Sermon: Pressing On Toward the Goal (Philippians 3:12–4:1)
Listen to the Sermon:
Please open your Bibles to Philippians 3:12 and then we’re going to read all the way through chapter 4:1.
12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
4 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
Philippians 3:12-4:1, ESV
This is the word of the Lord.
Well since it is fall it is time that school is starting up again, some of you I know are students, and a few of you are teachers. When the semester starts there’s always that time where teachers are initially setting the expectations for what’s going to come in this coming semester. How many of you students and how many of your teacher know of the big assignment that is coming, the big test, the big term paper that’s going to be written? It’s something that you might be dreading.
So, this is always something that weighs ominously over students throughout the course of the semester. I remember when I was in college, I was taking what happened to be my last math class that, praise the Lord, I ever have had to take. It was calculus 2, I took calculus 1 in high school and then to submit myself to more torture took calculus 2. I remember thinking to that class, “I just got to get through this.”
In order to graduate I had to have a math credit in college. You may be surprised I don’t actually use much calculus through the course of the week now. I already kind of knew the direction my life was headed in terms of vocation. So, I just had to check this requirement off. I spent so much time laboring, spending time in the math lab getting help from graduate assistants, trying to figure out what on earth this foreign language was that they were teaching me. I were so hard and studied so hard and I remember vividly taking this test, the first semester of my first year in college, and I remember taking that final exam walking out feeling free.
When I got that test back, the only thing I cared about was the grade, whether I had passed, or did I fail? I flipped it over to find the grade and I passed. Now my teacher had written some notes, things that I had done wrong and things that I had done right. I’ve got to be honest, I have no idea what my professor wrote. I really didn’t care, I had passed the class and that went into the rubbish bin of history and I moved on. I survived, I was able to graduate, praise the Lord. I don’t do math anymore. Children math is really important, you need to continue in that path.
When I was in seminary, I had a similar thing. It wasn’t a test, I actually had a couple of term papers that I remember I worked really hard on and I spent a ton of time on. I spent so much time in the library, reading and studying and thinking and praying and writing and rewriting and editing. When I got it back, still the first thing I was interested in was what grade did I get? I wanted to see if I had passed or not because again, I wanted to graduate.
Yet when my professors wrote notes there, I poured over those. I actually still have kept a copy those term papers with my professor’s notes written on them. I can still tell you some of the feedback that I’ve gotten on some of the papers that I did in seminary.
Now what’s the difference? Why couldn’t I care less about what my calculus professor told me, yet I care quite a bit about what my seminary professors told me? Well it’s kind of obvious right? In one case I just needed to survive and move on, I just needed to conquer and live to die another day. In another case passing that class was not the end, it wasn’t the goal, that wasn’t really everything that was encapsulated in what I was trying to accomplish. There was a bigger purpose, a bigger goal in mind, so even though I passed I wanted to keep learning from that. I wanted to keep growing there, for the sake of doing what I do today which I’m very thankful to be doing.
So, Paul last week in Philippians 3:9 made it absolutely abundantly clear that the test results are already in, that we have already passed, that we already got a perfect score. Not because you and I established a perfect score, because we took the test and we passed the test. We don’t have a righteousness that is our own according to the works of the law, but rather Paul says we have a righteousness which comes through faith in Christ. It’s the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
We have a perfect, bulletproof, impeccable, unshakable righteousness with which we can stand in confidence before other people, and even before a holy God himself, because of our righteousness is the righteousness that God gives to us which is Christ’s. Christ was perfect, Christ established a perfect righteousness and God freely impute, or credits, to us the righteousness that is Christ’s through faith.
Faith is not a work we do where God says, “that person believes enough I’m going to call that person righteous”. Rather faith is the conduit through which God gives us an alien righteousness, the righteousness of God that is Christ’s, that he freely gives us through faith. We passed the test, game over, it’s done, we are counted not guilty and righteous in Christ if we believe on him through faith.
