Running for the Prize | Philippians 3:12-14
Brian Hedges | July 26, 2020
Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to Philippians 3. We’re going to be reading verses 12-14, and while you’re turning there let me tell you just a little more about Eric Liddell, who was known as "the flying Scotsman."
Last week I mentioned the film Chariots of Fire, a 1981 film that won seven Oscars, including best picture, and it tells the story of Eric Liddell, the flying Scotsman, in the 1924 Olympics. There is a scene in the film where Liddell is running a 440-yard race (this was in 1923) and he’s knocked down to the ground several strides into the race, but he gets up and he runs hard, closing a 20-meter gap between himself and the other runners, and he won that race.
If you’ve ever seen the film, you’ll remember how he runs with his head thrown back and his mouth wide open and his arms just flailing, and you can see that every muscle, every nerve in his body is involved in pursuing this finish line. People who knew Liddell said that this was indeed how he ran.
The film only focused on the events leading up to 1924, but at the end of the film, as Eric Liddell and the other men are running on the beach and you have that wonderful music from Vangelis playing in the background, we read these words, “Eric Liddell, missionary, died in occupied China at the end of World War II. All of Scotland mourned.”
Eric Liddell did go on to become a missionary to China. His life’s ambition was not merely running, but it was running to win Christ and to know Christ. In fact, a man named David Mitchell, who was a missionary child in the internment camp where Liddell died in China, wrote these words. He said, “None of us will ever forget this man who is totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness.” What was his secret? “He unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. As a Christian, Eric Liddell’s desire was to know God more deeply, and as a missionary to make him known more fully.”
I think the apostle Paul would have loved Eric Liddell. In fact, I think the apostle Paul loved sports, even in the ancient world, because he so often uses athletic imagery and athletic pictures and metaphors to describe the Christian life. He describes it as a fight, the good fight of faith, in 1 Timothy 6; he describes it as a wrestling match in Ephesians 6; and he describes himself as a runner pressing forward to win the prize, here in Philippians 3 as well as in other passages.
This morning we’re reading verses 12-14. It’s a challenging passage, and a passage that I hope God’s Spirit will use this morning in your life to call you back into the race if you have fallen out, or to help you get back up and gather your strength and close the gap and run for the finish line if you have fallen down. Philippians 3:12-14. Let’s read it.
“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.”
This is God’s word, and I want us to see three things as we consider running for the prize: the prize for which you run, the focused effort you need to win, and the grace that keeps you in the race.
Three things that I think we see in this passage.
1. The Prize for Which You Run
Notice the language Paul uses. He first says, “I haven’t already obtained this, and I’m not already perfect, but I’m pressing on to make it my own.” Then, in verse 13, he says, “I do this one thing.” What is the one thing he does? In verse 14: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
What is this prize? What’s the prize that you’re running for if you’re a Christian? What is the prize that we are called to pursue if we are followers of Jesus Christ? Scholars kind of debate what the right answer to that is. Is it the righteousness that comes from God, being found in Christ and having the righteousness that comes from God, from verse 9? Is it resurrection from the dead in verse 11? Is it knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made like him in his death in verse 10? Or is it something else?
I think perhaps the best answer is just to say that it is all of these things, and it is Christ himself who brings all of these things with him. It is being found in Christ that we receive the righteousness from God, and it is in knowing Christ that we know the power of his resurrection, and it is in being made like Christ that we become holy now, in this life, and eventually are made like Christ in every way in the resurrection from the dead.
This passage, when you look at it in its fuller context, including the verses we looked at last week, talk about all these things. It talks about gaining Christ and knowing Christ and becoming like Christ and being found in Christ. I think what Paul is running for is Christ himself. Christ is the prize, and all that Christ brings.
