Growing with Joy

| Philippians 3:12-21 | February 5, 2017

Week of February 12, 2017

The Point:  Day by day, I can become more and more like Jesus.

The Mature Believer:  Philippians 3:12-21.

[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. [17]  Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. [18]  For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. [19]  Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. [20]  But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21]  who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. [ESV]

Pressing on toward the Goal [12-14].  Paul knows that his passionate intention to know Christ does not in itself make him perfect. His decision to consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ was only the beginning of a daily discipline to press on toward the goal. The authenticity of faith in Christ cannot be measured only by the intensity of one’s initial decision to receive Christ. Receiving Christ is a lifetime adventure. Paul’s description of his daily discipline straining toward what is ahead serves as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Paul is correcting an attitude of moral perfectionism by stressing that he himself has not already obtained all this or already arrived at his goal. On the other hand, Paul is also correcting an attitude of moral libertinism by emphasizing that he is passionately pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called him. [12]  Paul begins with a double “not already” to emphasize that he is still running the race and has not already reached the finish line: not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect. Ever since Paul was grasped and apprehended by Christ, he has desired to grasp and comprehend Christ. But to know the incomprehensible greatness of Christ demands a lifetime of arduous inquiry. Paul’s desire to gain Christ and be found in him [8-9] and to know him [10] engages Paul in an intimate relationship with Christ that is a dynamic process of intellectual apprehension and moral transformation. Paul’s first denial that he has already fully grasped Christ leads to his second denial that he is already perfect. To be perfect means meeting the highest standard of goodness and virtue [Rom. 12:2], being mature, full grown [1 Cor. 14:20; Eph. 4:13], being fully developed in a moral sense [Col. 4:12]. Because Paul has not yet already fully grasped Christ, he has not already become perfect. Only when he sees Christ face to face will he be totally transformed by Christ’s power to be like Him [20-21]. Paul anticipates that he will become perfect in the “future-eschatological” sense, but only on the day of Christ and by the power of Christ. Until then, he honestly admits his imperfection. His imperfection, however, does not discourage him from pursuing growth in his relationship with Christ: but I press on to make it my own. The ultimate reason for Paul’s pursuit of the apprehension of Christ is Christ’s apprehension of Paul. Christ’s apprehension of Paul means that Paul has been captured by Christ, taken hold of by Christ, and Christ will not let go of him. Because he has been apprehended by Christ, Paul has all the reason, the endurance, the assurance, and the joy he needs to pursue Christ even if he has not already comprehended Christ. He is running hard after Christ with his heart wide open to receive Christ because Christ has already received him and arrested him by His love. Divine grace is the source and goal of the human pursuit. [13]  Paul emphatically repeats his denial of perfection. The direct address, brothers, reminds his readers of his personal, familial relationship with them and emphasizes the importance of his assertion that he is not yet perfect. The verb consider indicates that his admission of imperfection is not the result of an emotional upset or chronic melancholy. It means “to give careful thought to a matter” and “to hold a view about something” after thorough evaluation. A close examination of his life reveals that Paul has not yet attained to complete conformity to the standard of Christ’s obedience unto death on the cross, nor has he completely understood the full significance of Christ. He recognizes that his partial knowledge of Christ is a very long way from knowing Christ as much he desires to know Christ. In the light of his realization that he has not yet attained the knowledge of Christ that he desires, he has only one goal: one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. The highest priority in his life captivates his full attention and demands total concentration. The picture here is of a runner who refuses to look back over his shoulder, but keeps straining every fiber of his being forward toward the goal. Paul does not let his mind dwell on what he has achieved so far. Forgetting is not a passive loss of memory; no, it is an active, continuous discipline of the mind and heart. Although he did not actually forget the past, he emphatically chose to disregard it. Paul’s practice of forgetting the past gave him the freedom for straining forward to what lies ahead. Faith is not simply a decision in the past or a static state of existence; faith is running a race, exerting oneself to the uttermost for the future goal of finishing the race. Progress in the faith requires stretching beyond past and present accomplishments and reaching out to seize every opportunity to grow in faith. [14]  Forgetting … and straining forward modify the main verb, I press on, by explaining how Paul is able to press on. In this race Paul is not yet at the finish line; he has not completed the race; so he must press on to the finish line (goal). Whether the finish line is being with Christ at death or the return of Christ from heaven, Paul is