The Way Forward

Dr. Don Garlington

12 Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. 16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Philippians 3:12-16 NKJV

As we consider the way forward we will focus especially on Philippians 3:12-16. In the opening verses of chapter 3, Paul speaks of his past and then he begins to speak of the future. He begins to speak of that great thing for which Christ has called him, for which Christ has laid hold of him, and expresses in verses 12-16 his determination actually to have that great prize which is extended to him by the resurrected Christ.

Paul’s Joy in Christ

Chapter 3 is a continuation of everything that has gone before in the first couple of chapters of Philippians, and what dominates those first two chapters is Paul’s joy in Christ. If we look back at chapter 1, for example, even though Paul is under Roman house arrest, he can say in verse 19, “Yes, and I shall rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance, as is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be ashamed at all, but that with full courage now as always, Christ shall be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death,” and goes on to make that great statement that for him to live is Christ. Paul has been raptured with the joy of Christ, he has been caught up in everything that Christ has done. In the words of chapter 3, he is one who is come to know, the power of the resurrection of Christ.

Look out for Evil Workers

Chapter 3 in particular, begins on this note, saying: “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me but it is safe for you.” He is not reluctant to write to the Philippians the things that they know very well, but then in particular when he comes to speak of these things, he talks about the circumcision party. He talks about that group of men, Judaizers, who were following him all over the place and insisting that in order for Gentiles to be acceptable to God they first of all had to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses. They had to submit to the food laws and the dietary laws and keep the Sabbath. Paul has some pretty harsh words for them. He says, “Look out for the dogs. Look out for the evil workers. Look out for those who mutilate the flesh.” Surely Paul has gone over the top here, why does he call them dogs? Dogs was the common Jewish name for Gentiles, “the Gentile dogs,” it was hardly a complimentary name. Dogs in the ancient world were more scavengers than pets, and so the Jews would single the Gentiles out and say that they were the dogs.

What Paul is doing is turning the tables, he is engaging in a bit of role reversal. He is not just engaging in an emotional outburst of some kind, but rather he is specifying that these people, who claim to be the true Israel of God, in fact are not the true Israel because they have set themselves in opposition to God’s eschatological purpose, his final purpose in Christ. Far from being those who do the good, as they would have claimed, they were actually evil workers because they are turning people away from the gospel of Christ and constricting the way in which one may enter the kingdom of heaven. They would have called themselves circumcizers, what Paul calls them is mutilators of the flesh.

Robbed of Joy in Christ

Why does he speak in such harsh terms about the Judaizers? It is because, if the Philippians followed this Judaizing message, they would be robbed of their own joy in Christ. In Galatians 6 Paul says, “you were biting and devouring one another.” There is envy, there is jealousy, and all kinds of strife and evil going on in the church simply because people were beginning to follow the lead of those who were trying to impose the law of Moses upon them. Any time you have people keeping a set of rules which Christ Himself does not sanction, you have a beginning of the robbery of one’s joy in Christ.

Boasting in Christ

Instead of boasting in Christ this group would have the Philippians boast in the law and boast in their position in the “right group.” It is in contrast to them that Paul defines the Philippians as being the true circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit, the ones who glory in Christ. These Judaizers were glorying in human flesh. Paul as the Pharisee would have gloried, would have boasted in the Torah, but now he says our boast and our glory is to be found in Christ Himself. Paul hasn’t ceased to boast, but rather his object of boasting has changed. In their own way these terms, “we are the true circumcision who worship God in the Spirit and glory in Christ and put no confidence in the flesh,” indicate that the Philippians, that Paul, that all believers have entered into the new creation. The first creation was made to be very good, but then it was engulfed in sin, it returned to chaos, not physical chaos, but moral chaos. Out of that chaos of the old creation, there had to be born an order, a cosmos. There emerged from it a new creation, a new state of affairs, a new beginning and so it is that the new creation has come. The old things that used to matter, no longer matter.

