As we consider Philippians 3:12 – 4:1 we must first take note of the context. The Apostle Paul was in Rome in prison. A messenger from Philippi had brought money and a report from the church in Philippi. Paul had led the effort to start the church in Philippi about 10 years earlier. The book of Philippians is Paul’s affectionate letter of response from Paul to the church in Philippi.
In the previous verses Paul had warned of false teachers who were teaching that to be true Christians one had to follow Jewish rituals as well. The teachers talked of Jesus, but then added that religious rituals were also necessary. In principle they were saying that Jesus, alone, was not enough for salvation. They believed that salvation had to be earned by good works.
Paul spoke of how his religious resume was the best that could be, but even at that, when seeking to know Christ his religious accolades were worthless. It was only through faith that one is saved.
Paul then had concluded by telling of his longing to know Christ and his desire to become like Him in His death and in so doing attaining the resurrection from the dead.
Paul then continued with these words,
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
In verse 12 Paul is referring back to what he had just written in the previous verses. Paul had forsaken all the worldly accolades, and the condemning guilt from his past in order to gain Christ and be found in Him. Now, Paul´s ultimate goal was to fully and intimately know Christ. Not to just know about him intellectually, or even from secondhand information. Paul sought to have a life-transforming, all-consuming, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Years before, Paul had come to know Christ and it had captured and continued to hold his entire heart and his life. Since coming to faith in Christ Paul had endured unthinkable hardship, but instead of it pushing him away from Christ it had drawn him ever nearer. Above all things Paul longed to know Christ and to become like Him.
In these verses we see Paul´s unquenchable thirst to become mature in Christ. It is encouraging to see Paul´s humility as he tells the Philippians of his goal to know Christ, but also Paul´s admission that he had not yet reached the spiritual maturity that he longed for.
This idea of spiritual maturity that Paul refers to in these verses could be described with different words. Mature vs immature. Developed vs underdeveloped. Complete vs incomplete. Built vs under construction. Adult vs child. Veteran vs novice. Blemished vs unblemished, eating spiritual meat instead of drinking baby's milk. It was not some abstract perfection that Paul was seeking. It was not a greater number of Bible verses that he knew, or more prestigious religious position in the church. It was a practical, functional, being made perfect. It was a closeness to Christ that was so thorough that it would affect every area of Paul´s life, his thoughts, emotions, desires, goals, and behavior. Not just acting like Christ in public, but also in private, and even in solitude. The goal was that Christ-likeness would coarse through every area of Paul´s life. That the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; would be present in his life.
Acts 9:1-19 tells of how Christ appeared to Paul as Paul was traveling to Damascus to persecute Christians. On that day of dramatic conversion, Jesus had made Paul His own and from then on Paul´s life would never be the same. In response, Paul, now with his whole heart, worked to take hold of everything that He had in Christ.
Here, once again, we see the glimpse of the now and the not yet. Jesus had taken ownership and responsibility for all that Paul was, and now Paul was working out this salvation, and figuring out all the spiritual resources that he now had access to in Christ.
Paul had come so far in his faith, but he realized that there was still so much he needed to learn and experience with Christ. With this in mind, Paul set aside all that was in the past that might detain or distract him. He set aside his past achievements that would have been a source of pride and he set aside the memories of past sins that could have crushed his spirit. And with all his might pressed on toward the goal for the prize.
Paul pressed on toward the goal for the prize. These words would have described a racer stretching with all his might for the tape at the finish line. It is one casting off everything that slows them down or distracts them so that they might run the best race possible, and win.