determined to run the race well all the way to the finish line. The reason for running this race of faith in Christ is for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Mentoring Others [15-17]  In Paul’s self-portrait, his eyes are always focused on Christ: he re-evaluates his life before Christ in the light of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ [4-9]; he concentrates in the present on being like Christ [10]; and he looks into the future with eager anticipation of winning the prize, the reward of being with Christ [11-14]. His Christ-centered vision determines the way that he views his past, his present, and his future. Now Paul directs the Philippian church to think this way. When they adopt his Christ-centered perspective on life, they will join together in following his example and align themselves with all who live as he does. [15]  Paul gives direction for all who are mature. Paul’s definition of maturity is contained in the encouragement that we should take such a view of things as he has just expressed in the previous paragraph. Maturity is taking Paul’s view of things, having Paul’s attitude, and adopting Paul’s way of thinking. The mature attitude exhibited by Paul combines genuine humility, knowing that we have not already arrived at the goal, and whole-hearted commitment, straining toward the goal. By including himself with his readers in his exhortation, let those of us who are mature think this way, Paul is calling for unity of mind in the community as he did in 2:2. The attitude of those who press on toward the goal for the prize [14] is not an individualistic, competitive attitude of runners who run alone to beat everyone else. This attitude draws people together as they focus in their community on knowing Christ and following Christ. Paul does not offer his self-portrait to put himself above or beyond others but to unite others with him in the common pursuit to know Christ. He is drawing together the friends of the cross before he refers to the enemies of the cross of Christ [18]. After his encouragement to the mature to join with him by thinking the same way he does, Paul addresses those who on some point think differently. By using the word think twice in this sentence, Paul emphasizes the importance of having the same attitude on the major points of principle and recognizes the reality of a difference of attitude on some minor points. Paul is not referring here to essential differences such as he addresses in his description of the enemies of the cross of Christ in verses 18-19. But he recognizes that there will be differences on some points even when members of the community sincerely desire to have the same attitude in the pursuit of Christ as Paul has. Paul does not demand total uniformity or coerce absolute agreement on every point. Without any sign of anxiety or resentment, he allows his readers freedom to discover how to develop a mature attitude with the assurance that God will reveal to them how to handle their differences. How God will reveal His direction to resolve minor points of difference Paul does not explain. He seems content to leave the means of God’s guidance undefined and open. [16]  After a short sideways glance at those who differ from him, Paul returns to emphasize the main point of his exhortation. He encourages the entire church, including himself, to maintain their progress in the faith: only let us hold true to what we have attained. Paul’s encouragement expresses his positive appreciation for the community in his reference to what we have attained. The verb attained signifies that they have already arrived at a point in their journey and reached a level of understanding and conduct in their faith that sets a high standard for their future belief and behavior. Paul now points to the real progress that has been attained and that sets the course of direction for the whole community. Now they must all continue to hold true to what we have attained. Paul’s affirmation of the attainment that they have already achieved assures his readers that he is not criticizing them for lack of progress or coercing them to move in a new direction. These believers are not being forced to conform to some standard outside themselves; they are being called to live up to their own experience of God’s gracious work in their community to will and to work for his good pleasure [2:13]. By his use of the first person plural, Paul reminds his readers of the partnership that they have experienced in their progress in the faith. Paul’s primary concern is that this corporate attainment of partnership could be destroyed by selfish ambition [1:17; 2:3]. What has already been attained must be maintained by humility [2:3], the kind of humility seen in Christ, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death [2:8]. [17]  Although Paul’s example is admittedly imperfect, it is, nevertheless, tangible and accessible to the church he founded. So he takes the role of a mentor: join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. The entire letter conveys Paul’s sense of mutuality and equality with his friends in Philippi. When he calls them to follow his example, he is urging them to join with him in his own journey to know Christ. Paul offers himself as an example of one who followed the way of Christ, the way of the cross. Imitating Paul is the way to imitate Christ. Paul also encourages the community to pay careful attention to other examples of followers of Christ. The way that they walk demands careful observation and faithful imitation. Paul’s purpose is to encourage the development of personal relationships with mentors who model the way to walk with Jesus Christ. The church needs to pay close attention to mentors who press on toward the goal of knowing Christ.