Works of the Flesh

This is clarified, by the way that Paul defines the flesh in verses 4-6. When we use the word flesh we tend to think of things which are sensual, things that are sexual, but you will find that in the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul, it doesn’t necessarily bear that connotation. To be in the flesh really means to be on the wrong side of the historical divide. There is the era of the flesh, the age of the flesh, which Paul identifies with the law, with sin, with the old creation. On this other side of the divide there is the age of the Spirit, the age of Christ, the age of the new creation. When Paul speaks of his own works of the flesh he is talking about the way he used to be as a Pharisee, who was zealous to do everything prescribed by the law and by Pharisaic tradition. You might say that he was one who played by the rules. He was identified as an Israelite of the highest order. He was a zealot in the Maccabean sense. The whole ideology of zeal has quite a history to it. Two hundred years before the time of Paul there were people who were standing up against the incursion of Gentile powers into Israel. The Syrians tried to impose the Greek way of life upon the Jews, trying to obliterate every vestige of Jewish particularism. The people rose up against them led by the Maccabee brothers, everyone has heard of Judas Maccabeas I think, and Mattathias, their father said, “All who are zealous for the law and for the covenant come after me.” At that point in history there began to grow up this theology of zeal. Zeal for the law, zeal for the traditions.

Paul’s Zeal

Saul of Tarsus, as one who imbibed that whole mentality of zeal, had a brilliant career which he describes in terms that are familiar to us: “If anyone has confidence in the flesh, then I have more.” He specifies that he indeed was circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, but more than that a Hebrew born of Hebrews. In other words he was not a Greek speaking Jew from what is called the Diaspora, the lands outside of Palestine, but rather, according to the Book of Acts, even though he was born in Tarsus he was raised at the feet of Gamaliel the Pharisee in Jerusalem. He says, “As to the law a Pharisee.” As Paul himself says the Pharisees were the strictest sect, at least within main stream Judaism.

“As to zeal,” that really is the key term. “As to zeal, the persecutor of the church.” There was a time when Saul of Tarsus looked upon the infant, the nascent Christian church as being a threat to everything that was precious to him within Judaism because the gospel says that all people are acceptable to God simply on the condition of faith and faith alone. You don’t have to observe the Torah. You don’t have to observe the traditions, you don’t have to exercise the same kind of zeal for these traditions that the forefathers did. But the amazing thing about this passage is that when Paul describes his past, he doesn’t describe himself as being some kind of contrite sinner. He doesn’t speak of shame or guilt or anything of the kind. There are other places where he confesses his guilt, but that is especially from a Christian point of view, as in Romans 7. Here he writes off his whole past, the brilliant career of the zealot persecutor of the church, as being so much refuse, or as the King James translates it, “so much dung”. The word actually means excrement. You may think Paul is going off the deep end, using immoderate language but there is a kind of role reversal going on here because as a Pharisee he was concerned about purity. All the washings, all the rituals through which the Pharisee would go in order to be acceptable at the meal table were concerned with purity. The Pharisees were trying to maintain on a daily basis that level of purity that was required only of the priest in the temple. They were going beyond what was required, and in so doing they passed judgment upon everyone who would not practice their level of purity. Here Paul takes one of the impurest items imaginable and he summarizes his whole life as a Pharisee as being refuse, or dung, or excrement. Quite a reversal, isn’t it? Something has happened in this man’s life.

Paul’s Former Life Inconsequential

He speaks then of what has happened to him by virtue of being in Christ, especially in verses 7-11. He says that in comparison with Christ his former life is inconsequential. The law is no longer the source of his righteousness. It is no longer necessary to be Jewish in order to be the righteousness of God, because in this new creation the only thing that counts is faith working through love, as he says in Galatians. Such righteousness is based upon faith alone. That is only the beginning, this present righteousness that Paul has by faith alone in Christ, opens the door to the possibility of resurrection. In one sense we have been raised. Ephesians makes the point that we have been raised with Christ and made to sit with Him in the heavenly places. But then there is a sense in which we are yet to be raised. Having said that he counts everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ my Lord, Paul goes on to speak of the possibility of the resurrection. Look at his exact wording in verse 11: “if so be, that I may attain the resurrection from the dead,” or it could be translated, “if it is possible that I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” There is an element of contingency, a degree of uncertainty.

