The Prize

The Prize                                                       Sonlife Church 8.11.15  Philippians 3:12-21


I think one sentence in today’s passage is particularly memorable because it is particularly intense; “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.” (Phil 3:13-14).

Passion like that of Paul for Jesus can never be ignored.

Possibly the greatest English speaking preacher ever was George Whitfield. During the same period lived the famous sceptical philosopher David Hume.

The story goes that five o’clock one morning he ran into another man on the streets of London who said; “Why, aren’t you David Hume?””Yes.” “Where are you going at this early hour?”

“I’m going to hear George Whitefield preach,” replied Hume. “You don’t believe a word Whitefield preaches,” said the man.”No,” Hume answered, “but he does!”

Paul was contending with opponents in Philippi whose corrupting influence threatened to lead believers away from a passionful concentration on Christ.

In sharing his soul he wants to motivate his readers to follow him in the pursuit of Jesus, letting go of the past and focussing only on our resurrection future with the Lord.

Such a forward looking faith is in conflict with the dominant spirituality of today’s Western Christianity dominated by its focus on enjoying a better life now.

Such a focus on immediate gratification is driven by an attitude that prevents individuals and churches from reaching spiritual maturity.

Let me briefly explain what I believe this attitude to be.

When the leader of an interstate prayer ministry visited Perth some years ago the Lord woke her up in the middle of the night with the word “sandgroper”. (This is an affectionate way in which Western Australians are sometimes referred to cf. crow-eaters for South Australians.)

Searching a dictionary she found out that a “sandgroper” is a burrowing insect that eats the roots of healthy plants so that they do not fully ripen.

She sensed that there was a “sandgroper spirit” at work in WA preventing the maturing of the work of the Lord.

Very rarely do churches and ministries in this city reach the “hundred fold” fruitfulness in spiritual character and increase the Lord desires (Matt 13:8).

I prayed about this and asked the Lord to show me what this “sandgroper spirit” represented; I was led to several scriptures which highlighted the sin of “selfish ambition” (James 3:14, 16).

I could see a picture of a healthy wheat crop whose roots were attacked by the competition selfish ambition brings so that the harvest of the Lord never reached its peak.

This is a warning to us all.

There is a thread that runs through Philippians which picks up the danger of “selfish ambition”.

In chapter one of Paul speaks of opponents who “preach Christ out of selfish ambition, seeking to afflict me in my imprisonment”, then in chapter two he counsels, “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (1:17; 2:3).

In the third chapter of Philippians Paul speaks of people who think that they have spiritually “arrived” and are no longer motivated to seek Jesus above all else.

Such folk have inevitably turned their ambitions to earthly rather than heavenly things.

Nothing has changed.

From time to time people share with me their painful concern for Christian friends who seem to find it easier to talk about houses, land, family, work, money or ministry than to talk about Jesus. Philippians 3:12-21 is a passage designed to expel our selfish ambitions so that we remain focussed on Jesus bring forth the mature fruit God so desires.


In the previous verses of chapter 3 Paul has spoken powerfully of his all consuming desire to; “know Christ and the power of his resurrection [to] share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:9-11).

This deep desire to identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus leads him to clarify the limits of his spiritual attainment.


v.12 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.  

Apparently there was a group of people in Philippi claiming they had reached some sort of spiritual perfection. Paul flatly denies he has attained the resurrection state and its completion.

No doubt because we were created for it “perfection” is an idea that is inescapable.

Australian singer Vanessa Amarosi’s very popular single called “Perfect” basically said you are perfect just as you are.

Achieving perfection often plagues artists and other gifted people.

Sometimes frustrated teenagers react against the expectations of their parents with a cry like, “I’m not perfect.” 

You may have seen a car sticker that said, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

Whether we are people driven to seek perfection in achievements, or laid back cool dudes trying to be perfectly casual, the quest for perfection seems as hard wired in us as it is unattainable.  

