Our past sins and regrets can often paralyze us, steal our joy, and have us looking back so much we forget what lies ahead. Paul encourages us in Phil. 3:12-16 to walk with the expectation and hope of our future resurrection glory, allowing that to motivate us to greater holiness by God’s enabling grace!
Part 14 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
We saw in the last study that Paul rejected the idea of his human accomplishments making him righteous before God, that he held solely to faith in Christ for his salvation. He moves on in these next verses to explain the diligence with which he pursues conformity to Christ on a daily basis, with a view toward glory.
Already But Not Yet
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.
When Paul says in verse 12, he has not already obtained this or is already perfect, he is referring back to verse 11 about resurrection. His sanctification is not complete; he has not been resurrected or glorified. But he does know this much: he belongs to Christ. He has been adopted into the family of God through faith — God’s gift to him — and because of this, he longs for ongoing progress in his sanctification.
In the sense of being “raised” from or out of the body of sin he had formerly been ruled by, yes, he had been resurrected. But he had not yet attained the thing still in front of him: the resurrection to glory.
Paul may be thinking of the fact that some people were saying that the resurrection had already taken place, as he refers to in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. We do not know specifically what these two individuals taught regarding the resurrection. Whatever it was contained significant enough error to lead Paul to exhort Timothy to stand firm in his faith and not be swayed by foolishness like this. It is important for Paul to convey to Timothy and to the Philippians that the race is still underway.
The Race Is Being Run
I press on to make it my own…I do not consider that I have made it my own.
The phrase I press on (Gr. diókó) that Paul uses in verses 12 and 14 speaks “figuratively, of one who in a race runs swiftly to reach the goal” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). Paul likes to use metaphors close to home; many of the people he wrote to would have been familiar with Grecian races, which awarded a prize (usually a crown) to the winner. For Paul, pressing on, or pressing forward, is not simply about trying to finish the race, but to finish in the best way possible.
What happened to Paul — and to you and I — when we were saved in Christ is that our guilt was removed, our sins were forgiven, and we were accepted with God. But that’s not the whole story. There is a need, as Paul says here, to press on, to fight the good fight (related: 1 Cor. 9:24-25; 1 Tim. 6:12) — not for salvation, but for holiness. As we have been spiritually “turned around” and now face a new direction (toward Christ), we seek to walk in that new direction by God’s enabling power.
Often when we look at the apostle Paul, we think he was this super human, above all the struggles and temptations we have. But the more you read his writings, the more you realize, as far as he had come, he regarded himself with the humility of having much farther yet to go! This should be an encouragement to us when we think we are not progressing quickly enough in our walk with Christ.
We Belong to Christ
because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
It’s powerful to read at the end of verse 12 that Christ Jesus has made me his own. The Greek (katalambanó) gives the emphatic idea of being seized, grasped, and taken hold of tightly. He has in effect taken ownership of me, Paul says (and so do I, with joy!).
In some sense, we get an idea of the suddenness of Paul’s conversion through this phrase. In a blinding flash on the Damascus Road, Christ changed the heart and mind of this man who was such a fervent persecutor of the church. Not all conversions are like this. Some take weeks, some take years, others take an entire lifetime and happen after everyone’s written a person off as “hopeless.” But whatever the manner that God makes Himself known to you and makes you His, you belong to Him irrevocably.
What’s critical behind this phrase is the understanding that once Christ has taken hold of you and made you His own, nothing can separate you from Him. And because we know this, it motivates us to be like Him, to grow in holiness, no matter how we began and no matter how slow that growth is.
Leaving the Past Behind
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.
If anyone had a reason to feel painful regret over his past, it would have been the apostle Paul. We’ve seen in a previous study how he persecuted the church with zeal, overseeing the death and harassment of Christ’s followers. Yet he didn’t dwell on his past unless he could use it to point to God’s glory and grace and, in contrast, his own weakness and sin.
Here’s just one example of how Paul pointed to his own formerly depraved and sinful self to glorify the overflowing mercy and grace of God that poured in and changed him:
12 I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, 13 though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14 and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. [1 Tim. 1:12-16 ESV; emphasis mine]
“I haven’t arrived,” Paul says. “I’m not done with this journey of being made more like Christ.” However, what sets Paul apart — and us as believers — is the goal of our gaze. What we look at is not the things of the world, expecting that this is what will bring us fulfillment and satisfaction. Instead we’re looking at Christ and seeking to know more of and be more like Him.
You Are New In Christ
We’re also being encouraged here by Paul not to look backwards. It’s not so much that he doesn’t want us to feel regret or that he doesn’t expect us to remember our past, but rather that our past — accomplishments or mistakes — does not identify us. We may look back in regret. Others may point to our past sins. We may live daily with the consequences of past sinful choices or the impact of others’ sins upon us. But we need to remember that our sin is not who we are.
A key point I want to emphasize to you today is this:
What defines and makes you who you are is your identity in Christ.
Paul’s exhortation here is not to allow our past — no matter what that is made up of — to stop us in our tracks. Moreover, scripture exhorts us that when we do sin, to be quick to confess it to the Lord and He will be forgiving. He stands ready to provide you with the grace and strength to turn away from the sin (related: 1 John 1:9).
What he is saying is, put all your efforts and your best focus into gazing at what lies in front of you — the hope and promise of glory, just as Peter tells us:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. [1 Pet. 1:3-5 ESV; emphasis mine]
Our Present, High Calling
the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. This small phrase in verse 14 contains a powerful amount of meaning. I see it as two-pronged:
1. Our call to glorification (resurrection and glorified bodies). Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible defines this high calling as the “incorruptible crown; the crown of life, righteousness, and glory, that fadeth not away.” As the verses above from 1 Peter indicate, we look to a time when the frailties and pains of this human body will pass away, the futility and fatigue of this world will pass away, and what will take their place is a perfect, glorified existence in God’s presence.
2. Our call to be increasingly conformed to the likeness of Christ (sanctification). It is God’s hope for His church that we be holy as He is holy. Paul reminds the Ephesian believers to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Eph. 4:1 ESV). He then includes such characteristics as humility, gentleness, patience, peace, and unity in the truth, just as he has done here in Philippians (related: 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Thess. 2:12).
Hold Fast To The Truth
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.
Note that Paul does not say here, “if in anything you think otherwise, you deserve to be condemned, harshly criticized and mocked, and your very salvation doubted.” Do we need admonishment and correction? Very much so! In fact scripture calls for it:
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man [and woman!] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. [2 Tim. 3:16-17 ESV; my interpolation and emphasis]
We need a correct and scriptural perspective, but we need this from a motivation of love and of being built up. We need our lives spoken into with grace and truth. At the same time, we can pray to be teachable and humble, knowing that there are always places in our lives where we fall short or may not have matured as much in knowledge and faith.
Most of what Paul rests in here, though, is God revealing the truth to those who may be weaker or less mature. And He does that through His word. As the roots of a tree that is nourished and watered grow stronger and deeper, so do we as believers become more steadfastly rooted in our faith as we drink in the living water of God’s truths in the bible.
Hold true to what we have attained. In other words, you’ve come this far in your journey with Christ, don’t give up. Don’t be discouraged by opposition, by how gradual your growth may be, or by seasons of dryness. Be confident that by His grace, He is working to complete the work He began in you and bring you to perfect completion in the day of Christ Jesus.