Randy Alcorn tells the following story:
“In 1952, a young woman names Florence Chadwick stepped off Catalina Island, into the Pacific Ocean. Her goal was to swim to the shore of mainland California, 21 miles away.
It was foggy and chilly. She could barely see the boats alongside her. Florence swam for fifteen hours. She begged to be taken out of the water. Her mother, in a boat alongside, told her she could make it.
Finally, physically and emotionally exhausted, she gave up and stopped swimming. They pulled her out.
Then, when Florence Chadwick was on the boat she discovered the truth: the shore was less than half a mile away. She was 98% of the way home.
At a news conference the next day she said this: ‘All I could see was the fog…I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.’”
In the first half of chapter three Paul talks about how he built up his resume to prove his worth. In verses 5 and 6, he speaks of his Jewish credentials. But he explains that those things no longer drive him. He counts all of it rubbish compared to gaining Christ (vv.7-8).
In this morning’s passage, Paul continues his thought. Those things that defined our identity in the past should be forgotten in light of the future.
The gospel compels us to press on toward the prize of heaven. Paul calls his readers to make heaven their aim. He longed to see their joy derive from a heavenly perspective.
Read Philippians 3:12-4:1.
I. Forget the Past (12-16)
Paul’s not trying to fool anyone (12-13a). He realizes that the goal of perfection will only be achieved in glory. Nevertheless, it is a goal worth pursuing. Maturity does not mean you have arrived! And the pursuit of godliness doesn’t mean you are trusting in your works for salvation (cf Phil 3:9).
Paul acknowledges that the Christian life is about continually pressing forward. Paul presses on toward righteousness, because Christ marked him as his own. In other words, he’s grateful for the work of redemption. Because he has been adopted, he now lives like a child of God.
Paul forgets what lies behind (13b). What does “forgetting” have to do with pressing on? Paul doesn’t mean that the Philippians should abandon what they have already started. He doesn’t mean they should forget their family and friends. When he tells them to forget the past he could mean several things…
1. Forget the things they used to live for. No longer find your value in worldly successes. He could simply be reminding them of what he just said in the previous section. The mature have an entirely new set of values.
2. Forget the sin and the shame of the past. Some of us—when we look upon our past—are filled with shame. To look back not only fills us with a desperate sense of helplessness, it also fills us with a sense of shame and unworthiness. Instead of a grateful heart, there is a sense of condemnation. If that is your tendency, hear the Apostle Paul’s words from Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
3. Forget the temporary ground that has been gained. Paul maintained a healthy sense of discontentment with is level of maturity.
The sprinter has a rule. He is never to look back. If he does, he can lose his stride. He could lose his direction and cross lanes. It is simply too dangerous to look back during a short race.
But the Christian life is more like a marathon. Why would Paul use logic that generally applies for a short period of time? He is “straining forward to what lies ahead” (13c). “Straining” means to stretch out to the uppermost.
How do sprinters cross the finish line? They extend their necks and push their shoulders forward. They stretch out as far as they can, to the point that many of them fall down in desperation trying to beat their competitors.
That is the effort Paul has in mind. We are running the race of the Christian life with every fiber of our being. We strain and stretch forward with every step.
The point is to forget the past so that it doesn’t keep you from pursuing the future (14). Don’t think about where you’ve been; think about where you’re going!
However, there is a sense in which remembering our past is helpful (16). We must know what we have attained so that we can gain ground; rather than lose it. Do we realize what we have attained?
Here’s Paul’s WARNING: Don’t let the past make you pessimistic about the future! We should continually press on. We will face hardships. We will have setbacks. No, we have not “arrived.”
But there is hope, because Christ Jesus has made us his own. We are his. We were bought with a price.
So we ought to honor him with our bodies. We cannot give in! We cannot give up! Complacency is not an option! The Christian has a prize to pursue, and we must persevere in order to obtain it.
Paul’s vision was neither blurred by his losses, nor was it blurred by his victories. As long as he had breath, he had a race to run.
› It isn’t enough to forget the past. We must also…
II. Redeem the Present (17-19)
Paul provides two critical aspects of redeeming the present:
1. Imitate positive role models (17): Imitate Paul and those who live like him. He wants his readers to consider how the gospel has had an effect on others.
2. Avoid negative role models (18): Those who worship themselves.
a. They walk as enemies of the cross.
b. Their god is their belly (19a). They have an appetite for the things of this world.
c. Their minds are set on earthly things (19b).
Notice the contrast. If the Philippians do not imitate Paul and those like him, they will imitate others. If you aren’t learning from the right people, you are learning from the wrong people. You only have two options. Paul leaves no room for neutrality.
