Study Notes from Philippians by Dr. David Nelson

Philippians 3:12-16: Pressing On

By Dr. David Nelson

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul shared how his sufferings resulted in the advance of the gospel. He wrote to exhort the church to solve their internal problems so that they could bond together as one man for the advance of the gospel. Churches today need to work together for the advance of the gospel even in the midst of suffering and hardships.

12Not 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. 13Brothers, 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, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16Only let us hold true to what we have attained.[1]

In the previous section, we learned that true spirituality is based upon faith in the faithfulness of Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross. God does not accept our privileges or accomplishments as the basis for a right standing with Him, but only through the righteousness and faithfulness of Christ. Everything is rubbish compared to knowing Christ. Knowing Him means experiencing the power of His resurrection and becoming like Him in His sufferings. We look forward to the day where our knowledge of Christ will be consummated in the presence of God.

But we have not yet reached perfection in our knowledge of Christ and Christlikeness. Therefore, we must make it our goal to become like Him while we are still alive. Like a runner, we must pursue knowing Christ and becoming more like Him each day. Let us pursue becoming more like Jesus Christ each day. In this passage, we learn four steps for becoming more like Christ. The implication of this is that while we aim for Christian perfection, we will not experience it until we stand before the Lord.

The first step is to realize that we are not yet perfect in our knowledge of Christ (3:12a, 13a). Paul admits that he has not yet obtained or yet been made perfect (Gr. teleioō) in his knowledge of Christ and Christlikeness. The Greek word teleioō was used by Paul’s opponents where they claimed perfection and was also used by proponents of the mystery religions referring to initiation into their beliefs. The day that will happen is when he steps into eternity, face to face with Christ (1 John 3:2). “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” In 3:13a, he repeats his statement. “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.” “Consider” (Gr. logizomai) is used in 2:3 where Paul encourages the church to consider others better than themselves. The words “have made it my own” is from the Greek word katalambanō and means to attain something. He admits that he has not yet attained perfection in knowing Christ.

The second step is to not dwell on the past (3:13b). The one thing Paul does is forgetting what is behind. Paul uses the language of a race. He does not look back at the ground he has already covered. If a runner looks back, he loses momentum and could lose the race. Paul does not dwell on the failures of the past or the successes he has seen as an apostle. If we dwell on our failures, we will be overcome by discouragement. If we dwell on our accomplishments, we will become complacent. We must not allow the failures or successes of the past hinder us in knowing Christ perfectly.

The third step is to decide to press forward towards the goal of spiritual maturity (3:12b, 13c, 14). In 3:12b, Paul stated that he presses on (present tense) to take hold of perfectly knowing Christ. “I press on” means he runs toward the goal. In other passages, Paul describes the Christian life as a walk (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 5:2). Here, he is running toward the goal. Why? Because Christ took hold (Gr. katalambanō) of him (3:12b). He has not yet taken hold of (katalambanō) of perfectly knowing Christ, but Christ took hold of (katalambanō) him. On the Damascus road, Christ revealed Himself to Paul and took hold of Paul by saving him and owning him. Paul not only runs toward the goal, he strains towards the goal. The word “strain” (Gr. epekteinomai) means “to exert oneself to the uttermost, stretch out, strain.[2] In vs. 14, Paul presses on (present tense) “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul is not walking towards the goal, but he is running towards the finish line. He wants to obtain the prize. This prize (Gr. brabeion) was the prize bestowed upon the winning runner at the end of the games and is also used in 1 Cor. 9:24-25. In 2 Tim. 4:8, Paul used the word stephanos to describe the crown that God would give him for good service. This prize is God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. God has called us to salvation and fellowship with Him (1 Thess. 2:12; 1 Tim. 6:12; 1 Cor. 1:9). The upward call is perfectly knowing Christ and perfect fellowship with Him in heaven.

The fourth step is to not go backwards (3:15-16). Paul invites everyone who considers themselves as “mature” (Gr. teleios) to think (Gr. phroneō) in this way (that they are not yet perfect, but press on towards perfection). If anyone thinks differently than what Paul has just described, God will also disclose this to them. God is able to reveal to those who disagree with Paul the truthfulness of what he has just explained. The Holy Spirit is able to illuminate us to the meaning of Scripture and God also has gifted individuals with the gift of teaching to explain truth. In conclusion, Paul asks that everyone live up to what they had already attained in their walk with Christ. “Let us hold to” is from the Greek word stoicheō, which means to follow or keep in step (cf. Gal. 5:25). The implication is unity in obeying what he had already taught them. Thus, he reminds them of his initial exhortation in 1:27. A sign of maturity is recognizing what is truly important, namely the gospel, and working together to know Christ and to make Him known. We can disagree on a lot of things, but we can agree on this.

Thus, believers are to realize that they are not yet perfect in their knowledge of Christ. But we are to focus on running towards the prize by straining towards that goal. Our growth in Christ is a result of focus on the goal. We should not allow past failures or successes to deter us. But with focus of mind, we press on to win the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Php 3:12–16.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 361.


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