“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. 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 towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
All of us 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. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”
Last week we saw how meeting with Christ had revolutionized not just Paul’s value system but indeed his entire life.
Paul had been converted – and nothing for him would ever be quite the same again. We saw how Paul, at that very moment, turned his back on everything in which he had formerly placed his confidence as he hoped to secure a right standing with God. But now, having met with Christ and having put his trust in him, Paul had an unshakeable confidence: the righteousness he had discovered by faith in Christ was God’s own righteousness and it had been given to him as a gift!
This new life that Paul had received along with its totally new outlook was not dependent upon anything that Paul had done to earn it, it was entirely due to God’s grace and Paul had received it when he simply put his faith in Christ. And what was true of the apostle is true too for every Christian; it is true for you the moment you put your faith in Jesus.
At the end of last week’s sermon we also noted that the transformation that accompanied conversion was not the end of the story. Paul had begun a new life and with it he had embarked upon a new journey. What follows next contains a description of what living that new life was going to look like. In order to encourage the Philippians Paul continued to speak to them out of his own personal experience. He did not consider his experience to be limited to himself alone rather he expected all believers to want to imitate him in living out the Christian life and that is our subject for today as we consider these verses from Phil.3.
Paul the Goal-Setter
I don’t know about you but I am usually pretty suspicious of goal-setters. In our day we’re often encouraged to set goals and we’re told they must be measurable so that we can check back and see just how we’re getting along and how much progress we have made. It all sounds very fine until we realise that the things we can actually measure are not necessarily the most important things at all.
Paul’s goals are better than that however and I suppose we might do better to call them his aspirations. These are the things that Paul wanted to move towards and these are the things he wanted to experience in an ever increasing depth and reality. He lists four of them here:
1. To know Christ
2. To know the power of his resurrection
3. To know a sharing in his sufferings and so to become like him in his death
4. To attain to the resurrection from the dead
Let’s think a bit about these overarching desires that controlled Paul’s life as a Christian believer.
Goal 1 – to know Christ
The first thing to say is that Paul already did know Christ. He had known plenty of facts about him and then on the Damascus Road he had that tremendous meeting with him and everything fell into place as Paul met with the Risen Lord Jesus. The encounter was life changing. Paul had real knowledge now and what he knew amazed him. But Paul knew that this single event did not give him an exhaustive knowledge of the Lord Jesus – Paul was convinced there was so much more for him to discover and consequently he longed to know him more. In fact Paul’s N°1 goal was to know Christ as deeply as he possibly could. What a goal to have in life!
And so I need to stop and ask myself: Is this an important goal in my life? Is it in yours?
When you want to get to know someone better there are certain things that you just have to do aren’t there? It really isn’t rocket science. The boy dating his girlfriend spends time with her and it is no hardship for him to do so. In fact it is the very thing he most wants to do, it is a joy and a delight to him. When you want to know someone better you want to be with them, to communicate with them, to observe them in a wide range of different circumstances to see how they react and to discern what it is that makes them tick. And it takes time to find all this out.
It will similar for us if we really do want to get to know Christ better. And as that boy doesn’t consider it an onerous duty to go on a date with his girlfriend neither will the Christian consider it a tedious necessity to spend time on developing his knowledge of Christ and his relationship with Christ. When we think of the Christian life perhaps we would do well to compare it to the joyful experience of a newly wedded couple who have just started out on their journey to building a lifelong happy marriage together – this is not something irksome but something too delightful for words.
The apostle himself had tasted and seen that the Lord is good and he longed for more. If the same is NOT true for me then I should ask myself why that is. If I don’t want more of Christ then something must have clouded my spiritual vision – perhaps I need to polish my spiritual spectacles or get then refocused so that I can see more clearly. Or perhaps my problem has become more serious and I need some spiritual cataracts removed – a deeper and more profound repentance may be necessary if I have become a backslider. But make no mistake the normal Christian life is a Christ-centred one; a spiritually, healthy Christian just can’t get enough of Jesus!
