In the Scripture, the Christian life either as a whole or in some individual aspect is described as fruit on a vine (Jn. 15:1-11), sheep who follow their shepherd (Jn. 10:1-10), spiritual marriage (Rom. 7:1-3; 2 Cor. 10:2), birth into a family (1 Pet. 1:22-23), a body under the rule of a head (1 Cor. 12:12-27), persevering in doing good (Rom. 2:6), spiritual resurrection (Rom. 6:4), being taught by God (Eph. 4:21), walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:7), walking in the truth (3 Jn. 4), being kept for Jesus Christ and at the same time keeping ourselves in the love of God (Jude 1, 21), and walking on a narrow way while doing the will of God (Matt. 7:14, 21). Unsurprisingly, then, the Christian life is also described frequently as running a race, with the expectation that we finish well, and that without running well nor finishing well we will not win the prize of eternal life (1 Cor. 9:24-27; cf. James 1:12).
In Philippians 3, Paul continues his discussion of the Christian life by explaining how it is like a race to be diligently run—and gives us three qualities we must have for that endeavor to be overflowingly successful.
A. The Right Perspective (v. 12)
Having just explained his passionate, sacrificial embrace of our Lord Jesus and his diligent desire to be “found in Him” on the last day, Paul is aware that some of his hearers may think this exalted language and consecrated pursuit of Christ and His ways might indicate Paul is some kind of super Christian who has already achieved spiritual perfection. Realizing that this mentality would prevent the Philippians from pursuing the exact same spiritual fruitfulness that he has embraced—and that is the calling of every believer—Paul starts out this paragraph by giving them the proper perspective to undergird their search.
More specifically, Paul writes to assure them that his lofty words do not mean he has already experienced the resurrection and its glory—that is yet future for all believers. Though he writes the words of heaven, he is very much in the middle of a fallen world and its groaning (knowing, of course, that the exalted ruling Christ makes much provision for victory in this life). The full experience of knowing Christ, His resurrection power, and the implications of being conformed to His death await the future resurrection, and Paul has not experienced that yet. He is very much still in process!
Why? Because this is, as one writer put it, the Time between the Times. This is the interadvent age, when the Age(s) to Come have spilled over into ours but have not arrived completely. While we wait for the consummation of our salvation, we wrestle, and fight, and groan, and grow, and mature, and have victory, and fail, and see answered prayer, and backslide, and overcome. Paul cannot have arrived because it isn’t the right time, and his own continual pursuit of holiness proves it.
Moreover, Paul makes a most interesting note about why he pursues holiness. Recall that the “it” in the first part of verse 12 is the full expression of the blessings he has mentioned in verses 8-11; he knows them in part know, but he must wait until the End to know them in glorious fullness and fleshly reality. (Notice how thoroughly eschatological your Bible is!) Paul says he presses on so that he may lay hold of the thing(s) for which he was laid hold of by the Lord. In other words, Paul’s driving motive for the pursuit of godliness is so that he can one day in reality finally grasp and obtain the very thing for which Christ personally and decisively obtained him. What is that thing? It is both practical holiness now and its fullest expression and outcome (Rom. 6:22) in the future—verses 8-11 cover this life and the next.
Christ has laid hold of us in salvation so that we—through the means of our real, personal, human responsibility—can lay hold of something He has for us. That something is both personal holiness, and the end to which that holiness points: eternal glory. Christ saved you so that you would pursue holiness and reach the glory that is at the end of that path! This is why the Lord frequently uses race or path imagery to describe the Christian life: We must stay on the path to get to the end! There is a goal involved and we will only reach it if we stay on the path.
But here is the heart of Paul’s message: We haven’t obtained it yet! This is massively important. If you have what amounts to an overrealized eschatology, you will rest on your laurels. You won’t fight sin. You won’t be sensitive to weakness. You won’t care about holiness and purity. You won’t be burdened for the consecration of God’s people and local churches. The wrong perspective will lead to spiritual disaster. It will make people leave the path. And some of them won’t come back, and will not know the glory at its end.
