Scripture readings: Ex. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Ps. 19 (or Isa. 5:1-7 and Ps. 80:7-15) Phil.3:4b-14, Matt. 21:33-46 Sermon by Ted Johnston from Philippians 3:12-16 (drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and Francis Foulkes in The New Bible Commentary)
Running Strong with Jesus
In Philippians 3, Paul rejoices in who Jesus is and who we are as believers in union with him. Paul rejoices that Jesus is at work, through the Spirit, redeeming our past (vv. 1-11) and securing our future (vv. 17-21). Then in vv. 12-16, Paul looks at our present, noting that Jesus, who has saved us, invites us to participate with him as he ministers through the Spirit. Paul uses a sports metaphor to compare this participation to running a race. His purpose is to urge us to run strong with Jesus!
Please don’t misunderstand. Paul is not suggesting that somehow we are saved by, add to, or perfect our salvation by running strong. Rather he is urging believers (those who, in faith, have received salvation in Jesus), to live out their salvation by actively sharing in what Jesus is now doing through the Holy Spirit to fulfill the Father’s mission to the world.
A little background will help here. In Paul’s day, only citizens were allowed to enter the Greek games (forerunner of what we know as the Olympics). Athletes did not compete in these games to gain citizenship—they competed because they were citizens already. In like manner, Paul declares that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). His goal is to show how these citizens should run the race into which they have been enlisted.
As followers of Jesus, we have joined the race and have been assigned a particular lane in which to run—a particular calling that has to do with the gifts for ministry given us by the Holy Spirit. If we run strong, the way God has planned for us, a reward is ours. But if we drop out of the race, or run outside our assigned lane, we lose that reward, though we keep our citizenship, which is symbolic of our salvation.
In Philippians 3, Paul gives five keys to running strong with Jesus. Let’s explore each one.
1. Divine dissatisfaction (vv. 12–13a)
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…
Despite his considerable achievements, Paul was not resting on his laurels. Unfortunately, many Christians do just that, comparing their “running” with that of other believers. Had Paul compared himself with others, he would have been tempted to be proud and perhaps to let up. But Paul did not compare himself with others—he compared himself with himself and with the perfection of Jesus. That led him to a “divine dissatisfaction” with his progress that is highly motivating. Mature Christians honestly evaluate themselves and then “press on.”
The Bible often warns against a false estimate of one’s spiritual condition. The church at Sardis thought of themselves as alive, but the reality was that they were spiritually dead (Rev. 3:1). The church at Laodicea boasted that it was spiritually rich, but the reality was that they were “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Self-evaluation can be dangerous, because we can err by making ourselves better than we are, or by making ourselves worse than we are. Paul had no illusions about himself; he knew he still had to “press on” in order “to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold” of him (Phil. 3:12b).
A humble self-appraisal leading to an appropriate divine dissatisfaction is key one for running strong with Jesus.
2. Deep devotion (v. 13b)
…But one thing I do…
Paul understood the power of staying focused on “one thing.” “Only one thing is needed,” Jesus said to busy Martha when she criticized her sister Mary for her devotion to Jesus (Luke 10:42). “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek” testified the psalmist (Ps. 27:4).
The “one thing” for us is to fulfill our calling to participate with Jesus in his ongoing ministry in the world. An athlete succeeds by specializing in one event—they keep their eyes on this one goal and let nothing distract them. Like Nehemiah, the wall-building governor, they reply to distracting invitations: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down” (Neh. 6:3). As the apostle James wrote, “a double-minded man [is] unstable in all he does” (James 1:8).
It’s a matter of values and priorities—running with devotion in our assigned lane with Jesus. That is key two, and then there is a third key:
3. Clear direction (v. 13c)
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…
It’s easy to get bogged down in the past. But running strong with Jesus requires a clear sense of forward direction. Imagine what would happen on the race course if a runner started looking behind them!
As believers, we are called to be future-oriented: “Forgetting what is behind.” In Bible terminology, to “forget” does not mean to fail to remember. Rather, it means no longer being influenced by or affected by the past. When God promises, “their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17), he is not suggesting he will conveniently have a bad memory! What God is saying is this: “I will no longer hold their sins against them. Their sins can no longer affect their standing with me or influence my attitude toward them.”
