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 ambitions.

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) 3:13a

"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 Nixon of...lower middle-class origins, men who'd known hard work all our lives, prideful men seeking that most elusive goal of all—acceptance 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 will—I 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 of God."

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 thanks.