Marathon, Part 2: Strategy
Topic: Topical Passage: Philippians 3
Marathon, Part 2: Strategy
This is part two in a three-part study called, “Marathon.” We’re basing our study on four primary passages in the New Testament that compare the Christian life to a race. I printed those passages for you on this handout. Is anyone not looking at one of these?
I said last week that we’d start each lesson with some trivia about marathons, so here are the fun facts for today.
- What is the world’s oldest annual marathon? The Boston Marathon. It started in 1897, the year after the race was invented.
- What is the world’s most epic marathon? This one is obviously subjective, but I think the nod goes to the Great Wall Marathon that’s run each May on top of the Great Wall of China! It’s hard to imagine a more epic setting, and the difficulty is epic, as well–the race includes 5,164 steps!
- What is the world record time for a marathon? On September 16, 2018, Eliud Kipchoge set a new world record at the prestigious Berlin Marathon. His time was 2 hours, 1 minute, 39 seconds, which means that his average pace was about 4 minutes, 40 seconds per mile. To give some perspective, most treadmills max out at 5 minutes per mile, and it’s debatable whether even a horse could run the race that fast!
Last week, we covered the basics. We answered the questions, “What is this race?” “What obstacles will I face?” and “Why should I keep running?” This week, I want to focus on strategy. How are we going to accomplish our goals in this race? First, maybe we should review: what are our goals? Our most basic goal is simply to finish the race. But beyond that, we are seeking to know and follow Jesus and to believe, defend, and proclaim the gospel. So how will we do that?
They say you can train for a marathon in somewhere between twelve to twenty-two weeks. That’s kind of surprising, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine that someone like me could be ready to run a marathon in only five months! But apparently, that’s the case. However, if you are serious about running a marathon, you better also be serious about your training.
What do you think a person might do in order to train for a marathon? (run, eat right, etc.) How might a person dress or eat prior to race day in order to ensure the best results? (dress lightly, break in your shoes, don’t try out new gear, make sure you have enough water, carb load, etc.) What are some things a person might do during the marathon itself to help them keep going or improve their time? (mental focus, pacing, etc.)
What are some strategies a Christian can employ to help him with his race?
The strategies we find in these four passages can be divided up into three categories: focus, discipline, and effort. Let’s talk first about focus.
Paul’s focus comes squarely into view in Philippians 3:13 (Philip 3:13-14). If you were to look in your Bibles, you would see that the words “I do” in the phrase “but this one thing I do” are in italics, which means they’re added for the sake of clarity. Paul literally says, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended, but one thing….” One thing what? “One thing I focus on, one thing I seek after, one thing I do.”
Have you ever seen a race horse with that mask on his face? What are those things that stick out on the sides near his eyes? (They’re called blinders.) Why would a racehorse need blinders? (To keep it from being distracted. To keep it focused on what lies ahead.)
It’s almost as if Paul is wearing blinders to keep him focused on what lies ahead. But what exactly is it that he’s focused on? Perhaps a better way to ask that question would be to say, “Who is he focused on?” Because the answer is “Jesus.” He counts everything loss for Christ–to gain Him, to know Him. Paul mentions many “fringe benefits” in this passage, including freedom from sin and a new body. But the center of it all, in Paul’s mind, is Jesus, and Paul’s personal relationship with Him. So who is the prize? The prize is Jesus!
But there’s more to it than that, because the question arises, in what sense is gaining Christ something future? I mean, Paul is already saved, right? So Christ is already his! Why then does he talk about gaining Christ as if it were a future event? For us, gaining Christ is something future because we will not know Him perfectly until we are glorified. So even more specifically than just “Christ,” the prize in v. 14 is the perfect relationship with Jesus that you and I will enjoy when we’re glorified.
The Lord has seen fit to give me three little girls. I love them to death. They are such precious gifts! Did you know that little girls long to get married? They dress up like brides, they reenact weddings, they read fairy tales with “happily ever after” endings, they go over to each other’s houses when they get older and talk about boys… it’s just what they do! And of course, all of that energy is directed toward a single individual when a young lady enters into a serious dating relationship and then gets engaged. It’s no coincidence that God likens the church to a bride and our glorification–this moment Paul is writing about–to a wedding. You see, the single-minded focus of the athlete is also the wistful longing of the lover for a person, for the bridegroom, Jesus Christ. Do you love Him? Do you long for Him?
