If there is one thing missing in contemporary religion, it is a sustained godly cause. "Updates" are the mode of operation among many professed believers: updated methods, updated techniques, updated messages, and even updated gospels. But this is not the manner of the kingdom of God. It is progressive in nature, which is directly opposite of addiction to obsolescence. Believers, under the administration of the Holy Spirit, go "from glory to glory" (2 Cor. 3:18). The psalmist declared that those in Zion would go from "strength to strength" (Psa. 84:7). The Gospel generates a manner of life described as "from faith unto faith" (Rom. 1:17). These expressions describe a process with which the world is not familiar. It is one of advancement and spiritual development.
Our text sets forth a situation that is both challenging and necessary. It reveals a singularity of objective, and the sustained effort required to attain it. Faith does not change its goal. It often requires the adjustment of ones commitment and effort, but never an alteration of the goal. That is the nature of life in Christ. "One thing" dominates throughout the life of the child of God (Psa. 27:4; Luke 10:42; Phil. 3:13). It is that controlling factor that is our present theme.
WHY PAUL WAS INTENSE IN HIS DEVOTION
Those that are haphazard in their commitment to Christ find it difficult to comprehend the zeal of believers. But there is a compelling reason for their incessant effort. You cannot maintain sustained zeal by a system of law. Threats, however true they may be, are not sufficient incentive to keep people running the race and fighting the fight. Paul, prior to being "in Christ," was devoted to the Law--the holy Law. He exercised himself to be "blameless" concerning the righteousness of which it spoke. But that zeal was nothing to compare with what he experienced in Christ Jesus. In Him, effort reached a new plateau. The persuasion of "the mark" instilled a zeal law could not produce.
Paul "labored more abundantly" than the rest of the Apostles (I Cor. 15:10). It was not because he was younger, or because he had access to more technical aids. It was because he saw more. His heart and mind were ravished with the grace of God. His eye had a single goal. He was willing to "spend and be spent" for the cause of Jesus (2 Cor. 12:15). The world, even the religious world, could not match the glory of the things he was shown by Christ. His insatiable appetite for the grace of God is what brought it to him. He received much because he wanted much! That is the reason for his explanation of his own prodigious activities: "But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).
The future also held intrigue and attraction for the apostle. He saw something ahead that was worthy of the deepest commitment and most extensive labor. He perceived that obstacles lay between him and the goal, and he determined to "press" through them. His spiritual posture was bent toward what he saw, and he refused to be deterred from it.
THERE IS A "MARK" or "GOAL"
"I press toward THE MARK," Paul confessed. "THE mark!" So far as he was concerned, there was no other worthy objective; no other goal so compelling and rewarding."The MARK!" Something identifiable, not vague. It was something he could perceive and understand. When his heart was fastened upon it, he adjusted the course of his life appropriately. It allowed him to get his spiritual bearings. Elsewhere he used glorious phrases to denote its reality. He referred to a "blessed hope and glorious appearing" (Tit. 2:13). He mentioned an "anchor for the soul, both sure and steadfast" (Heb. 6:19), and a "city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God" (Heb. 11:10). He spoke of receiving a "crown of righteousness" (2 Tim. 4:8), and "ever" being "with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17).
The future was not ambiguous for Paul, and it should not be for you! One of the undeniable marks of a degenerate and failing church is its lack of confidence concerning the future. This is the dark spot on the horizon of the fearful and unbelieving.
But what was "the mark" or "goal" toward which Paul pressed? Note that it is immediately related to "the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). This is the objective of the heavenly calling. It is the reason for the remission of sins. It is the motivation for Christ saving His people from their sins. This is why people believe. It is why they obey God. It is why they perfect "holiness in the fear of the Lord" (2 Cor. 7:1). It is why they "run with patience the race that is set before them" (Heb. 12:1). It is why they "fight the good fight of faith" (1 Tim. 6:12).
The "mark," from one point of view, is "eternal life." That is the sum and substance of the blessing. It is the "gift of God" (Rom. 6:23). That is a summary view of our involvement in "the world to come" (Mark 10:30). Your "continuance in well doing" will be rewarded with "eternal life" (Rom. 2:7). We are "justified by His grace" in order that we might "be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Tit. 1:2). The "exceeding great and precious promises" that have been given to us can be compressed into as single promise. "And this is the promise that He hath promised us, even eternal life" (1 John 2:25). The "eternal life" that we have now is a pledge of the fullness we will enjoy in the world to come. That is a "mark" worthy of consistent and unflagging effort!