The Lord however can deliver us from all ungodly ambitions about reaching perfection.

I tried to work out some of my thoughts about perfection through a PhD thesis that was an example of what they call “perfect being” theology.

This exercise did not help me on the inside at all.

Some years later I was going through a painful spiritual struggle where I continually felt that the demands of a “perfect God” were impossibly high to meet.

One morning deep in prayer I suddenly saw projected from my heart a sort of “image of perfection” that I was trying to serve. Instantly I realised the source of my idea of perfection was my earthly father’s expectations and had nothing to do with Jesus. My sense of “perfection” was an idolatrous projection of my imagination. Moved to deep and painful repentance over such terrible sin I found myself outside in the sunshine and it was like the whole world was suddenly filled with all the goodness of God in Christ.

There is only one place of perfection, it is in Jesus (Heb 2:10; 5:9).

When Paul describes how he is “pressing on” to make the resurrection life his own he pictures himself like a hunter  chasing down his prey, whatever it takes (cf. Rom 9:30). Then he shares something which helps us understand the radical difference between true Christian zeal and religious fanaticism.

I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own”.

When Jesus died Paul died in him, when Christ was raised the apostle was raised with him (Rom 6:1ff; 2 Cor 5:14-15). Christ has totally claimed us as his own so that our zeal for him is a response to his zeal for us.

This potent spiritual secret is spelled out in a parallel way in 1 Corinthians 13:12; “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” Perfect vision will come as a gift to every Christian when Christ comes again.

The revelation of this promise takes away all useless spiritual striving. (I wish I had known these things as a young Christian it would have prevented lots of useless suffering).

v.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, 14 I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s total orientation is towards his future with Jesus.

When he speaks of “forgetting what lies behind” he has in mind something much more powerful than not thinking of the past.

In Hebrew thought to “remember” something is to be actively present to that thing, for example when we “remember” Jesus in communion the Spirit connects us to the power of the cross placing us in its presence 2,000 years ago (1 Cor 11:24-25).

To “forget what lies behind” is to refuse to allow the past with its personal successes and failures to have any influence on the present.

Like a runner racing forward to the finish line a Christian must never look back.

People who cannot let go of past victories are filled with pride, but more commonly it is the memory of past failures that fill us with regrets.

A few months ago I went to a retreat in Kalbarri, as I drove towards the town I was filled with regrets about things I had failed to do, mainly with family, years ago. When memory brings regrets about past wrongs there is only one solution – get alone with Jesus. Here is what I wrote about an experience on retreat;

Walking beside the sandy tree lined river bed under the fresh spring sky I was magnetically attracted to the unimaginable goodness of God. In the presence of God I felt no constraint to perform or conform in order to right wrongs, only an incredible love; “we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16). Such a space witnesses infallibly to a world beyond this one filled with the pure goodness of Christ (Ps 73:1). Whilst a moment before memory pierced my heart with regrets about past wrongs I felt so pleased to be with the Lord in an inexpressible realm of wonder and beauty (Acts 2:37; 1 Pet 1:8). The sense of stillness, peace, rest and quiet emanating from the indwelling Spirit was exhilarating.

When Paul speaks of “straining forward to what lies ahead” he is as excited and animated as a runner straining with all his energy to reach the finishing line (cf. Col 1:29).

This athletic image reminds me of my experiences as a child at several Melbourne Cups; the scene of horse and rider straining every muscle with a continuous concentration on the things that are out in front is a spectacle of great intensity. Elsewhere Paul says, “All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.” (1 Cor 9:25).

A future with Jesus must be our all consuming ambition.

Paul first heard “the upward call” to follow Jesus at the time of his conversion, and “the prize” of this call is Jesus himself.

Still responding to a group in Philippi who somehow thought they had “made it” (1 Cor 14:37) the apostle continues,

v.15 Let those of us who are mature [Greek ‘perfect’] think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. v.16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

One of the Early Church Fathers wisely said, “it is the mark of the perfect man not to reckon himself perfect” (Chrysostom).