But does this all mean that Christians who yearn” for Christ, are going to be led back into some form of fleshly confidence, the kind that says: “I can do it if only I set my mind to it?” Well the answer is simple – no. And as Paul describes his second goal he explains why.
Goal 2 – to know the power of Christ’s resurrection
Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection and that means he wanted to experience the same vitality that energized Christ’s corpse restoring it to life. He wrote about this power being active in the Christian’s life when he wrote to the church in Ephesus:
Eph.1:19-20 “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead”
The same power that raised Jesus from the dead was at work in the life of every believer and Paul wanted the Spirit of God to be as powerfully active in his life as was possible. Later in the letter he would confidently declare that this outside power was very effective indeed in his life:
Phil.4:13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
It is interesting to note that Paul writes about knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection before writing about either “sharing in his sufferings” or “becoming like him in his death”. Perhaps, some might think, Paul got his order wrong and that he should have spoken about resurrection power only after he had written about death. But the truth is that the whole of the Christian life is to be lived in the power of Christ’s resurrection life and it is only this power that enables the Christian life to be lived at all. Paul’s longing to experience more of this power reflects his desire to live out his new life in Christ and I hope the same is true of you too!
Now we need to add a word of caution as we talk about this experience of Christ’s power. We’re not to fix our minds on some extraordinary experience that can only be measured by the number of tingles it sends down the spine. Paul is not thinking of some special sort of ‘one-off experience’ but he wants to live an entire life that is constantly being supplied with this divine, life-giving power. Just as Paul wants to know more and more of Christ so he wants to experience more and more of Christ’s power and all of this with the purpose of becoming increasingly like Jesus.
It is something of a natural human reaction to want to be like our heroes. The young boy watches the Cup Final on TV then goes out into the garden and imagine that he is his hero as he kicks a ball about. And so it is normal for the person who has begun to admire Jesus Christ to want to be made more and more like him too. But how is this ever going to take place? The answer is laid out for us in Paul’s third goal.
Goal 3 – to know a sharing in his sufferings and so become like him in his death
Paul doesn’t for a moment think that he either can or even needs to add an iota to the value of Christ’s sufferings. He has no desire to try to supplement them with his own sufferings as though the value of Christ’s suffering would then somehow be enhanced. No, Paul knows that Christ’s sufferings are sufficient to secure the salvation of the world and he also knew that Christ had come into the world to save the world by means of his sufferings.
Jesus’ death was the final stage of his sufferings – Jesus really was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”. If we are to become like him then suffering will be one of the tools that God uses to secure that end and Paul was keen for God to bring it on. Now, of course, many people suffer in the world but there is a special suffering that God uses in the lives of Christians. Listen to what Peter had to say about it:
1Pet.4:16 “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
The full measure of Christ’s sufferings is to be found at the cross and it is there that the fullest expression of Christ’s obedience to his Father’s will is to be observed. If the Christian to be made like Christ in his death then a similar commitment of living obedience to the Father’s will also have to be found in him. This is the way to the achieving of the final goal of resurrection and it is even attainable by he who is the chief of sinners.
Paul was pursuing exceedingly elevated goals. Have you realised just how high the bar is set? It is perfection.
There are people in the world who like to imagine that they are already the finished article and that they have no further progress to make. Paul was most definitely not one of them though it does seem likely that the false teachers he opposed at Philippi did see themselves in that way. Paul was concerned to warn the Philippians lest any of them be tempted to swallow such foolish thinking. And neither must we allow ourselves to be duped by those who make similar claims and who urge us to follow their spurious advice. There is no such thing as an easy or instant perfection, this simply is not God’s way.
The Philippians knew and appreciated the apostle, in fact they knew a lot about him and they must have been tempted to think that if anyone had already attained perfection it was him, but Paul was very careful to dispel any such thinking. Listen again to what he had to say in vv.12-14
“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.”
Paul was a real Christian and he knew it: “Christ Jesus has made me his own” he said and therefore all the striving he goes on to talk about is NOT a striving in order to become a Christian. The reason Paul strives is precisely because he has already become one. Paul, the Christian, is concerned to press on because he knew the ultimate goals had not yet been attained by him – there was more to know of Christ, more to experience, and perfection lay ahead.
