Most people read biographies to satisfy their curiosity about great people, hoping they will discover the “secret” that made them great. In Philippians 3, Paul is giving us his spiritual biography: his past (vv. 1–11), his present (vv. 12–16), and his future (vv. 17–21). We have already met Paul “the accountant” who discovered new values when he met Jesus Christ (Learning How to Count). In this section, we meet Paul “the athlete” with his spiritual vigor, pressing toward the finish line in the Christian race. In each of these experiences, Paul is exercising the spiritual mind; he is looking at things on earth from God’s point of view. As a result, he is not upset by things behind him, around him, or before him—things do not rob him of his joy!
The Greek verb “straining toward” in 3:13 literally means “stretching as in a race.” Theologians are not agreed as to the exact sport Paul is describing, whether the footrace or the chariot race. Either one will do, but my own preference is the chariot race. The Greek chariot, used in the Olympic Games and other events, was really a small platform with a wheel on each side. The driver had very little to hold on to as he raced around the course. He had to lean forward and strain every nerve and muscle to maintain balance and control the horses.
As children of God, we have the responsibility of “running the race” and achieving the goals God has set for us: “Work out your salvation … for it is God who works in you” (The Ins and Outs of Christian Living, Phil. 2:12–13). Each believer is on the track, each has a special lane in which to run, and each has a goal to achieve. If we reach the goal the way God has planned, then we receive a reward. If we fail, we lose the reward, but we do not lose our citizenship in heaven. (Read 1 Cor. 3:11–15 for the same idea, only using architecture as the symbol.)
All of us want to be “winning Christians” and fulfill the purposes for which we have been saved. In this passage, there are five essentials for winning the race and one day receiving the reward that is promised.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.
“Not that I have already obtained!” This is the statement of a great Christian who never permitted himself to be satisfied with his spiritual attainments. Obviously, Paul was satisfied with Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:10), but he was not satisfied with his Christian life. A sanctified dissatisfaction is the first essential to progress in the Christian race.
Harry came out of the manager’s office with a look on his face dismal enough to wilt the roses on the secretary’s desk.
“You didn’t get fired, did you?” she asked.
“No, it’s not that bad. But he sure did lay into me about my sales record. I can’t figure it out; for the past month, I’ve been bringing in plenty of orders. I thought he’d compliment me, but instead he told me to get with it.”
Later in the day, the secretary talked to her boss about Harry. The boss chuckled. “Harry is one of our best salesmen and I’d hate to lose him. But he has a tendency to rest on his laurels and be satisfied with his performance. If I didn’t get him mad at me once a month, he’d never produce!”
Many Christians are self-satisfied because they compare their “running” with that of other Christians, usually those who are not making much progress. Had Paul compared himself with others, he would have been tempted to be proud and perhaps to let up a bit. After all, there were not too many believers in Paul’s day who had experienced all that he had! But Paul did not compare himself with others; he compared himself with himself and with Jesus Christ! The dual use of the word “perfect” in 3:12 and 3:15 explains Paul’s thinking. He has not arrived yet at perfection (3:12), but he is “perfect” [mature] (3:15), and one mark of this maturity is the knowledge that he is not perfect! The mature Christian honestly evaluates himself and strives to do better.
Often, in the Bible, we are warned against a false estimate of our spiritual condition. The church at Sardis had “a name of being alive, but was dead” (Rev. 3:1). They had reputation without reality. The church at Laodicea boasted that it was rich, when in God’s sight it was “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). In contrast to the Laodicean church, the believers at Smyrna thought they were poor when they were really rich! (Rev. 2:9) Samson thought he still had his old power, but in reality it had departed from him (Jud. 16:20).
Self-evaluation can be a dangerous thing because we can err in two directions: (1) making ourselves better than we really are, or (2) making ourselves worse than we really are. Paul had no illusions about himself; he still had to keep “pressing forward” in order to “lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold” of him. A divine dissatisfaction is essential for spiritual progress.
But one thing I do:
“One thing” is a phrase that is important to the Christian life. “One thing you lack,” said Jesus to the self-righteous rich young ruler (Mk. 10:21). “One thing is needed,” He explained to busy Martha when she criticized her sister (Lk. 10:42). “One thing I know!” exclaimed the man who had received his sight by the power of Christ (Jn. 9:25). “One thing I ask from the Lord” testified the psalmist (Ps. 27:4). Too many Christians are involved in too “many things,” when the secret of progress is to concentrate on “one thing.” It was this decision that was a turning point in D.L. Moody’s life. Before the tragedy of the Chicago fire in 1871, Moody was involved in Sunday School promotion, Y.M.C.A. work, evangelistic meetings, and many other activities; but after the fire, he determined to devote himself exclusively to evangelism. “This one thing I do!” became a reality to him. As a result, millions of people heard the Gospel.
The believer must devote himself to “running the Christian race.” No athlete succeeds by doing everything; he succeeds by specializing. There are those few athletes who seem proficient in many sports, but they are the exception. The winners are those who concentrate, who keep their eyes on the goal, and let nothing distract them. They are devoted entirely to their calling. Like Nehemiah the wall-building governor, they reply to the distracting invitations, “I am doing a great work and cannot come down!” (Neh. 6:3) “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:8). Concentration is the secret of power. If a river is allowed to overflow its banks, the area around it becomes a swamp. But if that river is dammed and controlled, it becomes a source of power. It is wholly a matter of values and priorities, living for that which matters most.
In Part 2, we will look at three more essentials for winning the race and receiving the reward that is promised.