Olympic Athletes are amazing individuals. What amazes me most is the concentration, dedication and focus that is needed to even make it into the Olympics. Those athletes have been training and working every day for years in order to get to this one competition. Of course, the same could be said of any Championship Athlete as well as other professions in life. Determination and focus is necessary to reach the highest goals.
What is true in so many areas of life is also true of the most important pursuit of life: the pursuit of a vital relationship with God. In our text Paul tells us that in order to grow as Christians we must be focused and determined. We will not grow if we don’t work at growth. Salvation is by grace alone through faith, but growth requires that we work with God.
In verse 10 Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in His death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” If you remember, I suggested that Paul was saying,
- I want to know Christ in a personal and practical way
- I want to begin to experience the power, freedom and joy that comes when we live in light of the resurrection
- I want to have the attitude Jesus had when facing the difficult times of life. I want to know that sense of peace that transcends the world.
- And I want to live NOW as a person who attains the resurrection of the dead on this side of the grave
These are Paul’s goals. In the verses that follow Paul gives us some guidelines as to how we can focus on our spiritual growth.
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. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:12-14]
WE MUST REALIZE GOD HAS A GOAL FOR OUR LIFE
Paul says, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” The words I want you to see are the words, “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Paul understood that the Lord took hold of his life with a goal in mind. And this is true for all of us..
Romans 8:28 is a verse many know by heart. Verse 29 is less known. Paul writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Do you see God’s purpose in calling us? He wants us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. God’s desire is that we grow to be like Christ.
Why is this important? First, It’s important to realize that God’s goal is not just to “get us in the door”. He is not looking to merely “save us”, He is working to “transform us”. The Christian is one who is ever moving toward Christ-like-ness. We should be making progress toward holiness.
But second, it is important to realize that God has a job for us to do. He has called us TO something. We are a part of His plan. God DOES have a plan for your life. His plan will lead you to joy, fulfillment, contentment and eternal blessing.
RECOGNIZE THAT YOU HAVE NOT ARRIVED YET
Paul not only recognizes that the Lord has a grand purpose for his life, He realizes that he has not arrived at that purpose yet. Paul knows he is not what he should be. He is aware of his faults and the areas where he still needs to grow. The word for “perfect” also means “complete”. Paul recognizes that he is not finished yet. Chuck Swindoll says it well, “God is seeking progress not perfection.”
Please hear this. Some people get so discouraged because they feel they aren’t progressing very rapidly. The Christian life is a life of growth and maturity . . . much like life itself. Growth takes time. As diligently as Paul worked at his faith, he still had not arrived. Don’t get discouraged . . . keep moving forward. Growth takes time.
Some people have a different problem. They have concluded that they have “arrived” at where God wants them to be. They have reached a certain point in their knowledge or experience and they conclude that they are mature and can stop working so hard. But those who think this have a faulty view of their own situation. They are looking only at the surface, God is concerned about the heart.
We must measure ourselves by Christ. He wants us to be pure in our actions, in our conversations, in our thinking, in our attitudes, in our relationships. He wants us to love Him more than anything else. He wants to be in the position of influence in every part of our life. If you understand the standard you will, like Paul, understand that you are not there yet.
DON’T LIVE IN THE PAST
What this doesn’t mean
Paul tells us that if we want to be focused on our growth we must “forget the past”. Obviously Paul is not telling us to literally not remember anything. Certainly we should remember who we were before Christ found us. We should remember the times we have seen God’s faithfulness demonstrated. We need to remember the mistakes we’ve made so that we can avoid them in the future.
Paul is also not telling us that we don’t have to fulfill the responsibilities of the past. If we have wronged someone we should try to make it right. If we have stolen from some one we should make restitution. If we have a problem with someone we should seek to be reconciled.
What it does mean
When Paul talks about forgetting he is telling us that we can’t and must not live in the past. What happened in the past is past and we must keep going forward. There are two reasons we need to forget the past. First, we have a tendency to fixate on the past. We will hold on to some bad experience and it will become an anchor that weighs us down. We will remember a hurt that someone inflicted and it will eat us up. We will remember a time when we stumbled and we will determine to never try again. How we deal with the painful times of the past will determine how we live in the present. We must learn from the pain and then move on. What God has forgiven should never be taken as a burden again.
Second, we have a tendency to rest on the past. We will replay the past victories and be content to remember instead of continuing to push ahead. This happens to many people. Paul determined that he would not rest on past accomplishments but always look forward to what yet needed to be done. There are Christians who are always talking about the great times of faith in the past. They talk about how intimate their relationship with Christ WAS. It is all past tense. We must forget the past and focus on the present.
Sports teams have this problem. They have a great victory and then glow from that victory . . . and in the next game they lose to an inferior opponent because they lost their focus. The same is true even in preaching. I usually allow myself Sunday and Monday to enjoy or learn from our worship experience. But by Monday afternoon I let it go. The focus is then on the next week. I have found that I must keep looking forward and not backwards.
BE INTENTIONAL ABOUT YOUR GROWTH
Paul tells us that he “presses on”. This is the same word that was used in verse 6 when Paul talked about his zealous persecution of the early church. It is with that same kind of intensity that Paul pursues God’s plan for his life. Paul also says “this one thing I do”. He is single-minded. Paul was not distracted. He was clear where he was headed.
