Philippians 3:7-14 Fully Devoted Followers of Jesus
I was never any good at sports at school either. The only race I ever won was
in the last year of Primary School. It was the 800 yards walking race. I was a
bit of a slow learner and not very ambitious. Should
a Christian be ambitious? Ambition has been defined as the 'desire to succeed'.
For some, their whole world is preoccupied with succeeding in life and fulfilling
their ambitions. Others think that when you become a Christian you have to give
up all ambitions and simply 'let God and let go' taking whatever comes as 'God's
will'. They see all ambition as sin, much like Shakespeare's Henry VIII does in
his appeal to Thomas Cromwell: 'I charge thee, fling away ambition: By that
sin fell the angels...'
There is no doubt, Paul was fiercely ambitious. Before he was a Christian Paul
had been fiercely ambitious in his desire to persecute the church. After his conversion
he did not lose his ambitious nature, but its direction changed. If anything,
he was even more ambitious! He describes himself in this passage as being like
an athlete desperate to win a race. But
what was his ambition? And is it God-honouring to be so ambitious? In his commentary
John Stott writes: 'Certainly no one can know himself until he has honestly
asked himself about his motives. What is the driving force of his life? What ambition
dominates and directs him? Ultimately there are only two controlling ambitions,
to which all others may be reduced. One is our own glory, and the other, God's.'
We saw in the previous verses a fortnight ago that Paul's confidence came from
knowing Christ and having his righteousness (3:8 & 10). Mid-sentence he moves
from the ground of his confidence to the focus of his
Paul uses the picture of an athlete to describe the Christian life. Now its important
to realise he is not describing how we are saved. This is not a picture
of winning salvation by works or self effort. For an athlete to participate in
the Greek games, he had to already be Greek citizens. They did not run the race
to win their citizenship. Paul reminds us in verse 20, that if we have received
Jesus into our lives we are already citizens of heaven. We become children of
God through believing in Jesus.Its because we are citizens
that we have the exciting challenge of "running the race". If we believe
in Jesus we are already on a track, we each have a special lane in which to run,
and we each have a goal to achieve. Some of the loudest applause in the London
Marathon goes not to the professionals, but to the physically disabled, and the
elderly, and those clearly out of condition, who nevertheless give it all they
have. Running in their own time, in the way they are able. What Paul has in mind
is more like a parachute competition. The goal is to land as near a designated
spot as possible. Our goal is to get closer and closer to Jesus. To become like
Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. How do we get there? How do we do
it? Paul has a number of training tips or coaching advice.
1. A Sanctified Dissatisfaction (God-centred ambition) 3:12
"Not that I have already obtained all this,
or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which
Christ Jesus took hold of me." Paul never permitted himself to be satisfied
with his spiritual attainment. A sanctified dissatisfaction is the first essential
to progress in the Christian race. Are you satisfied with your progress ? We only
become complacent and self-satisfied when we compare ourselves with other runners.
It would have been easy for Paul to do that, and become quite proud or arrogant.
But Paul compared himself with Jesus Christ. He had not yet arrived at perfection
verse 12, but he had become mature verse 15. There's a difference.
One mark of spiritual maturity is the knowledge that
we are not perfect. Maturity involves honestly evaluating ourselves and striving
to do better. Paul had no illusions about himself, he still had to keep, "pressing
on to take hold of that which Christ Jesus took hold of me." Story of
Olmeus Charles (Heroic Failure).... He kept going and didn't mind coming last.
What mattered was that he finished. A divine dissatisfaction
is essential for spiritual progress. "Keep Going."
2. A Single Minded Devotion (focus on what matters)
"Brothers I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one
thing I do..." But one thing I do. One thing. One.
"One thing you lack" Jesus said to the rich young man in Mark 10. "Only
one thing is needed" Jesus had to say to over worked and hyper critical Martha
in Luke 10. "One thing I know" cried the man who had received his sight
by the power of Christ, in John 9. Often we are involved in too "many things".
No athlete succeeds by doing everything. He succeeds in specializing. Pentathlons
like Dailey Thompson are a rare breed. He is a good all rounder. But someone like
Chris Akabusy could beat him on the track because Chris has specialized at running.
