Pressing On

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Philippians 3:5-14

There’s an old saying: If you aim at nothing, that exactly what you will hit. So what are you aiming at with your life? Philippians 3 offers us a pretty good target.

One of the surest signs of growing up is recognizing that your sense of values has changed. It’s really amazing how time alters our judgment about what is and isn’t important in life. Things we once prized now seem downright silly. Ambitions that we pursued with all our strength no longer stir even a flicker of interest. “How in the world could I ever have thought that was so important?” we ask ourselves. When we are young, our heads tend to be filled with notions of athletic glory, romantic excitement, pride of possession from owning the newest gadget or wearing the best clothes. But as we mature, we tend to outgrow those youthful fantasies and begin to recognize and treasure and seek after things that truly matter. (Or at least we should; I don’t think there is anything more pathetic than an adult who still has the values of a teenager.)

The apostle Paul went through a somewhat similar experience of “growing up” in spiritual terms. There came a time in his life when his whole value system was turned upside down. Everything he had formerly been pursuing now seemed worthless to him. All the things that gave him a sense of importance and self-worth became, as he put it, “garbage.” It’s not that Paul was a terrible or a shallow person who suddenly “saw the light” and got religion. He wasn’t an empty-headed modern pleasure-seeker who suddenly realized how meaningless his self-centered life was. On the contrary! Paul was as outwardly moral and uprightly religious as anyone ever has been. His whole life had been dedicated to serving God. But what he came to see as worthless was the very religion that had caused him to become so proud and self-righteous.

A Righteousness Not My Own

In the third chapter to the Philippians Paul lists all the reasons he once had for being proud of himself and confident in his own goodness. He had impeccable spiritual credentials, both with respect to background and personal performance. Paul’s wasn’t the usual testimony that we have come to expect from a famous convert. There’s no story here of a drastic change out of a life of shame and degradation, no drug addiction, no drunkenness, no criminal past, no godless hell-raiser suddenly stopped in his tracks and miraculously turned to Christ. Paul’s conversion story wasn’t like that at all. His life before he met Christ was zealously religious and scrupulously virtuous. Paul wasn’t an example of man at his worst, but of man at his best!

The pre-Christian Paul was both righteous and unashamed, outwardly (as far as others could see), and even inwardly (as far as he knew himself). Listening to him describe himself, you get the impression of a privileged man who’s been very successful in his chosen field, and quite happy with himself as a result. Paul lists a long series of things in Philippians 3 that explain this proud self-satisfaction. Four of them come from his family background: he was, he says, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). The blood of Abraham flowed pure in Paul’s veins. He had been born and raised orthodox; he had the very best spiritual pedigree.

And then he mentions three more elements that contributed to his sense of achievement, all matters of his own personal choice and conviction: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecuter of the church; as to righteousness, under the law, blameless” (vv. 5b-6). Paul didn’t merely rest on the privileges that were his by birth. He cultivated his natural advantages by an active commitment to the religious life. Paul kept all the rules. He went to all the right schools, he joined the right party, he was noticed by the right people. He became a Pharisee, the most prestigious Jewish sect because it was the strictest??”sort of the religious equivalent of the U. S. Marines Corps. Then Paul became a zealous persecutor of the new sect of the Christians. Even among the Pharisees his reputation for orthodoxy and piety was great. Finally, Paul sums it up this way: “As far as keeping the Law was concerned, I kept it perfectly”??”or so it seemed to him at the time. Martin Luther once remarked that if anyone could ever have been saved by being a good monk, he was that monk. Paul’s practice of religion was just like that. If anyone could have been saved by being religious, he was that man.

And then there came a moment when Paul’s eyes were opened ??” literally ??” by seeing Jesus Christ. And so he came to re-evaluate his whole life as a result of that encounter. It was truly a moment of reckoning. Paul added up all his human pluses: his birth and background and upbringing, his zeal and morality and righteousness. What he found was that all those things in God’s eyes totaled zero. “Whatever gain I had,” he writes, “I count it as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). Are all our good deeds really worthless? Is our religion truly useless? As far as saving us is concerned, the answer is yes! God doesn’t grant salvation on the basis of giving morality or religion a good try. God is perfect goodness. Only the perfectly good can ever hope to see him. So what are less-than-perfect people to do?

Well, here is what Paul discovered when he traded religion for a relationship with Jesus Christ.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Philippians 3:8-9

Paul surrendered his own religion-produced, self-described righteousness and exchanged it for Christ’s perfect righteousness, which God applies to those who put their trust in and turn their lives over to Jesus Christ. Paul made that great exchange, and he never once regretted it.

When Paul became a Christian, he lost everything he had before. He lost his old friends among the Pharisees. He lost his job working for the Jewish authorities. He probably lost his family, and he certainly lost all the things he had inherited from them. But he wasn’t the loser in the deal, because in place of all those things, Paul gained Christ. Compared to him, what he formerly possessed seemed like rubbish. Paul had moved to a new address. He no longer lived in his old life; from now on he was to be found living “in Christ.” Christ’s friendship and joy and blessing became Paul’s permanent possessions, and Christ’s perfect righteousness replaced Paul’s poor, tattered rags of self-righteousness.

To Know Him

To go along with his new righteousness, the apostle also gained a new set of values, and a new ambition as well. All of Paul’s aspirations now centered on knowing Christ better. He wasn’t content merely with knowing doctrine, with knowing ideas about God. He wanted to know Christ himself. “That I may gain Christ, and be found in him . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings . . .” ??” this is Paul’s ambition (vv. 8-10). Paul wants nothing less than union with Christ, not only in his life and resurrection but in his suffering and death as well.

This kind of union with Christ is what makes us “grow up” spiritually. We learn to see all the junk that used to impress us??”gossip and glamor, the power of money, the appeal of sex, pride in race, or family, or nation, or even religion??”all of that we see as nothing but rubbish in comparison with the beauty and the inexpressible joy of knowing God in the person of Jesus Christ.

Press on Toward the Goal

Meanwhile, we keep our eyes on that prize. The Christian life is a battle. The old values keep reinserting themselves into our imagination. They keep reasserting their appeal, and if we lose our concentration, lose our focus, they will draw us back into pursuing them instead of pursuing the knowledge of Christ. Like one of those marvelous Kenyan marathon runners, we have to press on toward the goal if we hope to win the prize of our lives. For all that he had learned of Christ and all that he had accomplished for him since his conversion, the apostle Paul did not believe he had reached the point where he could relax and start “coasting.” He wants to know and share in the resurrection life of Jesus, and so, Paul writes,

I press on to make it my own . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

vv. 12-14

Despite how far he had come on his pilgrimage of faith, Paul did not feel that he had “arrived” spiritually. Despite all he had accomplished in his apostolic ministry, Paul was perfectly willing to forget his past achievements in his desire to press on toward life’s greatest goal and prize. The prize is simply to reach the goal, and the goal is simply to know Christ Jesus.

I heard someone say the other day that a good way to gauge your future prospects is to ask whether you have more dreams than memories. Friends and followers of Jesus Christ always have more dreams than memories.