But He Gave It All Up That He Might Know Christ - Part 1 (series: Lessons on Philippians)
by John Lowe
Title: But He Gave It All Up That He Might Know Christ (Phil. 3:12-14)
NIV Bible is used throughout unless noted otherwise.
Scripture: Philippians 3:12-14 (NIV)
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 press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul makes his point by drawing a contrast in verses 12-14 between the mistaken notion that he has already arrived spiritually and the reality that he has yet to reach the goal and win the prize. Within this context, the past things he forgets in order to strain to go further are spiritual successes that might lend unfounded support to the fiction that he had already been perfected. This passage is not about overcoming remorse for pre-conversion sins, but about humility and realism in assessing spiritual maturity. The mature believer, Paul says, will not rest on past obedience but will labor to maintain purity and blamelessness until the Day of Christ.
One of the natural longings arising from the spiritual experience of conversion is the desire to perfect one’s spiritual life. In this outgrowth of having become a new creature in Christ with a new nature longing after the things of God, it is easily possible to go to extremes. On the one hand, discontent with one’s spiritual life can bring discouragement and unnecessary acceptance of spiritual defeat. On the other hand, in overestimating one’s spiritual attainments, it is easy to become complacent with the measure of transformation which has taken place. Either alternative is falling short of the scriptural standard. What Paul is teaching in this section is that absolute perfection, such as exists in heaven, or attainment of spiritual victory which makes defeat impossible, is never achieved in this life. But there is the possibility of a high plateau of victory in Christ, of joy in the Spirit, and of the satisfaction of having served the Lord acceptably. It is this proper doctrine that the apostle is attempting to teach in this section.
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.
In countering the false claims of the “perfectionists,” Paul appeals to his own experience to prove that believers are not made perfect in this present life, but he also insists that they must constantly strive for increasing conformity to Christ. The imagery used here is that of the foot-race. Paul runs the Christian race with all the commitment of an athlete who is dedicated to winning the prize. This gives us an interesting insight into the psychology of Christian perseverance. The man who is tempted to succumb to the snare of perfectionism will lapse into a state of spiritual complacency. He will consider that he has already arrived at the goal, and regard his fellow believers as mere “also-rans” in the spiritual race! It is only the consciousness of not yet having arrived which will speed up our actions, just as the athlete strains every muscle to finish the race.
It is tempting to interpret Philippians 3:12-14 as a description of moral progress as if Paul is saying that he constantly strives to do better and better. During Paul’s time, stoic2 philosophers divided people into two categories, “wise” and the “foolish,” and actions into two categories “virtuous” and “sinful.” Between the wise and foolish person stood the person who attempted to progress toward wisdom, and between the “virtuous” and “sinful” actions were those actions that might not be “fitting” in themselves, but were “fitting” in a given situation. The goal of the person who wanted to progress toward complete wisdom was to do what was “virtuous” whenever possible and to do what was “fitting” with the certainty that can only flow from a wise disposition.
Paul begins by saying, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal. ”The perfection he would have at the future resurrection was not yet attained, since he still had a sinful nature, a sinful body, and was only too aware of the need for future spiritual progress. The first verb obtained probably points to the time of Paul’s conversion, while the second arrived refers to his present state. One Bible scholar has taken Paul to mean, “Neither when I became Christ’s did I attain, nor, up to this time, have I been perfected.” This suggests that Paul has in mind “the prize” awarded to the victorious athlete (v. 14).
Perfection: In Scripture, perfection is revealed to be in three stages:
Positional perfection as it relates to our salvation has already been given to every true Christian, as stated in Hebrews 10:14, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”
Progressive or relative perfection is related to maturity in the spirituality spoken of in 2 Cor. 7:1 as perfecting “holiness in the fear of God.” Various aspects of such perfection are mentioned in the Bible, such as holiness (2 Cor. 7:1, love (1 John 5:17-18), patience (James 1:4), the will of God in general (Col. 4:12), and accomplishing, “every good work” (Heb. 13:21).
Ultimate perfection is reached only in heaven (Eph. 5:27). Although moral perfection is always the goal in the Christian life, the apostle Paul, like the apostle John (1 John 1:8-10), denies having received it. It is this ultimate moral perfection which he declares, “I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also apprehended of Jesus Christ.” This sounds like he is saying that he was not perfected once for all when he was converted, “I did not attain perfection by a single act in the past, I was not perfected in the past, and I am still not perfect, but it is a continual exercise of my life to pursue perfection in the hope that I may apprehend, or seize, or make up my very own that for which I have been seized by Christ. In other words, it was his desire to achieve perfection in the sense of achieving God’s purpose in his life.
but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
It is by virtue of the grace received in his conversion that Paul still presses on to see if he can grasp the goal for which he was then grasped by Christ⸻Christ suddenly seized Paul in an irresistible way. If Paul is now on the race track, as he describes it in verses 13-14, he has to thank this “start” which came with the Damascus event.
13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have 3taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.
Paul uses the sincere address “Brothers and sisters” to introduce an important statement. His emphatic disclaimer is clearly intended to point out a contrast with those who thought they were “perfect” (v. 15). The fact that the aged apostle does not even consider himself to be within reach of the prize should give the most convinced perfectionists in Philippi pause for thought, not to speak of their successors today. Paul is clearly denying sinless perfection or having experimentally achieved complete holiness.
But one thing I do:
Paul’s Christian conduct is summed up in what follows. Never has there been a more unified life than that of Paul as Apostle and Christian.
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, . . . The word “forgetting” indicates that he keeps on forgetting the things which happened in the past. Instead of looking back he is “straining toward what is ahead,” literally, “keeps on reaching” for it. But what does Paul mean by “what lies behind?” He must be referring to his past achievements in the Christian life. The secret of Christian progress is to forget one’s past accomplishments and go on to new ones.
As a Pharisee who thought he had arrived at perfection, Saul’s present was determined by his past, for perfectionism is based on pride in one’s progress in holiness (vs. 4-6). But as a Christian, Paul’s present efforts are determined by his future goal, and so he forgets past achievements as he presses towards the prize; the main purpose of his life was to press on. It is this forgetfulness of the past which frees us to run the Christian race. The competitor who is always looking back over his shoulder will never win that race. Many Christians are so paralyzed by past failures or have become so complacent with past successes that they have virtually stopped running the race. But when with Paul we write off our past as a total loss (vs. 7-8) and a waste of our lives, we are free to face the future with confidence. The formula for success in the Christian life is simple but not easy; relegate the past to oblivion, and strain forward for the prize which is set before us.