So, what next? Do we sort of take the test and toss it in the garbage and say let’s move on and go back to real living? I remember getting out of that Calculus class and thinking, “thank goodness I have one giant less thing to stress about in life.” Is it like that? Can we just put everything else about Christianity off to the side, or is there a bigger goal to gain?
Paul says with Christianity there is a bigger goal. He says there’s something more. Even though we are perfectly righteous, so that there is nothing we can do to build upon or expand upon the righteousness of Christ. There’s nothing we can do that can detract from the righteousness that is ours in Christ. Paul says that’s not the end of the story there’s more than a bigger goal in play.
So, Paul lays out the way in which he continues pressing on toward this goal and the way we should as well. Then Paul exhorts us, pleads with us to continue striving after that goal, first through a warning and then finally with a promise.
So, let’s look at what Paul says to urge us to strive and press on forward. In verse 12 Paul, after having said that he has his perfect righteousness from God that depends on faith, in verse 12,
12 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. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own Philippians 3:12-13a, ESV
Now Paul uses essentially three words here to say the same thing here. He says that he has not already obtained this. One of the tricky parts of this sentence though is that Paul doesn’t use “this” here. He didn’t really specify what he’s talking about just yet.
It is almost like one commentator said, it’s almost like he’s saying, “brothers it’s not that I have arrived.” Well arrived at what, arrived where, what do you mean? He doesn’t specify it just yet, we’ll have to get to that a little bit later in the passage so stay tuned. Paul is saying not that I have already arrived, or am already perfect, this is the word that means to bring something to its completion, I haven’t accomplished that yet.
Then he says, “but I press on to make it my own”, to lay hold of it, to grasp it, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own” This is the same word here that used in two different senses. I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. A really good word to translate this word might be, “to apprehend”. I press on to apprehend this because Christ Jesus has apprehended me.
He’s talking about his arrest on the way to Damascus. Just a few verses earlier in verse 6, he talked about how he formerly was a persecutor of the church. He was talking about when he was on his way to further persecute the church on his way to Damascus, Jesus Christ laid violent hands on him, arrested him, apprehended him and said, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?”
He took hold of him and Paul, formerly Saul, really was never the same from that point. When Christ took hold of his life he was changed, he was chained as a slave for Christ, to do the will of God in Christ as an apostle because Christ Jesus has made him his own. So, he says in verse 13, “Brothers I do not consider that I have made it my own”, kind of repeating the same thing again.
In other words, there’s more. Even though I have this perfect righteousness in Christ, there is more, there is a bigger goal, there is a bigger picture, and I don’t want to miss a moment of it.
First Paul says here in this in the section, is he’s laying out to the need to press on, he says first what we have is not yet complete.
Then he goes on then in verse 13b through 14 and he talks about the way in which he presses on.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:13b-14, ESV
What Paul does here is he employs a metaphor or an image of a runner in a footrace. He is saying I’ve already gone so far, but I can’t stop and rest on my laurels, I have to keep going, I have to press on. One commentator says it’s almost like he has the Fable of The Tortoise and the Hare in mind here. You know the tortoise gets challenged to a race by the super-fast harem and the hare says, “hey I bet I can beat you in a race.” Then tortoise agrees to a race and they set out on this race. All of you know this story.
Children if you haven’t heard this story, I’m going to tell you it here now. So, you have this tortoise who just plods along, slow and steady wins the race, right? The hare shoots forward and races on, but gets so far ahead and thinks, “wow I am so far ahead I couldn’t possibly lose”, so he stops and takes a nap. When he takes a nap the slow and steady tortoise plugs on past the hare until the tortoise almost wins. As the crowd is cheering on this slow and steady tortoise, the hare suddenly wakes up from his nap and realizes that he possibly gets to the finish line in time. The hare losses because he stopped in the middle of the race.
John Bunyan use this image in Pilgrim’s Progress, he talked about Christian carrying on the way, until one day he grew kind of content with his life and stopped to take a nap. Then when he stopped to take a nap he forgot his summons, and he was captured and brought into the Pit of Despair for a while until he remembered what he had, then he had to go back. He messed up the entire journey.
