COMMENTARY ON PHILIPPIANS
T E X T
“Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:12-14, KJV)
Paul is sharing what motivates his aggressive spiritual life. This is not a perspective of life unique to the Apostle. Rather, it is the appointed means of spiritual advance and safety. Paul is a “pattern,” or example, “to them which should hereafter believe on Him to life everlasting” (1 Tim 1:16). Much like Abraham was an example of true faith, Job an example of perseverance under trial, and David of spiritual sensitivity, Paul is an example of living unto the Lord. Such examples are not to be held forth as heroes, or celebrities, but brethren to be followed. They took advantage of what was available to them. Their faith is what caused them to excel. That is why we can follow their example. That “like precious faith” can be obtained by us.
WE ARE NOT THERE YET
“Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (NASB). Although Paul had made remarkable progress, and was nearing the close of his life, he was not yet “perfect.” This expression expands on his abandonment of all competing pursuits to “win Christ.” He has just expressed a frame of mind that is exceedingly rare: counting everything loss to know Christ, the fellowship of His sufferings, and the power of His resurrection (3:10). However, as virtuous as that attitude is, it is not the consummate Kingdom experience. It is possible for people to view a sacrificial life and earnest quest for unfettered fellowship with Christ as an end of itself–but it is not. Rather, it is the means to the appointed end.
When Paul says he has not obtained “IT,” he means the resurrection of the dead. He views that as the entrance into the heavenly inheritance. Until then, it is not possible to “obtain” everything to which we have been appointed. At best, we but touch the border of what God has prepared for them who love Him. Yet, even that cannot be achieved without hearty effort.
The magnitude of salvation is seen in these verses, Even though Paul sought nothing but Christ, engaged in no aggressive pursuit except to know Him, and gave up all hindrances to that pursuit, he had not “obtained” or been “made perfect.” Those were qualifying frames of mind, and not the attainment itself. They are a necessary prelude to being blessed in this world, and obtaining the world to come. Still, they are exceedingly rare in our time.
To “apprehend,” or “lay hold” of something is to have a grip upon it that cannot be broken. Until the resurrection, the blessing can be lost, and the prize forfeited. Even Paul did not have such a firm grasp on eternal life he could relinquish his fervent quest. He “pressed on,” aggressively pushing through life, eager to appropriate that to which he had been called. The KJV uses the expression “follow after,” which is more precise. It means what was sought was, in a very real sense, yet ahead of him. Like the cloud in the wilderness, the promised inheritance is held before us, and we must pursue it.
This is the same spirit expressed by the sweet Psalmist of Israel. “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).
There is a reason why we are brought into Christ. Notice, Paul refers to Christ “apprehending,” or “laying hold” of him. Christ “laid hold” on Paul on the Damascus road. To be sure, He did it to make him an Apostle (Acts 26:16-18) sending him to the far corners of the earth. But there is more than this! There is the day of judgment in which believers will participate (1 Cor 6:1-2), the world to come which they will govern (Heb 2:5-6), and a reign with Jesus (2 Tim 2:12). Paul knew if he lost sight of that, he would never be able to fulfill his commission in this world. Elsewhere, the Spirit affirms God has “prepared” us for a “purpose” that will begin at the resurrection (2 Cor 5:5). Until then, we have not obtained, are not perfected, and have not apprehended, or taken hold, of our inheritance.
REACHING FORWARD TO WHAT LIES AHEAD
“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead” (NASB). True spiritual life is characterized by a vigor that is virtually unknown in the contemporary church. Aware of the fact that he had not yet attained unto the resurrection, Paul eagerly engaged in a pursuit for the blessing. His advancement in the faith, as notable as it was, did not allow him to let up in his effort to obtain the prize.
As advanced as the Apostle was in his comprehension of the heart of the Kingdom, he did not “regard” himself as having grasped the prize. By this he means he lived with an acute consciousness of this reality. At no point did he consider himself sufficient of himself (2 Cor 3:5). He lived by faith and in anticipation of what was ahead. He did not settle down in this world–not even in his ministry. Like Israel in the wilderness, he continued to move toward the promised land.