When I hear people refer to themselves as spiritually mature Christians I cringe in fear for them.

The way to measure maturity is summed in Paul’s passionate Christ-centred words to the Colossians; “Him (Jesus) we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col 1:28)

if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.

Paul’s expectation of divine revelation is stated in an almost casual way.

If you are someone who says, “God never speaks to me”, I would suggest you are looking in the wrong direction.

Stop looking at yourself and start asking the proudest Father in heaven and earth to speak to you about the excellencies of his Son; I guarantee you he will send his Holy Spirit to testify to you about Jesus!

As an immature believer I thought that if I could receive revelation from God I would be more spiritual, now I just want to know Jesus better (Rev 19:10).

Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (v.16), which is to say, live a life consistent with your Christian growth.

v.17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

Paul’s call for the Philippians to imitate his life does not come from an arrogance or  controlling spirit, in his humility and servanthood Paul is a model of Christ-likeness (cf. 1 Cor 15:10).

Unlike today’s Church the New Testament is free from obsessions about “leadership” and “influence”.

Paul will however boast of having suffered the loss of all things “in order to gain Christ” (Phil 3:8).

He speaks frequently and unselfconsciously of suffering for others because laying down his life for others reveals the love of Jesus; so to the Ephesians he says, “I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.” (Eph 3:13 cf. 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7-9 cf. 2 Cor 11:18-12:9).

This is true leadership.

keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.

This verse challenges us all to a transparent and consistent way of life (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 1:7, 9).

Jesus warned about the religious teachers of his day, ““v.2 The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. v.3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they preach.”” (Matt 23:2-3).

If you are a Christian you are being watched; inside and outside the Church.

Years ago I remember a mature aged woman coming to me and saying, “You’re the only priest we’ve ever had that hasn’t been materialistic.”

People will only see Jesus in us if we live out what we say we believe. (cf. spikes in church growth during the period of the Roman Empire occurred after the devastating plagues; when the pagans who had the resources to do so headed out of the cities for the safety of the countryside the Christians stayed back to care for the sick and dying).

Suddenly Paul changes his tone to speak of a way of life that must be avoided at all costs:

v.18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. v.19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

Whoever this group were they seem to have been professing Christians who were a constant menace to the Philippian Christians staying centred on Jesus.

In speaking “even with tears” Paul reveals a heart attitude of audible grief for the lost (cf. Acts 20:29-31; cf. 2 Cor 2:4).

His emotional brokenness comes from sharing the heart of Jesus, “And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now1)Luke 19: 42 the days will come upon you, when your enemies will2)Luke 19: 43 tear you down to the ground3)Luke 19: 44 because you did not know the time of your visitation.4)Luke 19: 44””(Luke 19:41-44 cf. Rom 9:1-5).

These wolves in sheep’s clothing harassing the church in Philippi are “enemies of the cross”.

Who are the enemies of the cross in our dark and confusing times?

There was a programme on TV the other night about Westboro Baptist Church in the U.S. whose website is, are they enemies of the cross, is Rob Bell, once the darling of American Evangelicalism but now an Oprah celebrity and “Everything is Spiritual” guru an adversary of the cross, how about the influential Australian Baptist elder-statesman Rowland Croucher who has came out in favour of “equal marriage”, and what are we to make of the superstar who was in Sydney recently for the Hillsong conference, Justin Bieber, is his lifestyle for or against the cross of Christ?

 The most Christ-like response to these sorts of questions is to intercede with tears for a confused and lost generation who no longer understand the power of the cross.

Paul zeroes in uncomfortably on these “enemies of the cross” whose “god is their belly”.

I will never forget the conversation I had with a young Hindu cult devotee on the streets of Adelaide over 40 years ago; “I am made in the image of God” he said “and I find myself lusting after a cream cake in the shop window”.