There is kind of an “already/not yet” tension in this passage, because Paul already knows Christ, he’s already been justified in the present time. The verdict of the final day of judgment has been pronounced on him now. He’s already righteous in the sight of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and he’s already experiencing the power of the resurrection in the here and now. But he says, “I’ve not already attained—I’m not perfect.” He’s already experienced some things, but there’s a “not yet” that he’s still running for. It tells us that the race isn’t finished yet.
Don’t you find this encouraging, Paul’s self-assessment in this passage? I mean, here is the mighty apostle Paul. He had to have been one of the most Christlike men who ever lived, the most effective of the apostles, the greatest of all missionaries. He gave us a third of the New Testament. And here is a man who says, “I’m not perfect. I haven’t arrived. I haven’t already attained. I haven’t reached perfection yet, but I’m still running, I’m still pursuing.”
Wherever you are in your Christian life, it should encourage you that the apostle Paul was able to assess himself and say, “I haven’t arrived. I still have distance to go in my run, in my race.”
This is something we need in our own lives. We need a humble self-assessment. We need to recognize that we’re still in the race and that we have not yet reached the finish line.
You know, in the world of fitness, no one goes from couch potato to marathon runner without something happening in their minds or in their hearts. Nobody goes from not working out to gym membership. Nobody goes through this process without some kind of a wakeup call or a self-assessment or a look in the mirror and realizing, “Oh my goodness, I’m 46 years old and I’ve gained 15 pounds in the last five years.” Or you’re having heart palpitations or chest pains, and you go to the doctor and the doctor says, “You need to change your diet and your exercise, and you need to do it now.” It’s only when there is this realistic assessment of ourselves that we begin to take bodily exercise, physical health, seriously.
That’s a good thing to do, it’s an important thing to do. Paul says bodily exercise profits for a little while. But it’s not nearly as important as exercising ourselves for godliness. Paul describes these things in 1 Timothy 4. We need the same kind of self-assessment; we need the same kind of humility, the same recognition that “I still have distance to travel. I still have track ahead of me. The finish line is still ahead, and I haven’t yet reached the prize.” We need, in other words, a holy dissatisfaction with our present spiritual condition.
Spurgeon understood this. I love Spurgeon, as you know. Spurgeon preached a wonderful sermon on these verses, called “Onward.” He talks about likeness to Christ and holiness and the pursuit of holiness. There’s a place in the sermon where he asks some questions about our likeness to Christ, and he’s holding out perfect likeness to Christ. That’s the goal; that’s what we should be measuring ourselves against.
He says, “Am I like Jesus, perfectly like Jesus? If not, away, away, away from everything I am or have been. I cannot rest until I am like my Lord. The aim of the Christian is to be perfect. If he seeks to be anything less than perfect, he aims at an object lower than that which God has placed before him. To master every sin and to have and possess and exhibit every virtue; this is the Christian’s ambition.”
I think a passage like this cuts in two different ways. It cuts against the apathy that so often characterizes us as Christians, where we are not running with this goal in mind, a likeness to Jesus; instead, we’re resting on our laurels. And, it cuts against perfectionism, that doctrine of sanctification that suggests that it’s possible to be sinlessly perfect, to have arrived, to have experienced something that just gets us all the way there, where there’s no growth needed. Either way, this passage reminds us to assess ourselves with humility and to feel a holy dissatisfaction and to keep running, and to run for the prize, the prize of knowing Christ, gaining Christ, of being like Christ. The prize for which you run.
Listen, Christian: there’s more for you than you are presently experiencing. I believe that there is more for you. There is more for every individual in this room—there is more of God, there is more of Christ, there is more of the Spirit, there is more godliness, there is more holiness, there is more joy! There is more that you can have if you will pursue Christ.
I’m praying right now, Lord, would you stir us up? Would you do something in our hearts to make us earnestly long for more and to run hard?
2. The Focused Effort You Need to Win
That leads us to the second point, the focused effort you need to win. If the prize is out there, if the finish line is still ahead, if we haven’t pressed through the tape at the end of the track yet, what does it take for us to get there? It takes focused effort. It takes concentration, it takes discipline.
