Pressing forward in your race

Vase depicting ancient games

By Mark Ellis

 The Apostle Paul often compared the Christian life to a race. We know he lived in Ephesus for three years, and during the time he lived there, he probably witnessed Olympic-style competitions in a stadium that held as many as 100,000 people.[1] 

I’ve been a casual jogger for years, but I’ve never won a race. One reason I’ve never won a race is that I’ve never actually entered a race. I’ve never been in a 5K, or any other race – until now. 

A good friend has persuaded me to enter a Sprint Triathlon that will be held in Newport Beach, California in September. 

It involves a half-mile ocean swim, a 12-mile bike ride, and a 3-mile run — a mini- triathlon. Piece of cake, right? The first thing I noticed as I started to train is that there is a difference between my casual approach to jogging and actually training for real competition. 

When I first ran three miles, my left knee started to stiffen and feel like an old wood board. The next day my calves were so sore I could hardly walk. So I can only say “God willing,” I’ll do this race — if my left knee and my other 55-year-old body parts hold up. 

There is something different about high-level athletes. They don’t take a casual approach to their sport. They don’t just dabble at it when it’s convenient. Every day they get up and their mind is focused on their goal. They read magazines about their sport, they set goals for themselves and push themselves to achieve those goals.[2]

If they are training for the Olympics, they want to win gold – they are aiming for the prize. And it involves intensive, focused, training over months and years. 

I interviewed John Naber recently, who won four gold medals in swimming at Montreal. He said he figured out four years ahead of the Olympics, while still in high school, what time he would probably have to hit to win gold in four years, and that became his intense focus as he trained – hitting that mark. 

In Philippians 3:12, Paul 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.” 

When he says he hasn’t obtained “all this” or been made “perfect,” what is he referring to? We have to back up to verse 10, where Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” 

Paul knew he hadn’t obtained these things, he knew he wasn’t perfect, that he had not “arrived.” I think there’s a danger that if we think we’ve ‘arrived’ as believers, we stop growing, we can become complacent.[3] 

If you’re born into the family of God, you should have a built-in hunger for the things of God, a desire to grow. A new baby doesn’t decide if it wants mother’s milk. The hunger is there! 

I still remember when God gave me that love for His Word. I was on my first church retreat at Forest Home. It was early in the morning and I had my new NIV Study Bible opened on my bed as the first shafts of morning light filtered through the pine trees and our picture window on to my bed. 

Paul acknowledged right up front he hasn’t reached his goal. He knows he’s not perfect. After 25 years walking with Jesus – even though he carries the title of ‘Apostle,’ he still sins. He has not reached the maturity he’s seeking; he hasn’t reached his goal. 

Paul uses the word “perfect” in verse 12. Can a Christian every become perfect? Perfection is a goal you never reach in this lifetime. Having said that, there are a few Christians out there who hold to a doctrine of perfectionism – that it is possible to reach a state of sinless perfection in this life.[4] 

I have a few words to say to these people: Let me talk to your spouse. I think I could figure out in a very short time whether they’ve reached a state of sinless perfection. 

I’ve been walking with Jesus for 26 years, and I hate to admit I’m still prone to some of my old weaknesses. I’m still confessing things I wish I had overcome a long time ago, but I haven’t, so I still confess my sins every morning – and I get a cleansing from God, just as important as my other shower in the morning. 

Here are a few things I confess regularly: selfishness, pride, carnal thoughts, desiring the approval of men, wanting any glory from my ministry, vanity, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, critical or judgmental thoughts,  and the list goes on… 

The plain truth is that this Mark has missed the mark in almost every role I’ve had in my life: as an elder, pastor, husband, father, brother, son, and as a servant of Jesus Christ. I have let my Lord down many times. 

But whatever my failings or your failings, Paul urges each of us — to press on, to take hold of that for which Jesus took hold of each one of us. The word ‘take hold’ is an intensified word that means to apprehend or seize something after a pursuit.[5] 

How did Jesus take hold of Paul’s life? Did somebody give Paul “The Four Spiritual Laws” to read? Did Paul answer an alter call? No. The reason Paul is running in the race is that Jesus Christ chased him down, threw him off his high horse, grabbed him, and put him in the race. 

Paul sees that Jesus took hold of his life for a reason. He was saved for a purpose. Now Paul wants that purpose to be the main focus of his life. 

Have you grasped that in your own life? Jesus saved you for a purpose. Has the reason he saved you now become the goal of your life? If you don’t know the reason he saved you, seek Him, inquire of Him, find out why he took hold of you. When you discover that, and your will comes together with his will, it’s a beautiful thing. 

I met Jossy Chocko at a friend’s home in Laguna Beach. He grew up Kerala, in south India. During a low point in Jossy’s life, God brought to Jossy’s attention his life’s purpose. 

Jossy says he came to the recognition that “The only reason for me to exist is to fulfill the Great Commission.”  The Great Commission is given to all of us at the end of the Book of Matthew, when Jesus says to go and make disciples of all nations, baptize them, and teach them to obey everything He commanded. 

As a result of that focus, Jossy has a goal to plant 100,000 house churches in north India. He’s planted 8,000 house churches and Bible studies so far. 

