Most of us have probably read biographies – books that tell the story of another person’s life. Maybe we were curious, and hoped to discover what made that person great. In Philippians, chapter 3, the apostle Paul is giving us his own spiritual biography. In verses 1-11 Paul tells us about his past. Here, in verses 12-16, Paul describes his present spiritual journey. He compares it to a race, and he gives us the essentials for winning that race and one day receiving the reward that the Lord Jesus Christ has promised.
I. DISSATISFACTION (verse 12)
The first essential for winning the race is dissatisfaction. In verse 12 the apostle Paul says, “not that I have already attained it, or have become perfect”. Paul is not saying here that he is dissatisfied with Jesus Christ. In verse 8 he talked about “the surpassing value of knowing Christ”. But Paul is dissatisfied with his Christian life. Self-satisfaction is the death of progress. Dissatisfaction with past accomplishments is the mother of invention. Because man was dissatisfied with carrying and lifting loads on his shoulders, he invented the wheel and the lever. Because he was dissatisfied with walking, he invented vehicles to ride in. Many Christians are self-satisfied with their Christian lives because they compare their spiritual progress with that of other Christians, usually with those Christians who are not making as much progress as themselves. But Paul did not compare himself with others. He compared himself with himself and with Jesus Christ! In verse 12 Paul says that he had not arrived at perfection. One mark of spiritual maturity is realizing that we aren’t perfect. The process of becoming like the Lord Jesus Christ is much like riding a bicycle: either you keep moving forward, or you fall down!
II. DEVOTION (verse 13a)
The second essential for winning the race and receiving the prize is devotion. Paul says in verse 13, “but one thing I do”. “One thing” is a phrase that is very important in our Christian lives. “One thing you lack”, said Jesus to the rich young ruler. “One thing is needful”, He said to Martha. “One thing I know”, said the man who received his sight by the power of Jesus Christ. “One thing I have desired of the Lord” said the psalmist. Many Christians are too involved in many things, when the secret of progress in our lives is to concentrate on “one thing”. For example, the cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world. He lives on the plains of Africa, and when he’s hungry he chooses one specific animal in a herd of deer or antelope and goes after it. Ignoring others, this swift cat has been clocked at nearly 70 miles per hour in hot pursuit of its prey until he catches it.
The same kind of determination and single-mindedness has been shown by some people. One of them was a man named Howard Marvin. First, a numbness crept into his fingers. Then weakness progressed quickly through his body. Within hours he was becoming paralyzed. Howard had Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disease that causes paralysis and sometimes causes death. He lived, but he was left totally paralyzed. Recalling Howard’s attitude of mind in those months that followed, his son said, “Dad’s one goal was to survive”. When he was told that his best friend had died, he accepted it and put it out of his mind.” He cared very deeply about his friend, but he refused to use up any energy in grieving because he needed every ounce of strength just to get well. Howard Marvin is walking again. Did God do it? Howard would be quick to say “yes”. But without a single-minded, dogged determination, he might still be helpless.
The prize of becoming like the Lord Jesus Christ takes that same kind of devotion. Becoming like Christ is the one thing worth giving up everything else for.
III. FORGETTING THE PAST (verse 13b)
The third essential for running the race and receiving the prize is “forgetting the past”. In verse 13, the apostle Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind”. Sometimes Satan will remind us of our past sins, trying to convince us of our unworthiness to serve Christ. When you are under attack, it’s a good idea to thumb through your Bible and notice the many people who were failures, but who went on to do great things for God. Would the apostle Peter have preached that wonderful sermon on the day of Pentecost, when 3000 people responded to Christ, if Peter was continuing to dwell on his denial of Christ and refused to believe that all had been forgiven and forgotten? Would the apostle Paul have founded churches, written epistles, and traveled across the country if he had allowed the memories of his persecution of Christians to make him feel guilty and discouraged?
When we confess our sins, they are forgiven and God will never mention them again. The choice is ours. We can either brood over our past or “reach forward to what lies ahead”. We can’t change the past, but we can trust in God’s forgiveness and live for the future. The words “reaching forward” picture a runner leaning forward to touch the tape first and win the race. If you watched the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, you saw that happen many times.
IV. DETERMINATION (verse 13b)
The fourth essential for running the race and receiving the prize is “determination”. The apostle Paul says in verse 14, “I press on toward the goal”. The point that Paul is trying to make is that we are not to give up, in spite of obstacles that may cross our paths. The Christian life is like a steeple chase, which is a long foot race that has many hurdles to jump over and many large puddles of water to slosh through. You may have watched that race during the Summer Olympics. Many of the racers fall at least once, but they immediately get up and continue running in spite of the aches and pains because they are determined to run the race to its completion.
A man by the name of Johnson Oatman wrote a song about this verse of Scripture. The first stanza of his song goes like this: “I’m pressing on the upward way, New heights I’m gaining ev’ry day; Still praying as I onward bound, ‘Lord, plant my feet on higher ground’.”
The famous preacher Charles Simeon said that whenever he looked at the portrait of Henry Martyn, these words came to his mind: “Don’t trifle … don’t trifle!” In other words, “Don’t waste your time on unimportant or trivial things”. Martyn had graduated from Cambridge University with honors in both mathematics and the classics, and had the makings of a brilliant career. But he chose to serve the Lord in India. He was almost 25 when he arrived there, and at the age of 31 he died. Yet in those six years he translated the New Testament into three languages – Hindustani, Arabic, and Persian. Only eternity will reveal how much his work meant to other missionaries, and how many people were saved because of it. It is said that Martyn’s picture still hangs in a hall at Cambridge where students go to pray, and that his penetrating gaze still seems to say, “Don’t trifle … don’t trifle!”
V. DISCIPLINE (verses 15 and 16)
The fifth and last essential Paul gives for running the Christian race is “discipline”. This means remembering and obeying the spiritual rules given in the Word of God. It is not enough to run hard and win the race. The runner must also obey the rules. In the Greek Olympic games, the judges were strict about this. Breaking any 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.
One of the greatest athletes ever to come out of the Unites States was Jim Thorpe. At the 1912 Olympic games in Stockholm, Sweden, he won the pentathlon and the decathlon, and undoubtedly was 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 that he had to return his gold medals and his trophy, and that his Olympic achievements were erased from the record books. It was a high price to pay for breaking the rules.
One day each Christian will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 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 and to follow the example of Christ, we will receive our rewards.
Let’s run our race with joy, just as our Lord Jesus ran His race during His life on earth. Hebrews 12:1-3 says, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart.”