From another point of view, you might view "the mark" as life's finish line. It is the point at which the race ends. Paul caught a glimpse of it before he left his body. It prompted him to say,
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
His warfare was good! His faith enabled him to complete the strenuous course appointed to him. It had led him through perils (2 Cor. 11:26). It led him through weakness (2 Cor. 12:7-10). It led him through the rejection of many to whom he preached. He had to press on with infirmity (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Sometimes he had to press forward alone, with his brethren forsaking him (2 Tim. 4:10). Sometimes it led through discouraging incarceration (2 Cor. 11:23). Sometimes when he was isolated in the midst of a sea for a day and a night (2 Cor. 11:25). But "the mark" kept him coming! It was a dominating goal with which the world simply could not compete!
He was dominated by the same spirit as the patriarchs. "As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?" (Psa. 42:1-2). "But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city" (Heb. 11:16). Every professed believer should ask himself if God is ashamed to be called his God!
In our text, Paul relates "the mark" with "the resurrection of the dead" (v. 11). He is not saying that he wants to simply participate in the resurrection of the dead; every one will do that (Acts 24:15). He desires that the resurrection be the answer to the dichotomy his regeneration produced. For believers, "the resurrection from the dead" is the culmination of faith. Then we will be made "whole," and all adversarial relationships will be abruptly terminated.
Salvation is not an end of itself!
It may come as a starling surprise to many to hear this. Salvation is the appointed means to the end! It prepares us for the future by removing our past and giving us power in the present. But it is "the mark" that is the real issue! It is "the mark" that must be reached. It does no good to enter this race if you do not finish it! A "heavenly call" offers no consolation prize for those that do not end up there!
"The mark" is experienced now in a firstfruits sense. The righteousness for which we "wait" will be fully experienced there, if tasted by faith now (Rom. 4:20-24). The presence of the Lord which will be "face to face" then is enjoyed by faith now as we "fellowship" with the Son (1 Cor. 1:9). The devil who will be banished there may be successfully resisted now! These firstfruits experiences are what keep us pressing. Without them, we would soon fall by the way.
THE "MARK" IS ATTAINABLE
A goal that cannot be attained is no goal at all! Men of God do not "beat the air" or "run in vain" in their pursuit of "the mark." Their incentive has been provided by the Lord Jesus Himself. "For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matt. 7:8). God has not promised us something that is beyond our reach. He has not flashed a mirage before those in the desert of this world, deluding them into thinking things will be better in the "bye and bye."
Although not accessible under the law (Heb. 9:8), a "way" has now been sanctified that leads to "the mark." From one point of view, that "Way" is the Person of Jesus Christ. How glorious His affirmation: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). The life of faith brings us to "the Father" now (I Thess. 3:11), and the removing of those things "that can be shaken" will bring "the Father Himself" to be "with" us (Rev. 21:3).
The "way" is both "new" and "living." It has been "consecrated" particularly for us, giving us access to the most holy place of all, the presence of the living God. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh" (Heb. 10:19-20). It is "new" in the sense of being different--of another order. It is "living" in the sense that it is effective, bringing the realization of the promised benefit.
Factually speaking, believers are the only real "goal-oriented" people. All earthly goals are temporal. They are simply "lusts" that will ultimately pass away with the world (I John 2:17).
But it is not so with the people of God. What they seek will be found. The forfeiture of this world will gain for them permanency in "the world to come" (Heb. 2:5). Little wonder that the Spirit admonishes us to run with purpose and intent. "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain" (1 Cor. 9:24). If we do not reach the goal, what difference does anything else really make? We shall have spent our lives in total futility if we do not make it to "the mark," obtaining the "prize" of the high calling in Christ Jesus!THE BELIEVER IS APPREHENDED!
A condition is described here that must not be overlooked. Paul acknowledges that he has not yet "apprehended" the objective of his salvation. That is why he is stretching forward, pressing to obtain it. But note this phrase, "that for which also I am apprehended of Jesus Christ" (v. 12). Jesus had APPREHENDED Paul! The expression is arresting! Think about it! "I keep on, trying to grasp that purpose for which Christ Jesus grasped me" (Phillips Modern English). "Because Jesus Christ has made me His own" (RSV). "I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me" (NEB). "Trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured me" (Jerusalem Bible). What an edifying view!