That I May Attain the Resurrection

Now some commentators say Paul was just being humble at this point and he is really talking in hypothetical terms for the sake of expressing his humility, but that is really not a satisfying answer. When Paul says that “if so be that I may attain the resurrection of the dead,” the point is that even Paul has to persevere, even Paul has to make it to the end. He says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 9:24 for example, “Do you not know that in a race that all the runners compete but only one receives the prize. So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable.” He says, “I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air, but I pommel my body and subdue it.” Literally in the Greek Paul says that I give my body a black eye. Obviously this is a metaphor, meaning that he brings his body under control, into subjection, “lest, after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified,” or more literally, “lest I should prove to be a reprobate, as one who is rejected.”

The Way Forward

This really is the lead in to the main part of the text: verses 12-16. “If so be that I may attain the resurrection of the dead.” Now such words are not written to shake people’s faith. Such words are not written to undermine our assurance, but still when you come upon language like that you have to take it at face value and you have to take it seriously. Even the great apostle is one who must make it to the end. So when we consider the way forward, we mean the way forward across the finish line, to the very end.

As we come to verses 12-16, notice in the first place the reality that the prize is not yet in Paul’s hand. Verse 12a, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,” and then 13a, “Brethren I do not consider it that I have made it my own.” It is something that is to be obtained. It is something to be striven for. It is a pearl of great price that one obtains by selling everything.

What is the Prize?

What is this prize? Verse 14 calls it the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. That has to be taken in connection with other statements. He says that “I want to know Christ. I want to know the power of His resurrection.” Resurrection is the point of the full knowledge of Christ and the point of perfection. Notice how he correlates resurrection and perfection. The people of God in a very real sense have been perfected, this comes out very clearly in the epistle to the Hebrews. The writer speaks of the way that we have been perfected once for all through the blood of Christ, through the atonement of Christ, yet he says there is a perfection to which we have to be carried along and at which we finally arrive, so that we have been made the image of God, the restored image of God. Did you know that you are perfect this evening if you are a Christian? You say, “I may not feel very perfect.” I understand, I don’t feel very perfect either, but in principle, we have been made perfect. The lost image has been restored and in principle we have become everything that we were meant to be because Christ has done that for His people.

Yet Paul says, “I am not already perfect.” What we find here in our theological jargon is the familiar “already and not yet.” Already a great thing has been done. Already Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Already Paul knows, and you and I know, the power of His resurrection. The way Paul knows the power of the resurrection of Christ is because he used to be a certain kind of person but now he is no longer. We have all heard testimonies of people who have been drawn out of the gutter. Christians who say, “Well there are many things that I can’t answer, a lot of things in the Bible for which I have no answer.” The critics may raise one problem or another and we may have to say that right now I just don’t know the answer to that, but one thing I do know, I know what I was and I know what now I have become in Christ. You see that is the truest Christian evidentialism, the truest Christian apologetic.

Paul Previously Lived for Himself

Now as we have said earlier, Paul doesn’t speak of himself who is one who is drawn out of the gutter but he does say that “I was so satisfied with myself. So pleased with my attainments, so proud.” You remember in Galatians he says that “I outstripped many of my contemporaries, so zealous was I for the traditions of the fathers.” At one point in time Paul came to realize that all that, for all of its glitter, for all of its show, for all of its impressiveness, for all its brilliance, was simply a piece of idolatry. What he was effectively doing was living for himself. As he was hunting down Christians, having them put to death, as he was so punctilious about the observance of the law, the Sabbath laws, thinking how good he was because he was such an example to his fellow countrymen, he came to realize that it was idolatry. The idolatry of self, the idolatry of nation, the idolatry of self satisfaction. If we have been saved, we have been saved from self satisfaction, saved from being pleased with ourselves. We have come to understand that in the light of a holiness which is absolute, our supposed righteousness is after all simply filthy rags. Paul has come to know the power of the resurrection of Christ and so have you and so have I, because we have been made something now that we were not before.

