Topic: Expository Passage: Philippians 3:12-14
Read vv. 7–14
When I was in high school, I played basketball and football, and during the summer we were required to work out in the weight room 3 days a week. To put it mildly, everyone didn’t work out with the same intensity.
On the one hand, some guys were very focused. They paced back and forth, adrenaline was steaming off their skin, and they grunted and yelled with every rep. Then there were the freshman girls, who showed up about 30 minutes after everyone else. They would occasionally do a few light reps, but mostly they just visited with friends and watched the guys. The contrast was pretty incredible.
And for our purposes, I especially want to ask why there was such a drastic difference? The basic reason is passion. Some people don’t enjoy fitness or athletics. They work out because they have to, so they just do the minimum. But other people dream every day about winning all-conference, winning a championship, and celebrating victory. They see the prize, they want the prize, and their passion drives them.
4 weeks ago we saw in Philippians 3:9–11 that Christ offers 3 incredible prizes to those who are in Christ. Verse 9 states that we can stand in the perfect righteousness of Christ, forever secure from God’s judgment. Verse 10 says that we can enjoy a personal knowledge of Christ. And v. 11 says that one day Christ will glorify us, and we will fully enjoy the blessings that we partially know today.
When you step back and reflect on these blessings, they are remarkable. In fact, v. 8 says that they are so valuable that in comparison every other pursuit looks like a pile of rotting, foul garbage. Christ is better than anything else this world has to offer. So, the question that remains is how will we pursue Christ? Will we live the Christian life like that kid who grudgingly goes through a work out, doing the absolute minimum? Or will we joyfully give everything that we have, because we love Christ, we want to know him today, and we can’t wait to fully know him in eternity?
In our passage for today, vv. 12–14, Paul describes his own passion pursuit of the prize. In the process he challenges us to pursue Christ with all your heart, because you clearly see the joy that is only available in him. Notice first in v. 12…
I. We must take hold of the prize (v. 12).
Notice that Paul begins by clarifying that…
We have not arrived yet. Paul says, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected.” To understand this statement and really the entire passage, we first need ask, “What is it that Paul has not yet attained?”
The closest option in the context is found in 11, where Paul says he wants to “attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Therefore, we may assume that v. 12 is simply clarifying that Paul has not yet been resurrected or been made perfect at the time when Christ will glorify his saints.
This is part of it, but I believe that v. 12 is looking back on the entire package of blessings that Paul described in vv. 7–11. In Christ, we receive alien righteousness, eternal security, a close, personal relationship, practical, spiritual transformation, and the hope of glorification. So, the prize of vv. 12 –14 is all of the blessings Christ makes available in the gospel.
However, Paul opens v. 12 by clarifying that we have not yet received our full inheritance. In other words, none of us are perfect spiritually or physically. Yes, we can know Christ today, but we don’t fully know the power of his resurrection, perfect fellowship, or full conformity to his death. And of course, we have not been resurrected from the dead. All of us still have a long ways to go, including the Apostle Paul.
I doubt that any of us would disagree with Paul, but there are groups out there that claim they have attained some form of perfection. They are always looking for some radical experience of the Spirit that will instantaneously lift them to “Higher Ground,” as the old hymn says. Others will claim that they have unlocked a special power, through mystical experiences and that the Spirit has taken away their sinful tendencies.
Frankly, it’s nonsense For one most of the people claim perfection, are obviously imperfect when you get to know them. As well, the Bible always describes spiritual growth as a lifelong, hard process that requires obedience, discipline, and constant dependence on the grace of God. It is not possible to fully attain our inheritance in this life, so don’t listen to anyone who promises a quick and easy path to transformation. Paul hadn’t arrived, and neither will anyone else in this life. Therefore, he goes on to say…
We must press forward to take hold of the prize. Notice the verbs Paul uses in v. 12. He says, “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of” The first verb, press on, describes an intense, focused pursuit of a goal. Paul already used it in v. 6, where he says, “concerning zeal, persecuting the church.” Ironically, before Paul got saved, he was on the Road to Damascus, literally pursuing the church to destroy it. Then Christ changed everything. Now, Paul was pursuing or pressing on to reach Christ.
The second verb is lay hold of. This verb is actually an emphatic form of the verb translated “attain” earlier in the verse. It means to “seize, take a firm grip, attack” (O’Brien). It’s speaks of aggression. It reminds me of the old coaching line, “Play the game to win, don’t play simply not to lose.” In other words, “Go get the prize; don’t just hope it falls in your lap.” God says this is how we must purse the knowledge of Christ, holiness, and our eternal reward. We must aggressively pursue Christ! We all need this challenge, because we are prone to pride, laziness, and apathy.
You see it all the time in sports. A team comes out strong, plays hard, and builds a huge lead. Then they get cocky. They think that they have it in the bag, and they get lazy and stop playing as hard. Once they lose their edge, the other team comes back and maybe even wins the game.
