Philippians 3:12-14 Devotional
Philippians 3:12-14. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Reflection. Philippians 3:14 stokes the personal embers of nostalgia. In 2001, Relient K sang, “to go back where I was would just be wrong / I’m pressing on.” However, it would be many years after belting those words out with my fellow teens at summer camp before I would realise their connection with Philippians 3. Though the chorus and song title should have given this link away, other lines make it explicit: “Adversity, we get around it / Searched for joy, in you I found it / Somewhere back there I left my worries all behind / My problems fell out of the back of my mind”; and my personal favourite, “There’s only one thing left to do / Drop all I have and go with you.” These words, along much of the song, offer excellent commentary on the themes in Philippians, especially 3:12-14.
Paul starts by saying, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal” (3:12). Paul has not yet obtained the resurrection (3:10-11). Thus he presses on towards the goal that lies ahead (3:12-13), God’s “heavenward” call (3:14). Philippians, as with much of the New Testament, presents this process - what we might call perseverance - as a kind of tension. Though God works in believers, they also work out their salvation in obedience (see 2:12-13).
Ultimately, the Christian’s hope rests on the reliability of he who began this work and will bring it to completion (1:6). Thus, in 3:12-14, Paul describes the Christian life as pressing on, actively striving to take hold of the prize. Yet in the same breathe, believers are said to be those whom Christ has already taken hold of (3:12). Without attempting to disentangle this soteric knot, I want to offer three points for reflection on these famous verses.
Firstly, Paul writes, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (3:12). The Christian is someone whom Christ has taken hold of. Salvation is Jesus’ loving embrace of sinners. Before you or I put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we were those on whom God graciously set his affection. Christians belong to God. We are his possession. The staggering cost of our redemption was paid at the cross. It was there that God purchased and made us his own. We can call ourselves God’s, because he has claimed us. Herein is the spectacular centre of our salvation. And it should move us, deeply, to know that while God owns all that he has made, he went out of his way to make the Christian his own.
Secondly, an inevitable result of my first point, a Christian is someone who prizes heaven. Paul says that he presses on and strains towards his heavenward call. He calls this future his prize and goal. “One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (3:13). Yet this rarely characterises my life. I find it impossible to forget what lies behind and around me. Contrast with Paul (see 1:21), ‘to live in the present is Graham.’ For I do not actually believe that death is gain. I never stop pursuing as much gain as I can scrounge in the present. Thus without a powerful desire for the glorious prospect of heaven, a longing for the unadulterated presence of God, we will only offer God our scraps. This is tragically often the case.
Thirdly, the Christian faith is not passive. In these verses we learn that Christ Jesus first took hold of us. Despite this single reference to the grace of God in bringing us to himself, the balance of the passage shows Paul as an active participant in what God is doing. Though we are certainly spiritual beggars, God’s grace does not leave us spiritually impoverished. Much earlier we read that, “the fruit of righteousness…comes through Jesus Christ” (1:11). This fruitful living, righteousness, and Christian obedience is inseparable from being in Christ. However, it comes with effort, through an active pursuit of God and the desire to please him.
Linking the three points together: in graciously making us his own, God has set in store for Christians a future that defies description, and therefore we must set our hopes on that promise. As we do this - indeed, only if we really do this - our lives will be marked by a longing that enables sacrificial obedience in the present. As Relient K sang, “We’re on to something good here / and we’re gonna make it after all.”