Bible Passage: Philippians 3:12-21
Rise Up: A Prize Worth Pursuing
Check out our Discussion Guide: Pursuing the Prize
Last week we learned we can rise up from the ashes of life because of whose we are.
We can rise up from our sin, rise up from depression, from failure, from grief, from pain, from the disappointment of life not going the way we hoped for and labored for. We can rise up from all of it because of whose we are. We have been set apart as His, adopted as His children, and made in His image. We are no longer in the image of this world. We are His. So get up, rise up, and act like whose you are!
But sometimes knowing who and whose you are isn’t enough reason to rise up. You have to know what you’re rising up for. What you’re fighting for! When life has beaten you down you have to decide if getting up makes sense.
I mean there are fights not worth fighting. After numerous major injuries in football, I needed to stop rising up. That was not a fight worth fighting! There is no sense rising up to fight a fight that the prize doesn’t exceed the effort.
But a fight, a labor, a mission, and a purpose that has a reward greater than your effort… well that’s worth fighting for!
The Apostle Paul had to ask himself this very question. He was once a man who had it all. A rising young superstar in the Jewish culture. In Philippians 3:3-6 we read his resume.
3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
This has now been replaced with obscurity and a life of what oftentimes seemed to be one setback after another.
After giving his life to Christ, Paul was rejected by the religious elite and society that once praised and looked up to him. They once saw him as somebody with this huge potential who was doing great things and projected to do even greater things.
He now spent most of his life on long journeys sharing the Gospel in towns where it often ended in persecution and rejection. He spent years in prison. In fact, he was in prison at the writing of Philippians.
I mean if there was ever a guy in the Bible who had reason to toss in the towel and just say, “OK, I’m done. I’m just going to go get me a job, make enough money to live, and do that until I die,” it was PAUL.
24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (2 Corinthians 11:24-33)
So every time you turn around Paul is getting knocked back down and stuck in time out. He has this massive vision for the church and a huge passion for the Gospel. But he is constantly getting stuck in a prison or rejected or totally sidetracked off his mission with things like a shipwreck.
So how does he keep getting back up? Well, just like what we learned in Peter last week, he has to remember whose he is. In Philippians 3:12, he writes:
12 Not 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.
BUT he doesn’t stop there. Listen to what else he says. He moves from reflecting on whose he is as a motivation to rise up to reflecting specifically on what he’s fighting for. Paul writes:
13 Brothers, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:12-21)
So, what is Paul telling us? He describes three prizes that every follower of Christ has.
An eternally valuable purpose that we can thrive in now. (3:12-14)
12 Not 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. 13 Brothers, 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
In other words, I ditch the past so I can STRAIN and push and strive for what’s ahead. It’s worth rising up for. It’s worth brushing the dust off, bandaging the wounds, and putting blood, sweat, and tears into. The upward call of God in Christ Jesus is a prize that’s worth it!
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).
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.1
Is there a real difference between goal and prize? In a sense they are the same. Both indicate Christ, perfection in him. Nevertheless, goal and prize represent different aspects of the same perfection; as follows, a. When this perfection is called goal, it is viewed as the object of human striving. When it is called prize it is viewed as the gift of God’s sovereign grace. God imparts everlasting life to those who accept Christ by living faith (John 3:16). He imparts perfection to those who strive to attain it. Though it is true that this believing and this striving are from start to finish completely dependent on God’s grace, nevertheless it is we who must embrace Christ and salvation in him. It is we who must strive to enter in. God does not do this believing and striving for us! b. The goal rivets the attention on the race that is being run or was run; the prize upon the glory that will begin in the new heaven and earth. Thus, bringing sinners to Christ, and doing this with perfect devotion, pertains to the goal. Perfect fellowship with these saved ones on and after the day of the great consummation pertains to the prize. Hence, it is correct to distinguish between goal and prize, as Paul also does both here and, by implication, in 2 Tim. 4:7, 8. With this glorious prize in mind—namely, the blessings of everlasting life; such as perfect wisdom, joy, holiness, peace, fellowship, all enjoyed to the glory of God, in a marvelously restored universe, and in the company of Christ and of all the saints—Paul is pressing on toward the goal.2
This takes us back to Phil 3:7-8.
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8)
It seems that there were in Philippi those who thought that they had reached the goal of Christian perfection, that they had ‘arrived’. Paul recognized the call to Christians to aspire to the highest standards (cf. 2:15; Eph. 4:13–16), as Jesus himself said ‘Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt. 5:48), but he never claimed to have reached that perfection. Rather he will press on, and the word that he uses means literally ‘pursue’, the word by which he described his persecuting of the early church (6).3
Verse 12 is among the more fascinating sentences within Paul’s letters and one of the more densely, if somewhat awkwardly, crafted. Among the interesting aspects of the sentence is that, as it appears in the Greek, it contains no grammatical objects. That is, using the NRSV translation as the standard, there is no “this” or “the goal” or “it” or “me”—each one of those words, as they appear in the NRSV translation, is a grammatical object and is missing in the Greek. Though it is virtually impossible to render an English sentence from Paul’s Greek here, one might attempt it with something along these lines: “Not that I have already taken or have already finished, but I pursue if even I might take hold since I have even been taken hold of by Christ.” Whose I am!