So the “one thing” Paul is looking at is the same thing as the prize. It includes all of those good things which are ahead for us, but the central blessing is Christ, and specifically, knowing Him. But that still leaves open the question, what are the distractions? What are “those things which are behind” that we must “forget” (Philip 3:3-7)?
First, we must intentionally “forget” false objects of trust. Chapter 3 begins with Paul warning the Philippians about false teachers who say you have to be circumcised and keep the Law in order to be right with God. Paul says, “No! That’s a lie! The only righteousness worth having is a righteousness ‘not my own’–v. 7.” Paul says, “I gave up my own ‘from the law’ righteousness in order to come to Christ! I left that all behind. I am forgetting those things. I am counting them loss.”
In business terminology, an asset is considered a “loss” when its value is less than what you paid for it. For instance, if you bought your house for $300,000, and then the stock market crashes and you’re forced to sell it for $200,000, that would be considered a “loss.” It was a bad investment. It wasn’t worth the time and the money you put into it.
Now, sometimes it’s worth keeping a house like that until stock market goes back up. But other times, you just need to “cut your losses” and move on. When Paul got saved, he had to admit that he was wrong, and that all of his former righteousness was a waste! In fact, his good works were even counter-productive, to the extent that they bolstered his pride. Self-righteousness had left Paul spiritually bankrupt. So he did what any sane individual would do in those circumstances: he declared bankruptcy.
Do you know what happens when you declare bankruptcy? The law is somewhat complicated, but in general, you’re forced to sell off all of your assets to go toward your debts. In the same way, when Paul got saved, he had to get rid of everything. Whatever he was trusting in for spiritual capital had to go. But obviously salvation is better than bankruptcy. We don’t just get debt forgiveness, we get Christ! In v. 9, Paul says that by means of faith, he traded his own righteousness (which was really no righteousness at all) for the perfect righteousness of Christ. Now that’s a good deal! Selling all for Christ was the best investment he ever made.
So you can see why Paul came unglued when false teachers began saying that the very things he left behind were necessary for salvation! They were false objects of trust! And Paul intentionally “forgot” them.
Can I ask you a question this morning? If God said, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you say? If you’re like most people, you would point to the fact that you’re “a good person.” So was Paul, and good works couldn’t save him! Good works will never get you into heaven, 1) because they’re all tainted with sin, and 2) because your bad works already condemn you. But the good news is that there’s a way out. There is freedom through Christ if, like Paul, you will declare spiritual bankruptcy. You must transfer your dependence from good works to Christ. It’s like your hanging from the side of a cliff, and you’re holding on to the flimsy little tree branch of your own self-righteousness. The branch is breaking; it can’t hold your weight. But someone extends to you a rope. What do you have to do? Let go of the branch and grab the rope! Repent of your sin and self-righteousness. And trust Jesus alone to save you.
So #1, “forget” false objects of trust. But #2 “forgot” false sources of joy. Just as anything that keeps me from trusting Christ becomes a liability, anything that distracts me from knowing Christ becomes a liability (v. 8a). That word “excellence” means “surpassing worth.” It’s a value judgment. Paul is using one of those old-fashioned scales. On one side of the scale is “knowing Christ.” What’s on the other side? “All things.” Say what? Really? Everything? Ya, Paul says, “I would give up everything for Jesus.” So what does he set aside and “forget” according to this verse? It’s anything that distracts him from knowing Christ.
“What distracts you from knowing Christ?” I’ve been reading some old books recently. Men who lived long ago and loved Jesus. And do you know one of the things that they constantly harp on? Worldliness. Because nothing will choke your love for Jesus as fast as a love affair with this world. It’s doesn’t even have to be explicitly sinful things. Anything that gets in the way of you knowing Jesus becomes a liability.
But Paul goes on (v. 8b). That word “rubbish” means “refuse” or even “dung,” as it says in the King James Version. Have you ever had to dig through something really nasty? Maybe you lost something in the trash. So you had to go back in there, and rip open every bag, and dig through dirty diapers, and rotten food, and Kleenex…. That’s how Paul views anything that distracts him from Christ. He says, “I hate it. I despise it! I’d rather swim in an outhouse than coddle my worldly distractions.”
So your first point of strategy is, focus. Put on the blinders and don’t get distracted. Avoid the two pitfalls of legalism and of worldliness by keeping your eyes on Jesus.
1 Corinthians 9:25 says that everyone who competes for the prize is “temperate.” What does it mean to be temperate? It means to be self-controlled, like you don’t drink alcohol or you watch what you eat. Athletes are obviously temperate in a lot of ways. First, they have to avoid illegal substances.
