Straining Toward the Goal

Sermon by Andrew Triolo on Nov 20, 2016

Philippians 3:12-21

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If you will take your copy of God’s Word – and I promise I’ll tell you the right page! – it’s on page 981 and 982 of the pew Bibles in front of you; we’ll be reading from Philippians chapter 3 this evening. And just a couple of opening remarks. The book of Philippians was written as a response to a report by one of Paul’s dear friends, Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus brings a report from the church to Paul while he’s in prison and Paul writes this letter back to them saying, “Thank you, and I want to encourage you even more.” So this is an encouragement book. It is written for their betterment and their growth in grace. He sets an example of godly life before them and this is what he wants to tell them tonight about running this race and straining towards the goal. So before we read this, let me ask the Spirit to come and meet with us and help us to better understand what He will have us learn tonight. Pray with me.

Gracious heavenly Father, we thank You that You have brought us here this evening. I ask that You would work in our hearts, open our eyes to see the riches of what it means to keep on towards the goal for which we are striving. Please help us to do that. Please teach us more this evening. And I pray this in Christ’s holy name, amen.

Hear now God’s Word from Philippians chapter 3 verses 12 to 21:

“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. 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, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

 

Brothers, join in imitating me and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it, we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 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.”

This is God’s holy Word. May He write its truths upon our hearts this evening.

In 1968, at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, the final event was the marathon. There was an Ethiopian runner who had entered into the stadium. He was the first one to enter there and he finished the track and ran across the finish line and won the race. But about an hour behind him, there was a man by the name of John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania. And at about 30km, his head began to throb, his legs began to give way, he stumbled and fell over in the middle of the race. The officials urged him to just give up and retire for the day, but he kept saying, “No, get me some bandages. I need to wrap up my knees and finish this race.” So he did so. He got up, he picked himself up, and he ran another seven-and-a-half miles to finish the race. By the time he got to the stadium, most people had left, so he entered in and he stumbled around the track to the finish line and crossed and fell over the finish line. Now a reporter went up and asked him afterward, “Why didn’t you just give up?” and he said – hear these words that he said – “My country did not send me to start this race but to finish it.”

That is what the Christian faith is about, that we are not here to just simply start this race but we are to finish this race in the name of Christ Jesus. And Paul gives us a great picture of how we do that this evening. He writes in chapter 1 of Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” So when an individual accepts Christ as their Savior, Christ begins a new work in them, begins to change their hearts. And when He begins that work, He promises that He will finish it. He promises that that work will one day be complete. So how does one run a race that has already been won for them? I think our passage today will help us better understand that question.

So tonight I would like us to see that because Christ has won the race for us, we must press on towards the finish; we must strain towards the goal, which is our resurrection and unity with Christ. So we’ll see this tonight in three ways. First, our diligence towards this goal, secondly, our dependence on Christ in this goal, and lastly, our desire for that goal.

Our Diligence Towards the Goal

So let’s first look at how we are to be diligent in our faith as we pursue this goal. So if the race is won, then why does faithfulness matter? Well Paul teaches us in verse 12, he says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect” – the “this” that he’s referring to goes back to verse 11. He’s talking about the resurrection. He recognizes that this is the ultimate goal, the ultimate prize that he can have in his Savior. But he also recognizes that there is plenty of work left to be done. One commentator writes, “Paul is certain of one thing, namely, that he has not yet completely gotten a hold of the spiritual and moral resurrection that lifts one out from among those who are dead.” He knows that there is so much left to be done. He knows that even as he presses forward towards this goal, the doubts, the struggles, the fears, they still are here because the race is not over yet. And he continues in verse 12 by saying, “But I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” So what he is telling the Philippian church is this idea that they need to seize, to hold on, to latch on to this very thing and press forward towards it. Paul encourages them to take hold and strain towards the resurrection that they aim to.

Focus

And this involves a certain level of diligence on our part. And the reason it involves diligence is because there are so many things that distract us, so many things that vie for our attention; distractions that pull us in every which direction. But Paul tells his brothers and sisters to focus, to focus on the goal. Be diligent and press forward. He mentions that he has not arrived, which may insinuate that there are others who think that they have arrived at perfection. But what Paul is saying is, “That’s not true for me. And Philippian church, I know it’s not true for you. We must continue to press forward. Focus,” he says. “But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind me and straining forward towards what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Our Focus Must Be Two-Fold

Now this focus is two-fold. First, that we forget what lies behind, and secondly, that we strain towards what is ahead. Now in forgetting, what we do, in looking behind what we are doing is we’re looking back at the things that we have done up to that point. And often times, those things can distract us and deter us from the main goal. When a runner looks behind while they’re running, they slow down, the lose momentum, they change direction, they lose speed. Looking back is bad for a runner. Remember Lot’s wife from Genesis 19. “But when Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” Looking back is not good for us. Another commentator says, “Now when Paul says he forgets what lies behind, he refers to a type of forgetting which is no mere passive oblivion but an active obliteration so that when any thoughts of merits piled up in his past would occur to him, he immediately banished them from his mind.” What Paul is doing here is, he’s telling us, “You may have done good things so far. You may have put up a good race so far. But it is not over. Keep going. All those good things up to this point will not get you any further. Keep pushing towards the goal. Keep making progress. We will not be perfect in this life, but we keep pushing towards the perfection that we will have in Jesus.”