But what is the prize? No thing. Rather, it is “the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” How do you grasp that (in any conventional sense of “grasp” or “seize”)? You don’t; hence the commands that follow in verses 15–17.4
The call is to be His and to know Him. Specifically, to know and bask in his love for us. To love Him with all of our hearts. To be one with Him! To be one with all who are in Him! This is the very reason God made man in the first place – to live in an eternally perfect covenant relationship with Him and all who are in Him!
The words “follow after” are from a Greek word meaning “to pursue.” He has in mind the image of a Greek runner streaking down the race course. He is keeping up the chase, so to speak. He is pressing on toward a fixed goal. The word “apprehend” is from the same Greek word translated “attained,” but with a preposition prefixed which means in its local force “down.” He wants to catch hold of it and pull it down, like a football player who not only wants to catch his man, but wants to pull him down and make him his own. Paul wants to appropriate and make his own that for which Christ caught Paul and made him His own. Paul speaks of the latter in Galatians 1:16, where God’s purpose of calling Paul into salvation and the office of apostle was that He might reveal His Son in Paul. And that is exactly what Paul is talking about in the expression, “being made conformable to His death.” It was Christlikeness that Paul was pursuing after. It is absolute Christlikeness that he says that he has not yet captured and pulled down so as to make his own.5
“Press” is literally “pursue.”
The words “the high calling” have the idea of “a calling which is from heaven and to heaven.” The word is not to be construed as meaning “a calling in life,” but “a call from heaven to which the apostle must ever give heed.”6
To be called means you have more than just a purpose. You didn’t invent this for yourself; you were chosen for it. You matter because you were chosen for something which means you were in the heart and mind of the one who chose you.
Paul lived in the tension of the present but not yet consummated Kingdom of God. He knew Christ, he knew who he was in Christ, he knew he was accepted by Christ but he struggled with Christlike living (cf. Rom. 7). Paul had arrived but had not fully arrived; he was complete but not fully complete.7
“I press on” This is a PRESENT ACTIVE INDICATIVE. This was originally a hunting term meaning “to pursue an animal.” It came to be used metaphorically of a foot race. Paul did not pursue salvation (cf. Rom. 9:30) but a maturity, a Christlikeness (cf. Rom. 6:4–9).8
3:14 This is a series of athletic metaphors. They show us the strenuous effort needed for the Christian life (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24, 27; Heb. 12:1).9
What is the upward call?
A lifestyle that gives us every reason to hold our heads up high. (3:15-19)
15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
The verb is actually a technical one, used in military contexts, meaning “to move in battle formation.” Given that Paul’s addressees are in a city, Philippi, which was reestablished by the Romans as a colony settled by military veterans (see introduction to Philippians, above), and given the “ethic” (to the degree one might refer to it as such) of the Roman phalanx that moving and staying together equals victory, while abandoning or moving separately equals loss, Paul’s choice of verb here is quite revealing. As a teacher and rhetorician, Paul knows his audience and uses words, and concepts that will resonate. As a Christian teacher and rhetorician, he understands, and promotes and models here and throughout the letter, the importance of relationship and of community.10
Only, let our conduct be consistent with the level we have attained. Or, more literally, “Only, to what we have attained, with the same let us keep in line.” The rule has been established. The principle—namely, “We are still far from perfect, but in Christ we should strive to become perfect”—has been enunciated and exemplified. Let our lives be regulated by the consistent application of this principle. It must never be surrendered.11
His point is we have not obtained the prize fully. However, we have already obtained the incredible prize of being adopted as God’s children. We have the Holy Spirit of God in us. We have a calling to know, love, and follow Christ as opposed to being slaves to sin and Satan. And we have the power to choose to know, love, and follow Christ.
We have been given the gift of walking in righteousness — of living a life that matters. To be righteous is to be worthy, to have a life worthy of the WHOSE we are. Our life matters a billion years from now.
You can hold your head up high. Not in pride or arrogance. You know how often you fail to live in what you have been given and you know the ability to walk in this is a gift you didn’t earn. We are obligated not to gloat it but rather praise God for it, walk in it, and share it with others.
So many live life wondering if it matters. Wondering what’s the point.
But as Christians, we have been given the opportunity to live. A life of holiness and true love that bears fruit into our experience and stirs people to love God and each other. It’s not a calling that has anything to do with fame or fortune in this world. It is so much bigger and more meaningful than any of that! It is a calling that makes every other calling like a clanging cymbal in the experience of life.
