Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected.
We are not yet what we should be, what we can be, or what we will be when we see the Lord. Our spiritual race begins with a sense of dissatisfaction. Paul started his race with the awareness that he had not arrived.
I can echo Paul’s testimony. After many years of walking with the Lord and being involved in ministry, I am acutely aware that I am not what I ought to be. Like every other believer, I am still in the process of growth. People who become content with where they are spiritually have reached a dangerous point. They are probably insensitive to sin and will tend to defend themselves when they should admit their weakness and seek help.
Spiritual growth begins like any race—the runner knows the distance he has to run and puts forth maximum effort right to the finish line. Paul’s goal was to become perfect, but knowing he hadn’t reached it yet didn’t deter him. And neither should it deter you.
Pursuing the Prize Requires a Proper Awareness
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, (3:12a)
All that believers are now in Christ and will enjoy forever in heaven is eternally fixed by God’s gracious purpose (cf. 1 Peter 1:4). That spiritual reality and promise cannot be improved upon, but believers’ virtue in this present life can and must be. Knowing that we are not now what we should be, and what we someday will be in glory, must not produce apathy and indolence, but a zeal for moving in the direction of the prize. That is the Spirit’s work in us (2 Cor. 3:18) and the longing of the regenerated soul. The awareness of the need to improve one’s spiritual condition is a necessary prerequisite to pursuing the prize of spiritual perfection.
Paul had that awareness, and expressed it in the two words that begin verse 12, not that. He had not yet obtained (from lambanō; “to receive,” “acquire,” or “attain”) the prize he pursued; he had not yet become perfect (from teleioō; “to attain perfection,” “reach a goal,” or “accomplish”). The twice-repeated word already indicates that Paul was still imperfect when he wrote this epistle.
Despite the rich blessings that were his in Christ, the apostle knew that he was not perfect. His knowledge of Christ was still incomplete (1 Cor. 13:12). Christ’s righteousness had been imputed to him (2 Cor. 5:21), yet he still needed to “cleanse [himself] from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Paul had Christ’s power at work in him (1 Cor. 15:10; Col. 1:29), but that power still worked through his weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). The rich fellowship with Christ that he experienced was also imperfect; he still did not know how to pray as he should, and depended on the Holy Spirit to intercede for him (Rom. 8:26–27). While his body was a temple of the glorious Holy Spirit who indwelt him (1 Cor. 6:19), Paul longed for the day when Christ “will transform the body of [his] humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil. 3:21).
Obviously, pursuing the prize of spiritual perfection begins with dissatisfaction with one’s present spiritual condition. Those who think they have reached spiritual perfection will not see the need to pursue a better condition; why should they chase something they believe they already have? Such complacent, contented people are in grave danger of becoming insensitive to their sin and blind to their weaknesses. It is only those who are aware of their desperate spiritual need who come to Christ for salvation (Matt. 5:6). And it is only those who continue to recognize the need to eliminate sin and cultivate holiness who will make progress in the Christian life. This pursuit by the power of the sanctifying Spirit produces a decreasing frequency of sin and increasing love for holiness, which makes less sin feel like more. The truly mature and godly have the most sensitive awareness of their sins, and are the humblest before God because of it.
Following the Living Christ
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.
I am not sure what humorist it was who first defined an ideal as “something that everyone is expected to honor but nobody is expected to attain,” but many people think of Christian discipleship in this way. That is unfortunate. The goals of discipleship are not unattainable ideals, and the Bible does not allow us to escape the demands of Christian discipleship by the excuse that the standards of that calling are too high.
Our study of Philippians has already brought us to two verses that were an expression of Paul’s great and lifelong desire to know Jesus Christ. He wrote of his desire to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (3:10). Paul lived this desire. But as he wrote these words the great apostle must have realized that there would be some among his readers at Philippi, as there are today also, who would dismiss them as something that no Christian could possibly be expected to accomplish. They would admit that the ideal was a good one, but they would call it totally unpractical.
Paul does not allow this kind of thinking to continue. He immediately adds that although even he has not realized the goal in its entirety, he is still trying; and we must understand him to imply that his readers should be trying also. He writes, “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” (Phil. 3:12).
Paul’s confession is not only a statement of the demands of Christian discipleship; it is also an announcement of the principles by which this calling should be realized. First, Paul acknowledges that he was called by Christ Jesus. Second, he notes that God had a purpose in calling him. Third, he acknowledges that this puts an obligation on himself—the obligation to follow after Jesus. If you and I are to be disciples, these principles must also be a part of our goals and Christian understanding.
