4.1. My brothers… whom I love… and long for… my joy… my crown… Is there any confusion how Paul feels about his readers? He loves them, prays for them, exhorts them, cries for them, loves and longs for them… in prison. The way that he shows his love here is to charge them to stand firm in the Lord. He doesn’t want to lose any more. He doesn’t want division or pride. Paul longs to see his people pursue humility and unity and to lock arms with one another for the sake of his Savior for whom they await. Stay Focused!
Beloved, are you focused? Can you say that you are striving, straining, pressing on for the goal of the prize of the upward call of God through Jesus Christ? Have you become lazy or apathetic? Stay Focused! Are you paralyzed by guilt of past sins and failures? Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. Are we unified? Have we covenanted together in or community project? Are you imitating another? Do you know what to look for? Do you keep your eyes on the right example? Have you found yourself to be an enemy of the cross? A slave to your appetites? Or are you a citizen of heaven waiting for our Savior to return so that we can rejoice and serve him forever? He alone is worthy of casting all else aside and turning completely to him. Trust Jesus today. Let’s pray.