At the end of 2017 we noted Paul’s admonition by way personal testimony to forget “what lies behind” (Phil. 3:13b). If we were to heed only that admonition, however, we would find ourselves to be little more than the proverbial “blank slate.” Certainly, we would be unencumbered by the past, but we would have neither impetus nor goal for the future. But Paul offers further testimony that serves to provide purpose and direction for us as we begin a new year: “reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13c, 14).
“Reaching forward.” If we have not actually done so ourselves, we have all seen pictures of athletes straining every muscle to be the first across the finish line. The Greek verb translated “reaching forward” means “to stretch out” and clearly describes that intense, all-consuming effort to win a race. Paul is perpetually straining toward what is in front of him. He will allow nothing to distract him; nothing will deter him because he knows that what lies before him deserves his utmost effort. Considering his background, Paul had more reason than most to reflect on past victories or to be hampered by the memory of past trials and persecutions, but he refused to allow either of these sorts of past circumstances to slow down his pursuit of future victories.
“I press on.” If the idea of reaching forward or stretching out were not sufficient to convey the single-minded zeal with which Paul lived every day of his life, he underlines that reality with the statement that he presses on toward the goal. Someone has suggested that we might speak in terms of “bearing down,” an expression describing purposeful determination coupled with intense concentration and full exertion. Paul’s use of the present tense conveys the thought that he lived his life in a moment-by-moment exertion of the utmost effort.
“The goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” We can never imagine Paul spending all summer vacationing on the warm sandy shores of the Mediterranean or luxuriating beside a roaring fire, regaling friends with amusing tales as he passed a fierce winter in the cozy comfort of a warm cottage. What possibly could have compelled Paul to live such a life of intense, on-going exertion? It was nothing more nor less than his realization that a prize of infinite worth lay within his reach. His goal was ever and only to obtain that prize. Paul knew (and explained more completely than anyone else) that salvation was not obtained through human effort, so, clearly, he was not speaking of salvation. Rather, he was motivated by the any-moment return of Christ (the “upward call”) when the prize of a glorified body, or complete Christlikeness, would be his. Earlier in his epistle, he had expressed a similar thought in these words: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). If Paul wanted no more in this life than to live for Christ, he wanted no less in the next life than to be with Christ and like Him.
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