I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.

Philippians 3:13

An athlete running a race must fix his eyes on something ahead of himself. He can’t watch his feet or he’ll fall on his face. He can’t be distracted by the other runners. He must focus on the goal straight ahead.

Paul’s remarkable concentration was the result of two things. First, he chose to forget “those things which are behind.” That includes both good and bad things. It means we should not dwell on past virtuous deeds and achievements any more than we should think about past sins and failures. Unfortunately, many Christians are so distracted by the past that they don’t make any current progress.

Instead of looking at the past, Paul focused on the future. “Reaching forward” pictures a runner stretching every muscle to reach the goal. To do that he has to eliminate the distractions and concentrate only on the goal ahead. Do you have that kind of concentration in your desire to become like Christ?[1]

Pursuing the Prize Requires a Focused Concentration

Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, (3:13)

A maximum effort without focused concentration is useless. Every athlete knows that runners in a race must fix their eyes ahead of them; those who watch the crowd or their own feet are likely to trip and fall. To make a maximum effort in any athletic endeavor requires the participants to concentrate on a point straight ahead.

Paul addresses the Philippians with the gentle, intimate, affectionate term brethren to move their hearts away from the Judaizers and toward him. For the third time in this passage, Paul adds the disclaimer I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet. The apostle’s intent is polemical. He is directing his argument at those who were teaching error, and he wants to make the truth abundantly clear. Despite the false teachers’ claims to the contrary, spiritual perfection is not attainable in this life.

Though Paul had not achieved spiritual perfection, he had that blessed discontent that motivated him to pursue it. In fact, it had become the one pursuit of his life, expressed in the phrase but one thing I do. I do is not in the Greek text, but was added by the translators because it is implied. In the Greek text Paul communicates his single-mindedness in a staccato, brief, impassioned, almost abrupt manner. The apostle’s focus on his goal was total, his level of concentration acute.

It is such singularly focused people who succeed in athletics and in other pursuits of life. Many people dabble in much, but succeed at nothing. Despite all the energy they expend, they accomplish little. Their lives are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. James called them “double-minded … unstable in all [their] ways” (James 1:8). To avoid such lack of focus the psalmist prayed, “Unite my heart to fear Your name” (Ps. 86:11), and Solomon counseled, “Let your eyes look directly ahead and let your gaze be fixed straight in front of you. Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established. Do not turn to the right nor to the left” (Prov. 4:25–27). When believers have one driving compulsion, to be like Christ, they will move toward spiritual perfection.

Such concentration possesses both a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively, Paul maintained his focus by forgetting what lies behind. A runner who looks back risks being passed. Nor does a runner’s performance in past races guarantee success or failure in present or future races. The past is not relevant; what matters is making the maximum effort in the present so as to sustain momentum in the future. Perfectionists and legalists look to their past achievements to validate their supposed spiritual status. The Judaizers sought to ensnare the Galatians in the past, prompting Paul to write, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Gal. 4:9).

Paul made a break with everything in his past, both good and bad. Religious achievements, virtuous deeds, great successes in ministry, as well as sins, missed opportunities, and disasters must all be forgotten. They do not control the present or the future. Believers cannot live on past victories, nor should they be debilitated by the guilt of past sins.

Churches are full of spiritual cripples, paralyzed by the grudges, bitterness, sins, and tragedies of the past. Others try to survive in the present by reliving past successes. They must break with that past if they are to pursue the spiritual prize. God is interested in what believers do now and in the future. “No one,” declared Jesus, “after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). The clearest vision belongs to those who forget the past.

Positively, Paul maintained his focus by reaching forward to what lies ahead. Reaching forward translates a participial form of the verb epekteinō, a compound verb made up of two prepositions added to the verb teinō (“to stretch”). It describes stretching a muscle to its limit, and pictures a runner straining every muscle to reach the finish line.

As already noted, the goal on which believers must focus is being like Jesus Christ. It was also the goal of Paul’s ministry to “present every man complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). He also expressed that goal to the Ephesians:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming. (Eph. 4:11–14)

To the Galatians Paul wrote that he was “in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). He exhorted the Corinthians to “be made complete” (2 Cor. 13:11), and his coworker Epaphras prayed that the Colossians would “stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12). Pursuing Christlikeness here and now, until we are made like Him in glory, defines the progress of the Christian life and the target of ministry.[2]

Striving for the Living Christ

Philippians 3:13–14

Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Several years ago an Englishman named C. Northcote Parkinson wrote a humorous book on the functioning of corporations called Parkinson’s Law. One chapter in the book set about to analyze the disease that has affected a corporation in which, according to Parkinson, “the higher officials are plodding and dull, those less senior are active only in intrigue against each other, and the junior men are frustrated or frivolous.” The disease goes through stages, he says, from the point at which a person appears in the organization’s hierarchy who combines in himself “a high concentration of incompetence and jealousy,” to the point at which the whole corporation is characterized by smugness and apathy. At this point little is attempted and nothing is achieved. Parkinson calls the disease injelititis, and he defines it as induced inferiority or paralysis. In our terms it is complacency or the absence of the urge to shoot high.