The God of Beginnings
It is very important to recognize that all discipleship begins with God’s call or, as Paul says, with being taken hold of by Christ Jesus. God’s call must be foremost, for nothing can take place spiritually in a person’s life until this happens. Actually, it involves the creation of spiritual life. It would be foolish for a person to enter a funeral home to encourage the corpses to lead an upright life. If the words were to have any purpose, the corpses would first have to be made alive. In the same way, the call to discipleship must begin with the power of God to make a spiritually dead person alive, for only then are the standards of that calling significant.
This is what the new birth means. Before conversion God says that a person is dead in his trespasses and sins. The person is alive physically and intellectually, but he is not alive spiritually. Thus, he cannot respond to spiritual stimuli. While he is in this state the Word of God is a hidden book to him, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is nonsense. Then God touches his life. God’s touch brings life out of death, the life of the spirit, and the person then believes in Jesus Christ and begins to understand the Bible. This is what it means to be taken hold of by God. This must happen first before there can be any true discipleship. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
We find examples of this throughout the Bible. Abraham was taken hold of by God. Did Abraham choose God? Oh, no! He was perfectly satisfied where he was in the Mesopotamian river valley in a pagan culture, but God called him and sent him on his way to Palestine.
Moses was taken hold of by God when he was still a baby floating in the Nile in a basket. God said, “I am going to deliver my people from Egypt, and I am going to do it by means of this baby. I am going to protect him from Pharaoh. I am going to give him the best of this world’s training and education, and I am going to do many miracles through him.” God did these things through Moses.
There is also the story of David. God put his stamp on the future King David when David was still out protecting the sheep. God sent the prophet Samuel to David’s home to anoint one of the sons in the family of the future king. The father brought out all his sons in order, except David. Samuel looked at the boys and thought how good a king the oldest son, Eliab, would make. But before Samuel could anoint him God indicated that he was not the one. Next came Abinadab, who was not the future king either. Then there was Shammah, and so on until seven of Jesse’s sons were presented. “But Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has not chosen these.’ So he asked Jesse, ‘Are these all the sons you have?’ ‘There is still the youngest,’ Jesse answered, ‘but he is tending the sheep.’ Samuel said, ‘Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.’ So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; he is the one.’ So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power” (1 Sam. 16:10–13). Once again, it was God who took hold of David.
We come to the New Testament, and we find that God chose John the Baptist before he was born. Jesus called his disciples while they were still fishermen. God called Paul when he was in the process of persecuting Christians. In every case the call of God was primary. This has always been the foundation stone of true discipleship.
Are you also one of God’s children? Has he picked you up and made you his? Has he given you spiritual life so you can now understand his love, grace, and other biblical doctrines? Or are you just pretending Christianity? If you are only pretending, then you must begin where the others have begun. You must begin by acknowledging God’s call to you in Christ Jesus and your need for him, and you must commit yourself to him.
The second step in becoming an effective disciple of Jesus Christ is to be aware of the purpose for which he has called you. Paul says, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). What is that thing for which the apostle Paul and we as Christians have been taken hold of?
The answer is spelled out in Romans 8:28–29. Most Christians know the first of these verses, as we noted earlier in chapter 5. It says, “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.” It says that God has a purpose in saving us. But not many Christians know the verse that follows this, in spite of the fact that it goes on to tell what the purpose is. “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.” What was God’s purpose in saving you? His purpose was that you might be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, God saved you to make you as holy, pure, gracious, and loving as Jesus.
At this point I can almost hear someone saying, “Well, if that is the case, I’ll just wait for God to do it. I’ll enjoy that holiness in heaven.” But this is not the way Paul means it. Paul had a great sense of the present demands of discipleship. Everything he mentions in this chapter has to do with the Christian’s present conduct.
When Paul speaks of knowing Jesus Christ, in verse 10, he is speaking of knowing him now. He wants to experience Christ even in the midst of life’s sufferings. When he speaks of attaining to the resurrection from the dead, in verse 11, he is speaking of a spiritual resurrection now. It is the attainment of a kind of life so filled with Christ that those who do not know him will regard it as the life of eternity. In verses 13 and 14 Paul speaks of a present striving for the best that God has for him now. Our present text is similar. Paul is saying that he wishes to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ now.