What is the reason God saved you? Has that become the goal of your life? You don’t have to plant 100,000 churches. But could you reach out to mentor or disciple one friend, help them to grow in Christ? 

In Philippians 3:13, Paul writes, “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, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” 

Like an athlete training for the Olympics, Paul has one thing in mind: reaching his goal. The secret to Paul’s success is that he had a one-track mind. In the original Greek, the “I do” is not there. So it’s even more emphatic – “ONE THING!”[6] Paul had an amazing focus. 

One of the problems of our complicated post-modern high-tech life is that we’re pulled in so many different directions. There are so many things competing for our time and attention. 

When you know you’ve reached that point of overload, it’s important to do an inventory on all the activities filling your life. And these can even be good activities that overwhelm us. 

Ray and Anne Ortlund, who were mentors to my wife Sally and me, were famous for saying, “eliminate and concentrate.” Because time is precious, we eliminate the things that divert us from our highest priorities, and we concentrate on the things that move us closer toward achieving the goal. 

John MacArthur makes the observation that “The world is full of people who are clever at much and successful at nothing because they never can focus their life.” That quote makes me wince, because I’ve often felt like I’ve been scattered in too many different directions. 

James warned about becoming a double-minded person, with one foot moving forward with Jesus, the other foot stepping back into the world. Such people are unstable in every area, and blown all over the place, like a ship with no rudder, he said. 

In verse13 Paul says we should forget what is behind us and strain toward what lies ahead. Does he really mean to forget everything in your past? There are some good things you should remember. You should remember God’s mercy and faithfulness, all the times He came through for you when you doubted. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper to help us remember his death and what it means to us.[7] 

But there are some things I would do well to forget. For example, if I dwell on my failures in life, I can begin to wallow in self-pity and become paralyzed by the fear of failing again. If I dwell on my successes in life, pride raises its head and tells me I can kick back and coast, rest on my laurels.

If I live in the past, I can dwell on hurts, resentments, grievances against other people. What a toxic brew that can be! I can also dwell on discouragements or sorrows because life didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. The word used for forgetting here means to no longer be influenced or affected by the past.[8] 

Someone has said that today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. 

There are Christians who teach that to experience healing from a difficult past, you need to delve into the past and relive the hurtful things that happened to you. There is a question in my mind about whether this approach comes to us from the world or from the Word. 

We know there is value in forgiving those who have wronged you in your past and having Jesus step into that place of wounding to bring the kind of healing only He can bring. There is a case for looking at the good and bad in our past so we can learn and grow from our mistakes. But there is a balance here. 

Don’t let your failures cause you to drop out of the race! If you’ve fallen, Jesus can pick you up, Jesus will dust you off, Jesus will help you start to run again.[9] 

You can’t drive a car forward looking through its rear view mirror.[10] The sad thing is that churches are full of people holding grudges against each other because of things that happened in the past. The good news is that you don’t have to be owned by your past. You can lay down all the junk at the foot of the cross.[11] 

The scripture tells us that when God forgives our sins, he also forgets our sins. If only I could be more like that. Becoming more like Jesus is becoming more like that. 

In verse 14 it says that Paul is straining toward what’s ahead, he’s pressing on toward the goal. When he says he’s pressing on, it’s a tremendously active verb that means “I continually press forward.” 

What’s his ultimate goal? To be like Christ. He’s pursuing Christlikeness. It’s involving his maximum, focused attention.[12] In Colossians chapter one, Paul also gives us his purpose statement: to present the Word of God in its fullness, to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 

John Piper make the ironic observation that this verb for ‘pressing on’ can also be translated ‘persecute.’ What was Paul doing when Jesus knocked him off his horse? He was on his way to persecute the early believers. He wanted to arrest and kill followers of Christ. 

Now the same zeal, the same obsession that drove Paul to persecute followers of Jesus is turned completely around by God. Now all that zeal and passion drives Paul in his pursuit of Jesus.[13] 

An athlete knows when you’re running a race you have to fix your eyes on something ahead of you. You can’t watch your feet or you’ll fall on your face. You can’t keep looking over your shoulder or to the side, or you might trip.[14] 

What should you focus on in your race?  The wonderful thing is that Jesus is standing at the finish line. Fix your eyes on Him – He’s waiting for you at the finish line. 

In Philippians 3:17, Paul writes “Join together in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.”

When Paul says to be an example, I think of his letter to Timothy, whom he mentored and discipled. He said, “Be an example in speech, conduct, love, faithfulness, and purity.” Live an exemplary life. If you are a mentor or disciple-maker, you are showing people the path.

If I don’t have another opportunity to say it from here, Pastor Brad Coleman has showed us that example. And I am one who was blessed by that example and am a better person because of his example.

In verse 18 Paul says, “18As I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.”

By contrast to the good example, Paul mentions here the enemies of the cross, who he says are headed for destruction. Does he mean some sort of temporary punishment or eternal punishment from God? As a church, we believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell.

Could heaven be eternal and hell only temporary?