I wondered as I read the book if something of the sort is not found in the lives of many Christians. In this case, of course, it would be a spiritual smugness or spiritual apathy. It would be seen most clearly in complacency regarding spiritual things. I think spiritual injelititis is found widely. It may be found in you. Have you lost your vision for God’s future blessing on your life? Or have you ceased to work hard in his service? If so, you have caught the disease, and the words of our text would be a rousing challenge to your apathy.

Paul writes about his goals, setting himself as an example: “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14). Paul was not complacent, and we shouldn’t be either. Instead of smugness Paul knew a sanctified ambition, and he threw himself eagerly into the race that God had set before him.

Paul says that he had learned to press ahead in three ways. First, he forgets those things that are behind. Second, he looks forward to those things that are ahead. Third, he presses on toward the mark of the prize of God’s calling. In Paul’s mind there was a sanctified forgetting, a sanctified looking ahead, and a sanctified striving for that to which God had called him.

Forgetting the Past

In the first place, Paul says that he forgets those things that are behind. What are they? Well, he certainly did not forget his knowledge of the Bible and Christian doctrine; the letter he had just written proves that. Some of the greatest truths of the Christian faith are given in this very chapter. Moreover, he certainly did not forget God’s grace and God’s great mercies, because he has been talking about them throughout the letter. He knew that all he had to value in his life came through the grace of God manifested in Jesus Christ.

What is the nature of this forgetting then? It is the kind of forgetting that occurs when we cease to let things that are in the past overshadow the present, that lets the past be past, both the good and the bad, and that constantly looks forward to the work that God still has for us.

There is an illustration of the opposite of this attitude in the Old Testament. When God led the people of Israel out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, he provided everything that they needed for their journey. They had shade by day and light by night. They had water to drink and manna to eat. The time came, however, when the people ceased to look forward to the land that God was giving them and instead looked back to their life in Egypt. They said, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num. 11:5–6). The people of Israel began to hunger for these things, and God taught them a great lesson by giving them the things they asked for. He gave them quail until they grew sick of it. The point of the illustration, however, is that they began to look back and failed to trust God for their present and future blessings.

This does not mean, of course, that we are not to be thankful for past blessings. If we had been among the people of Israel when they were in Egypt and we had been able to buy the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic, it would have been quite proper to thank God for them, especially if we had been slaves. It would have been proper to remember years later how gracious God had been. But it would have been entirely wrong to long for these things after God had begun to lead us into new paths and had set new and greater blessings before us.

Unfortunately there are many leeks-and-garlic Christians among us. You are one if you are constantly looking to the past. If your Christian testimony is entirely taken up with what God did for you thirty or forty years ago, or if you are constantly talking about the good old days when God’s blessing on your life seemed great, then you are looking to the past. You can never do that and move forward. One of my good friends describes old age as the point in life when a person ceases to look forward and always looks backward. If that is accurate, then there are certainly a lot of old Christians—and I do not mean in terms of their years. They are living a leeks-and-garlic type of Christianity, and Paul warns against it. He would say, “Look! Past blessings are fine. We have received them from God’s hands, and we should be thankful for them. We rejoice in everything that he has done in our lives. But now we must let those things lie in the past and move forward.” There can be no progress without this proper forgetting.

Reaching Forward

The second thing that Paul claims to have done is to have fixed his gaze on the many things that God would yet be doing. He speaks of himself as “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Someone once asked David Livingstone when he was back in England briefly after having worked for many years in Africa, “Well, Dr. Livingstone, where are you ready to go now?” Livingstone answered, “I am ready to go anywhere, provided it be forward.” That is what Paul would have said. Paul’s sense of the Lord’s leading was always linked to his awareness of open doors. Paul expected the Lord to open doors, and when he did, Paul went through them instantly. Through those doors Paul was constantly striving toward those things that were ahead.

It is precisely at this point that these verses are often misunderstood. When verse 14 speaks of the “goal” and the “prize” of God’s high calling, most readers think of a prize received in heaven, and then interpret verse 13 as a description of Paul’s striving for a heavenly reward. This is not the true meaning of the verses. It is true that the prize is probably a prize received in heaven. But the prize is achieved, as in a long race, not by pressing toward the prize itself but by pressing on to one mark after another along the racecourse of the Christian life. Actually, Paul says that he is striving to achieve this aspect of his calling.