Paul is saying I’m not going to do this, I’m going to press on. When he talks about forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, what’s a talking about there? Is he talking about his mistakes in the past, I’ve got to put my mistakes behind me? Maybe to some degree because the word when he says in verse 14, “I press on”, it’s the image of not only pressing forward, but also pressing down upon. It’s the same word that use to describe his persecution of the church, his pressing down upon the church in verse six or up above. He says, now I press on press forward for the goal for the prize of the upward call of God and in Christ Jesus.
He might be talking about his mistakes, but in the context, he’s really talking about his successes. He says I’m not going to stop, I know how far I have come, praise the Lord, but that’s not enough because there’s still more to gain. I haven’t arrived yet and so I’m going to press on toward the finish line, the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
So, in verse 15 then he takes what he has said about himself and he applies it to the believers it at the church at Philippi. He says in verse 15,
15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
Philippians 3:15, ESV
There are things that are really important there. The first thing that’s important is when he says, “Let us think this way”, he’s using the exact same words as he used in Philippians 2:5, “have this mind among yourselves”. Here he says basically, “have this mind in us”, let us have this mind in ourselves, to have this mindset.
When he says, “those of us who are mature”, he doesn’t use the word mature here. That’s a good translation to capture what he is saying, but it doesn’t reflect the fact that he’s using the word “perfect”, let those of us who are perfect. It’s the same word that he used in verse 12, “I’m not already perfect”. Now he says, “let those of us who are perfect”.
So, which is it Paul, are you perfect or are you not perfect? Paul says I’m not perfect, I haven’t already been made perfect, but let those of us who are perfect think this way. What is he saying? What he’s talking about this tension, you and I have already been judged, we have already been graded. The grade is in we are not graded on our own resume of righteousness, on the test that we are able to complete by ourselves, that was a failing grade. Yet God in Christ Jesus has given us a perfect score, so we have already been made perfect and get we aren’t there yet, we haven’t arrived.
It’s this already not yet tension. What’s fascinating is that Paul uses the same word for perfect, all the way back in one of the most famous verses in this book, in Philippians 1:6. He says,
6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:6, ESV
We are already perfect, but we are not yet perfect. The gap between the two will be filled on the day when Jesus Christ returns to make us perfect.
So, what’s he talking about? He still hasn’t told us. He simply says we’ve got to press on, we got to think this way. He says in verse 15, in anything you think otherwise, in any place you relax, any place you feel like you can stop and take a nap on, God will reveal that to you. God has a way of revealing places that we don’t necessarily want to deal with.
Often, they aren’t terribly comfortable ways of dealing with places that we don’t want to deal with. God uses pain in our lives sometimes to motivate us to deal with the things that are painful to deal with anyway.
In verse 16 he says,
16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Philippians 3:16, ESV
Already we are perfect, but not yet are we there, not yet have we arrived. Paul says this and then he doesn’t explain what really, he’s talking about, it’s still unclear what this final goal is. He doesn’t get there right away, he starts by giving us a warning.
That’s the next part that we need to look at, the warning and gives us in verses 17 through 19.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Philippians 3:17-19, ESV
That’s striking because we’re kind of wondering why is Paul telling them to imitate him? He’s not really telling them to imitate him in himself, he’s asking him to imitate him as he imitates Christ. That’s what Paul says in 1st Corinthians 11:1, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
Paul says, look I’m striving, I’m straining forward, I’m pressing, on imitating that part of me. He also says to keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have an us. Anyone else who behaves in the same way, I’m not your exclusive example of what this looks like, follow them as well. Let’s all set examples for one another about how to press on.
Then here’s the warning he gives him verse 18 and 19, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
We are not told precisely who Paul is talking about here. He’s really not very clear and kind of maddeningly so. If you look at a lot of different commentator, you get a lot of different ways of identifying exactly who these people think Paul is writing about. On commentator thinks Paul is addressing the issues that he addresses at the Corinthian church. Another commentator thinks these are zealous Jews. Another comment thinks these are the Judaizers, those who said you have to be Jewish first, you have to submit to the law of Moses before you can become a Christian that he addressed in the beginning part of this chapter.