A Change in Motivation

Why does Paul strive forward now to attain the prize? In verse 12b he says “But I press on to make it my own,” that is this prize, this perfection, this resurrection, this higher calling. I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me His own. There is a change in his motivation for zeal. At one time Paul was striving to attain to the resurrection of the dead just like the Jewish martyrs once did. In a document such as 1 Macabbees, chapter 6 and 7 and other places in Jewish literature, you read some rather gruesome stories. You read, for example, of a mother and her seven sons who were horribly put to death. The reason why they were willing to undergo such horrible treatment was because they refused to eat pork. Refused to eat pork! We might say, “Well, we can understand martyrdom, but surely it ought to be for a more important purpose than that. I can see someone refusing to steal or to lie or to commit adultery and that kind of thing, and being horribly tortured for the sake of one’s faith, but to refuse to eat pork! What’s wrong with just taking a little bite of a ham sandwich and having it over with?” These dietary laws were of the essence of the covenant that God had given to Israel, so that in observing those laws they believed that they were conforming the totality of their lives to the will of the legislator, of the Father, of the Lawgiver. They received the hope in those documents that one day they are going to be raised from the dead.

Paul used to have such a motivation, to be one of the vindicated of Israel, but not anymore. The reason he strives, the reason he runs, the reason why he disciplines his body is because Christ has made him His own. He speaks of the way that Christ has laid hold of him, and the way that Christ has laid hold of him is a pattern for the way that He has laid hold of all of us. You remember in 1 Timothy years later, Paul could reflect upon the way that he was such a persecutor of the church and yet he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance. He was shown mercy for the purpose of being a model and an example for all who are to be saved. Not all were persecutors, not all were zealots for the law, not all were the kind of fanatic that Paul was in his zeal and yet they all shared something in common. They were all striving to attain something in order to satisfy themselves, to gratify self.

Paul can write in 2 Corinthians 5 that we used to live for ourselves, but now Christ has died for us and we no longer live for self. Christ has laid hold of Paul, this bitter man, this violent man, this man who was doing all that he could to destroy the church of Christ, who if he could have gotten his hands on Jesus Himself, would have done so. But the Christ of mercy, the Christ of forgiveness, the Christ of infinite grace did not even allow a bitter persecuting man like that to stand in the way of His purpose of grace. Isn’t this marvellous? Christ’s purpose of grace is so far reaching, so profound, so dominating that even the vilest of sinners cannot stand in the way, because when the time comes, he reaches out and he arrests and he lays hold. So Paul says, “I want to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me.” See his motivation, see his drive?

How to Obtain the Prize

Now he tells us that his method for obtaining the prize is straining forward. Actually he says two things. There is a negative and a positive.

The Negative

The negative thing is that he forgets the past. Do you find it easy to forget the past? Sometimes I find it very difficult to forget the past. Sometimes I find that the past gets in the way, that I can’t put it to rest, I just can’t let it be. I find myself mulling over the past, always bringing it up, dwelling upon aspects of it. Do you have that experience? The point here in the application is that nothing gets in the way of the future like the past. Of course Paul is speaking primarily of his non-Christian past, but there is such a thing as a Christian past as well. There is such a thing as ambition, such a thing as desire to do, to obtain, to be prominent among the brethren. You find the beginning of ministerial jealousy, for example, in that passage in Mark 10, where the sons of Thunder come forward to Jesus and say, “We want you to do whatever we ask of you.” Not a very big request, was it? Just whatever we want, we want you to do that for us. “What do you want,” he says, and they say “Well, we want to sit one at your right hand and one on your left. We want to call the shots. We want to be accountable and answerable only to you. We want to rule, we want to dominate. We want to be those who wield power. The power brokers in the church.” You see, that attitude can be a part of one’s Christian past.