This is evident in the text in two ways. First, verse 14 speaks of the “heavenward” calling of God in Christ Jesus. This throws the emphasis of the verse upon the ascent. Second, Paul mentions God’s “call.” In the New Testament when this word is used of a Christian it almost always refers to God’s calling to be conformed day by day to the image of Jesus Christ. That, too, is a reference to the present.

Do we run our race like that as Christians? We can err in two ways in the running of the Christian life. We can err by looking only at the past; this is sin, for it is a lack of faith in God’s future blessing. But we can also err by looking only at so distant a future that we miss the more immediate blessings that God has in store for this life.

Instead of either of these, we should run our race striving toward each new task before us. We should awake in the morning to say, “Lord, here is a new day that you have given me. I know that there are new things to be done and new lessons to be learned. Help me to use this day as well as I possibly can—to raise my children properly, to do well at my job, to help my neighbor.” And when we go to bed that night we can pray, “Lord, I have not done anything today as well as I should have, and I missed many of your blessings. But thank you for being with me. Help me now to place today’s experiences behind and rest well so that I may serve you better tomorrow.” God will do it, for he is anxious to lead us onward in our experience and our service for him.

Spiritual Battles

There is a third point to Paul’s statement in these verses. The life Paul wishes to live involves not only a forgetting of the past and looking forward to the things that lie ahead. It also involves a striving for these things. This involves perseverance, discipline, and concentration. Do you concentrate on the Christian life, or is your mind filled with the things of this world? Do you fix your mind on the things God has for you, or do the temporary, passing, and insignificant things of this world crowd out the lasting, eternal things?

If we are really to engage in that great struggle for God’s best that Paul is speaking about, we must also be prepared for vigorous spiritual conflict. For our striving is not only against ourselves or our circumstances but against the spiritual forces of this world that seek to hinder us. Paul calls them principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world.

Satan’s attacks are directed against Jesus Christ, and he does not care much about a believer who is far away from his Lord. If you want an easy time as a Christian, all you have to do is to get far away from Jesus Christ—move away to the periphery of the battle. Satan is not going to bother you much out there because that is where he wants you. However, if you draw close to the Lord, as Paul wished to do, and join with him in the battle, then Satan’s arrows will start coming at you too. The battle will be hard and you will find it necessary to use God’s weapons for the conflict.

All too often Christians arm themselves with the weapons of the world instead of with God’s armor. In Ephesians 6 Paul speaks of God’s weapons as truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, and the Word of God. But how often do believers prefer the world’s armor: wisdom, self-confidence, financial security, success, and popularity! This is not the armor that God has prepared for his warriors.

The first part is truth, for Paul writes, “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (Eph. 6:14). Pilate asked Jesus about the truth, but he did not wait for an answer. If he had, he would have learned that Christ is the truth and that God’s Word is truth (John 14:6; 17:17). If we are to stand fast as Christians, we must first be armed with the truth about Christ and with the great, energizing principles of God’s Word.

We are also to have on the breastplate of righteousness. This is not the righteousness with which we are clothed by God when we believe in Jesus Christ. It is not the divine righteousness that Paul is talking about here. If we are believers in Christ, we already have that righteousness and there is no need to admonish the Christian to put it on. The righteousness mentioned here is a practical righteousness that is meant to characterize the life of the individual. Christians are to live holy lives and must not allow their conduct to damage their testimony.

Then too we are to have our feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. This means that we are to have mastered the heart of the gospel of God’s grace to humans in Jesus Christ and to be ready to explain it to others. In the same way, Peter admonished his readers to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

We are also to take the shield of faith. This is not the faith we exercised in believing in Jesus Christ originally, but a present faith that does not doubt in the midst of God’s current dealing with us. Does it seem to you that events have turned against you? Do you see what appear to be uncontrollable setbacks in your work or in your relationships to other people? That is where the shield of faith must be raised against all attacks of Satan. You must learn to say of God as Job did, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15).

There is also the helmet of salvation. How wonderful to know that the center of our being is protected by the great and eternal salvation that God has worked out for us!

Finally, we are to take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. A special Greek word is used for the term “word” in verse 17. It gives the verse a slightly different meaning from the previous admonition in verse 14 to be armed with the truth. This word is not the normal Greek noun logos, which refers to the Word of God in its entirety. It is the more restrictive word hrema, which really means “a saying.” Paul is saying that we are to be armed with specific sayings of Scripture, specific verses, and that we are to be able to draw on them in every circumstance and in every spiritual engagement.