Do you remember the big scandal with Russia from the Olympics earlier this year? The entire nation was banned because of widespread doping. But of course, it’s not just the Russians who do stuff like this. When I was a kid, I remember watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa slug it out to see who could be the first to break Roger Maris’s long-standing record of 61 home runs in a season. McGwire “won” with 70 homers, only to be surpassed three years later by Barry Bonds, who hit 73 in one season. Come to find out later, all three of them were on steroids! You just can’t do that if you are a serious athlete! And in the same way, Christians must discipline themselves and call on God’s grace to defeat sin. Hebrews 12 tells us to lay aside the sin that so easily ensnares us.
But it’s not just sin that’s the problem, is it? In addition to avoiding illegal substances, we must also avoid unhealthy substances. Some of my friends from high school played football. Their coach’s rule was that they couldn’t drink soda all season long. We’re not talking marijuana here, we’re talking about a Sprite. Why was their coach such a big meanie? Because he knew the soda would hinder their performance! There’s nothing wrong with drinking a can of Pepsi during the offseason. But it you really want to compete, you will do whatever it takes to win. And in the same way, there are many perfectly harmless things that we as Christians must choose to give up for the sake of gospel ministry. Hebrews 12 says that we must lay aside not just the sins, but the weights.
1 Corinthians 7-9 is all about things Paul gave up for the sake of ministry. He chose not to take offerings from the Corinthians; he chose not to eat meat offered to idols; he chose not to get married. Why? Paul tells us in 9:22 (1 Cor 9:22). So we see here a common theme re-emerging: Paul giving up his rights. In Philippians 3, he said, “I turn my back on anything that distracts me from Christ.” Here in 1 Corinthians 9, he says, “I deny myself any right that would hinder gospel ministry.”
Now, let’s come up with an example of what that might look like in our lives. What is something that you may give up for the sake of the gospel?
Let’s talk about money. What are some ways people leverage money in order to advance the gospel? (Become a Christian school teacher or work at a Christian camp.) My mother-in-law is an excellent example of this. Elise’s stepdad has a good job, and they live in a nice area. Her friends get manicures and pedicures and stuff like that. But Elise’s mom chooses not to do some of those things so that she can give more to missions.
That’s tough, isn’t it? Especially when all of your friends are doing it! It can feel like you’re making such a sacrifice! But really, when you stop to think about it, what’s a couple of pedicures when souls are dying and going to hell today? An can you really pat yourself on the back about giving up a latte when people around the world starving?
That’s just money. We haven’t even begun to talk about time, or about holding yourself to a higher standard so that you can minister to people with stricter consciences… and the list goes on and on. When was the last time you chose not to say something you really wanted to say on Facebook because your unsaved friends wouldn’t get it? When was the last time you gave up a nice quiet evening in order to minister to a needy family? When was the last time you invited someone with no place to go into your home for a holiday? We must discipline ourselves for the sake of gospel ministry.
The words Paul uses to describe the Christian race are very emotive. You’ve got “press,” “grasp,” “reaching,” “run,” “struggle,” “fight,” “beat”–all words that signify very intense effort. And there’s a reason for that. Because if you are going to win at the Christian life, you are going to have to give 100% effort. You are going to have to make up your mind that you are will leave it all on the track, so to speak.
As I’ve worked with people in ministry even over the past four years, I’ve noted how a person can be relatively stagnant spiritually over a period of time, and then all of a sudden, it’s like they decide, “Alright, I’m going to do this now,” and there’s this immediate growth. What happened? Did they learn something new that they didn’t already know–some key of knowledge that unlocked the door to spiritual maturity? No. Well then, did it have to do with their emotions? Did God all of a sudden zap them with affections for Christ that enabled them to push past their hurdles? That’s usually not it, either. So then what is it? It’s an act of the will. They finally decide to get serious and to start giving God their full effort. And that makes all the difference.
Are you giving Christ your full effort? Do you really want to grow? Do you really want to change? Are you reading to “press on,” “grasp the prize,” “reach for the goal,” “run the race,” “struggle,” “fight,” “discipline your body,” and win? Is there some sin that you’re just not willing to give up? That’s often how it goes. We grow and grow and grow until we reach a certain point where God says, “Now I want THAT”; and we go, “Oh, not that.” And we stop growing. Because we can’t get around that hurdle that we refuse to give to God. I don’t know what it is in your life, whether it has to do with life direction, a habit of sin that you need to give up, something you need to come clean about and get counsel on, or whatever, but will you do it? Will you give God your all this morning?