I cannot help but observe the near-total absence of this attitude in the churches with whom I have been identified. Although they boast in a great heritage, they are nearly bereft of this frame of mind. They tend to live in the past rather than toward the future. Whatever good things they may have are decidedly neutralized by their apparent disinterest in what lies ahead.
Paul’s focus was single: “this one thing I do.” Life in its totality was viewed from this perspective. Every aspect of life was under the control of this quest. Until our objective is single, and our quest aggressive, no spiritual progress will be made, and no acceptable service will be rendered. David had a similar concentration (Psa 27:4). Jesus told Martha, “One thing is needful,”and should be given absolute priority (Lk 10:42).
“Forgetting what lies behind.” Just as the pace of a runner is slowed when he looks behind him, so the undue consideration of the past retards spiritual progress. Many a soul, living in the past, has ceased to advance in the faith. Dwelling upon what we have been, and what we have done, is not good. Rather, we must ponder what we will be, and what we will do. The things to be forgotten are the things that turn our attention from the goal, and retard our progress toward it. Leaving the first principles is involved in this progress (Heb 6:1), as well as ceasing to know men and Christ after the flesh (2 Cor 5:16). This is putting our hand to the plow and not looking back (Lk 9:62).
“Reaching forward to what lies ahead.” The RSV and NIV read“straining forward” and “straining toward.” The word means to reach out toward, strain forward to, and try hard for (Thayer). The posture of life in Christ is a forward stance. The picture is of a runner leaning forward as he approaches the finish line. We are “looking” forward and stretching forward. There are realities up ahead that are worthy of our present consideration. This is a view of faith and hope–both of which have a primary regard for the future. This attitude is elsewhere expressed as looking for a city (Heb 11:10),desiring a better country (Heb 11:16), and looking unto Jesus while running (Heb 12:1-2). What is ahead draws those living by faith.
PRESSING TOWARD THE GOAL
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (NASB). Pressing “on toward” is a picture of continual progress. There is no point in the life of faith where effort may be suspended, and progress stopped. In spite of this detail, there are myriads of professed believers who have made no noticeable progress in the faith for decades. Many souls, once noted for their fervor, have long since cooled in their efforts to reach the goal. Such are a contradiction of what it means to be in Christ Jesus, and we must overcome them in order to obtain the prize ourselves.
Paul once explained how he kept his body under control, lest he become disqualified in the quest for glory (1 Cor 9:27). Some, who are unlearned in Kingdom matters, have concocted doctrines that affirm men, after coming into Christ, cannot be disqualified, or excluded from the prize. They speak as though the prize was already attained, perfection already reached, and they had “apprehended.” None of those suppositions, however, are true.
THE GOAL. The “goal,” or “mark,” is the hope of our calling–the objective for which Christ laid hold on us. It involves a reign with Jesus, the government of the world to come, and being “ever with the Lord.” It consists of getting safely out of this world, and into the one to come. The “goal” will be reached when we obtain that for which faith has caused us to long.
THE PRIZE. Faith sees God as “a Rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6). The “prize” is the reward God gives. It is to be earnestly sought by every believer. As it is written, “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). Believers are not simply to live for today, or attempt to just make it through the day. They have been called they they might “inherit a blessing”(1 Pet 3:9). In Christ, you are begotten “again . . . to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4). That is to be seen as a prize to be grasped at all cost. All of salvation is calculated to enable you to obtain it.
THE UPWARD CALL. The KJV reads, “the high calling.” The idea is that the goal continually moves forward as we strain toward it, yet it is never out of sight. Faith makes us acutely aware of the present gulf between us and the prize. The “upward,” or “high” calling is a summons to “come up higher,” closer to the prize and further from the world. At no point does the call allow us to settle down in this world–it is upward! There is no place in the life of faith for gathering incentives from the world. We are regularly subjected to a “high calling,” and are not to refuse Him who is speaking from heaven (Heb 12:25).
There is no place for slackening our pace in the race to glory, or removing our eyes from the goal. Everything about salvation is calculated to move us toward the goal. Forgetting the things behind us, straining forward to the things ahead of us, and pressing toward the mark, are all requisite for the believer. Where these characteristics are not found, serious spiritual deficiency exists. Where they are found, genuine and pleasing progress is being made. May you be found among those who are stretching toward the mark set before you!