To us Paul is a very famous character, history has made him such, but in his day he was far more infamous than he was famous. He was this little Jew and the Corinthians can say that “when he is with us his bodily presence is weak.” They despised his very person when they looked upon him. When Paul left that brilliant career as a Pharisee, in a sense he got more than he was bargaining for, because the door was opened to criticism. The door was open to obscurity. A life of self sacrifice, with very little reward to be found in this life. How such things might have drawn him down, how they might have discouraged him. How he might have taken his sight off the prize. But no, he says, “I forget the past,” and you and I must forget the past.

The Positive

You and I must strain forward. That is the positive aspect, straining forward, a very familiar athletic metaphor that you find in Paul in several places. Here is an illustration of that. If you have seen the film “Chariots of Fire”, you will know what I am talking about. We had a Seminary chapel speaker last year who, as a small lad in prison camp in China, knew Eric Liddel. Eric Liddel had a group of boys that he gathered around him. He would teach them the Bible and he would run with them as well. He could still run. Well in “Chariots of Fire”, (our speaker confirmed this as being as true story) Eric Liddel was running in a race one day and he got knocked down, he was tripped up. He could have stayed on the ground, but he didn’t. He got up and he ran like a wild animal and won the race. This is the kind of thing Paul is talking about. The past can knock us to the ground. The past can debilitate us. It can make us forget that there is a glorious future for the people of God. We must strain forward for the prize.

How Is It With You?

How is it with you? How is it with me? We find ourselves running the race and do we find ourselves like the readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews, demonstrating the very body language of discouragement? Their shoulders drooping and their knees that were bent out, you can’t run a race bowed over like that. So how is it with us? Those of us who are perfect, do we long to be perfect? Those of us who have been made righteous in Christ, do we long to be finally and fully righteous in Christ? Paul says that if such is not our condition then God is going to let us know about that. He says, “Let those of us who are mature,” and again the word is perfect, “be thus minded, and if in anything you are otherwise minded God will reveal that to you also.”

How is God going to reveal it? He is going to reveal it by the way that truth intersects with providence. It is through the circumstances which are brought into our lives that we are forced to reflect upon truths which are very basic. If we find ourselves knocked down, if we find ourselves exhibiting the body language of discouragement, if we find ourselves dwelling on the past, if we find ourselves losing a grip on the knowledge of Christ and Paul implies in verse 16 that that can happen, he says, “Only let us be true to what we have attained.” We can attain to the knowledge of Christ, and yet it slips away from us because of the cares of the world, because of problems, because of whatever it may be. But if we find ourselves in that condition, we are going to be shaken up. God will reveal that to you also.

What We Are Called To

We have no choice but to run the race. We have no choice but to forget the past. We have no choice but to strain forward and like Eric Liddel, when we are knocked down on the ground, we get up and we take off. That is what we have been called to, nothing less. Not a life of ease, not a life of security. Security in this world is very thin indeed, there is not much of it. You may think there is, but that is an illusion, because the props can be knocked out from under us at any time. We have not been called to wordly security, but rather we have been called to run the race that is set before us. As the writer of Hebrew says, “Looking unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.” We look to Christ who “for the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross, He despised the shame.” That is a remarkable statement. To despise the shame means He counted the shame as being next to nothing in the light of the great thing that was to be accomplished. The cross was the place where the Romans were calculating shame. The purpose of it was to dehumanize an individual as much as possible. In our day we hear about death with dignity all the time. The cross was not a death with dignity. It was death of great shame, a death that exposed a human being in all of his nakedness to the world. Yet the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus despised that. He counted it as being next to nothing because of the great thing that He would procure by virtue of going to the cross and then coming out the other end of the tunnel of death and resurrection.

We celebrate the resurrection of Christ particularly at Easter but we cannot limit it to a season so let’s reckon with what that resurrection means today in our own lives. Do we know the power of it? The power of being changed. The power of being given the ability to run the race that is set before us. God grant that we would. Then with this great apostle, the one who considered his past life simply to be refuse, may we as well consider that the things that are past, are past, and lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of us. May God help us.               

This is a sermon preached to Jarvis Street Baptist Church by Dr. Don Garlington.