B. The Right Priorities (vv. 13-14)
Having established the proper perspective and the groundwork of the argument (divine intentionality in our pursuit expressed in real human responsibility), Paul goes on to express the right priorities behind the pursuit. His next words have been frequently misunderstood and so I want to try to concisely explain them. Here, Paul tells us that an enablement to our pressing on to the goal is forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what is ahead. Some people have taken the “forgetting” part as an unbiblical and unhealthy permission to avoid difficult pain and failure in their pasts, instead of seeking biblical forgiveness and restoration; others have been in bondage to past failures and the sins of others because they have ignored what this passage does say. It does not mean to treat your past as inconsequential, meaningless, or indifferent. It does mean to put your past in proper perspective so that it does not hinder your focus. Past failures must be confessed and restitution made where appropriate, and the blood claimed as sufficient for forgiveness. Past sins against you must be forgiven, and where possible trust may need to be rebuilt or godly counselors may need to help you approach pain and fear biblically (this is especially pertinent in cases of severe abuse). Your past must not be ignored, but neither must it be the dominating, controlling—dare I say lordly—influence of your life! Bondage to your past creates a wrong point of focus, and that wrong focus will hinder your ability to progress in Christian growth. Why? Because you aren’t looking at the goal if you’re looking behind you, and you aren’t empowered to run if your trust in Christ is atrophied by your past. (Incidentally, inordinate concern over the future can be just as siphoning of faith.)
We must put the past in proper perspective to focus fully on what lies ahead. Only then can we “press on.” Here Paul tells us something fascinating: We press on toward the goal (the fullness of verses 8-11, received by growth in holiness) for the prize. What is the prize? It is “the upward call of God” and is the same thing as the resurrection out from among the dead in verse 11—that first installment of the “first resurrection” which is the pretribulational rapture of the church. Only those who press on will experience the prize. Some (church saints) will experience it through the rapture; others (Tribulation believers and likely OT saints) will experience it through the “first resurrection” prior to the millennial empire (Rev. 20:1-6). All of God’s people will receive glory, but only if they have a faith that finishes well.
C. The Right Principle (vv. 15-16)
Having established the priorities and the perspective behind a fruitful Christian life, Paul closes with the right principle. He uses “perfect” here to describe spiritual maturity, not absolute perfection which is unattainable in this life. He exhorts the mature to have the attitude of single-minded devotion he has explained in this section. Further, he assures the mature (who though mature are not perfect) and the immature (who might think they already are mature) alike that if in any area they do not live in conformity with this single-minded devotion, God will mercifully reveal it to them that they might repent and grow. What would this be? Any sin or immaturity! All of it is out of conformity with the wholehearted pursuit of Christ. There are parts of our hearts that need to be submitted, idols that must be cast down, affections that are inordinate, patterns of thinking that do not reflect biblical truth and presuppositions. This is why people are inconsistent, and this is why we will need to grow in holiness until the day we die. God does not reveal every possible sin or flaw to us, because He is merciful! But we can be assured if we are His, He will reveal something to us, assuming our hearts are rightly ordered to pursue holiness (an oft-neglected qualifier to this promise). Paul closes with a final exhortation: Despite your failures and inconsistencies, do not regress. Continue to live at the level of fruitfulness and maturity the Lord has allowed you to achieve—God will bless that with greater fruitfulness as you pursue Him (the flip-side of verse 15).
If nothing else, this paragraph underscores how vital proper thinking is to the Christian life. (Indeed, I recall a conversation with an experienced lay counselor and discipler at my old church, where she informed me that a large percentage of the issues people dealt with in our biblical counseling ministry were ultimately issues of wrong thinking!) Thinking impacts the affections, which in turn incline the will. Wrong presuppositions, priorities, beliefs, focus, and thought patterns will inflame the passions and incline the will to ungodliness. If persisted in, this will become an area of bondage that will hinder our progress towards the goal of final Christlikeness. Only by renewing our minds with the sound words from heaven will give us the sure footing necessary to doggedly follow Christ in a hostile world and be assured of the glory of the resurrection. May God help us to believe Him fully, obey Him joyfully, and cling to Him unreservedly, for the full outworking of His purposes in our lives!
N.B.: For those struggling with a truly biblical approach to issues of the past, I enthusiastically recommend Putting Your Past in Its Place: Moving Forward in Freedom and Forgiveness (Harvest House, 2011), by Dr. Stephen Viars.