By Christopher VanDusen
Christians have God’s favor, the certain hope of heaven, and eternal life. God has forgiven all of their sins, and given them new affections and desires to love Him and to find delight and joy in knowing Him. But can Christians be content with simply knowing all these things, and with who they are in this life, when they still commit many sins? The apostle Paul answers this question in Philippians 3:12-16.
In this letter to the Philippian church, Paul is writing in response to the arrival of one of the church’s members with a donation for him, and news of their condition. He was confined to a place in Rome as a prisoner, while he awaited a hearing with the Roman Emperor. This hearing would decide a case that had been made against him when some of his Jewish enemies accused him of mistreating the Jews through his Christian behavior. While he waited for this hearing, the Philippians sent him financial support as one of their missionaries, and news of some problems they were facing.
Thus, Paul wrote Philippians as a letter of thanksgiving and instruction. In the first chapter, he expresses his thanks for them; explains how he prays for them; describes how his imprisonment is spreading the gospel; and instructs them on how to face persecution. In the second chapter, he instructs them on how to be unified and loving; motivates them to be a good witness to their unbelieving neighbors; prepares them for Timothy’s arrival; and explains why he sent their messenger back to them. In the third chapter, Paul begins by commanding them to rejoice in the Lord; warns them to guard against legalistic teaching and behavior; and gives his own testimony of his life as an unbeliever, his conversion, and how it changed him. He finishes this section by describing his ultimate aspiration as being raised from the dead with a body like that which belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:11).
Having said that this is the ultimate goal of his life, he then clarifies what he thinks about this goal in verses 12 to 16:
“. . . 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
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.” – Phil. 3:10-16 (ESV)
In verses 12-16, Paul does five things to explain how the Christian is to live when his ultimate goal is to have a new, perfect, body, like Christ’s:
- He Presses On to Possess His Purpose (v. 12)
- He Professes His Imperfection (v. 13a)
- He Pursues God’s Promised Prize (vss. 13b-14)
- He Prescribes this Perspective for the Perfect (v. 15)
- He Pushes Them to Persevere in Their Practice (v. 16)
Paul Presses On to Possess His Purpose
Paul begins this passage by admitting that he hasn’t taken part in the resurrection from the dead yet, but he strives to do so because of what Christ has done:
“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.”
First, he says that he hasn’t “obtained” the resurrection from the dead, or been given a new body. Obviously, he means more by this than simply being raised from the dead. When he says this, he includes in it what kind of person he’ll be when he’s raised — a sinless, perfect man, morally equal to Christ in His humanity. Hence, he equates this blessed state — which is called “glorification” in the study of theology — with being “perfect”. The Greek word translated “already perfect” is a form of the word telos (meaning “end”), and literally means “reached the intended goal” or “been completed”.
Because he’s not perfectly like Christ yet, Paul says that he “presses on” to “make it [his] own”. The Greek word translated “press on” literally means to “pursue”, as in “pursuing his prey”. It means to run after something in order to come into contact with it. In this case, Paul’s pursuing glorification in order to make it “his”.
Why? According to the ESV, Paul’s doing this “because Christ Jesus has made [him] his own”. So what’s the relationship between Paul’s goal of possessing glorification, and Christ’s possession of him? The implication is that the reason Christ Jesus, or the Anointed Jesus — God’s final Prophet, Priest, and King — has possessed Paul is so that Paul will possess glorification, or perfect Christlikeness. Therefore, Paul’s not just pursuing what he wants, but also what Christ ultimately wants for him.
Paul Professes His Imperfection
In the first sentence of verse 13, Paul again reminds the Philippians that he doesn’t consider himself as having reached his ultimate goal:
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.”
Why does he say this again? Because the Philippians may have been tempted to think that he — as an experienced, mature, and tested follower of Christ — had arrived at the ultimate goal of the Christian life. But he assures them of two things.
First, he has already told them in verse 12 that the reality is that he hasn’t obtained perfect Christlikeness, and is therefore imperfect, or incomplete. That’s one of the reasons why he still has to “press on” to possess the goal of his salvation. But here in verse 13, Paul says that it’s not only a fact that he is imperfect, but he also doesn’t believe that he’s perfectly Christlike. Why? Because he recognizes that he still sins, and Christ can’t sin. And he confesses this to them as a member of their spiritual family, calling them “brothers”, or “brethren”.
Paul Pursues God’s Promised Prize
Having confessed to the Philippians that he’s still imperfect, Paul describes how he lives his life as a result of recognizing this in the rest of verse 13 to verse 14:
“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul begins this passage with very important words. He says that there’s “one thing” he does. This means that this is the most important thing he does in light of the fact that he hasn’t yet reached perfection.
First, he forgets “what lies behind”. First of all, he has turned his back on his past life as an unbeliever, with all of his sin, and his supposed virtues as a Jew. Secondly, in his Christian life, he forgets his immaturity, his sins, his mistakes, and his accomplishments. Instead of dwelling on the past, he “strains forward”, or “reaches forward” to what’s ahead. And what’s ahead? Perfect Christlikeness in a perfect body.
And what does his reaching forward to the future compel him to do? Again, to “press on”, or “pursue” “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”. So, what is Paul’s goal in his life? First, he calls it “the prize”. Here, he’s clearly comparing his life to a race, in which there’s a prize waiting for him at the end of the race course. When he reaches the end, he’ll be awarded this prize. But what is the prize? It’s “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”. When Paul reaches the end of his life, God will call him “upward” because he’s “in Christ Jesus”.
