Tag Archives: Philippians 3

To win the prize

But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. . forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

(Philippians 3.12-14)

Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.

(Revelation 2.17)

I have become involved in a weekly lunchtime event with some of our primary school children, an informal “athletics” session, when we run, jump, throw, catch and generally do sporty things just for fun…But watching some of the little ones, I see such a strong drive to win, to be first, every time – even though there is absolutely no competition going on! Humanity has a strong competitive instinct, and takes so much pleasure in winning – even if the activity is walking slowly with a beanbag balanced on the head!

Is it this kind of prize which Paul is talking about in his letter to the believers in Philippi..one which some will gain at the cost of others losing? I think not! Our faith is in a finished work by a triumphant Saviour; we receive our eternal life as a gift from a gracious God, not as a result of some stupendous effort by which we outstrip our fellows. So what kind of prize does Paul mean?

Last year I ran for the first – and probably the last – time in a 10km event, and received a medal for completing the course, not for a fast time, or a stylish run, or even for overcoming any significant obstacles in order to take part. I was rewarded for persevering to the end…and it is this kind of prize which is in view as Paul writes. The apostle is seeking to encourage his young church in their faith, to strengthen them in the face of difficulties of many kinds, and by his own example, to help them see what it looks like to imitate Christ in real, daily living.

We have been laid hold of by Christ, taken into his team, as precious individual beings whose particular character and talents are known and valued, with a unique contribution to make to his work, his church. We are with him, because this is where we belong, where we make a difference for eternity, and where all that we are is most richly expressed and exercised. Perfection is in store for us, dimly glimpsed here, and gloriously realised in the life to come, when his purposes for us will be complete.

I am called to be the perfect version of me – and although on this side of death, I will not see it, yet by his grace, God is working in me to realise that perfection. To the extent of my obedience, of my glad submission to his will for me, and my striving with his power to leave sin behind and follow Christ – to that extent, I press on, straining toward the goal. The prize which awaits is not a reward for being “better” than anyone else, it is the prize of being the perfect me – that unique and glorious daughter of the King of Kings; whose voice has music only for her Lord and who will dance before him unsullied by any stain of sin.

The prize is not some standardised medal, no one-size-fits-all T-shirt; it is to receive that intimate name, that ultimate assurance of being known for oneself..known, accepted and exulted in! No one else will ever fill the place in the eternal dance which is meant for me – and each of you has your own space, where the Father will seek and delight to find you, playing your own perfect part and bringing joy to the whole.

Is not this vision, this prize which Paul describes to us, a great encouragement to persevere in our faith; to see beyond the darkness of the battlefield, or the dimness of the sickroom, and the dullness of the routines?..We are becoming beautiful in his sight, every day a little brighter, and everything that we encounter on the way is another opportunity to press on.

Let us join with Paul, in pressing on toward this brilliance, this wonderful future, rejoicing that it is God who works in us, thus ensuring that we will receive all he has in store!

All so much rubbish..

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

(1 Corinthians 13.2)

If anyone thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.. BUT whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider EVERYTHING a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

(Philippians 3.4-7)

For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

(John 5.36-40)

I have spent my Christian life in churches where the preaching of God’s word was paramount, where it was a matter of deep conviction that the whole of scripture was for our instruction and blessing, and above all that God speaks through the word to his people. I have perhaps not benefitted as much from all the teaching as I ought, but I am  thankful for it, and for the breadth of understanding and confidence in reading the scriptures which it gives me.

I am aware however, that this heritage, this proper emphasis on the teaching of the whole of scripture, can take me down a dangerous path; one where I pride myself upon my knowledge, upon the number of sermons or bible studies I have heard, and to put my faith in that instead of in Jesus himself.

Jesus addressed this weakness directly in the Pharisees – the most passionate religious scholars and devotees of Judaism at that time, people who prided themselves on an intimate knowledge of their scripture (all the books of the Old Testament), and a rigorous application of those details to daily life. In their passion to see God’s law upheld, and their own personal devotion to it, they have much in common with those in the church today who revere scripture, and who long to see society governed in accordance with the law of God it contains. And yet Jesus is utterly scathing in his condemnation of them, accusing them of stealing the key to life from those who seek it, while failing to enter into that life themselves.

In this passage above, he explains that in spite of all their boasted proficiency in the law, they have completely missed the point of scripture’s revelation. They have neither heard God’s voice, nor recognised his hand at work, and have completely misunderstood his revelation…because if they had, they would have responded to Jesus by falling before him and worshipping him as Messiah, God’s anointed, the long-promised Saviour. They are so besotted with their own achievements in head knowledge and passion for details, that they have never encountered the living God in his word.

