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(019) Philippians XIII: Straining Forward

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Philippians XIII: Straining Forward

Philippians 3:12-16

February 10, 2008

Before we get the sermon, I have a Public Service Announcement: Guys – Thursday is Valentine Day. Even if your wife says you don’t have to get her anything, she is lying.

·         I found out the hard way “no gifts” does not mean “no cards.”

We are continuing our series on Philippians, in 3:12-16. Are we still on page 831?

The original Olympics

Before we get to passage, I want to give you a little history lesson the Olympics. The upcoming winter Olympics in Vancouver is creating quite a bit of excitement locally.

·         As most of you probably know, the modern Olympics are based on the ancient Greek Olympics.

The original Olympics were founded somewhere in the 8th or 9th century BC, some 700 years before Christ. They were held every four years in Olympia.

·         Philippi, being in Greece, participated in the Olympics and it would have been a part of their life and national identity.

As big of a deal as the Olympics are today, it was bigger then. In fact, all of the Greek city-states, who were frequently at war, would stop fighting to compete, in what was called the “Olympic truce.”

The Games were hugely popular, attracting people from throughout Greece, and Rome as well when they conquered Greece. In fact the stadium seated 40,000.

Watching sports religiously

Sports were taken very seriously Greece. We joke that some people treat football like a religion, but for the Greeks it was literally true.

The Olympics were part sport and part religious festival in honor of Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon. They began with a full day of sacrifices at his temple.

The temple was destroyed in an earthquake in the 6th century AD. Here is a reconstruction.

·         The statue of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – this is an ancient Romans copy of the Greek original.

Because of the pagan nature of the games, in 393 AD a Christian emperor ended the games. It was not until 1896, some 1,500 years later would they be resurrected.

Q   Do you know where the first games were held? Athens, Greece.


Unlike today, women were not allowed to participate or attend, and would be thrown from a nearby cliff it they attended. This was partially because athletes competed in the nude.

·         However, they did invent a clever version of a jock strap.

Much like today, the winners would be richly rewarded. While the judges only gave our laurel wreaths and such, the athlete’s home town would give them cash prizes.

·         One city gave the equivalent of 2 years wages.

Events included chariot races, full-contact wrestling, and the pentathlon, which was consisted of discus throw, wrestling, races, long jump, and javelin throw.

·         The most popular sport however was foot racing.

In fact, it was the only sport at first, then other events were added later. This is all that is left of where they raced, but here is close up of the  starting blocks.

As an engaging author, Paul used parts of the Philippian culture to create metaphors that would be meaningful to his readers.

He describes the Christian life as a race, because how popular footraces were in that day. They’re subtle to us, but would have been clear to the Philippians. Let’s read from Phil. 3:12-16.

12 ¶ Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  13 Brothers, 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.  15 All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.  16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Philippians 3:12-16 NIV 

In last week’s passage, Paul attacks legalism. Paul used to be very legalistic, a Pharisees’ Pharisee. He obeyed every rule, followed every law. He had made it.

But after a dramatic encounter with Christ, Paul’s world was turned upside down. He reevaluated everything he had ever known or done in light Jesus the Messiah, who had died for his sins.

Paul rejected his legalistic righteousness in favor of the true righteousness, a righteousness that is only of God’s grace and cannot be earned.

·         God, in his love, reached out to us, not because we are good, but because he is.

Salvation past, present, and future

But as you may remember that I said that a sermon like that is a little lopsided because it can leave the impression that it doesn’t matter how we live, that we can just go on sinning because God keeps forgiving.

·         Apparently Paul saw that same danger, because in today’s passage he talks about striving for godliness.

God’s goal in salvation wasn’t to clean us up then dump us back into the wretched, destructive life we were in before. His goal is to restore us and show us true life, and that we know him.

Salvation, in its Biblical meaning isn’t a one-time event in the past when God forgives our sins, it’s an all-encompassing, life altering event, that occurs in the past, present, and future.

·         In the past, every person who’s put their trust in Jesus has been justified. It’s by grace; we can do nothing to earn it.

·         In the present, we are in the process of being sanctified, which means being made holy, and this is a ton of work.

·         In the future, we will be glorified. One day our struggle against sin will be over and we will know Christ perfectly.

But Paul is very clear that this last one is in the future:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. Philippians 3:12 NIV

The unobtainable goal

I think that Paul may have seen the irony here: In verse 6 he said his righteousness under the law was faultless. This was not an exaggerated boast.

Under the Pharisaical system, it was possible to obey the law perfectly. It was very hard – there were 600 rules you had to follow. But it was possible and Paul had done it.

But Christ had reveled God’s perspective: Far more important than following the external rules was internal heart change.

·         This is why he said “lust is adultery” and “anger is murder.”

Jesus, and Paul after him, knew that a perfect heart was impossible, an unattainable goal. So Paul, the man who had it all, gladly gives it up for a never ending process, a life-long journey – never arriving, but always growing.  

The great adventure

Becoming a Christian is not the end of the journey any more than the wedding is end of the marriage, it is the beginning.

Last week many of you watched Larry and Chrissy get married right here. It is so sweet to see how twitterpated they were, to see that dreamy look in their eyes.

If you have been married for a while, it’s easy to watch that and say, “Just give is a couple of months.” It’s not that we are bring cruel or bitter. It is just the voice of experience.