Christians have the same tendency. Once you get saved, you are eternally secure. It is a guaranteed fact that you will be in heaven and know Christ perfectly. This reality is supposed to encourage us to press on, but sinners often have the opposite Because they think that heaven is in the bag, they might as well pursue other things right now.
Sadly, it betrays the fact that they don’t appreciate the prize that Christ offers. They don’t see “the (true) excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus,” and they think there is greater joy in the passing pleasures of sin and materialism than there is in Jesus. Sometimes, they have never truly seen Christ in salvation.
And all of us at times slowdown in the race. We get distracted by some promise that the world holds out. Maybe we get busy with life, and Christ takes a backseat. Or maybe we are struggling to run well, so we get discouraged, and we throw Christ in the backseat.
We need to always remember the truth of Philippians 3. In Christ, we have a treasure of infinite value. He is worth more than anything else this world has to offer, so pursue him with everything that you have. And then notice that Paul ends v. 12 with an additional motive for laying hold of the prize.
We must press on, because Christ first pursued us. Notice how Paul concludes v. 12. “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” This is a wonderful statement regarding Christian motive. Specifically, Paul didn’t pursue the prize to earn a relationship with God or to earn God’s favor, because he didn’t have to.
1 John 4:10 states, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son.” Similarly, v. 12 states that it wasn’t Paul who initially grasped for God. Instead, when Paul wanted nothing to do with Christ and was pursuing the church to destroy it, Christ grabbed Paul on the Road to Damascus with his sovereign hand and changed him forever.
So, Paul is saying in v. 12 that it was only because Christ first pursued him that he pursued Christ. And this really is an important qualifier for this entire passage. I say that because the primary focus of vv. 12–14 is human effort, right? Paul says, “I haven’t attained,” “I’m not perfect,” “I press on,” “I am laying hold of,” “I am forgetting the things behind, and I am reaching forward.” “I am pressing toward the goal.”
So clearly the primary point of these 3 verses is to say that we must pursue Christ with every ounce of strength that we have. Therefore, if anyone ever tells you that effort at godliness is bad, or if anyone ever mocks you for taking your Christian faith too seriously, you have an easy answer in this text. We must pursue Christ with every fabric of our being.
But the qualifier in v. 12 is clear that we don’t work to earn salvation or because we are so great. Verse 9 said that our only hope of salvation is to be found in Christ’s righteousness, not our own.
Therefore, I don’t pursue holiness to earn God’s favor or love, because they are already mine in Christ. Instead, I love him, because he first loved me. I pursue him, because he first pursued me. And I want to know him, because knowing him is better than any other treasure I could enjoy.
So Christian, remember what Christ did for you on the cross, and remember how he pursued Then look ahead to the joy of knowing Christ and being perfectly conformed to Christ. Let that vision outshine every earthly pleasure, and then press on to “lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of you.” Take hold of the prize. And then notice that vv. 13–14 expand on this idea by zeroing in on the fact that…
II. We must aggressively pursue the prize (vv. 13–14).
In these verses, Paul uses the imagery of a runner in a race to describe how we must pursue Christ. I’d like to break down these verses into 4 descriptions of how we must pursue the prize. First, we must have a…
Godly Discontentment: Notice that a big part of how Paul runs his race is that he is constantly “forgetting those things which are behind.” If you’ve watched sports much, you’ve probably seen an athlete fail right here.
For example, a basketball player makes a steal, and there is no one between him and the basket, so all he has to do to score is race to the hoop and score. But so often, guys get nervous about who is chasing them, and they keep looking back instead of forward. It slows them down, it lets the defense catch up and block the shot.
It’s the same with a sprinter. If you watch the 100m dash at the Olympics, those guys can’t afford to look back. If they do, they’re toast.
Paul says that he was determined not to make this mistake, specifically, regarding his past spiritual accomplishments. Paul had a lot of them. When Paul wrote Philippians, he had already had led many to Christ, he had established many churches, and he was in prison for preaching the gospel.
It would have been easy for Paul to grow content with what he had done, to look behind at all of his accomplishments and to feel like he had arrived. But Paul abided by another old coaching maxim, “If you’re not improving, you’re losing.” He was determined to stay focused on what God still had for him and where he needed to know Christ more. He had a godly discontentment.
This is an important example especially for those of you who have been Christians for many years and have served the Lord faithfully. Some of you already have a huge reward stored up in heaven, and it would be easy to spend all your time looking back on what you have already done, and to essentially retire from the race.
Sadly, I’ve seen older Christians do just that. They argue, “I’ve put in my time, I’ve run hard for many years, so this is MY time to take it easy.” But I’ve also met a lot of godly older Christians. They may not have the energy they once had. They can’t chase kids during AWANA anymore. But they are not resting on their past. They are hungry to get deeper into the Word, to learn more about who Christ is, and to use whatever time God gives them to the fullest extent. Let’s all have that kind of godly discontentment.
But as well, even though it’s not Paul’s primary point, I think it’s worth noting that running the race well also requires putting your past failures behind you. Paul, for one, had some pretty dark stuff in his past. He tried to destroy the church. And some Christians let guilt over past failures become a noose around their necks. They are always looking back, bemoaning what they should have done, and it keeps them from running well today.