Later on, in his letter to the believers in Philippi, the apostle Paul details all the grounds that he might have had for believing his eternal hope secure – grounds of birth, training, and above all zeal for the law, the word. Then, writing to this church of Gentile believers, with no hope of claiming such heritage as their grounds of faith, he shockingly says that he accounts all his learning as nothing, just so much rubbish, because it is of no value beside the true experience of knowing Jesus.

In the same way, those who are raised in the church, who can boast extensive knowledge and proficiency in handling the bible must take care, lest they begin to put their faith in mere head knowledge and rule-keeping. Mere proficiency in the word is lifeless and useless. I must encounter the risen Christ, be filled with his spirit and walk with him daily as my companion, my Lord and Saviour, if I am to have forgiveness of my sins and hope for the future.

NOTHING is of any value unless I have Christ, not knowledge about him, but himself. Faith is not an argument which I can win by my cleverness, it is a sure hope in a trustworthy person – the Christ I meet when I read the bible with an open heart and mind, expecting to hear his voice, and willing to obey.

Praise God, who has made our salvation so freely available, so readily accessible, so utterly complete in Christ!

Worth losing?

Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is  more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…

(Philippians 3.7&8)

A picture of a cake.. which may seem odd given the text I have quoted above, but there is a connection! The cake was inspired by one made by a very good and generous friend when I last visited her, and so represents hospitality, love, years of friendship and support – as well as a celebration of our time together. Most of us have many such reasons for celebration – in our spouses and families, our health, our friends and the many good things which God lavishly bestows on us daily. It is always good to give thanks for such gifts, lest we begin to take them for granted and fail to appreciate them.

But if we are to follow the apostle Paul in the particular part of this letter to the young church in Philippi, he is arguing that all the good things he has received in his life are worth giving up without a second thought, if by that means he might grow in his union with his beloved Lord Jesus. This is a challenge which I think we spend our lives working out in practice, as we experience gains and losses, and watch others struggling to cope with their own griefs. It is one thing to say boldly, that ‘Christ is enough for me’, but quite another to put that into daily action, when facing the loss to death of a beloved husband or wife, or the brutal impact of disease or injury upon our own bodies and our capacity for independent living.

The great Scottish preacher and letter writer, Samuel Rutherford spent prolonged spells in exile from his parish, closely confined, unable to receive visitors and forbidden to preach. His writings from that time speak of his grief at these losses, but also breathe his sweet delight in the presence of his Saviour, and his satisfaction in considering the loveliness of Christ. Rutherford learnt to say with Paul that so long as he had Christ, he would be content.

Do I live in such a way that I am not looking to any human being for fulfillment of my deepest needs? Am I so aware that every day, every breath, is a gift from God, that I would be able to give up physical health and freedom if He required them of me? These are very hard questions, and I am glad that we are not allowed to see our future days, not to know what sacrifices we will be called to make until the time comes. It is not for me to worry about how I might cope if these things happened to me, but rather to focus here and now on living ever closer to my Lord, and trusting that he will be sufficient for me when the day comes. We are not called to deal in advance with such burdens, but to carry those of today with as much grace and cheerfulness as we can.

If I can learn to hold all my daily blessings on an open hand, as one offering them back to the giver, then I will not depend on them for my fulfillment and contentment. This certainly does not mean that I fail to appreciate these good things, that would be to waste the gifts of my loving Father! Rather it means that I must learn to look more and more through the gifts to the giver, to see that in them, I receive his love, perceive his greatness and the unfathomable beauty of his character.

God must become more and more the centre of my life. Jesus is the lover of my soul, my heavenly bridegroom, my redeemer and friend. All the human relationships which enrich my life are simply pale imitations of the richest relationship of all – between the church and her head, Christ, who loved her so much that he gave up his life for her.

I believe that when God calls me to let something precious go – as when my parents died some years ago – he is calling me into a closer relationship and satisfaction with himself. In God, I find the truest father and mother-love, meeting those deep needs which my human parents could never touch. I can give thanks for all they were and did, and rejoice that now they are with the Lord whom they loved. But I need not fret for myself, because my God knows and meets my longings to be loved as a child again.

He is so gracious, so gentle, so compassionate.. Let us cling ever closer to him, and be content with whatever is left to us so long as we have Christ as our own!

Thought-police?

For though we live in the world, we do  not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

(2 Corinthians 10.3-5)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or  praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. and the God of peace will be with you.

(Philippians 3.8&9)

 I wonder if you are sometimes deeply disturbed by the thoughts that percolate to the surface of your mind, when the voice you hear is bitter, angry, vengeful or simply loaded with the lead-weight of self-pity?

This has been and continues to be my experience, much more often than I care to admit, and it is easy to fall into despair over the apparent lack of change in one’s innermost attitudes, even after years of walking with Jesus.

I was therefore greatly encouraged in a recent brief conversation about these depressingly frequent, and totally ungodly thoughts, to be reminded that it is not so much that they come which should concern me, as what I do about them!