As we engage in the battles of the Christian life that result from our striving for the victories that God sets before us, we can take confidence in the fact that the victory of Jesus Christ has already guaranteed the outcome. By his death and resurrection Jesus Christ decisively defeated Satan and the forces of darkness, and we now advance under his banner to enforce his conquest. We are to wear his weapons. As we go we are to echo Paul’s challenge: “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).[3]

  1. Brothers, I do not count myself yet to have laid hold. This is no superfluous repetition of a confession of imperfection. On the contrary, something is added now. The very word that introduces the sentence—namely, brothers, a word of endearment and also in this case of deep concern (see on 1:12)—shows that the apostle is deeply moved. Far more clearly than before, he is now intimating that the church at Philippi is being vexed by people who imagine that they have laid hold on perfection. These errorists probably based this claim on the fact that, as they saw it, they had not only accepted Jesus as their Savior but were also scrupulous in their adherence to Judaistic rites (see above, on verses 1–3). The apostle summarily rejects their claims by saying, as it were, “Such has not been my experience. Legal rectitude, slavery to outworn ordinances, hindered me instead of helping me. Moreover, as a believer in Christ alone, I for one am still far removed from the goal of spiritual perfection. Whatever any one else may claim, I have not yet laid hold on it.”

This, however, does not mean that Paul is indolent or despairing. On the contrary, he refuses to acquiesce in sin. As a runner in the race he stresses his exertion.

  1. Exertion

Paul writes, But one thing (I do). The runner in the race practises persistent concentration on one, and only one, objective, namely, to press on toward the goal for the prize. He permits nothing to divert him from his course. His aim is definite, well-defined.

So it is also with Paul. On reading his epistles one is amazed by this unity of purpose which characterizes the apostle’s entire life after conversion. Paul aimed at gaining Christ and perfection in him, a perfection not only of uninterruptible assurance but also of loving consecration: “Teach me to love thee as thy angels love, one holy passion filling all my frame.”

“Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;

I want thee forever to live in my soul,

Break down every idol, cast out every foe,

Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow;

Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

(J. Nicholson)

Such concentration is absolutely necessary. In everyday life distractions are often disastrous. Excitement about an impending trip to Asia distracts a motorist. The result: a serious accident. Similarly, in the spiritual realm worldly cares, the false glamor of wealth, and all kinds of evil desires enter in to choke the word of the gospel (Mark 4:19). Over-emphasis on sports, clothes, physical charm, etc., prevents the runner from reaching the spiritual goal. Real, undivided concentration is a matter of ceaseless effort on man’s part. It is at the same time the product of the operation of grace in the heart. It is the answer to the prayer, “Unite my heart to fear thy name” (Ps. 86:11).

Such concentration presents its requirements. The first is mental obliteration of that part of the course which the runner has already covered. Paul says, forgetting what lies behind (me). The runner does not look back. He knows that if he does, he will lose his speed, his direction, and finally the race itself. Looking back while running ahead is always very dangerous.

So it is also spiritually. Here too looking back is forbidden. Remember Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32). Now when Paul says that he forgets what lies behind, he refers to a type of forgetting which is no mere, passive oblivion. It is active obliteration, so that when any thought of merits, piled up in the past, would occur to Paul, he immediately banished it from his mind. This is not Nirvana. It is not the state resulting from drinking the waters of Lethe. It is a constant, deliberate discarding of any thought of past attainments.

The second indispensable requisite of effective concentration is unwavering progression. Hence, Paul continues, and eagerly straining forward to what lies ahead. The verb used in the original is very graphic. It pictures the runner straining every nerve and muscle as he keeps on running with all his might toward the goal, his hand stretched out as if to grasp it.

No less necessary is unwavering progression in the spiritual sphere. But if it be true that Paul on this side of the grave never reaches ethical-spiritual perfection—the perfection of condition, that is, holy living, and of constant, never-interrupted, full assurance of his state—, then why strive so eagerly for it? Is not the apostle foolish when he strives with such constancy and ardor to reach a goal which he knows he cannot fully attain in this life? The answer is twofold:

  1. Although a person cannot actually reach this objective here and now, he can, indeed, make progress toward it. This matter of ethical-spiritual perfection is by no means an all-or-nothing proposition. As Paul himself teaches everywhere, there is such a thing as making progress in sanctification. The line of progress may indeed be zig-zag, but this does not rule out the possibility of real progress. In fact, such advancement, such gradual development when the seed of true religion has been implanted in the heart, must be considered normal (Mark 4:28; Phil. 1:6, 9, 26; 4:17; then Eph. 4:12, 13; Col. 1:9–11; 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:1, 10; 2 Thess. 1:3; 1 Tim. 4:15; 2 Tim. 2:1).
  2. Such spiritual perfection in Christ, considered as God’s gracious gift, is actually granted only to those who strive for it! The prize is given to those who press on toward the goal (verse 14; cf. 2 Tim. 4:7, 8).

Concentration, obliteration, progression, accordingly, are the key-words of that spiritual exertion which results in perfection. It is by these means that one presses on toward the goal.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 148). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 246–248). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 196–201). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[4] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 172–174). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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