Well again, we don’t really know who exactly he’s talking about, but I tend to lean toward those who instead think what Paul has view there are Libertines. Those are people who believe we are already righteous, we already passed the test, we’re going to graduate woohoo, let’s go and party now, let’s do whatever we want. We already have this perfect righteousness, what stands in our way?
The reason I think that is for a few reasons. I don’t think these are Judaizers, those are kind of the two main arguments that these are Judaizers or these are Libertines. Paul spoke pretty sternly about the Judaizers both earlier in chapter 3 and also in his letter to the Galatians.
Here he says that he talks about these people with tears in verse 18. These aren’t his enemies, even if they walk as enemies of the Cross of Christ. These are people who are confused and who are drifting away, and Paul says with tears basically, “I wish they would repent. I wish they would return. I wish they would embrace Christ. Instead he says, “their end is destruction, their god is their belly.” They slavishly follow whatever the lusts of their flesh tell them to do and they glory in their shame. They think they are doing wonderful things in life and yet they are heaping upon themselves shame with minds set on earthly things.
These are people who are lost, these are people who believe that they’re just fine because they have the righteousness of Christ. Why not then eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow they die? Paul is saying here look, the end there is destruction. I warn you, I plead with you in tears don’t go that route. Please, he’s warning them.
He doesn’t only warn the Philippians, he doesn’t just employee fear trying to motivate them with fear not to do something. He gives them also a promise, a hope, something to attain toward. That’s the final thing he says in his last three verses. Know in 20 and 21 Paul does something here where he finally reveals what he’s talking about, finally reveals the hope toward which we are pressing on towards.
What he does here is breathtaking. I’ve read this passage hundreds of times I’m sure, but I didn’t know what he was doing here, which is to tie it so explicitly back into the Christ hymn from Philippians 2:6-11.
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:6-11
When Paul wrote that, he sorts of left it as being just the actions and the fate of Jesus. Yes, Jesus submitted himself in obedience to the point of death. Yes, Jesus was for that reason exalted from the pit, from the grave, up to the highest point where God gave himself, in his resurrected crucified state, the title of the Lord of all creation. So that 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.
He didn’t connect it there though to us, but here he does and it’s breathtaking. He said
20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
4 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. Philippians 3:12-4:1, ESV
Now this is before the Christ hymn in verse 20, the word citizenship. Back in Philippians 1:27 he said
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, Philippians 1:27, ESV
He’s saying only let your citizenship behave worthy as citizens of the Gospel. He’s saying if you remember Phillipi was a colony of Rome, just like those who lived in the Thirteen original colonies, if you know your American history, were not Americans at the time. They were British citizens who lived in America. So also, the Philippians, even though they were in Macedonia way off from Rome, the Philippians were reclassified as a colony of Rome so that everyone living there had full status as citizens of Rome. They were Romans who happen to live in the region of Macedonia, in the city of Philip.
What Paul is saying is in the same way you are colonists of Heaven, your citizenship is in Heaven. What’s fascinating here is that the word for “is”, you know what’s the meaning of it “is”? Well the word is here is not the standard word for “is”. It is a word that you might translate it as exists, it’s a word that you can use for “is”. I could say, “Hello my name is Jacob, I exist as the pastor of Harvest Community Church. I exist as the husband of Allison and I exist as the father of Evelyn is Zachariah and Caleb.”
You’d find me really weird if I went around using exist instead of instead of am or is all the time. Yet sometimes I say I exist for the cause of Jesus Christ. It heightens and emphasizes the depths of that which is my nature. To really be something is the word used here.
That’s the same “is” that was used back in Philippians 2:6,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
Philippians 2:6, ESV
“Who though he was”, who being, who existing in the form of God, the nature of Christ Jesus from before all eternity past was to exist as God in the form of God. Paul is saying your reality, your nature exists in heaven. You haven’t seen it yet but it’s there.