Look at verse 13. “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 towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Do you see the focus? “This one thing I do: I press on towards the goal.” This one thing. That’s a phrase, “one thing,” that shows up a number of times in our English Bibles. David said, “One thing have I desired, that will I seek after; [that I may] dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze upon the beauty of the Lord…”
One day Jesus went into the home of two women he knew, Mary and Martha. Martha was busy preparing the meal, distracted with everything that needed to be done, anxious about getting it all just right; and Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, worshipping him, enjoying him, coming to know him more deeply.
Martha complains, and do you remember what Jesus said? “Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things, but one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken from her.” One thing is needful: single-minded devotion to Christ.
It’s what the philosopher Kierkegaard described in his book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. It’s what Jesus meant when he said your eye must be single. Single-minded devotion to Christ, a singular ambition.
You know, there’s power in focus. Think about light. Have you ever noticed or thought about the difference between a floodlight, which diffuses light over a parking lot—that’s great, it’s good to have that—but how much more powerful is a laser, where that light, that energy is so concentrated, it is so focused that it can cut through metal. The power of focus. Paul had it. He said, “This one thing I do.”
But that focus led to effort. It’s focused effort, it’s focused discipline. He says, “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal.”
That word “press” is an interesting word. He uses the word in verse 12, he uses the word in verse 14, but he’s also already used the word in verse 6. When Paul was talking about his past and he lists these seven things about his past (we looked at that last week), one of the things he said is this. He said, “...as to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” The word “press” is the same as the word “persecute” in that verse.
How would this word mean both of those things? How would the same word mean “persecute” or “press”? What does it mean? It’s a word that means to pursue, it means a driving pursuit, to chase after. So, at one time Saul of Tarsus, before he was a Christian, was pursuing Christians. He was chasing them down so that he could put them in prison. That’s how he was persecuting them. Now, Paul the Christian, the apostle, is pursuing Christ, and he’s chasing him down. He’s running after him with all of his might, this driving pursuit in his life. That’s the effort. He says, “One thing I do: I press on towards the goal.”
But then he also tells us how he’s doing this. How does he press on towards the goal? He says two things. He says, “...forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” He’s forgetting something, and he’s reaching for something.
What’s he forgetting? Well, he’s probably forgetting the things that he used to boast in, that list of seven credentials in verses 4-6. But he’s also probably forgetting other things—forgetting his past sins and failures and mistakes, his past successes, even his past experiences. He’s not looking to those, he’s not resting in those. Instead, he’s straining forward.
May I suggest to you, Christian, this morning that some of you are being held up and tripped up in your life by what’s in the past? It may be regrets for sins that you’ve committed. You’ve already committed them; you can’t change them. The only thing that can happen to those sins is they can be forgiven, and then you leave them behind you.
Some of you are resting in past grace. You’re looking back ten years, fifteen years, thirty years to what you experienced a long time ago, but you’ve since left your first love. You’re not as earnest in pursuing Christ now as you were then, but you’re resting in that. Don’t do that! Instead, leave that behind you and reach forward, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.
Peter O’Brien in his commentary tells us that this word “straining forward” is a vivid word drawn from the games, probably the ancient Olympic games. He says, “It pictures a runner with his eyes fixed on the goal, his hands stretching out towards it, his body bend forward as he enters the last and decisive stages of the race. It powerfully describes the runner’s intense desire and utmost effort to reach his goal.” Straining forward. You can picture it, can’t you? A runner who is straining everything in him, every muscle and nerve and every part of his body in that race.
Listen to these words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air, but I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest having preached to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Running to win means running with focus, it means running with effort, it means running with discipline.
Eric Liddell actually wrote a book on spiritual disciplines. It’s called The Disciplines of the Christian Life. It actually was a discipleship course that he wrote, and it wasn’t published until 40 years after his death, but it’s a book about discipleship, and about knowing and following Christ, and about the disciplines and means that we are to use in pursuing Christ. He talks about some of the practicalities of discipleship, and there’s a place where he asks some very helpful diagnostic questions. I want you to ask yourself these questions.