He tells us that he is stretching forward and he is reaching for his goal. He is not only concentrating, he is straining forward. The image is like that of running in a race. You see people in a race leaning forward to try to beat their opponent to the tape. This is the image Paul uses for his desire to grow spiritually.
Some of mankind’s greatest contributions have come from people who decided that no sacrifice was too large and no effort too great to accomplish what they set out to do. Edward Gibbon spent 26 years writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Noah Webster worked diligently for 36 years to bring into print the first edition of his dictionary. It is said that the Roman orator Cicero practiced before friends every day for 30 years in order to perfect his public speaking. What stamina! What persistence!
Now think about how much energy we put into the Lord’s work. The comparison can be rather embarrassing. And it should lead us to ask ourselves some heart-searching questions: Why is our service for Christ sometimes performed in a halfhearted manner? Why do other things always come before our time with the Lord? Why do we prepare more diligently for our responsibilities in the world than we do our responsibilities in the church?
Growth will not happen if we are haphazard about our spiritual life. Practically diligence means,
- making time for God in our schedule
- finding time to thoughtfully read the Bible
- planning for times of prayer
- making worship and service a priority in our calendars
- doing a regular and honest spiritual evaluation of our lives regularly
- turning away from some worldly pursuits
- pushing ourselves to study and read for growth
- and daring to reach beyond what is always comfortable and safe
A successful coach reported that he lived by a very simple creed he found one time,
Press on. Nothing in the world Can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; Nothing is more common Than unsuccessful men With talent. Genius will not; Unrewarded genius Is almost a proverb. Education will not; The world is full of Educated derelicts. Persistence and determination Alone are important.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE GOAL
Paul tells us that he must always keep his eyes on the prize. It is like the Olympic athlete who trains tirelessly for a gold medal at the Olympics. When they get tired they imagine what it will be like to stand on the platform and hear the National Anthem of their country being played. That picture spurs them on.
Years ago a young black child was growing up in Cleveland, in a home which he later described as “materially poor but spiritually rich.”
One day a famous athlete, Charlie Paddock, came to his school to speak to the students. At the time Paddock was considered “the fastest human being alive.” He told the children, “Listen! What do you want to be? You name it and then believe that God will help you be it.” That little boy decided that he too wanted to be the fastest human being on earth.
The boy went to his track coach and told him of his new dream. His coach told him, “It’s great to have a dream, but to attain your dream you must build a ladder to it. Here is the ladder to your dreams. The first rung is determination! And the second rung is dedication! The third rung is discipline! And the fourth rung is attitude!”
The result of all that motivation is that he went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He won the 100 meter dash and broke the Olympic and world records for the 200 meter. His broad jump record lasted for twenty-four years. His name? Jesse Owens. [James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) pp. 26-27.]
So what is the prize that should spur us on? What image should we keep in the forefront in our minds? Maybe I could paint some pictures,
- the image of standing before the Father to hear “Well Done!”
- Having your life reviewed without any sense of regret or shame
- being surrounded by those who’s lives have been redeemed partially because of your faithful witness
- having someone say you were consistent and faithful during your funeral service
- the joy of that first moment when you see Jesus
For the Church
What does this message mean practically for our church? I think there are several good lessons.
- though we should be grateful for the growth and blessings we have seen we must always be looking for new opportunities to minister and grow.
- we must constantly evaluate our ministries and eliminate those that have served their purpose and develop those that meet the new needs around us.
- we must always be on guard that we value our traditions so much that they become an obstacle to growth. The question must always be, “Is this something that will further the Kingdom of God?” Rather than “Is this the way we have always done it?”
- we must remember that our goal as a church is not a particular attendance figure, our goal is to honor and glorify Christ in all we do. When we pursue this goal we will surely see numerical growth, but the numbers are not our goal they are just a measurement tool. We could get numbers . . . but we don’t want numbers . . . we want a relationship with Christ.
Many people begin a diet or start exercising and never follow through. Many start reading a book but never finish. Some begin training in an area but give up when it becomes difficult. Some get married and get out when it becomes difficult. And some people are fascinated by faith for awhile and then grow bored and move on to something else that will excite them for awhile. Are you like this? Is your faith superficial? Are you a temporary follower or are you committed to Christ?
The person who gives up misses out on the benefit that comes with the hard work. The one who leaves a marriage misses out on a quality relationship. The one who gives up on exercise and diet sacrifice good health. Those who give up on education miss out on the things they could learn. And those who give up the race for the heavenly prize miss out on the joy of walking with Christ.
So, what is the one thing you are focused on? Are you focused on stuff? Paying bills? Gaining power? Having temporary peaks of enjoyment? Don’t you want more from life than this? Set your sights higher! Press for the prize! Seek to know Him better and more fully. Jesus tells us that when we seek first the Kingdom of God, the other things we are concerned about will take care of themselves.
Some of you are near the finish line. Your earthly life is nearing it’s conclusion. Don’t coast now! Now is the time to “kick” and to finish strong. Other of you are just getting started. Don’t give up because it is difficult. Keep working . . . be patient. Growth takes time. And others are right in the heat of the race. Don’t let down. Keep pushing. I know it is exhausting at times. Focus on the goal . . . strive to finish well.
Paul is encouraging us to be more than names on a church roll. He doesn’t want us to merely call ourselves Christians or think of ourselves as Christians. He wants to know Christ and wants us to be real followers of Jesus too. May God grant that you and I might want that too.