The previous passage (3:4–11) described Paul’s transformation when he encountered the risen Christ on the Damascus Road and understood the gospel. In that powerful and moving passage, the apostle recited his impressive religious credentials. Then, dramatically, he declared that compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ, those achievements were mere rubbish. Paul exchanged his useless human achievements for the knowledge, righteousness, power, fellowship, and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some in Philippi might have mistakenly assumed that, having gained those marvelous benefits, Paul had reached spiritual perfection. The Judaizers may also have taught the Philippians that spiritual perfection was attainable through being circumcised and keeping the Law. There were also heretics (forerunners of the second-century Gnostics) who taught that spiritual perfection awaited those who attained a certain level of knowledge. To counter such false ideas, Paul quickly added this passage, which is a forceful disclaimer of spiritual perfection. Though he was a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17), with a new heart (Ezek. 36:26), a new disposition that strongly desired holiness (Rom. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:16; Eph. 3:16), was united with Christ (Gal. 2:20), possessed a renewed mind (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23), had the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), had right standing before God (Rom. 8:1), had been justified (Rom. 5:1), had been forgiven (Eph. 1:7), had Christ’s righteousness imputed to him (2 Cor. 5:21), and was indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 11; 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Tim. 1:14), Paul was not perfect. He was still subject to temptation, still possessed his unredeemed flesh, and was still a sinner (cf. Rom. 7:14–25; 1 Tim. 1:15). Far from having obtained perfection, he was pursuing it with all his might. Like Peter, Paul understood that the Christian life is a lifelong process of “grow[ing] in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18; cf. 1 Peter 2:1–2).
No Christian will ever become perfect in this life; that awaits the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23). Perfection in this life will always be a goal, never an achievement. If we say we do not sin, we make God a liar, because He says we do (1 John 1:7–9).
Knowing that we are not now what we should be, and what we someday will be in glory, must not produce apathy and indolence, but a zeal for moving in the direction of the prize.
Need #1: We’ll need humility (vv. 12-13)
The awareness of the need to improve one’s spiritual condition is a necessary prerequisite to pursuing the prize of spiritual perfection.
Obviously, pursuing the prize of spiritual perfection begins with dissatisfaction with one’s present spiritual condition.
Such complacent, contented people are in grave danger of becoming insensitive to their sin and blind to their weaknesses. It is only those who are aware of their desperate spiritual need who come to Christ for salvation (Matt. 5:6). And it is only those who continue to recognize the need to eliminate sin and cultivate holiness who will make progress in the Christian life.
Need #2: We’ll need tenacity (vv. 12b-14)
Here is the runner in the games, ‘extended’ in every fibre of his being—‘the eye outstrips and draws on the hand, and the hand the foot’—everything is at a stretch to breast the tape.
I press on means “to run” or “follow after.” It speaks of an aggressive, energetic endeavor. Paul pursued the spiritual prize with all his might, straining every spiritual muscle as he ran to win (1 Cor. 9:24).
Paul tells us neither what the goal is nor what the prize will be. Yet suddenly the earthly scene with all its strivings, sufferings and sacrifices is suffused with heavenly glory. One scriptural picture after another fills and elevates the mind: the Lord’s own ‘Well done!’; ‘the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day’;6 ‘the unfading crown of glory’, gift of the chief Shepherd; the privilege (above all) that his servants should worship him, see his face and have his name written on their foreheads;8 the blood-cleansed robes and the unending presence of the Lord.10 All this and, in addition, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’. That is the goal and the prize!
The prize towards which he is drawn in disciplined and concentrated activity is described as belonging to (‘of’) the upward call (or ‘high calling’) of God in Christ Jesus. A study of the idea of ‘calling’ in the Epistles of Paul will reveal that its meaning is not ‘invitation’ into gospel privileges but the power of God over the wills of his people. It is not God’s invitation to be saved; it is God’s determination to save. The prize is part of, and is guaranteed by, God’s saving purposes at work in Paul, and in all his called children.
Goal (Gk. skopos) could also refer to the finish line in a race or an archery target. Paul’s life is purposeful, for he constantly aims toward a heavenly goal. The prize is the fullness of blessings and rewards in the age to come, most especially being in perfect fellowship with Christ forever.
Positively, Paul maintained his focus by reaching forward to what lies ahead. Reaching forward translates a participial form of the verb epekteinō, a compound verb made up of two prepositions added to the verb teinō (“to stretch”). It describes stretching a muscle to its limit, and pictures a runner straining every muscle to reach the finish line.
Paul made a break with everything in his past, both good and bad. Religious achievements, virtuous deeds, great successes in ministry, as well as sins, missed opportunities, and disasters must all be forgotten. They do not control the present or the future. Believers cannot live on past victories, nor should they be debilitated by the guilt of past sins.
“Mature” (Gk. teleios) is the same adjective translated “perfect” in v. 12 (“not … perfect”). Thus, Paul is saying, in effect, “If you are really perfect/mature, you will realize you are not yet perfect/mature!”
Paul was an experienced pastor and knew that not all believers would share the strength and relentlessness of his focus on pursuing the prize. To them Paul says, if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you. Those who refuse to heed Paul’s message will hear that same message from God. He will correct them through His Word, His Spirit, or through chastening. God will do whatever it takes to make believers recognize their need to pursue the prize of Christlikeness. He will also provide the resources they need to do that (2 Peter 1:3).
Need #3: We’ll need reality (v. 12)
Paul’s goal in life was consistent with Christ’s goal in saving him.
What was Christ’s goal in saving Paul? The apostle stated it in Romans 8:29: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” God chose Paul, as He did all believers, to make him like Jesus Christ. That purpose for which God saved us is also the purpose for which we live. “It was for this He called you through our gospel,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonians, “that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2:14). The Christian life is a lifelong pursuit of Christlikeness. That was the Lord’s goal in saving Paul and was his goal in response.
At the foot of one of the Swiss Alps is a marker honoring a man who fell to his death attempting the ascent. The marker gives his name and this brief epitaph: “He died climbing.” The epitaph of every Christian should be that they died climbing the upward path toward the prize of Christlikeness.