And the real Christian that Paul was refused to drop out; he refused, for example, to consider the goal too elevated to be pursued or too far off to be relevant to everyday life in the here and now. No, he hadn’t yet arrived but he was determined to press on.
But how could he do that?
Well the answer is simple. He could do so because he didn’t have to find all the energy and resolve to do so tucked away in his own efforts and abilities. It was the energizing power of Christ’s resurrection that was the energizing force that enabled Paul to press on and it is exactly that same power that will enable you too to press on. The apostle John expressed this same idea in his gospel:
Jn.1:16 “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
Let us then believe those words of the hymn we have already sung:
“He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater”
And what a wonderful encouragement is contained in the last verse of that hymn:
“When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
when our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
when we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
our Father’s full giving is only begun.”
How important it is to press on! I must never give in to the thought that the goal is too far off and so to be beyond me and I must not give up. Like Paul I must remember that Christ has made me his own and I must remind myself that it is in Christ and only in Christ that the prize of the upward call of God is to be found.
I need to press on – and that will involve forgetting what lies behind. I will not allow myself to be taken up with the past with the numerous mistakes I’ve made or the many sinful slip-ups I’ve experienced. It is so easy for us to say “I’ve tried that before but it didn’t work, so it’s not worth me trying again.” But that is not the route we are to take. No, the Christian must be a Robert-the-Bruce-type-Christian. You know the legend don’t you? He was inspired by watching a spider in a cave trying to weave its web. Time after time the spider fell only to try again and finally the web was finished! That’s the type of resolve we need too.
But it is not only the failure of the past we are to turn away from we’re not meant to focus upon any successes we might have had either – if we do we might just start building up a new set of fleshly confidences to replace the ones we had abandoned. Instead we are meant to look forward. There is a prize awaiting us and yes, it is very right for the Christian to think about heaven and its rewards as he presses on.
And Paul does not leave us in the dark here – he tells us very plainly that pressing on will involve everything we’ve got. The word itself implies a stretching or straining forward to attain the goal. It means that we will have to exert ourselves to the uttermost and it means that we will have to strain every nerve we’ve got. It is imagery that befits the sports arena – just think of the sprinter who nearing the tape strains every muscle and sinew as he leans to cross the finishing line.
The Christianity of the Bible is no leisure activity. It is a demanding life with a demanding lifestyle – but you surely knew that anyway didn’t you? After all how many times have you sung the last lines of Isaac Watt’s famous hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross”? Do you remember what those last lines say?
“love so amazing, so divine,
demand my soul, my life, my all.”
Paul would have agreed with those words but the question is “Do you?”
Paul was convinced that what he was doing, as he pressed on, was right and he was equally convinced that every mature Christian believer would agree with him. He also knew, however, that not every believer was mature and that some would disagree with him, contest his teaching and ignore his example. What was to be done for such people? Should the standards be lowered for those who are immature and the weak? Should the advice given to them be watered down to make it more user-friendly? There are plenty of folk today who are doing just that but what about the apostle, what did he do? Well Paul’s answer was unequivocal: if others don’t agree then it is simply a sign of their immaturity. Paul was convinced that God would show them the error of their ways. You see God does not change his mind to fit in with the human preferences of the day – instead men must change their minds and align themselves with God’s truth.
My friends, don’t be duped into thinking that there are a wide range of equally acceptable options when it comes to following Christ. He himself demanded everything of his followers then and he demands everything of his followers now. Indeed it was Christ who said:
Mk.8:34 “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
It was Christ himself who said:
Lk.9:62 “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
It was Christ himself who said that it is:
“the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Mt.10:22.
So press on!
And do so eagerly and with all the effort you can muster. Do so joyfully for the reward you will receive is a great one. Press on for Jesus is a precious treasure and he is yours. In the words of another well-known hymn:
“to them that seek Thee Thou art good,
to them that find Thee, all in all.”
So let us press on. Don’t give up. Don’t backslide. Press on for there is so much more to know and so much more to experience of our Wonderful Saviour.
And may his name be forever praised,