We are all being affected by someone for good or ill. Either we’re being influenced to persevere, or we’re being influenced toward apathy and idleness.We need to ensure that we are following those who are pointing us forward, not calling us backward.
Why is this even a threat for the believer? Why are we attracted to negative role models in the first place? Psalm 124 provides a powerful illustration of this. In verse 6-7a, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth! We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers…”
There are a number of things that might have enticed the bird into the trap, but whatever the lure was, it worked! The bird was trapped.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis writes about Edmund’s love for the White Witch’s Turkish Delight. She entices him to work for her by continually feeding him what he craved.
It is humbling to think that after we have been the recipients of so much grace, we would continue to be ensnared by the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
What is the snare that lays before you? What continually tempts you and pulls you away from God? Are you tempted by power, money, or fame? Do you over indulge in alcohol, sports, or politics? Are you obsessed with beauty, or addicted to pornography? What takes your eyes off of Christ?
Whatever it is—hear the rest of the Psalm—(Psalm 124:7), “We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped!” The world continues to offer you everything your flesh craves, and Satan continues to set his traps out before you, but none of it can overpower the one whose eyes are set on Christ. He has made the way of escape. In Him, we are free!
How? Because Jesus took our place in the snare of the fowler. The trap that was meant to destroy him (and us), was what ultimately accomplished the victory. We no longer live in guilt and condemnation, because Jesus took all of it upon himself, and put it to death on the cross!
You redeem the present by craving more of Christ. Imitate those who magnify Christ in their lives. They will be the ones who appear to be running for the grand prize!
› Forget the past that holds you back. Redeem the present for godly purposes. And, finally…
III. Envision the Future (20-21)
What are some of the common misconceptions of heaven? There’s the cute concept of cherubs playing harps as they float along the clouds. But, even those of us who know better, oftentimes envision heaven as one giant, eternal hymn sing.
When my children were younger I tried to teach them about the difference between living for God and living for our stuff. I said something like this: “Your dolls have eyes, ears, a nose and a mouth. Do you ever ask your doll for forgiveness?
Of course not. No one but God can forgive us, yet we often consider our stuff more important than God. We act like we could survive without God, without church, but we have to have our toys.” Then, for added force, I threw in… “We can’t take our toys with us.”
The look of panic on their faces revealed how poorly I had represented eternity. After doing some damage control, I hope they’ve recovered since then…
Misconceptions about heaven abound. This is probably due to the little attention that is paid to the concept. Pastors rarely preach on the subject. Systematic Theologies cover very little ground on the topic. Christians often don’t know how to think about heaven.
Randy Alcorn, “When the Bible says we sinned in Adam, it suggests we have an essential connection back to the Garden, to Paradise. In a sense, the memories of Eden are built into us, and that’s why we can’t be fully content with anything less. The reason we want to live on an ideal earth is that we were made to live on an ideal earth. The reason we long to have enriching relationships with people is that we were made to have them. We didn’t make up the idea, God did. We were made to know joy…yet we end up desperately searching for joy in all the wrong places, and finding instead addictions and hollowness and misery.”
Where are you seeking to find joy? Do you have a misconception of heaven that might be making worldly pleasures seem all the more desirable?
When we read: “We are citizens of heaven,” (20a), it’s not surprising that many of us have no idea how to apply it. Many of us misunderstand Paul’s point. We think Paul means that since we are citizens of heaven we are waiting for the day we can live there forever.
Philippi was a Roman colony. Those in the Philippian church would have been very familiar with the concept of Roman citizens living in a different culture. Some Roman citizens were probably members of the church. In saying, “we are citizens of Rome”, they would not be implying that they long to live in Rome. The whole point of Rome having a colony in Philippi was to spread Roman influence to the Greek world.
However, the benefits of being a Roman colony is that they were protected by the emperor. Should someone attack Philippi, they would expect the Roman emperor to come to their aid, to rescue them.
When Paul says “we are citizens of heaven” he is saying that they should no longer have their minds set on earthly things, but they should have their minds set on their coming Savior. Our citizenship in heaven is important because that is the location of our Savior (20b).
John Piper from God is the Gospel writes, “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”
We all know how we are supposed to answer that question, but what do we really think? What is heaven? According to Paul, it is where Jesus dwells in unity with his people (Phil 1:21-23). If we are going to imitate Paul, our desire for Christ must exceed all other passions. We must be able to say “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” What will Jesus do upon his return? He will transform our bodies to be like his glorious body (21).
› I’ll close the way Paul concludes this passage.
Stand firm (4:1)! When you can’t see beyond the fog and you simply want to give in to the temptations that surround you every day:
1. Forget the Past
2. Redeem the Present
3. Envision the Future
And keep doing so until you receive “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (14).