Our own salvation is evidence of divine activity. We have been "apprehended" by Jesus Himself! It was not against our wills. We were "willing in the day of His power" (Psa. 110:3). Like the shepherd that brought the lost sheep home on his shoulder, Jesus "took hold" of us, rescuing us from the dilemma of sin! He said that He came to "seek and save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10), and He has done so! Blessed be the name of the Lord!
Do not miss the glory of this truth! God did not "apprehend" the people in Noah's day. They were destroyed with a flood (Gen. 6-7). God did not "apprehend" Israel in this sense! Their nature was never changed. God Himself said of them, "All day long I have stretched forth my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people" (Rom. 10:21). But Jesus has apprehended us. Why? Because this is the day of the open heavens! It is a different time, when sin has been put away by the sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 9:26). It is a different day, with a message of good news (2 Cor. 6:2)!
Paul pressed to apprehend the prize because he himself had been apprehended. What of you? Have you been apprehended by Jesus?
ITS ATTAINMENT REQUIRES EXTENSIVE EFFORT
The foundation for our acceptance with God was not accomplished without extensive effort. Jesus "learned obedience by the things that He suffered" (Heb. 5:8), throwing Himself into the work of redeeming an estranged race. The appropriation of His salvation requires no less effort on our part. Think of the words of our blessed Lord. "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed" (John 6:27). "Labor" is not a casual word, and "meat that endures to everlasting life" is superior to all other sustenance. The two go together!
Great blessing cannot be realized through minuscule endeavors! That truth, if received, would revolutionize the modern church! It would provoke "true worshippers" to discard methods and techniques designed to simulate spiritual life, but which cannot produce it.
Forgetting the things that are behind. Inhibiting recollections of the past are to be placed behind us. "The things that are behind" are not blessings, like the new birth and the realization of special comforts. They are "things" that promoted flesh and pride. They tended to rivet us to the earth and obscure the realities of the world to come. These are related to the "fiery darts" of the wicked one, not to divine involvements. In Paul's case, they concerned his religious heritage, and the fleshly advantages it provided. So flawed was that part of his life that, while embracing what he thought to be truth, he "consented" to the murder of a man of God (Acts 22:20), and persecuted "the church of God" (1 Cor. 15:9). An entire system of thought was involved that was contrary to that of God. How ironical that the chief handicap of Saul of Tarsus was his religion! However, he was unfortunately not the last to experience such a disadvantage.
Paul chose to forget the apparent advantages of his natural birth. He elected to purge from his mind the recollection of progress within an empty religious system. He even forgot his surpassing zeal for the Law that dwarfed that of his peers. These things were excellent from earth's point of view, but lost their value in the superior light of God's grace. A report of them would have looked good on a resume to the First Church of the Frigidaire; but they had no value so far as eternal things were concerned.
When dwelt upon, the past inhibits our progress to "the mark." It is filled with competing interests, and can lure us back into the quagmire of sin. The direction of the Kingdom is consistently forward, never backward. Drawing back leads to "perdition" (Heb. 10:39). Going forward leads to life eternal.
Straining toward what is ahead. There is blessing "ahead" for the people of God. But men will not strain toward God's appointed future for the faithful if they are not convinced of it. The KJV translates this "reaching forth." Others employ the word "stretching." The idea is one of extreme exertion. Here, our affection is the area of activity. We are, so to speak, straining to see, not trying to work. There are clouds and mists between here and the glory. Their presence requires that our "affection" to be "set on things above, and not on things on the earth" (Col. 3:1-3). It takes effort, unusual effort, to accomplish this.
Candidly, I am concerned about the lack of godly effort that characterizes many professed believers. It betrays a level of sensitivity toward God that is not acceptable. It indicates that a "conviction of things not seen" Heb. 11:1) is not present. This condition makes the individual unacceptable to God! There really are no satisfactory explanations for its presence!
We are reaching toward an open door (Rev. 4:1), a satisfied God (Isa. 53:11), and a welcoming Savior (Matt. 11:28; John 6:37). The "powers of the world to come" (Heb. 6:5) tug at our faith. Heavenly influences beckon us to "come." This is "the day of salvation" and the time of spiritual "succor" (II Cor. 6:2). Those that stretch forward to "the mark" will not be disappointed."