I was in the Belmont Forum this week which of course was thronging with obese people, for Australia is in the midst of an obesity epidemic which is predicted to shorten the average lifespan of the nation5)…/No_Time_To_Weight_Report.

There are idolaters who “god is their belly” all around us. (cf. Rom 16:17-18 “persons who serve their own appetites”).

Maybe though you are more sophisticated than these examples, perhaps you are uncontrollably passionate about coffee in a way that interferes with the “one thing” who is Jesus.

Seriously, I know people whom the Lord has spoken to about their coffee problem.

The enemies of the cross “glory in their shame”.

It is normal today for people to boast about their sexual exploits, drinking bouts and the other humiliating lusts which place them under the judgement of God. That is the world and it is to be expected, what really bothers me is how at a foundational level the Church is often little different.

I was speaking with someone on the pastoral team of a large church during the week and he asked me why so many pastors are obsessed with numbers. I related my past experience of going to pastors’ conferences and how about the second question you would be asked was, “How big is yours?” (I am being deliberately Freudian about this.).

Many pastors are more passionate about growing a church, or seeing signs and wonders, than they are about Jesus.

Godly ambition can be summed up in the words of Count Zinzendorf, the father of the modern missions movement, “I have but one passion: It is He, it is He alone.”

Only the cross can free us from our selfish ambitions so we may grow in resurrection life, as Paul says to the Galatians, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14).

Paul’s says his opponents in Philippi have their “minds set on earthly things”.

In a more extended comment he writes to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:1-3).

Sadly, many Christians today seem to have lost the ability to look up and are focussed on enjoying a better life now.

A few years ago I was invited to a $100 a head breakfast to listen to the then richest person in the nation talk about Christianity in the Marketplace.

Someone bought me a ticket and the place was packed. I am guessing those attending aspired to be successful like the speaker.

The address was a clear revelation of the man’s heart ambitions (Luke 6:45). Although he mentioned seeking guidance from the Bible a couple of times guess whose name was never lifted up?  (Jesus).

What you share most passionately is a clear indication of where your personal ambitions lie.

I have left Paul’s most disturbing words in this passage until last; “their end is “destruction”, destruction in the Bible is not annihilation but the total opposite of salvation (Matt 7:13; Rom 9:22; 2 Pet 3:7; Rev 17:8, 11).

If someone’s ambitions in this life are earthly things then when Jesus returns and dissolves the present cosmic order everything in which they have ever hoped will be lost (cf. 2 Pet 3:7-11).

Such an end is almost too terrible to contemplate.

After such depressing things Paul moves on with a very big BUT which fills our hearts with hope

v.20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, v.21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:20-21)

In saying “our citizenship is in heaven” Paul beautifully expresses the truth that each local church is called to be a colony of heaven.

Since heaven, where Jesus lives, is our home if you feel at home in this world there’s something wrong in your relationship with Jesus (1 Pet 1:1, 11; Heb 11:13; James 1:1; Epistle to Diognetus V). We are to take our cues for life not from our surrounding culture but from our heavenly Lord.

Nicky Gumbel of Alpha fame rightly says “If our ambition is to know Christ, our hearts will soar into heavenly places.”

As this passage moves on the pitch of passion becomes inexpressible; if the thought of graduation from university, or getting your first job, or getting married, or starting a home and family is exciting how thrilling beyond measure is the anticipation of the Second Coming when we will meet Jesus face to face (1 Cor 13:12).

When Paul says “we await a Saviour” he is speaking the same language as the letter to the Hebrews;  “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb 9:28).

Three broad groups of Christians persistently yearn for the Return of Christ;

  1. the Church under persecution,
  2. the Church in poverty and
  3. the Church experiencing a genuine Spirit-filled revival.

Part of the Australian Church’s lack of hunger for the Second Coming stems from our failure to understand what the rest of this passage means.

When Jesus returns he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body”.