So, “forgetting what is behind” does not suggest an impossible feat of mental gymnastics by which we try to erase the memory of our past. It simply means that we break the power of the past by living for the future, which is ours, by God’s grace, free of sin and secure in Christ.
We cannot change the past, but we can change its meaning. There were things in Paul’s past that could have weighed him down (1 Tim. 1:12–17), but they became inspirations to propel him forward. The events did not change, but his understanding of them did.
Many Christians are shackled by regrets concerning past failures and disappointments. They are trying to run forward while looking backward! Some are distracted by past successes; and this is just as distracting. “What is behind”—whether good or bad—must be set aside so that we can focus on “straining toward what is ahead.”
So to run strong with Jesus we need dissatisfaction, devotion, and direction. And then there is a fourth key:
4. Dogged determination (v. 14)
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
“I press on!” carries the idea of intense effort. A person does not become a winning athlete by listening to lectures, watching movies, reading books, or cheering at games. They become a winning athlete by getting into the game with a strong determination to win! The same zeal that Paul employed when he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:6), he went on to display in serving Christ.
In running with Jesus, there are two extremes to avoid: (1) “I must do it all” and (2) “Jesus must do it all!” Both positions overlook the stunning truth that Jesus includes us in his life and in his ministry. “Let go and let God!” is a clever slogan, but it does not fully describe the truth of our life shared with Jesus. What quarterback would say to his team, “OK, men, just let go and let the coach do it all!” On the other hand, no quarterback would say, “Listen to me and forget what the coach says!” Both extremes are wrong.
The Christian runner realizes that Jesus must work in and through them if they are going to win (Phil. 2:12–13). “Apart from me you can do nothing,” said Jesus (John 15:5). God works in us that he might work through us. As we apply ourselves to the life we share with Jesus, the Spirit matures and strengthens us for the race. “Train yourself to be godly” was Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:7b).
Toward what goal is the Christian pressing and struggling with such determination? According to Paul it’s “the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). When the winner in the Greek games reached “the goal” (the marker at the end of the race), they were “called up” to the winner’s platform where they were given their reward. Paul is not suggesting with this metaphor that we attain salvation by our works. He is simply saying that just as an athlete is rewarded for their performance, so the faithful believer will be rewarded when Jesus returns (see 1 Cor. 9:24–27 for a parallel, and note that while only one athlete receives the reward, all Christians may receive a reward).
We don’t know a lot about the nature of these rewards—it may be that Paul sees Jesus himself as the reward. But what we do know is that we will be rewarded if we “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us]” (Phil. 3:12).
So determination is the fourth key for running strong with Jesus. And there is one more key:
5. Consistent discipline (vv. 15–16)
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. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
In order to win, the runner must compete according to the rules. In the Greek games, the judges were very strict about this. Any infringement of the rules disqualified the athlete. That did not mean being stripped of citizenship, but it did mean losing the prize in that particular race. In Phil. 3:15–16, Paul emphasizes that we must remember the “spiritual rules” laid down by Jesus, our judge. Paul makes a similar point in writing to Timothy: “If anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5).
One day each of us will stand before Jesus at God’s “judgment seat” (Rom. 14:10). The Greek word for “judgment seat” is the same word used to describe the place where the Olympic judges gave out the prizes to the winners. If we have disciplined ourselves to run strong with Jesus, we will receive great reward at that time.
There are many examples in the Bible of people who began the race but failed at the end because they disregarded God’s rules. Such was the case for Lot (Gen. 19), Samson (Judges 16), King Saul (1 Sam. 28; 31), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Though God does not expect perfection, we are, as followers of Jesus, called to “live up to” what we have been given.
It’s exciting to run the race daily with our eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:1–2). It will be even more exciting when we stand before him at his return and experience the full reward that is ours. This prospect of future reward was motivation to Paul to discipline himself now in order to run strong to the finish. It can be our motivation as well.
Let’s remember Paul’s keys for running strong with Jesus: divine dissatisfaction, deep devotion, clear direction, dogged determination and consistent discipline. All of these are about actively participating with Jesus, by the Spirit, as he ministers in our world, fulfilling the Father’s mission. As believers, all of us are included in Jesus’ ministry! So, let’s get about it—let us, through the Spirit, run strong with Jesus!
PS: Sometimes running strong with Jesus means slowing down to catch up with him! For thoughts on that, watch the video “Godspeed, The Pace of Being Known” at https://vimeo.com/theranchstudios/livegodspeed.