This was the true call of every believer. Jesus is the goal and the prize. Christ is the goal which we all must continue to press towards. Our main goal is not feeding the poor, growing a bigger church, or having more ministries. We must keep our eyes on the prize. Jesus. The other acts of love will follow as the Spirit leads. All who are mature in the faith will seek the same. Those who do not should turn to God and let Him make this truth known to them.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Paul, drew them to himself with this word “brothers.” Then he gave a very bold instruction. Imitate me. One might elaborate more by saying, “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
That is the role we, too, are to play. As Paul followed Christ, the Good Shepherd, he called out to the Philippians to follow His example. In the church, that is the role of church leaders and in the home that is the role of parents. We are to be a people who walk rightly with God in such a way that others can follow our lead and find their way back to Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd.
It is not that we are perfect, but like Paul we need to be continuing in the process of seeking Christ with sincerity and integrity.
Paul then described bad examples that the Philippians might encounter. They were to avoid examples who in reality were enemies of the cross of Christ. Those who were really wolves in sheep´s clothing. Those whose fruit did not testify to their submission to Christ. Those who said the right words but whose lives told a completely other story.
These false teachers and false Christians would be recognized by the fact that “Their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Though they talked of life, their final destination would be destruction.
Paul then continued. . .
20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
1Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
Paul then sought to change their perspective on things. This is often one of the goals of counseling. The counselee is so bound by the pain, fear, struggle of the situation and it is made worse because they are looking at it from a worldly perspective. One needs to help them change their view of the situation and change into their spiritual glasses so they can see the true reality of the situation.
Paul did that by talking of their citizenship. That was of great importance in Philippi because Philippi was a Roman colony. The vast majority of its citizens were former Roman soldiers who had been given their citizenship and land in Philippi after they completed their military service. This was Rome´s way of securing the allegiance of the city which was in a strategic location.
In Philippi the people were committed Romans. They dressed like people in Rome. They followed the culture of Rome. They worshipped the gods of Rome. They spoke the language of Rome. Their citizenship was of utmost importance and the source of great pride. Caesar was Lord!
In the midst of this, Paul reminds the church in Philippi that they now serve a different Lord. They are now citizens of an even greater kingdom. Their earthly bodies will be transformed by Jesus Christ who will submit all to Himself when He returns.
Christ is their hope. In the midst of possible persecution and being vastly outnumbered, they could wait with confidence that Jesus Christ, the Lord of all would come for them. Although Rome and ungodliness seemed to have the upperhand, their Savior was coming and at that time every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Regardless of what they might suffer in this lifetime they would receive an eternal glorified body and would be citizens in heaven, the ultimate kingdom, forever.
Because of this they were to stand firm in their faith.
We, too, are to press on for this same prize. Taking hold of the Christ who has taken hold of us. We are to know Christ and to become like Him. We are to imitate those who imitate Christ. We are to keep our eyes on eternity. As we see the world through gospel-centered glasses we will see each of our situations as God intends.
A couple of years ago, during the COVID confinement, I was at home and stumbled across these videos on Youtube that were showing people who were colorblind. In each video they were receiving a gift, a box with special glasses, that would allow them to see color for the first time. In one it was a wife giving it to her husband. In another it was a gift among friends, but the one that really caught my attention was the video of an extended family at Christmas. They were all in the living room together and the moment came to give Grandpa his Christmas gift. They all knew what it was. It was a pair of special glasses that would finally allow grandpa to see colors for the first time.
They gave him the box and he slowly opened it. He took out the glasses, not really sure why he was receiving them. He then put them on and began to squint and slowly look around the room. He was overcome. The Christmas tree. The lights. The decorations. The family. And then sitting on the sofa he just began to weep. They were bittersweet tears of disbelief, of finding a treasure that had been hidden for so long. The family gathered around their grandfather who now finely could see the beauty of the world around him.
That was Paul’s goal. Christ does the same for us. The truths of the gospel are the lens through which we should view everything. As Christians, the truth of the Gospel has now become the core reality of our lives. The gospel is not only a Sunday topic at church or the focus of a few minutes of devotional reading at night. It is the permanent lens through which we view everything.
With this in mind may we join with the Philippians and find the strength to stand firm in the faith as we grow in the likeness of Christ.