Many of you may remember the runner from the University of Oregon a few years ago. He was a steeplechase runner by the name of Tanguy Pepiot. And he had just hurdled over his last obstacle and he was coming around the final turn of the race. And if you saw the video you know exactly what happens. He hears the crowd cheering, he hears his fans chanting his name, and in a moment of weakness he turns to them and starts to wave his hands up and down saying, “Get louder! Cheer louder!” And as he did so, a runner from the University of Washington passed him right at the finish line! It’s one of those moments that we scratch our heads thinking, “Why in the world would you do that?” It’s like those football players who drop the ball right before running into the end zone. We don’t celebrate too early. We don’t think about the things we have done up unto this point. We think about what lies ahead before us. What Tanguy was doing was, he was saying, “I’ve got this. I’ve got this race in the bag. I have gone over every hurdle, I have taken advantage of all the straightaways, I have done everything I need to win this race and I’ve got this.” And because he was looking back at what lied behind him, he lost the race.

Keep Looking Ahead

Because of the resurrection of Christ, believers must give due diligence to pursuing the goal that is before us. We must give due diligence because we have not already obtained this, we are not already perfect, but we press on to make it our own because Christ Jesus has made us His own and we do not consider that we have made it on our own. But one thing we do – we forget what lies behind and we strain towards what lies ahead. How often do we think like this? And better yet, how often do we sink back into our default mode, looking back at the things that we have done, staking claim and saying, “I have done this. I have arrived. I am good!” and in doing so, we forget the progress that we can make in our faith. The things that we say, the things that we do, they may be good, but the race is not over. All the things that we have given, the sins that we have fought, growth that we may have made, it’s good but the race is not over. We must look ahead to seek to grow more. The Gospel call is a heavenward call. God calls us upward continually. And this is an encouragement for us to keep looking ahead, not looking behind at the times that we fail, not behind at the times that we succeed. But rather as a runner looks towards the end of a race we look towards that goal and say, “Lord, grow me. Make me more like Your Son even this day.”

Our Dependence on Christ in This Goal

So there’s a certain level of diligence that we must give towards this race, but there’s also a great dependence which we must have in Christ Jesus. He tells us in verse 14, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Now Christ’s call in life for us is that we would follow Him. The prize is ours, but we need help to get that prize. Paul urges them to press on, to eagerly promote everything that has to relate to Jesus his Savior, to glorify Him by any means necessary. This is what he writes just a few verses earlier to the Philippian church, “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” There’s that dependence; it depends on faith. “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

Christ has Already Finished the Race for us

The reason for dependence, the reason we must trust in Jesus in this race is because He has already finished that race for us. He has finished it and we are striving towards it. We need His help. Paul recognizes that he has not yet obtained this goal, but what he is saying to the church is, “We have not arrived there. We must continue to trust the Lord daily so that we may get there.” When he speaks to the Corinthian church about the struggles and the affliction that he has gone through, he says, “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. On him, we have set the hope that will deliver us again.” There’s a great awareness that Paul has and he’s calling us to that awareness saying, “Depend on Jesus. We must depend on Him in this life, in our Christian walk. We must rely on Him in order to make it to the next day. On Him, we set the hope.”

Abide in Christ

Jesus, in John 15, gives us a picture of what it means to truly depend and trust on Him when He speaks about the vine and the branches. He says, “Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” A branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it is in the vine. And if Christ is the vine and we are the branches, if we abide in Him we will bear fruit. If we abide and trust in Him, we will finish the race. It is the Father’s goal for us to bear fruit and be His disciples here in this life and Paul desires that the Philippians see that, that they would trust in Him the same way that he trusts in Him. That they would depend on their Savior to do so.

And he tells them in verse 16, “Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Join in imitating me, keeping your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Paul is all about imitating. He says, “Imitate me, as I am of Christ.” But only those who are worthy of imitating are the ones that imitate Christ Jesus Himself. And he’s saying, “We trust in Jesus. I trust in Him. Will you come alongside me in this race? Let’s do this together! As we look towards Christ, as we look towards our Savior, let’s continue on. And as you race, the goal that you have in mind is the one who has finished the race.” We often forget the one who has finished the race, the one who knows the road, who knows the struggle, who knows the turns, who knows the obstacles that lie before us. He loves you. will you rely on Him? Will you trust in Him? Will you depend on Him? Because the race can only be won in Him. So we depend on Christ, we are diligent in our faith, we depend on Him, and there’s a great desire that He gives us as we look towards eternity.

Enemies of the Cross of Christ

Verses 18 and 19, “For many of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame with minds set on earthly things.” There’s a great love that’s been lost here. Individuals that once walked alongside the Philippian church in faith have now fallen away. Their diligence and their dependence and their desire is no longer there so they’ve given themselves over to their gods. “Their god is their belly.” That’s what he says. They have set their mind on earthly things. And Paul uses these people to compare to the Philippian church and himself. But he says, “But our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Love perseveres for the believer. The desire to win is driven by the desire the believer has for Christ and for eternity. This is the resurrection and they wait for it. To heaven, their thoughts and prayers ascend and their hopes aspire.

