Dr. Chris White July 21, 2013
We tend to be a people who live in two camps: Already or Not Yet. Some people speak of faith in Christ as an event that has already happened: an aisle walk, a sinner’s prayer, baptism, and security of salvation. Their faith language is like speaking of concrete underfoot—solid, unmoving, and a date in time saw that concrete put in place. Others speak of faith as an event still unfolding: ongoing prayer, Scripture, and urgency. It is like swimmers think of water—perpetual motion is required to keep from sinking. Both are right, but there are risks for both. Some that are certain of security give up on growing in grace, and some that are uncertain of security unnecessarily work their faith fingers to the bone. Both extremes require an exchange of position. The truth is in the middle. The apostle Paul grants us a window into the struggle.
Philippians 3:2-11: Holding on to the Already
Paul’s argument runs like this. In verses 2-6 we’re given a taste of the conflict that rose up around Jews that opposed the Jews that followed Christ. He speaks here of the same people who saw Jesus as a danger and took measures to crucify him. Paul knew them well because he used to be one with them in their arrests of Christians. When he refers to them as dogs, it is because more self-righteous Jews regularly referred to Gentiles as dogs. These are men Paul sees as distorting faith in God by resting in their sense of Jewish identity and legalism at the expense of true faith. In fact, Paul will cite his own background to show them that he has the same right to boast, if, indeed, boasting is the core of righteousness before God. Paul sets all this up to show that even the best in his life as a Jew was not enough to attain righteousness before God.
Verses 7-8 are powerful. He speaks here of these true treasures in his life and heritage, normally in the profit column, as “losses” in the economy of his faith in Christ. More, when comparing what he has gained to Christ to all the other ways he was seeking to be justified before God and find peace in his heart, they look like rubbish or dung. It’s not that the good was no longer good once he came to Christ, it’s that Paul recognized in this legalistic, racial, hereditary, self-justifying faith a PROBLEM between him and God, not a solution. As one writer notes, “Paul had to abandon his past advantages precisely because they were the very things that kept him from coming to God. They kept him from surrendering to Christ, who is the only way to God.” (Gerald F. Hawthorne) *This is well-illustrated in the story of a missionary couple in the early twentieth century who faced detainment under the Chinese. When finally allowed to leave, this couple with two young kids faced one stipulation: all goods had to weigh less than 200 lbs. They went through the house in a flurry, pulling out the valuables but trying to stay under 200 lbs. Then the authorities walked in. “Ready?” Yes. “Two-hundred lbs?” Yes. “Did you weigh the kids?” A pause. No. “Weigh the kids.” Suddenly you can leave irreplaceable things behind. When the best things in your life keep you from Christ, then the only way for the ship to survive is to dump your identity and trust in the valuables and trust in Christ.
This is Paul holding on to the Already of his faith in Christ. That is to say that a great work of God is behind him and in him. Paul tells his testimony in past tense. The trade has happened. He emptied the treasures in the hold of the ship in order to save the ship. In Galatians 2:20 we read, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This is past tense. Critical pieces of faith are behind us. It is not continual crucifixions. It is not repeated baptisms. It is not weekly trips to the altar to be saved again and again. It is affirming that what Christ has done in your life to save you is Already: it is here and binding. The new birth cannot be reversed by stumbles. The adoption in Christ is not overturned by verdicts of human courts or opinions. And this is a critical place to live. We cannot live under the pressure of impressing God or out-performing one another. We cannot now try to act our way into a relationship established by grace.
But this is only the first half of this truth. Read with me verses 12-16.
Now we move to the Not Yet of following Christ. In case anyone at Philippi thought Paul had reached perfection or was presuming they should be perfect because of what had Already happened in them, he makes clear that he has not obtained yet reached a point of knowing Christ fully and sharing in all the things that Christ offers. “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.” The verb here is to take hold, to obtain. It is still out of reach. The “pressing on” is the language of a hunter stalking his prey. And he describes the chase this way in verse 12: I press on to grasp Jesus because Jesus grasped me. What is behind me is moving him forward.
Paul’s simple strategy is, first, to forget the past. Specifically, it is to forget those past failures and wrongs that weigh him down with regret. Paul knew better than most why this was important. He was the young man who guarded the valuable cloaks of the executors of Stephen, the first martyr of the faith (Acts 7). He implicitly assisted in his death. Don’t think that people receiving these letters did not know about his role. He had to move beyond it. Some mistakes and regrets are undiluted poison if held and carried through life. They may not shut down organs like virtual poison, but they shut down any orientation toward a hopeful future. They chase some people to their graves prematurely. But it’s more than the bad stuff. We must also “forget” those things and places we have attained. We’re not to live with a sense of arrival or entitlement. We’re to “forget in such a way that the past has no negative bearing on our present spiritual growth or conduct” (Hawthorne, 153). Our past seasons of faithfulness and the pride that comes with them may be just as detrimental as our past seasons of failure.
The second strategy from verse 13 is to “strain toward what is ahead.” It is the image of a runner reaching out to win a race: exertion, desire, and intensity. We all know that the most committed or best trained do not necessarily win races. But in the case of seeking Christ, attitude matters. Desire matters. Jesus will not impose himself on you. These are the words of Jesus in Revelation 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” In Matthew 11:25 we read this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burned is light.” It is for us to reach out, to seek, to trade what must be traded to know him. If we know one thing about knowing Jesus, he is available to the desperate.
Finally, in verse 14, Paul points to reaching for the goal, the end marker of the race, as he fulfills his calling from Christ. Paul, you, me: we are Not Yet there. No matter how dramatic the stories behind us, he must ever be before us. We are not finished. As one writer notes, one lifetime is not enough to know Christ fully.