“Am I unrestrained in my pleasures, the kind I enjoy without considering the effect they have on my soul? Am I unrestrained in my work, refusing to take reasonable rest and exercise? Am I unrestrained in small self-indulgences, letting myself become the slave of habits, however harmless they may appear to me? What am I living for—self, money, place, power? Or are my powers at the disposal of human need, dedicated to the kingdom of God on earth?”
Are you running with focused effort?
3. The Grace That Keeps You in the Race
The prize for which you run, the focused effort it takes to win, and then, number three, the grace that keeps you in the race.
So far, this sermon has been a call to do something, right? Maybe it feels like one of those “do better” sermons, so what you’re feeling so far is maybe guilt—I’m not trying to guilt you, but maybe conviction. The Spirit is working. Maybe conviction that something needs to change, that maybe you have grown apathetic or weary or cynical or tired, or you’re fallen down and you haven’t gotten back up.
But listen, there is good news, and there is grace that will help you run this race. I want you to see it in two places, in verse 12 and then in verse 14.
In verse 12, Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it make my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Now, that translation is fine, but some of the other translations I think illuminate this and help us understand the word that Paul uses. He uses this word in two different ways, talking about what he’s pressing on to do and what Christ has already done.
Listen to the NIV. “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.” Or the New Living translation. “I do not mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection, but I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me.”
Let me give you one more, the old King James. “...not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.”
We don’t use the word “apprehend” very often, but when we do, it’s usually in the context of a law enforcement officer apprehending a fleeing fugitive. The fugitive was apprehended by the policeman. You know what it means. It means he’s been seized, he’s been brought into hand, he’s been taken into custody.
That’s what this word means. It means to grasp or to seize, or even to overpower. Paul says, “I am running in order to seize that for which Christ has seized me.” Here’s the grace! You’re seeking to seize something, but you’ve already been seized by Christ. Christ has already seized you, he’s already taken you! You see, Paul was conscious that something had happened to him, that Christ had done something to him, that Christ had taken hold of him.
This is true for every Christian. If you’re a Christian, one of the things it means is that Christ has done something for you that will not let you go. He took hold, and he took hold of you for a purpose. Paul says, “I am pursuing that for which Christ has pursued me and taken hold of me.” That’s grace.
Here’s the second way you see grace in the passage, in verse 14. Not only has Christ seized you, but God has called you, if you’re a Christian. Verse 14 says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That word “call” means the divine summons.
Again, Peter O’Brien says that this word with its verbal cognate “frequently refers to God’s initial and effective call to salvation through the gospel.” And get this, it’s a summons, not an invitation.
Do you know the difference between a summons and an invitation? If you get an invitation in the mail to a wedding or to a shower or to a dinner party, you can go or you can refuse to go. You can RSVP or you can not go. It’s up to you. You have a choice to make. But if you get a summons to jury duty, that summons comes with authority that compels you to go.
God’s call is not merely an invitation. It is that, but it’s not merely that; it is also a summons. It is an effective summons to come, and it comes with authority, it comes with power.
There are several things you see about it here. It’s God’s call. It’s the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” That means it originates with God, it comes from God, it is rooted in his elective will, and it is realized in his effective word.
2 Timothy 1:9 says that “God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”
Again—let me just say it clearly—if you’re a Christian this morning, the reason you’re a Christian is not first because you chose him, it’s because he chose you. His choice preceded your choice. God’s effective call.
He calls it here the “upward call of God,” or the high call. I think this refers to both where the call comes from—it comes from God in heaven, God above us—but it also calls us to him. It calls us to glory. 1 Thessalonians 2:12, “We exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to talk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” Or 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”
It reminds us to remember our destiny, remember what you’re running for. You’re running for the prize of the upward, heavenly call of God, and it’s the call of God also in Christ Jesus. That means that Jesus is the sphere in which we are called, and it is into relationship to Jesus that we are called, into union with Christ, and to fellowship with him that we are called.