One of my great sports heroes is Jim Valvano who was the head coach of the 1983 North Carolina State basketball team. And when he arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina, he told his team, he told his assistant coaches, “We are going to win a National Championship.” And despite what they thought of that idea, they bought into it, and everyone believed. Everyone was thinking, “We can do this as long as we keep pressing on towards that goal, as we keep that in mind.” And when they got to the tournament that year, they kept winning games, and they kept winning games that they probably shouldn’t have won. And when they got to the last game, up until the last second they had not won it yet. But on a miraculous last-second shot, they had done the very thing that they set out to do. They set the goal to win the National Championship and they did. The team had the same desire. Everyone – the coaches, the training staff, the players – they all put that as their one desire and they pressed forward towards it. We have a greater desire. We have a greater desire which is to be with our Savior, and that should give us motivation to keep pressing forward, to keep straining towards the goal. It gives us a desire to continue in eagerness. And when we have it, it changes us.

Long Obedience in the Same Direction

One of my favorite books is by the author, Eugene Peterson, and it’s entitled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. And that’s what we, as believers, need. We need a long obedience going in the same direction, continuing daily because sometimes we forget what we’re straining towards. Sometimes we look back. Sometimes we slow down. But when the desire is low, that’s what happens – we forget and we look back. What causes you to forget? What causes you to look behind? Those that pursue their love for God will have eternal life because they know Him and because He knows them. Do you have a lack of zeal? It’s okay, keep pressing on. Are times difficult for you? It’s okay, keep pressing on. When you look towards the future do you see trouble coming? Financial issues, political strife, whatever it may be? Even though that may be coming, keep pressing on, Paul says. The race is not over. Continue because you know what lies ahead. Now this is not going to be an easy road. We know that as believers. But the good news is, it’s not a lonely one. Christ is there to help us. He gives us brothers and sisters to help us on that race.

Now passages like this may cause us to glaze over a little bit. Yes, of course, we persevere. Yes, of course, we know that we are to fight the good fight and to keep on going. But it’s of vital importance for us that our desire for the end goal of this race does not flee from our minds. There’s a diligence that we must have. We are called to be set apart. We have a responsibility to respond and follow God’s call for us in our lives, to listen to the laws that He has given to us, to fight against our sin, to pursue holiness. These are all things we are called to do and we must do so with a great diligence. We are to depend on Him alone. In humble obedience and grace and complete trust in Him, we rest in what He is doing for us as we grow in our faith. In faith, we trust in Him sustaining us towards the goal.

Our Desire for That Goal

And lastly, our desire, this sweet anticipation that we have towards eternity, we look forward towards what lies ahead. Now do you look towards eternity with a sense of fear or excitement or indifference? If you look towards it with fear or indifference, then I would urge you to ask the Lord to give you a great peace in your heart knowing that that is before you, that eternity is there and it can be yours if you would trust in Him. If you look towards it with excitement, this is a good thing, but the race is not over. Keep going. Keep pushing forward. Keep trusting in Him. Be diligent. Depend on Him. And keep the desire great in your life for eternity. Often we forget that Christ has run the race for us. And because He has run the race for us, He is the only one that knows how to truly live that life. He’s the only one that knows how to truly bring us to eternity. And as we head in that direction, say we are heading north, sometimes we’ll go northwest and sometimes we’ll go northeast. Sometimes north, northwest or east, northeast. Sometimes we’ll even go east, east, northeast or west, west, northwest. But the point is, we are always heading northward. We may zigzag, we may get off the path a little bit, but we are always pressing forward towards the goal. We are always heading in that direction. And Paul is saying, “You have not arrived, but keep going.” Trust in Him. We have everything that we need to do to finish this race. We have all the tools in place in Christ Jesus in the gift of His Spirit.

My prayer for you tonight is that you would trust in Him, that you would lean on Him. Yes, this life may be hard. Yes, things may vie for our attention, the distractions may be great, the worries and fears we have may take over us, but if we keep that desire in mind and if we keep Christ at the forefront of our longing towards eternity, then we will see ourselves growing in faith as Paul is encouraging the church here to do. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Keep on keeping on, and let us be an encouragement and a strength to one another as we walk alongside each other in this great race of life that Christ has given us to run. Let me pray for you this evening.

Heavenly Father, we thank You that You have run the race before us. We thank You that You have given us Your Spirit to help us when things get hard. We ask that as we look towards eternity, as we look toward the life that we are to live, Lord, that You would give us a great joy in pursuing You and that You would give us a great love for Your Scriptures, a great love for pursuing holiness. You’ve called us to be perfect as You, our heavenly Father are perfect. Help us to be always looking towards that goal knowing that we will not arrive there on this side of eternity, but when we arrive there with You, You will join us to Yourself and we will be made perfect, in Your image. We ask that You would help us this evening. Be with us, go with us now, be with those who are traveling to see family this week, and give us safety as we return home. I pray all this in Christ’s holy and wonderful name. Amen.

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