This has become a point of controversy and debate because of a book that’s come out recently from a noted pastor who takes a position that hell is temporary. I have to admit, this is an area of struggle for me, because when I think about God’s love and mercy, it’s hard to accept that hell could be an eternal destination for anyone.

But in Matthew 25:46, Jesus answers this question. Referring to the unrighteous, he says “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” In the same sentence Jesus uses the same word “eternal” to describe the duration of heaven and hell.[15]

I agree with C.S. Lewis when he says, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and of our Lord’s own words.”[16]

As painful as this is to contemplate, I ultimately rest on the fact that God’s grace, love, and mercy is in perfect harmony and balance with his holiness, righteousness, and justice. His justice is perfect, and I can rest in that.

Paul says these enemies of Jesus also are ruled by their appetites. Literally, he says their God is their belly. Gluttony and lust are known as two of the ‘deadly sins,’ because if you allow food or sex to become an obsession in your life, it can have awful consequences.

Carb addiction or sexual addiction can mess up your health and damage relationships. Sometimes I’ll have a large meal and find myself still looking for another snack before bed. Why do I want to eat if I’m not hungry? What is that about?

If it’s late in the evening, and I feel bored, lonely, stressed, angry, or tired, why would I be tempted to look at inappropriate or unedifying content on TV or the internet?

Whether I attempt to fill myself with food, alcohol, drugs, work, games, inappropriate images, it’s the same thing. These things only bring fleeting satisfaction. The only filling that ultimately satisfies comes from God.

To win the race, I need an offensive training strategy. I have to keep my eyes on Jesus, knowing he’s at the finish line; I ask for his filling each day, so I can reach the goal. That is my training strategy, but because of my weakness, I know I could trip up in the next quarter-mile.

So I also have a defensive strategy – something that helps keep me in my lane in the race. I have accountability software on my computer that sends all the places I visit on the internet to one of the board members of my ministry. I also have a filter on our TV and I give my wife Sally the password.  

What is your area of weakness? Have you set up boundaries to protect you and your family?

Paul says in verse 19: “Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

Now there’s an awesome promise for us. The older I get, and the more I train for this race and feel all the aches, pains and creaking joints, the more I look forward to receiving a new physical body, transformed by his resurrection power.

Not only will our physical bodies be renewed, but the earth will be renewed. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Not a different earth, but the same one renewed.[17]

Paul gives a final encouragement in Phil. 4:1: “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”

No matter how many times you’ve fallen in your race, whatever your struggles or disappointments, keep pressing on toward the finish. As you press forward, stand firm against temptation.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of D-Day, and I can think of no better picture of pressing forward in the face of adversity, than the men who landed at Normandy and Omaha Beach.

One of my favorite all-time interviews was with a D-Day chaplains, Col. Russell Barber. He was one of three chaplains who led services the day before the invasion on ships in England. Then he went with his men into the battle.

He was the only man on his landing craft to come ashore at Omaha Beach with no “visible” weapons to protect himself.  — and he was the first man out of his boat.                                                                                                                               

“I had the sword of the Spirit,” he said. He says “When we hit the shore they were shooting at us all around.” 

To the right, Barber witnessed a horrible sight.  “He saw a landing ship hit a mine. It blew up and killed all 30 men.  They were floating in the water and on the beach.” 

Without hesitation, Barber rushed to the sides of the wounded.  “I talked to as many as I could and prayed with them,” he says.  “I said, ‘Trust in God.’”  As men were dying, he recited to them from John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God; trust in Jesus.  In my Father’s house are many mansions…” 

“Men were being killed all around me,” Barber says.  “We were all trying to dodge the bullets,” he says.  Miraculously, none of the four chaplains landing on the Normandy Beaches that day were killed. 

If they survived the barrage of hostile fire, the next challenge for Barber and his men was climbing over steep cliffs just beyond the shore.  “I couldn’t get over the 100 foot cliff so I had to dig my own foxhole that night on the beach,” he says.  “I prayed as if everything depended on the Lord, and I dug as if everything depended on me.” 

“The Lord and me got that foxhole pretty deep,” he adds. 

Col. Barber kept pressing forward. Are you pressing forward in your race?

If you trip, our Lord’s tender mercies will help you up, and help you back into the race. Notice Paul’s tenderness as he addresses the Philippians. He knows they may have discouragements about sin, but he ministers to them with compassion and hope.

There is a wonderful savior waiting for you at the finish line – keep your eyes on Him.

[1] Dr. McGee “Thru the Bible”

[2] Carr, Alan. “Running for the Prize”

[3] MacArthur, John. “Reaching for the Prize,” June 18, 1989

[4] Roy, Steve. “The Discontented Christian Life,” August 18, 1985

[5] Carr, Alan. Op. Cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roy, Steve. Op.Cit.

[8] Bell, Brian. “Paul’s To-do List,” October 26, 1997

[9] Carr, Alan. Op.Cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Zeisler, Steve. “Straining Forward, Standing Firm,” Jan. 17, 1982

[12] MacArthur, John. Op.Cit.

[13] Roy, Steve. Op.Cit.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Alcorn, Randy. “Heaven,” p.26.

[16] C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain” (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 147

[17] Roy, Steve. Op. Cit.

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