Sunday 1st November 2020
‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ Philippians 3:13-14
Today, we continue our walk through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi.
A letter that takes up a variety of themes:
- That of Christian joy – no matter what our circumstances – joy is a thread that runs through the entire letter,
- The theme of unity amongst believers – unity found through humility – through keeping our eyes on Christ and putting others first,
- Also, of ‘working out our salvation’ – that is, maturing in our journey with Christ,
- Confidence – Paul encourages us not to depend on self-confidence but God-confidence – and as we thought last week, there is no confidence, like the confidence of being part of the family of God,
- And in today’s reading, we explore the idea of the Christian life being like an athlete running a race – pressing on towards the finish line…
Before we unpack something of what the Apostle Paul has to say about this idea of ‘pressing on’, let’s pray together: Heavenly Father, once more we are grateful for this opportunity to ponder the challenges and encouragements of Your precious Word. Help us to keep our focus on You, and may we have ears to hear all You would say and teach, and hearts to respond to You in faith. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The Apostle Paul writes: ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’
This picture of an athlete competing in the games would have been very familiar to Paul’s first listeners and readers; they were used to gymnasiums, coliseums, national and local games. It was an image Paul often employed when speaking of the Christian life:
- Acts 20:24 ‘If only I [Paul] may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.’
- Galatians 5:7 ‘You [the believers in that place] were running a good race…’
- Philippians 2:16 Paul speaks of, ‘not running or labouring for nothing’.
So, what was Paul trying to get across with this image, what’s so important for us to grasp? Could it be that following Christ, living the Christian life, is a bit like a determined athlete running in a race; and that can be demanding, requires discipline and self-sacrifice, perseverance, persistence, a whole-hearted effort. We wouldn’t be at our best as an athlete if we turned up for training one day and then didn’t show up again for weeks and months, or how could any athlete compete to their potential if they didn’t give their training and competition their best effort? The dedicated life of an athlete is not a wishy-washy, take it or leave it call. And in the same way, for each believer, you and me, when Christ calls us to follow Him, He calls us to do that with all our heart – to be persistent and disciplined in our Bible reading and prayer life – and it will be demanding, and Jesus didn’t hide that at all, Jesus was very open in speaking about the demands of a life of faith. The call of the Christian life, that call to press on in and with Christ, is about as far from wishy-washy as you can get…
Now, you might be thinking, ‘That’s all fine and well for some fit and active youngster, but I’m no spring chicken, or my health is not what it might be, or I don’t have the energy to press on even to the end of the street!’ But, haven’t we in our congregation witnessed over the years, and we’ve talked about this before, how even someone frail and perhaps well into their nineties, can be a model of what it means to keep on the move for Christ, in their desire to be found amongst God’s people, their desire to pray, to keep growing in knowledge of the Bible and in sharing their faith. I remember visiting in the hospital one day with a lady in her late 80s who had very poor health. And she told me with a smile how she didn’t mind being in hospital because it gave her plenty of time to pray, for her family, everyone on the ward and all the staff, and she did, on a daily basis. The call to ‘press on’ in our life in Christ is a call for us all, no matter what age or stage of life…
But we know the journey, the race, is not always easy and there can be many obstacles in the way. Paul speaks of some of those obstacles as well. Firstly, he mentions the temptation to look back and become distracted, ‘forgetting what is behind’, is how he puts it…So, what does he mean by that? What are we to forget? Certainly, an athlete, once the race has begun, dare not look back and become distracted or the other runners could speed past them. But what are we to do? What sort of forgetting is Paul speaking about? Paul didn’t forget everything in his past – he talks about the past a great deal. Paul certainly didn’t forget that he was in chains – he speaks openly about them. He didn’t forget other bad things that had happened to him – he talks about them in this and other letters. So, what kind of forgetting is he talking about? I think it’s the kind of forgetting that means we are careful not to let the things of the past overshadow the present. There can be things in our past that are painful or hurtful, things that have happened to us, or perhaps things that we have done that we wish we could change. Paul isn’t saying we should never talk about such things, he isn’t saying that if there is something we need to deal with in our past we shouldn’t do that, what he does seem to be saying is akin to: ‘Don’t get stuck in the past, don’t let the past hold you back, God still has work for you to do, keep pressing on…’ Something that can help us in this is of course open and honest prayer. If there is anything in the past that is troubling you, holding you back, take that to the quiet place with God; ask Him to help you deal with it and then to move on, press on, for Him.
What else does Paul specifically mention as an obstacle? He mentions people and, in this case, not the helpful kind. He speaks of such unhelpful folk in verse 18 as ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’. These could have been the people who constantly worked against Paul, against the church, put him down, criticized him relentlessly, tried to lead others astray…Now, I am sure that the Apostle Paul was a tough and resilient man. He had been flogged and beaten, he had been through imprisonment and had known hardship upon hardship, but none of these it seems had reduced him to tears. But this does. He writes here of how he has shed tears of sadness about the many who live as enemies of Christ; it was this that had the power to make him cry.
People and their words have the power to hurt us and to hold us back. Paul recognises that possibility and gives us the answer as he reminds us to whom we belong and the prize that awaits. And so, despite the obstacles that might be in our path, things and people that might try to hold us back, Paul wants us to never forget: Verse 20: ‘Our citizenship is in heaven, we await our Saviour, He has the power to bring everything under control…’
Paul is encouraging us in our ‘pressing on’ to keep our eye on the prize. To throw off all that might hold us back and to keep going…Our Saviour awaits…Listen to these words on the same theme from the book of Hebrews chapter 12:1-3:
‘Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we are in. Study how He did it. Because He never lost sight of where He was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – He could put up with anything along the way – the Cross, the shame…When you find yourself flagging in your faith…think on Christ and all He has done for you…and that will shoot adrenaline into your souls…’ Isn’t that a great phrase, a wonderful promise, that keeping our focus on Christ will ‘shoot adrenaline into our souls’…
The call of Scripture is for us to always remember to whom we belong and where we are going.
- We are a people saved by grace and in gratitude we don’t sit back we press on, running the race,
- There may be obstacles in our way but we keep going,
- And we thank God for the helpful people He gives us in our lives, family and friends who are there for us, supporting and encouraging, especially when the going gets a little rough,
- And Christ the King has our reward…
- The greatest incentive any of us could ever have is waiting for us at the finish line – seeing Christ face-to-face and sharing in His eternal glory.
The Apostle Paul knew hardships and challenges but in faith he kept going, pressing on for the sake of the gospel. And for us today, until Christ returns or calls us home, keep this verse at the front of your thinking, for this is our calling: ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’