The secret to progress is to concentrate on "one thing." Paul is single-minded
about his ambition. "One thing I do". This does not mean he neglected every other
area of his life. Rather it means that all else was subordinated to his overriding
ambition. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits wrote: "Human persons
are created to praise, reverence and serve God... The other things on the face
of the earth are created for us, to help us in attaining the purpose for which
we are created. Therefore, we are to make use of them insofar as they help us
to attain our purpose, and we should rid ourselves of them insofar as they hinder
us from attaining it."
Its not wrong to have ambitions for our marriage, for our family life, our career,
even for our church. It is entirely appropriate that we should. But all ambitions
must be subordinated to our ambition to know Christ and bring him glory. He is
our first priority in life and nothing in our life should conflict with that ambition.
Let me give you an example. Chuck Colson was a self-made man. As a student, he
turned down a scholarship to Harvard in an arrogant manner. Later he joined the
Marines, set up his own law firm and then entered politics. By the age
of forty he had become one of President Nixon's closest confidants. Later he described
himself as 'a young ambitious political king maker...like Nixon of...lower middle-class
origins, men who'd known hard work all our lives, prideful men seeking that most
elusive goal of allacceptance and the respect of those who had spurned us
in earlier years'. Branded by a Wall Street Journal headline as 'Nixon's
hatchet-man' who handled the President's dirty work, he became a Christian,
partly as a result of reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. He pleaded
guilty to his part in the Watergate cover-up and was sentenced to three years'
imprisonment. When he left the court after sentence he said, 'What happened in
court today...was the court's will and the Lord's willI have committed my
life to Jesus Christ and I can work for Him in prison as well as out.' He did
precisely that. After release he set up Prison Christian Fellowship and has been
directly or indirectly responsible for leading thousands of prisoners to Christ.
He once said on the radio, 'I was ambitious, and I am ambitious today, but I hope
it is not for Chuck Colson (though I struggle quite a lot as a matter of fact).
But I am ambitious for Christ.'
Colson succeeded not just because he was ambitious but because he was single minded
in his focus. We need a sanctified dissatisfaction and a single minded devotion.
3. A Clear Goal (don't look back) 3:13b
"I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one
thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead."
Paul is describing the athlete stretching out, straining every muscle as he goes
flat out for the finish. He brings to mind the striking image of Eric Liddell,
the Olympic runner whose story was retold in the film Chariots of Fire, chest
out, head held high, legs and arms pumping furiously as he tore down the back
straight to the finish to win the gold medal. it is with the same determination
that Paul pursues his ambition to know Christ. Paul says "Don't look back".
That's because one of the rules of running is that you don't look back. When
you're in the middle of a race you don't look over your shoulder, because when
you do, it can throw off your confidence if you see somebody gaining on you. It
can throw off your step so that you slow down. You could lose your balance. You
could fall. There's no reason to look back. And there's no reason to go back over
the ground that you've already covered. As a runner, you're focused on what is
ahead, and you forget about the ground that you've covered.
Yet, in our spiritual race, what often happens is we get hung up from moving ahead
because we violate this rule of the race, and we look back and we live in the
past. Some of us look back, and we see lost time, and we see imbalance in our
lives, how we lived this past year, how we've lived past years. And there's regret.
There may even be a sense of mourning.
Probably one of the deepest places where the past gets its tentacles wrapped around
us, though, is in the whole area of forgiveness. The refusal to forgive whether
ourselves or someone else settles down into a deep seated resentment. Literally,
that word resentment means to feel something all over again--to keep reliving
it in your mind's eye and even relationally. And when there's that kind of pain
and resentment, it settles into our souls and it calcifies them and clogs our
judgment. When we allow that kind of resentment and unforgiveness to settle into
our lives, or any kind, it holds us back from knowing Jesus better. In Philip
Yancey's book "What's so amazing about grace?" he writes about forgiveness. He
says, "Not to forgive imprisons me in the past and it locks out all of the potential
for change." Forgiveness alone can help the cycle of blame and pain. "Forgetting
what is behind."
When Paul writes about "forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is
ahead," forgetting what is behind can mean forgiving those behind. Take your eyes
off Jesus and you will focus on other people and what they have or have not done
for you. Focus on Jesus and his love and everything is put in its right perspective.