In language like Paul has already used in Philippians 2:8 of Jesus taking on a human body the promise is that God will glorify, literally, the “body of our humiliation”.

I often prayer walk past a 24 hour gym on Great Eastern Highway and no matter what time of hour or day there always seems to be someone in there working out; this is a healthy thing to do (1 Tim 4:8) but in the end it is futile because the Creator pronounced over our fallen race; “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Naturally speaking every person is fighting a losing battle against frailty, sorrow, aging, illness, the miseries of the flesh and eventual death (Rom 8:10-11; 1 Cor 15:42-44; 50-54).

This is not a cause for depression but should move us to join in with Paul, “v.24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? v.25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25).

When Jesus appears he will change our weak bodies to be “like his glorious body”.

God can do nothing better for you than to give you the same sort of indestructible body he has given to his Son.

This miraculous transformation comes “by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil 3:21 cf. Eph 1:19-20; 3:7).

This is the power by which Christ is Lord over the whole created cosmos (Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 15:28; Heb 2:5-9).

This power is already at work in us to make us more and more like Jesus (Eph 1:19-20).

These truths are great truths, why is it then that so few contemporary Christians meditate on the hope of resurrection?

Jesus’ great ambition to bring glory to his Father could only come through resurrection from the dead (John 12:27-28; 17:5).

To die on the cross so that he might be raised from the grave required from Jesus an exclusive and excruciatingly painful submission to the purposes of his Father (Mark 14:36).

This was the lesson Christ taught Paul when he cried out to the Lord for relief from the suffering of his “thorn in the flesh”; to a desperately weakened apostle the Lord said, ““My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Cor 12:9).

This is the one form of perfection that Paul can proclaim, this is his sole passion and ultimate ambition, that through submission to the sufferings of Christ in our own life we enter into the exhilarating presence of his resurrection power. This is the “one thing” the man/woman of God chases after above all other desires.


I was in conversation yesterday with one of my favourite pastors in this city; in this case it was not Binh! He said he had been in his present church for five years and this was longer than any role placement he had ever been in his life.

I could tell he and the church had reached a place of predictability as most churches, most marriages and most Christians do.

After a period of early excitement things plateau because the competing ambitions of men and women in marriages, ministries and churches choke out the life of Christ stopping the continuous growth that is natural to the kingdom of God.

In such situations pastors move on, marriages simply survive (at best) and believers just adjust to staying in the same place with God because they don’t know how to go deeper into Christ.

I said my dear brother yesterday that my marriage is as exhilarating today, more actually, as it was 40 years ago and my passion for Jesus, the single minded ambition, which underlies all I am and all I do is more focussed than ever.

This is not because I have reached any perfection, but because through many mistakes, slowness and stupidities I have had some measure of revelation “of the prize of the upward call of God” which is Christ himself.

There is some order in this; the Lord has a regular way of putting to death our selfish ambitions.

As a young Christian I was approached about taking a path in the biological sciences, something I really wanted to do to cover over my embarrassment at having to do my final year of high school twice, even before I could ask the Lord about this his Spirit convicted me this was not his will, I was in the process of applying to fulfil an ambition to be a full time lecturer in a major theological college when God blocked me again, the wisdom of God stymied my pastoral ambitions by handing a church I was leading over to what I can only call a riot.

There are plenty of other examples.

I have been stripped of idol and idol so that I might, like Paul, accept that the “one thing” the Lord has for us that is infinitely better than all else is himself.


When people observe your manner of life is it categorically clear to them that the “one thing” you desire far above all else is to share in the resurrection life of the Son of God?

If you are hesitant to answer this question in the affirmative then today you must ask the Lord to graciously expose all of your selfish ambitions and to put to death every idol which would keep you from “pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, (ask) God (to) reveal that also to you.



References   [ + ]

1. Luke 19: 42
2. Luke 19: 43
3, 4. Luke 19: 44

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