Now, Paul had not forgotten his past. He just mentioned it in vv. 3–6, but he didn’t dwell on it. Instead, he kept his focus on Christ, the forgiveness that he had promised, and the hope of the resurrection. And if you live with a weight of guilt over your past, God wants you to do the same.
Believe the promise of Romans 8:33–34 that no one can bring a charge against you, because God justifies, and no one can condemn you, because Christ died for your sin. Yes, you’ll never fully forget your past, and frankly you shouldn’t. It can be a great tool to keep you humble, but do not let it lead to despair. Instead, leave it under the blood of Christ, and heed the 2nd description of how we must pursue the prize…
Singular Focus: Paul begins v. 13 by saying, “one thing I do.” I’d like to begin by emphasizing that Paul does not mean that he only pursued Christ to the neglect of other responsibilities. This is because, you can’t truly pursue Christ and neglect going to work, loving family, or serving your brothers.
Rather, what Paul means is that pursuing Christ was his first and highest priority. It was his consuming passion, and this passion radically reshaped how he thought about every other responsibility.
For the Christian, going to work is not just about doing a job; it’s about honoring the Lord. Loving your family and serving your family is about modeling the love and sacrifice of Christ. And managing your finances is not about serving your pleasures but about investing them for God’s glory.
Again, it always comes back to Christ. As v. 10 says, I want to “know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.”
So, I want to challenge all of us today, to just forget for a moment all the pressures at work and at home. Forget about all the crazy political turmoil in our nation. Forget about your health, and instead fix your attention on Christ. See his surpassing worth. See that he is your life, your hope your joy. And then be challenged to keep that focus everyday. One thing should stand out above all else, and that is Christ. In light of his beauty, the 3rd description of how we must pursue the prize is…
100% Effort: Notice again how Paul pursued Christ. He says in v. 13, I am “reaching forward to those things which are head,” and in v. 14 he says, “I press toward the goal.” When you watch the Olympics, it’s always fun to watch the slow-motion reply of the guys’ faces running the sprints. They look ridiculous, because they are straining every muscle in their body as they give everything they have to winning that race.
And God says that we need to pursue godliness with that same intense focus. We need to “reach forward” with everything we have. We need to “press toward the goal.”
This example should be convicting for every one of us, because all of us struggle at times with giving 70%, 50%, or 25% effort. We play around with the spiritual disciplines, but we don’t prioritize them. We read the Bible, pray, and participate in the church like we are out for a Sunday afternoon stroll, not like we are competing in a highly intense race.
And when it comes to our obedience, we pick and choose which commands we will fully obey, and we leave others on the shelf. Sometimes about as interested in getting to know Christ as we are in getting to know an obnoxious uncle that we’d rather avoid.
Of course, none of us are always going to get it right. We are going to trip and fall, and some of us are slower than others. But as coaches always say, “You can’t control your ability, but you can control your effort.” You may not have a lot of gifts, you may have a difficult past that weighs you down, you may not have the same Bible training as others, and God knows all of that. But you can control your effort. So, I want to challenge you to “press toward the goal.” Give 100% effort to the race. Finally, the 4th description of how we must pursue the prize is…
Confident Hope: Notice how v. 14 ends. Paul didn’t say that he ran this hard so that he could be better than others. He didn’t run to avoid God’s judgment. And didn’t run grudgingly, just because he had to. No he ran hard “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
With this phrase, Paul is probably referencing an important tradition in the Greek games. After the race was over, the judge or dignitary who was overseeing the games would summon the winner onto the raised platform where he was seated to receive his prize.
Similarly, Paul looks forward to the day when he will be resurrected and fully glorified. And in that day, he pictures Christ as summoning Paul into his presence. Paul will see Christ and know Christ like he has never known him before. And out of his infinite storehouse of riches, Christ will reward Paul beyond his wildest dreams for his service. And when he does, it will make all of the effort, all of the straining more than worth it.
In light of this, I’d like to close with 3 challenges. First, I want to urge you again to see the prize that is laid out so beautifully in vv. 7–11. This is so important, because Christ demands a lot. He demands singular focus and 100% effort. And if you don’t see the prize, you will not enjoy the race, you will run grudgingly, and you probably won’t put much into it. But if you see the prize, it changes everything. It brings a radically different motivation.
Second, pursue the prize. Forget everything that is behind you and reach forward with all that you have. Press toward the goal with all of your being.
Third, plan to reach the prize. A successful athlete always has a training regiment. He knows where he wants to go and how he will get there. So, if you have been convicted about the need to run harder, make specific plans to change. Ask, where I am not running well? How can I better practice the spiritual disciplines? Where are the holes in my obedience? And then confess it to the Lord, and leave it in the past. And then make specific plans to fix it, and ask the Lord for the grace to do so. As you do so, God will be gracious. He will strengthen your faith to see the prize, and he will strengthen your legs to run for the prize. And praise the Lord that you can anticipate the day when you stand before him and you will receive his glorious inheritance.