As much as I enjoyed when Marilyn and I were dating, with all of its warm fuzzies, there’s no way I would go back, because it would mean giving up the depth than comes with time.

·         I like to tell engaged couples that marriage is a heck of rideups and downs, but worth every minutes.

And our Christian walk is like that: a great adventure, a heck of a ride. It gets richer with every trial and we grow closer to our God in every challenge.

Paul describes it as a race, but unlike races the Philippians knew, it’s a race we will never finish while we are alive. But nonetheless, we must run it well. Paul describes how he runs:

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13b-14 NIV 

Forgetting what is behind

The first thing Paul says we must do it “Forget what is behind.” What does that mean? Are we supposed to forget whatever has happened to us? I don’t think so.

·         Some of the unhealthy people are those who ignore the pain from their past.

What Paul is saying is, don’t let your past slow you down or trip you up.

·         I suggested to the Sunday School teachers that the kids run races facing backward, so if they are bruised, blame me.

·         If we’re looking backwards, were going to get tripped up.

Facing our past to look forward

Sometimes to look forward, we have to face the past.

When we face our past, deal with the pain, repent for mistakes, God can actually use it to help our race in the present. I firmly believe that in Christ no tears need be wasted:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 NIV

He doesn’t say all things are good – many of you have had horrible things happen. But God can uses them for good. He is a God of redemption and restoration.

·         He took the worst thing in human history, the Fall, and used it to bring the best, the Incarnation.

·         That is the kind of God we serve.

God uses pain in so many ways: teaching us to trust him, to lean on him, giving us the ability to help others who have been hurt.

·         Ironically, you know that you have forgotten your past when you can talk about it.

Q   Is there anything in your past slowing you down in your race?

Q   Is their unforgiveness or guilt tripping you up?

And a note about guilt: Guilt is like our sense of pain, like nerves, guilt is a powerful tool that God has given us to help us avoid damaging ourselves, but Satan would love to use it to damage us by focusing on it after it has done its job.

Resting on our laurels

“Forgetting what is behind” isn’t only about the bad stuff. Our success can also hold us back. We have an expression for that: “resting on your laurels.”

·         “Laurels” is a reference to the prize for Olympic athletes.

I read a book a while back called “Ordering Your Private World” that noted that starting well is no guarantee of finishing well. Child prodigies frequently fail to achieve a lasting legacy because they rested on their early success.

·         Paul has founded countless churches, wrote much of the NT, but still he said, “I have not arrived, and I don’t look back.”

Q   What has God done in you lately?

Even if you have the greatest testimony up to this point, you still have to look ahead.

a holy dissatisfaction

Because Paul says that he “strains toward what is ahead.” It’s like a racer leaning forward toward the finish line. We should be driven by a sort of “holy dissatisfaction.”

We should be content with what God has given us, but we should be discontent with our knowledge of God, with our love for him, with our holiness, with growth.

This is what Paul means when he says, “I’m not content to stay the same. I am still growing, still pushing forward, developing, expanding, and learning.”

·         The only time we can coast is when we’re going downhill.

If we are not discontent, we stagnate, and go backwards, this is why Paul so concerned that we be pressing forward.

Spiritual maturity

On that note, Paul addresses folks who believe they have arrived, that they were spiritually mature:

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. Philippians 3:15a NIV 

·         In other words, if you think you’re mature, then you’re not.

The mark of maturity is knowing our immaturity, yet pressing on ahead anyways, straining ahead for the prize. It is seeing the unconquerable distance but running anyway.

·         Perhaps the closest we can come to spiritual maturity is to know just how immature we are!

It is a simple truism that the closer we get to Christ, the better we see how far we still have to go. This would be discouraging if our faith was about arriving, but it’s about a relationship.

What have you attained?

But even as Paul sees this immature attitude, he shows grace:

And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Philippians 3:15b-16 NIV 

He says, don’t worry, you will learn to be maturely immature in time. Just keep growing, making the best of what you have.

Paul knows we’re all works in progress and we won’t be evaluated by the same standard. A new Christian has not “attained” much. God only expects them to live up to what they have attained.

·         Paul had attained a lot, and God expected a lot from him.

·         “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

The marks of maturity

To sum up what Paul has said, to run this race well:

1. We can’t let past failures or successes hinder our race.

2. We must strive towards righteousness.

3. We must be honest with each other about our failings.

4. We must be patient with each other and ourselves.

I end with this challenge: When did you last take time to do a candid, personal evaluation of your life:

Q   Am I pressing on or simply coasting down?

Q   What is the next challenge God has for me?  (If you are not in the middle of one.)




Father, the motivation for all of this is a response to your love. We know that we can never do anything to cause you to love us more or less.

·         I pray that you help all of us to strain ourselves forward, seeking to grow closer to you.

·         Show each of us individually where you want us to grow next.  

Benediction (2 Corinthians 13:14 NIV)

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.  Amen.

The following sources were used in preparing this sermon:

“The Rebel’s Guide to Joy in Suffering,” a sermon preached by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church ( on 10/21/07

“Dear Philippians III: The Secret to Enjoying Life,” a sermon preached by Bruce Wersen of His Place Community Church ( on 2/9/03.

The New American Commentary (Vol. 32): Philippians, Colossians, Philemon by R. R. Melick.

Word Biblical Commentary (Vol. 43): Philippians by R. P. Martin.

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