Let me explain.. In his words from 2 Corinthians 10, quoted above, the apostle Paul talks about “taking every thought captive”, as part of a longer passage about the war which we wage as believers against the powers in the world which oppose our faith. A soldier in a battle situation, seeing an enemy appear on his horizon has a choice – to oppose, to avoid, or to welcome him! To welcome the enemy is to be a traitor to one’s own cause, and to avoid doing anything to him is almost as bad, since it leaves him free to attack again another time. But to oppose, to do battle and struggle, to subdue and take him captive, is to be loyal to one’s own cause, to act in obedience to the orders received, and reduce the risk to oneself.

So when I apply this picture to the whole business of my thoughts, of what comes into my head as daily life with all its challenges comes my way, what do I find? Why that I also have a choice! When I find angry thoughts in my heart because of the way I have been treated, I recognise them as an enemy, and choose – with God’s power at work in me – not to speak or act upon those thoughts. I choose to follow the example of Christ who turned the other cheek to his persecutors, and to forgive them as I remember how much I have been forgiven by God.

It can be a great struggle, never under-estimate the power of your thoughts to drive a steam-roller through your good intentions! But rely instead on the power which God supplies, by his spirit within us, to claim the victory which Christ has won over the power of evil in his children’s lives. We are, in him, sweeter than our bitter thoughts; more forgiving than our grudges; more patient than our intolerance and more securely grounded than our doubts.

Ultimately, it is as we look upon Christ, absorbing more and more of his life and likeness, that we find our victory over our rebellious thoughts. As we allow the word of God – the person of Christ as revealed in the words of Scripture – to soak into heart and head, we are transformed. And be sure the devil will make every effort to undermine that work in you, in me. If he can tie us up in despair over our ungodly thoughts, he has disabled us, and instead of us claiming a victory for God, we become a casualty, a prisoner-of-war who needs to be rescued all over again and meantime is of no use in at the frontline!

So let us embrace Paul’s good advice to the Philippians, to direct our thoughts to all the goodness and beauty which God has revealed – in the world, in his people, and ultimately and most clearly, in the person of His Son, our Lord. In him, we have the victory, let us claim it!

Time only goes one way!

I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: forgetting the past and looking to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

(Philippians 3.12-14)

One of the greatest benefits of the new life which we have as followers of Jesus Christ, is the awareness that our sins and failures, our falling-short of God’s goodness, is completely dealt with. Each new day, is a new start, and we do not carry any baggage with us from the past. There may be consequences, but there is no guilt, no more isolation from God, no threat of judgement to come, to shadow our lives.

We are in a wonderful sense, set free from our past, and rightly we rejoice in that freedom. Paul encourages us to embrace that freedom, to refuse to allow inappropriate guilt to hold us back from fresh commitments to obedience and service of our God. He did not dwell on his early opposition to and persecution of the church, did not allow that to prevent him from becoming not only a great theologian, but also a pioneering evangelist and church-planter. He trusted that God could deal with those who doubted him because of his history, since it did not prevent God from calling him to serve.

How easy do I find it to allow my past failures to prevent my present obedience? I set limits on what I am willing to attempt for God, because I am afraid of failing again. What does that say about how I believe God is transforming me, is giving me his power to achieve the tasks which are appointed to me? Yes, I will go on sinning, until death ushers me out of this mortal frame, but God has not made my usefulness to him dependent on my perfection! I can and should embrace each new task with a joyful confidence in his enabling, and a humble thankfulness that  my failures will not prevent that work from being carried out.

In other areas though, it can be hard to let go of the past, to accept that precious days, sweet relationships will not come again. When a parent sees a beloved child step into independence – or begin to do so – there is a bereavement, because something beautiful has come to an end. It is a natural and right ending, but nonetheless, those days, that intimacy will never come again. The season for those things is past.

I was blessed to grow up in a particularly strong and loving church, and there are aspects of that life which I miss very much, and would dearly love to recreate. But time only moves one way, I am not in that place anymore, and much has changed. Those days will not come again. So what do I do? Is it right to allow past blessings to prevent me from appreciating what God is providing for me now? Surely not, nor to argue that I can only receive blessing in that particular way!

The apostle James wrote that, “Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.” (James 1.17)

God is the source of all good things, and His purpose and character never change. So if He chose to bless me in one way in the past, He may choose another way today but his purpose remains my transformation into the likeness of Christ, and ultimate enjoyment with him of glory. All the good gifts are for a purpose, for my growth in faith and understanding, in trust and obedience. Let me recognise and give thanks for past blessings, but also discern the new things God may be planning to use for my good.

My God is too great and wonderful to be limited in His actions by my understanding, to be restricted to doing things in the same way over and over again! May I learn to trust that He is always good, and always loving, and look for the ways He is choosing to bless me now, so that I may – like Paul – forget what is past, let it go, and face the future with confidence in my great loving provider.