There are "troops" and "walls" between us and the realization of "the end of our faith, even the salvation of our souls" (1 Pet. 1:9). With determination, we can identify with the words of David, after he had been delivered out of the hand of his enemies and king Saul. "For by thee I have run through a troop: by my God have I leaped over a wall" (2 Sam. 22:30; Psa. 18:29). However, "running" and "leaping," even when undergirded by divine strength, engage the hearty effort of the victor.
Pressing toward the mark
While stretching forward involves affection and focus, "pressing" also involves moral effort and progress. "Pressing" is a strong word. Most of the time it is employed in Scripture, it has to do with persecution, and is so translated ("dioko" -- Phil. 3:16; Mat. 5:10-12; 10:23; Acts 26:15; Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12; 15:9; 2 Cor. 4:9; Gal. 1:13' 4:29; 2 Tim. 3:12, etc.). It deals with diligent and unrelenting pursuit. The "pressing" individual will not be dissuaded. He will go through fire and water if called upon to do so. He will not allow anything or any relationship to rob him of the "prize." It is more important than career, family, or possessions. If the race requires the forfeiture of earthly companionship, the "pressing" one will run anyway. If there are conflicts with earthly relationships, they will be forfeited in preference of obtaining the prize.
The almost total absence of this type of commitment today betrays the condition of the professed church. Like the idolatrous monkey-triad, they have heard nothing, see nothing, and, consequently, do nothing. People do not let go of the world because they have not been convinced that there is something better. But their assessment of the case is wrong. There is something better! Jesus has opened the way to heaven--into the "holiest" of all. In Jesus, the world is now offered an affiliation with God that has never before been realized by those guilty of sin.
Spiritual violence is a trait of the kingdom age
This is not violence like that of Noah's day (Gen. 6:11). Nor, indeed, does it consist of a state of moral chaos. It is the spiritual quality that compels one to gain the kingdom of God at any price. This type of attitude was revealed on a grand scale in the days of John the Baptist. Commenting on that situation, the Savior said, "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt. 11:12).
The NIV translation reads, "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it." The idea here is that men perceived God's kingdom as worthy of the most extensive effort. They would even publicly repent to obtain it, and did so.
The reason for this condition is apparent. John preached that the kingdom of heaven was "at hand"--it was near, and, therefore, accessible. It is even more attainable now, and those that perceive this to be the case, will pay whatever price is required to obtain it. The rich young ruler did not see this truth, and thus went on his way with great sorrow (Matt. 19:21-22). He did not see the things of God to be of greater value than earthly riches. How tragic that he does not stand alone in this benighted state!
The prolific development and distribution of techniques designed to stimulate spiritual activity confirms the absence of a pressing spirit in the professed church. Too often religious activity is nothing more than a simulation of life rather than evidence of life itself. Where an earnest quest for the "mark" is not found, conviction of its reality does not exist.
The promise of spiritual harvest is given to those that do not become "weary" in their endeavor to obtain it. "And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Galatians 6:9). This simply means that there are inhibitive influences all about us. Satan has not reconciled himself to our salvation. His efforts to thwart it are incessant. The pressing, violent spirit confronts his initiative with vigor. The individual that stretches toward the "mark" refuses to be dissuaded by our adversary!
The reality of the goal stimulates the energetic pursuit of the same. The individual that is convinced of the "prize" will "press" to obtain it. That is the "manner" of the kingdom! Jesus has gained the access to glory for us. He now encourages us to come to it, pressing through every obstacle, and overcoming every hinderance.
How appropriate is the exhortation of Scripture. We all do well to take it seriously. "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2).
An unusual degree of effort is required to fulfill this admonition. Laying aside "every weight" and besetting sin cannot be accomplished casually. "Looking unto Jesus" calls for intense concentration. Running the race before us calls for sustained exertion. Laying aside weights and besetting sins requires exertion. Looking unto Jesus demands disciplined concentration. Running the race set before us necessitates consistent exertion. But your efforts will not be in vain. Be encouraged! This is the day of the open heavens. Our Lord Jesus has destroyed the devil, spoiled principalities and powers, and taken away our sins. We have been reconciled to God.
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