But what exactly does Paul mean by “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”? First, it’s an “upward” call because God will call him toward heaven, where Christ is, and where his home is. Second, it’s the call “of God” because God is the One who will make him perfect. Finally, this call is “in Christ Jesus” because God will only make him perfect based on his spiritual unity with Christ. That is, because Christ has a perfect, sinless, body, God will eventually give Paul a perfect, sinless, body because He’s treating him the way that Christ deserves to be treated. This is what it means to be “in Christ Jesus” — to be treated by God the Father as Christ deserves, and to share in His life.
Paul Prescribes this Perspective for the Perfect
In verse 15, Paul calls those who are “perfect” to join him in thinking the way he’s just described by saying,
“Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
There are two main views as to who the “mature” people are to whom Paul is addressing. The Greek word translated “mature” is another form of the word telos, and can also be translated as “perfect” or “complete”. So, some think that, when Paul speaks of those who are “mature”, he means those in the Philippian church who think that they are “already perfect”, and he’s correcting their belief about their spiritual and moral condition. However, the other view is that when Paul uses the word “mature”, he’s referring to believers who are the most Christlike among the Philippians, and could therefore be called spiritually mature. The author of Hebrews uses “perfect” in this sense in Hebrews 5:14, which says, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV).
The view that seems most consistent with the context of this passage is that Paul is speaking to those who are actually spiritually mature, and not to those who think that they are absolutely perfect. The main factor that favors this view is that Paul includes himself when he speaks of “those of us who are mature”. Clearly, he wouldn’t include himself in a group of people who claimed to be perfectly Christlike.
Although Paul is speaking to those who are spiritually mature, he still has to remind them to think the way he’s been describing. They can still fall into the sin of losing focus on their supreme goal of Christlikeness, and become content with their imperfect character. Paul urges them to remember to regularly look forward to their future perfection, and to strive to reach to that point.
In the same breath, Paul speaks to those who don’t think like this. These are people are may think they’ve reached absolute righteousness; they may be those who aren’t focused on the end goal of their lives; or they may be Christians who aren’t putting the utmost effort in forgetting their past, and working on gaining their future Christlikeness. He says that if they “think otherwise”, or “differently”, “God will reveal that also to [them]”. In other words, if they think differently than Paul does about this, then God will eventually reveal to them that it’s the right way to think.
Paul Pushes Them to Persevere in Their Practice
In verse 16, Paul concludes this passage by calling the Philippians to maintain the Christlikeness that they’ve already reached:
“Only let us hold true to what we have attained.”
Here, Paul warns the Philippians to make sure they’re living lives that are consistent with the truth that they already understand and believe, regardless of how spiritually mature they are. Although he’s just promised that God will reveal more truth to some of them, he doesn’t want them to neglect the truth they already know, and the way they live that they’ve had to reach through learning and proper decision-making. Whatever they do, they need to live consistently, and maintain the right thinking and discipline that they’ve learned.
See Your Sin, Forget Your Past, Reach for Your Future
So, if you claim to have your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then how does this passage apply to you?
First, do you recognize that you haven’t yet obtained perfect Christlikeness? If you don’t, and you think that you’re perfectly like Christ, then you’re deceived. You either don’t understand what perfect Christlikeness is, or you don’t recognize what sin is. In order to be exactly like Christ, you have to perfectly love God every moment by perfectly obeying Him and glorifying Him. None of us can do that because we’re corrupted and tainted by our tendency to rebel against God, and to disobey Him. If you think you’re not corrupted by sin, then you need to stop living a lie, and believe what God has said about you. If you perfectly loved God, then you would perfectly love everyone you come into contact with, because one of God’s requirements for us is that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]”. Do you love your fellow human in the same way that you love yourself at every opportunity? Clearly not. And that’s because you love yourself more than you love God. God demands that we love Him more than anyone else, including ourselves. Because you don’t, if your trust for eternal life and peace with God isn’t in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you’re His enemy, and will be judged and punished for your sins if you die in that state. The good news is that God sent His eternal and divine Son to live the perfect life, to suffer and die on a cross to take God’s punishment that we deserve for our rebellion, and to rise from the dead to go to heaven as our King. God commands everyone to change their minds about Him and themselves, and to put their trust in Him alone as their King and Savior from sin and God’s wrath because He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Christ, and punish all His enemies for eternity. Please make sure you’re trusting in Christ alone for God’s forgiveness, since your sins need to be forgiven to have God’s favor.
Second, do you recognize that the purpose of Christ purchasing you with His blood was so you would eventually be just like Him in your character? He didn’t just redeem us so that we’d be forgiven by God, but He did so to save us completely from our sins, and to make us perfect, like Him, so we can perfectly please God, and perfectly reflect His character.
Third, do you forget your past and reach for your glorious future by pressing on toward the goal of the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus? In other words, do you have your mind focused on the goal of being perfectly like Christ, so that you try to be as much like Him as possible now?
Fourth, if you don’t have this attitude, and you actually are trusting in Christ, then God will reveal this thinking to you.
Finally, are you living by what you’ve already learned and put into practice?
Brother or sister in Christ, reach forward and press on toward the goal!