Mourning over the Enemies of the Cross [18-19].  In opposition to those who walk in the way Paul does, many … walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. By repeating the verb walk, Paul places a fork in the road. We must make a radical choice between two different ways to life: the Christ-centered life or the self-centered life. Paul’s description of the way of self-indulgence warns us against the constant danger of following dominant cultural fashions opposed to the way of the cross. [18]  The conjunction for connects this warning to the previous command, keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us, and gives the reason for that command. Close adherence to positive examples is necessary because negative examples clamor for attention and lead to destruction. Since the enemies of the cross present such an alluring and harmful alternative to the way of the cross, Paul warns against them. Paul does not speak directly to the many people who walk as enemies of the cross. But even though these enemies are outside the Christian community, their influence on the community is so strong that Paul frequently repeats his warning: I have often told you and now tell you even with tears. The problem with these people is not a theological denial of the cross of Christ, but an ethical divergence from the way of the cross of Christ. The narrative of the cross presents a way to walk in humility as a servant. The narrative of Christ [2:6-11] is framed by exhortations to do nothing from rivalry or conceit [2:3] and to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [2:12]. In this context, enemies of the cross are those who seek to avoid suffering that might come their way as the result of their convictions about Christ. Their selfish ambitions are opposed to the way of the cross. Paul’s speaks with tears. Paul’s pastoral concern for those whose mind is set on earthly things causes him intense emotional pain. Though his words are harsh, his heart is broken. He mourns over the enemies of the cross. [19]  The self-indulgence of the enemies of the cross expresses itself in their appetites, their pride, and their mind: their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. Belly or stomach refers to bodily appetites representing unbridled sensuality, whether gluttony or sexual licentiousness. For those who have no higher authority for the way they live than the dictates of their bodily appetites, their god is their belly. They worship their appetites. Even though serving bodily appetites leads to shameful behavior, these people take pride in their shame; they broadcast and brag about their shameful indulgence of their physical appetites: they glory in their shame. The word shame may allude to sexual immorality as it does in Paul’s comment men committing shameless acts with men [Rom. 1:27] and in the reference to the shame of your nakedness in Revelation 3:18. The reason why these people are enslaved by their sensual appetites and boast about their shameful acts is that their minds are set on earthly things. People with this orientation of life are obsessed with getting earthly things for their own personal gratification. In contrast to pursuing the heavenward call of God in Christ Jesus [3:14], they are concentrating on their earthly possessions and pleasures. These people had probably been members of the Christian community in Philippi, but now they have turned full circle; having abandoned the way of the cross, they have their mind once again set on earthly things.

