All of us want to be “winning Christians” and fulfill the purposes for which we have been saved. In this passage, we find there are five essentials for winning the race and one day receiving the reward that is promised. In Part 1, we saw the first two essentials. Now, we will look at the last three.
Forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead.
The unsaved person is controlled by the past, but the Christian running the race looks toward the future. Imagine what would happen on the race course if the charioteers (or runners) started looking behind them! It is bad enough for a plowman to look back (Lk. 9:62), but for a charioteer to do so means a possible collision and serious injury.
We are accustomed to saying “past, present, future,” but we should view time as flowing from the future into the present and then into the past. The believer should be future-oriented, “forgetting what lies behind.” Keep in mind that in Bible terminology, “to forget” does not mean “to fail to remember.” Apart from senility, hypnosis, or a brain malfunction, no mature person can forget what has happened in the past. We may wish that we could erase certain bad memories, but we cannot. “To forget” in the Bible means “to no longer be influenced or affected by.” When God promises, “Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17), He is not suggesting He will conveniently have a bad memory! This is impossible with God. What God is saying is, “I will no longer hold their sins against them. Their sins can no longer affect their standing with Me or influence My attitude toward them.”
“Forgetting what lies behind” does not suggest an impossible feat of mental and psychological gymnastics by which we try to erase the sins and mistakes of the past (Consequences). It simply means we break the power of the past by living for the future. We cannot change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past. There were things in Paul’s past that could have been weights to hold him back (1 Tim. 1:12–17), but they became inspirations to speed him ahead. The events did not change, but his understanding of them changed.
A good example of this principle is Joseph (Gen. 45:1–15). When he met his brothers the second time and revealed himself to them, he held no grudge against them. They had mistreated him, but he saw the past from God’s point of view. As a result, he was unable to hold anything against his brothers. Joseph knew God had a plan for his life—a race for him to run—and in fulfilling that plan and looking ahead, he broke the power of the past.
Too many Christians are shackled by regrets of the past. They are trying to run the race by looking backward! No wonder they stumble and fall and get in the way of other Christians! Some Christian runners are being distracted by the successes of the past, not the failures; and this is just as bad. “The things which are behind” must be set aside and “the things which are before” must take their place.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
“I press!” carries the idea of intense endeavor. The Greeks used it to describe a hunter eagerly pursuing his prey. A man does not become a winning athlete by listening to lectures, watching movies, reading books, or cheering at the games. He becomes a winning athlete by getting into the game and determining to win! The same zeal Paul employed when he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:6), he displayed in serving Christ. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians put as much determination into their spiritual life as they do their golfing, fishing, or watching TV?
There are two extremes to avoid here: (1) “I must do it all” and (2) “God must do it all!” The first describes the activist, the second the quietist, and both are heading for failure. “Let go and let God!” is a clever slogan, but it does not fully describe the process of Christian living. What quarterback would say to his team, “OK, men, just let go and let the coach do it all!” On the other hand, no quarterback would say, “Listen to me and forget what the coach says!” Both extremes are wrong.
The Christian runner with the spiritual mind realizes God must work in him if he is going to win the race (Phil. 2:12–13). “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). God works in us, so He might work through us. As we apply ourselves to the things of the spiritual life, God is able to mature and strengthen us for the race. “Train yourself to be godly!” (1 Tim. 4:7–8) Some Christians are so busy “dying to self” that they never come back to life again to run the race! Others are so sure they can make it on their own that they never stop to read the Word, pray, or ask for the power of the Lord.
Toward what goal is the runner pressing with such spiritual determination? “The prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). When he reaches the goal he will receive the reward! Again, Paul is not suggesting we attain heaven by our own efforts. He is simply saying just as the athlete is rewarded for his performance, so the faithful believer will be crowned when Jesus Christ returns. (See 1 Cor. 9:24–27 for a parallel.) The important thing is that we reach the goal He has established for us. No matter how successful we may be in the eyes of men, we cannot be rewarded unless we “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us]” (Phil. 3:12).
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
It is not enough to run hard and win the race; the runner must also obey the rules. In the Greek games, the judges were very strict about this. Any infringement of the rules disqualified the athlete. He did not lose his citizenship (though he disgraced it), but he did lose his privilege to participate and win a prize. In these verses, Paul emphasizes the importance of the Christian remembering the “spiritual rules” laid down in the Word. No doubt the greatest need among God’s people is to live up to what they already have in Christ. Most live far below their exalted position in Christ. Paul’s plea to the Philippians was that they “live up to what they had already attained,” namely a righteous position in Christ.
One of the greatest athletes ever to come out of the United States was Jim Thorpe. At the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm, he won the pentathlon and the decathlon, and was undoubtedly the hero of the games. But the next year officials found that Thorpe had played semiprofessional baseball and therefore had forfeited his amateur standing. This meant he had to return his gold medals and his trophy, and his Olympic achievements were erased from the records. It was a high price to pay for breaking the rules. (Thorpe’s medals were reinstated in 1985 by the Olympic Committee.)
This is what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27. Any man who enters an athletic contest practices rigid self-control in training. If the athlete breaks training, he is disqualified; if he breaks the rules of the game, he is disqualified. “No athlete in the games is crowned, unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). The issue is not what he thinks or what the spectators think, but what the judges say. One day, each Christian will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10–12). The Greek word for “judgment seat” is bema, the very same word used to describe the place where the Olympic judges gave out the prizes! If we have disciplined ourselves to obey the rules, we will receive a prize.
Bible history is filled with people who began the race with great success, but failed at the end because they disregarded God’s rules. They did not lose their salvation, but they did lose their rewards (1 Cor. 3:15). It happened to Lot (Gen. 19), Samson (Jud. 16), Saul (1 Sam. 28; 31), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).
And it can happen to us! It is an exciting experience to run the race daily, “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:1–2). It will be even more exciting when we experience that “upward calling” and Jesus returns to take us to heaven! Then, we will stand before the bema to receive our rewards! It is this future prospect that motivated Paul, and it can also motivate us.