Lee Strobel once said, "If you can't sing 'Amazing Grace' with tears in your eyes--or
at least in your heart--then you really don't understand what it means."
When Paul writes about forgetting what is behind, his memory bank must have got
flooded with images from his own past. In a previous letter, Paul writes about
himself being a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, because Paul was
the one who was charged by the religious leaders of that day to go out and to
hunt down Christians and to drag them off for persecution. So when Paul writes
down, "Forgetting what is behind," I imagine Paul is thinking thoughts like, "Poor
Stephen. I mean, there Stephen was. I remember Stephen kneeling there in the valley
and all of the people were picking up fist-sized rocks, yelling at him and throwing
the rocks at him to stone him. I remember the blood; I remember the pain. And
I gave my approval for the first Christian death." Perhaps Paul had sleepless
nights about the families he destroyed. "the fathers--dragging them off as the
wife is pleading and the children are crying. Separating mothers from their families.
The swear words he used to use about Jesus."
Paul had much to leave behind. One of the places where people often get hung up
in their spiritual journey, whether as a seeker or as a Christ-follower, is not
being able to forget and forgive their own past. Paul's past was Paul's past because
of his relationship with Jesus and because he knew Jesus. When you enter into
a relationship with Jesus as your leader and as your forgiver, your past becomes
past in God's eyes. And at the point where you accept Jesus as your forgiver,
as the one who paid the price for your sins on the cross, that is the point where
God no longer holds your sins against you, and where you no longer should hold
your sins against you as well. Because you're freed from that. To
"forget" in the Bible means "no longer to be influenced by". In Hebrews
10:17 the Lord promises "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more."
That doesn't mean God has a bad memory! It means He forgives our past as if its
forgotten. That is why we shouldn't keep looking back. When Paul urges us to forget
the past, he means that we are to break the power of the past by living for the
future. We cannot change the past, but Jesus has changed the consequences of our
past. "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead" How
are we keep going in the Christian race? We need a sanctified dissatisfaction,
a single minded devotion and a clear goal.
4. A Solid Determination (wins the prize) 3:14
"I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God
has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." A person does not become a
winning athlete by listening to lectures, watching movies, reading books, and
cheering at the games. He's not distracted by cream buns or heckling bystanders.
He becomes a winning athlete by getting onto the track, practising and practising
and determining to win. Here is a true story of someone determined to win. Story
of Duc of Alberquerque.. Duc persevered. He didn't give up, he kept going.
How do we win the Christian race? Hebrews 12:1
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,
and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes
on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him
endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne
What a wonderful picture of Jesus. The author and finisher. That means he
started the race for us and he will finish it with us. And he founded this church
as a means to achieve that. Christ Church exists as
a family to help you grow as a fully devoted follower of Christ. If
you're a spiritual seeker, ask yourself: "Why not? Why not make this the year
where I say, 'God, if you're there, show yourself to me.'" Why not take the bold
step of moving from spectator toward an active seeker? Why not get every reasonable
question answered and do the homework that's necessary to make a credible and
rational decision about Christ?
If you're a new believer, ask yourself the question: "What's
next? What resources can I tap into to learn more about the Bible and about Jesus?
How can I learn to communicate my new faith with my friends who don't know Jesus
yet? Where can I grow in community with other Christ followers? How can I serve
in a way that honours my relationship with Jesus Christ?"
If you've been kind of coasting in your faith ask yourself
the question: "How much? How much do I want to renew the freshness of my relationship
with Jesus? How much do I want to be used by God? How much of Christ's presence
and Christ's power do I want to know in my life? How much do I want to grow?"
And if you're a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, you stretch yourself and
you ask the question: "How deep? How deep do I want to be transformed in my heart
and in my mind through Jesus Christ? How deeply do I want to know and understand
the Bible? How deeply will I go in community with other believers? How deeply
will I go in obedience to everything I know?" Where ever you are on your spiritual
journey this morning, my challenge to you is to aim to do one this well this year.
Draw the line and say, "If I do one thing well this year that's going to permeate
and pervade every area of my life, it's going to be to know Jesus better."
Material used in this sermon has been drawn from commentaries
by Warren Wersbie, John Stott, Nicky Gumbel and Brad Mitchell, and used with grateful