Expecting Christ’s Ultimate Victory [20-21].  Paul turns from those who set their minds on earthly things [19] to focus our attention on our citizenship … in heaven [20]. In these lyrical lines, Paul unites a proclamation of our present citizenship in the heavenly commonwealth with an announcement of the ultimate victory of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. [20]  Paul seeks to motivate his readers to imitate him and those who walk like him by painting two pictures: his dark picture of those who set their minds on earthly things portrays their future destruction; his radiant picture of us who belong to a heavenly state depicts the future triumphant return of our Savior and the transformation of our bodies by His power. Paul’s eschatological vision establishes the basis for his ethical imperatives. The future shines a bright light on the present to guide our moral choices. From Paul’s eschatological perspective, we are already citizens of the heavenly order of reality. The term citizenship refers to the state and the citizens under the sovereign power of the government. Paul’s use of the word emphasizes the membership of Christians in the heavenly kingdom governed by Christ. When Paul uses the verb eagerly await in his letters, he is expressing the ultimate eschatological hope of Christians [see Gal. 5:5; Rom. 8:19-23; 1 Cor. 1:7]. Paul characterizes the whole Christian community as a community of hope: all the members of this community are looking forward to the appearance of their Savior. Paul has already described his own orientation: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead [13]. Now he unites all believers with him in his attitude of eager anticipation. Even though their present experience includes suffering, they are all still dominated by hope. Their hope contrasts with the hope of those who set their minds on earthly things. The only hope for a mind preoccupied with an earthly agenda is the intervention of an earthly savior. [21]  Christians anticipate sharing in the glory of their Savior and in His universal subjugation of all things under His control. Our Savior from heaven will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body. The verb transform envisions a dramatic, supernatural event when Christ will change the form of our body from lowly to glorious. In the lowly present form we have a body of humiliation; in the glorious future form our body will be like his glorious body. By defining the lowly form of our present body in terms of humiliation, Paul points to the unpretentious state or condition of our present bodily experience. The body is the outward, physical expression of the whole person – the outward expression of sinful desires or the outward expression of the Holy Spirit’s directions. Life in our present body is filled with the humiliation of weakness, suffering, and death. Writing from prison, Paul is acutely aware that his chains and his imminent execution are elements of his personal humiliation. He does not deny the present reality of his humiliation; he acknowledges the form of his present bodily existence. Paul paints a brutally realistic portrait of our lowly bodies without any removal of blemishes or addition of halos. In contrast to the present body of humiliation, the body of the future will be like his glorious body. The line of continuity in our present and future forms of existence is existence in a body. Paul’s hope is not to be rescued from his body, but to have his body transformed; he does not contemplate a future out of the body or bodiless human existence. The future of Christians will be like the bodily resurrection of Christ. Here, as in all other letters, Paul eagerly anticipates the redemption of our bodies on the basis of the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead [Rom. 8:11-23; 1 Cor. 15]. Paul’s hope is not for redemption from creation but for the redemption of creation, including the redemption of our bodies. Our bodies will be changed, but not discarded. And the change will be from a lowly body to a glorious body. The essential difference between the risen Christ and all who become like Him in their resurrection bodies is his unrivaled power. Paul draws attention to the uniqueness of Christ’s sovereign power: Christ has the ability to transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.  Paul’s reasoning is from the cosmic to the individual: since the Lord has the power to bring the entire universe under His control, He certainly has the power to accomplish our personal transformation.”  [Hansen, pp. 249-277].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. What should occupy the thoughts and focus the energy of believers? What is the relationship between us pressing on toward the goal and Christ making us His own? Are you pressing on, taking responsibility for your progress in faith and behavior? Are you seeking to seize every opportunity to grow in faith? Are you daily running the race?
  1. How does Paul describe the enemies of the cross? List the four characteristics of these enemies. Note the progression in their spiritual degeneration: appetites, moral standards, the mind. Paul begins verse 18 with the connecting word for. What contrast is he making? What instruction is Paul giving to believers? We are surrounded by enemies of the cross. What is Paul telling us to do so that our thoughts and behavior are not influenced by these enemies?
  1. Note the contrast Paul gives between the enemies of the cross and believers by starting verse 20 with the word But. Where is the believer’s hope? How are we to eagerly await our Savior’s return? What impact does this hope have on the way we live now?


Let’s Study Philippians, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, Eerdmans.

The Message of Philippians, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

Philippians, Moises Silva, Baker.