Therefore, behave likewise. He goes on and says, “we await a savior the Lord Jesus Christ” Now the word order here is almost exactly the same in in Philippians 2:11, that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Here again we have the Lord Jesus Christ. What is he doing? Is he causing every knee to bow and every tongue to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? No, he’s leveraging his lordship toward transforming us. Look what he says in verse 21, “who will transform”. This word here is a word where we get our word “schema” from, the makeup or the composition of something. This is the word that Paul had used when talking about Jesus in human form, being found in human fashion, a scheme of a human in, nature in makeup. He says we’re going to be transformed so that our nature and makeup is different.
So, who will transform our lowly body? That word for lowly is the same word to describe the way that Christ humbled, made himself lowly in obedience to the point of death. It’s going to transform our lowly body to be like his body of glory. Just as Jesus Christ exalted is to the glory of God the Father, so we will be given a body of glory like Christ’s. To be like is also the word for form, it’s the same word for form to talk about Jesus existing in the form of God and the form of a servant.
In other words, going to be just as much as Jesus actually was God and actually took the form of a servant, we will actually be made to have the glorious body of Christ. This will be done by the power, this is our word for energy, but it’s the same word that Paul used immediately after the Christ Hymn.
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.Philippians 2:12-13, ESV
This is the work, the power, the energy of God that enables him even a subject all things to himself. But Jesus Christ the Lord is not just someone who will bring people to bow before him, he will leverage all of his power, his dominion, his glory, and his authority to make us like him.
Glory, that’s the goal. Glory, not just to be counted righteous in Christ, as glorious as that is there is something even greater. God is not going to have us establish a righteousness of our own beside the righteousness of Christ, but the God is actually going to transform us so that we are like him. We counted righteous in Christ because of what Jesus did and Jesus, because of what he did, will leverage his glory and his power nature in actuality to make us like him in his glory and his authority as we reign not as a competitor with Jesus but with him.
We will inherit the kingdom. That’s the goal. That’s why we don’t stop. That’s why we don’t take a nap right before the finish line. It’s why we have more to do more to strive for. Not to build a resume, not to try to justify ourselves, but for the sake of attaining everything that God has for us in Christ.
Paul says, “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
We talked last week about how because of the justification, the righteousness that we have through Christ, we don’t have to hide stuff about ourselves. We don’t have to pretend to be something. We do not have to put up false answer and put on smiling happy faces to represent the other people my life is great, I’m just fine, how are you today? We can instead be vulnerable with one another. We don’t have to build up our own righteousness, our righteousness is in Christ and he gives it to us freely.
The flip side of that is that even though we are not trying to prove ourselves, to earn something, as we are standing in confidence and are able to be vulnerable, the idea is not just to wallow in our brokenness. The idea is that there is more to obtain on this side of glory and there’s more to obtain in eternity. We will never gain everything now that we will in eternity, we’re not going to arrive in this life. There is a taste of the heavenly life, a share of the glory that God has for us in Christ that we can gain more off now. Who wouldn’t want that?
As we gather as a church as a community, as we gather in small groups and other places where we have opportunity to gather together, the goal is to be with one another, not to try to prevent ourselves to be righteous in ourselves, a false front to fool other people into thinking that we’re better than we are. The goal is also not to just stay where we are.
The goal is to apprehend and obtain everything God has. To become perfect, because we are not yet perfect, even though we are perfect. Let those of us who are mature, perfect think this way. Let us keep striving and straining forward.
Let’s do this together. This is a team sport, it’s not an individual race. The way Paul is invoking this language of us together. When people fall away, we weep over them. When people stay with us, we are seeing formed before our eyes glorious creatures. C.S. Lewis said that if you could see what that annoying person who is near you whom you have nicely toward in the church, if you could see what their glory one day would be, you would be tempted to worship them because they will look like Jesus.
Do you realize that? We have front row seats to that in each other’s lives. That’s what the church is. That’s what our hope is together. Therefore, let us stand firm in this and let us press on to obtain the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.