This should be your desire also. It should be. If it is not, it will become your desire more and more as you begin to realize that this was God’s greatest purpose in calling you to faith in the Lord Jesus.
The first two of these points now lead to a very practical conclusion, for Paul writes that because God has called him and because he has done so for a purpose, he himself must determine to follow after Jesus. This means that God’s calling always puts an obligation on his children.
This is personal. Discipleship is always personal. Remember how it was with Peter. Peter frequently avoided personal contact with Jesus by speaking impetuously and often on behalf of the Twelve. But when Jesus came to recommission him after Peter’s denial there was no escaping a personal response. Jesus asked a very simple question, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” Peter had to answer for himself, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” It happened three times, and each time Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” At this point Peter’s mind turned to someone else. He noticed John, the beloved disciple, standing nearby and asked Jesus about him: “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me” (John 21:15–22). Discipleship can never be conditioned upon God’s plans for some other Christian. Christ’s call is always the personal one to “Follow me.”
It is also true that discipleship is costly. In fact, it costs a person his all. There are always Christians who think that they can be Christ’s disciples piecemeal. They think that they can follow him an inch at a time after first assuring themselves that there is no danger and that following him also conforms to their own plans for themselves and their future. But this is not discipleship at all. Discipleship means abandoning your sin, your past, your own conception of yourself, your plans for your own future, even at times your friends or your family, if that is God’s will for you, and following Jesus.
You may be saying, “But isn’t that hard? To give up the things I treasure?” Well, it is true that it is hard sometimes. But it is also true that there is a far greater sense in which we really never give anything up in the service of our Lord. We give things up, but Christ gives us more. And even the things we surrender are so arranged by God that they work for our spiritual well-being.
Peter learned this once in his life in a conversation that he had with Jesus. Mark tells us that just before Christ’s final journey to Jerusalem there was a point when Peter was bragging as usual, in this case reminding the Lord of his sacrifices in order to serve him. He said, “We have left everything to follow you!” (Mark 10:28). In other words, Peter was reminding the Lord that he was an ideal disciple and that his discipleship had proved costly. What nonsense this was! Peter had left hardly anything. He had certainly not left behind his own idea of what Christ’s ministry was to be, for he was constantly trying to tell Jesus how to go about it. His claim was presumptuous and egotistical. Jesus had this answer for Peter. He said, “I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30). Jesus was teaching that the disciple suffers no loss for which God will not abundantly compensate.
In one of his most popular works the American novelist and writer Mark Twain told the story of a prince and a pauper. The two boys came from entirely different circumstances, but they looked alike. One day, when chance had accidentally thrown them together, they decided to put on each other’s clothes. The prince donned the pauper’s rags. The poor boy put on the rich one’s finery. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it eventually turned out), the boys were then separated. The pauper was mistaken for the prince and taken to live in the palace, while the prince was turned back to the poor streets of London where he suffered great indignities before he eventually regained his rightful place and the throne.
In the same way, the Lord Jesus Christ took on our poverty, while we have been clothed in his finery. The Bible says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). He became poor as we were so that we might be clothed in his righteousness. He endured suffering and death that we might become like him—sons of God and coheirs with him of God’s glory.
It is true that the paupers must give up their rags, but there is no comparison between our rags and God’s glory. Jesus has told us that there is nothing given up in this life that is not replaced a hundredfold by spiritual treasure, not only in this world but in eternity also.
Years ago the son of a wealthy American family graduated from Yale University and decided to go out to China as a missionary for Jesus Christ. His name was William Borden. Many of his friends thought him foolish to give up so much of this world’s goods and his future to go there. But Borden loved the Lord Jesus Christ, and he wished to serve him. After only a short time on the field, and before he even reached China, Borden contracted a fatal disease and died. He had given up everything to follow Jesus. But at his bedside his friends found a note that he had written as he lay dying: “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets.” Borden had given up everything, but he had found a treasure that was beyond words.
Perhaps there is something that God has been asking you to lay aside in order that you might be a more effective witness for him. I do not know what it is. The thing that is a hindrance for one disciple is often entirely different for another. But whatever it is, you know it. At this point in your life, for you it is the touchstone of your discipleship. Will you cast it aside to follow Jesus? If you do, you will grow in your Christian discipleship, and God will bring great blessing into your life and through you also into the lives of others.
 MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 146). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 244–245). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 190–195). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.