God’s grace here works in two ways, in that Christ has seized us and in that God calls us, and he calls us to glory.
You might think of it like this. The entire Christian life begins in the starting blocks of grace, and it ends with the finish line of glory. It’s not so much that you are running for grace, but you are running from the starting point of grace. You are running with grace. You are running in grace, and you’re running for glory. The way in which you run is with single-minded, focused determination.
Eric Liddell, once again (to conclude with one more illustration from him), understood the importance and the priority of grace and how grace lay underneath all of our discipline and effort and discipleship and surrender. In his book, he says that when surrender is being made, “the mind should not be focused only on our act, but also on God’s forgiveness. The cross and what has been done for us by God is far greater than anything we are doing. We are saved by grace, and grace alone.” It all begins in grace, and it all continues in grace, and grace is what sustains us all the way to the end. Eric Liddell understood that, and that grace then shaped his life.
Here’s the interesting thing that was not known until many years later. When Eric Liddell was in the internment camp in China in the 1940s, Winston Churchill and the British government worked out a deal with the Chinese government for a prisoner exchange. The United Kingdom wanted their prize athlete. They wanted the Olympic runner. They wanted “the flying Scotsman.” They wanted Liddell. That was the deal, and Liddell gave the slot away to somebody else, and instead of leaving himself, he sent a pregnant woman to be freed. She was the prisoner that was set free.
He gave up a chance to leave the camp, and he died from a brain tumor on February 21, 1945. It’s possible that the tumor was a result of the severe malnourishment that he had suffered while in the camp. His last words, reportedly, were, “Complete surrender.” He died as he had lived, in surrendered service and in grateful imitation of Christ. He had run the race that was set before him, he had run to win, and he had finished well.
Let me ask you this morning, first of all, are you in the race? Have you experienced the call? Has Christ taken hold of you? Do you know Christ? Do you trust Christ? Have you responded to the gospel, the good news that your sins can be forgiven through the cross of Christ, that you can have new life and power in your life through the resurrection? If you’ve not responded, I encourage you to do so today.
But most of you probably have. You’re here, for the most part, because you’re Christians. Are you running well in the race? Are you running to win? Are you running with a focus on the prize? Are you seeking to become more and more like Jesus? Is there a single-minded devotion in your life, devotion to Christ and knowing Christ and becoming like Christ? Is there focus? Is there discipline? Is there effort? When was the last time you put some sweat into your Christian life? When was the last time you put some effort into it, some discipline into it? When was the last time you sacrificed something in service to Jesus? How long has it been since you’ve seen growth? Are you paralyzed by the past, tripping up over past sins and past mistakes? Let them go! Put them behind you! Your sins, if you’re in Christ, are forgiven. There’s nothing you can do about the past; instead, reach forward for the prize. Don’t count on yesterday’s grace, but run with the grace that God gives today, and run with your eyes on Jesus.
Let me end with these words, Hebrews 12, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance [with perseverance] the race that is set before us…” How? “...looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” I hope you’ll do that this morning. Let’s pray.
Lord, we ask you to work in us today, by your Spirit to apply these things to our hearts, to help us take an honest assessment of ourselves, to recognize that we are not finished yet, that there is running to do, that there is a need for renewed effort and focus and devotion in our lives. We ask you to give us the will and the power to run this race. We ask you to renew our focus, to gather up all of the energy of our hearts and of our lives, and make us like a laser beam, focused on this one thing: knowing and pleasing Jesus Christ, becoming more like him.
Lord, work in us right now. We need more than just words; we need the power of your Spirit to light the fire in our hearts again. I pray that you would do it for every person in this room. As we come to the table, Lord, may it be a time of real commitment of our hearts to Jesus Christ. May we know your presence. We pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.