But so many Christians forget this calling. They get tripped up by their own failure, some trial in life, or some crazy doctrinal teaching (likely what happened in Philippi) and they stop living the life God has gifted them to live. Instead, they opt for what the world has to offer. So Paul writes:
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
They have already obtained heavenly things. But their minds are stuck on earthly things. The end of a life lived for that is destruction.
You will appease your flesh (“belly”) when you live for the lust of the flesh, eyes, and pride of life. You can even fill your belly full or achieve enough to keep a constant flow of satisfaction in those longings. But the end result is destruction. There is no prize in the end. You labored and strived and sacrificed to fulfill those desires to end up with nothing. The price of the journey ended up costing more than the prize. The prize was destruction. Instead of pride, you’re left with shame.
There is nothing more disheartening than a missed opportunity. You and I have been given a chance to live a life where we can hold our heads up high and bask in the glory of God. Where we are known not for what is shameful and disgraceful but rather for our love for God and one another. We should be known for the glory of God resonating through our life, defining our life experience, and creating this kind of experience for everyone around us.
However, Christians who reject this gift and choose to live their lives governed by the desires of the flesh lose this prize. Instead of looking at your life with your head held high, you’re left wallowing in shame. This shame is compounded by the reality that you had the opportunity to hold your head high.
You were given the chance to rise up and go forward with Christ but instead chose to sit cold and shaking in the mud. You were given the chance to rise up and walk in the newness of life but instead, you rose up and ran back into slavery and destruction.
I hate losing. but I really hate losing when I know I had every opportunity to win. When I failed to do what I was totally capable of doing. That’s where shame kicks in.
A guaranteed promise of a resurrected body that’s just like Jesus! (3:20-21)
20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Do citizens of Philippi think of Rome as their native land to which they belong, in whose tribal records they are enrolled, whose dress they wear, whose language they speak, by whose laws they are governed, whose protection they enjoy, and whose emperor they worship as their Savior? In a sense far more sublime and real these Christians dwelling in Philippi must realize that their homeland or commonwealth has its fixed location in heaven. It was heaven that gave them birth, for they are born from above. Their names are inscribed on heaven’s register. Their lives are being governed from heaven and in accordance with heavenly standards. Their rights are secured in heaven. Their interests are being promoted there. To heaven their thoughts and prayers ascend and their hopes aspire. Many of their friends, members of the fellowship, are there even now, and they themselves, the citizens of the heavenly kingdom who are still on earth, will follow shortly. Yes, in heaven their inheritance awaits them. Their heavenly mansions are being prepared.12
By many Greek pagans the body was viewed as a prison from which at death the soul will be delivered. The body was intrinsically “vile.” To Paul, however, that body was a temple, even the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). To be sure, right now, as a result of the entrance of sin, it is “the body of our humiliation” (cf. cognate verb in Phil. 2:8, “he humbled himself”). As such it is exposed to sin’s curse in the form of weakness, suffering, sickness, ugliness, futility, death, but at his coming the Savior—who is a complete Savior—will refashion it in such a manner that this new outward fashion or appearance will truly reflect the new and lasting inner form, for it will have a form like the glorious body of the ascended Lord. We shall be “conformed to the image of his (the Father’s) Son” (Rom. 8:29). We shall “bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:49). “When he will be manifested, we shall be like him, for we shall see him even as he is” (1 John 3:2). The nature of this great change is detailed in 1 Cor. 15:42–44, 50–58.13
Philippians could be proud of their citizenship in a Roman colony (see the Introduction), just as we all have an earthly citizenship which has its privileges and its obligations. But they, and we, have to value above all the gift of a heavenly life and citizenship, and we live in hope of our future inheritance that we will receive in its fulness in the future. Thus we eagerly await the reappearing from heaven of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.14
This is one of two times Paul calls Jesus “Savior” (cf. Eph. 5:23) before the Pastoral Letters (I Tim., II Tim., Titus), in which he uses the title ten times. This term came to be a title for the Roman Emperor. In Titus there is a parallel in the use of this term between God the Father and Jesus the Son (cf. 1:3 vs. 1:4; 2:10 vs. 2:13; 3:4 vs. 3:6). The early Christians were willing to face death rather than relinquish this title to the Emperor. Both “Savior” and “Lord” were Imperial Roman titles used by Christians exclusively for Jesus.15
Thus the commonwealth of which the saints are citizens has its fixed location in heaven. The stability and security of the citizen under Roman law filled the thoughts of the time with high conceptions of citizenship and its value. Philippi, being a Roman colony, and its citizens therefore Roman citizens, thought in terms of citizenship. Paul seizes this fact as a good opportunity to illustrate to the saints their heavenly citizenship with its privileges and responsibilities. What a contrast between those mentioned in 3:18, 19, who were citizens of this earth, and those spoken of in 3:20, 21, who are citizens of heaven!16
Imagine how confident you would be to go into battle if you knew the guaranteed outcome is victory! That you charged into battle knowing that you had a secret weapon that was going to destroy your enemy.
Imagine you were called to fight a fight and you knew that even if you died the battle would be won and you would be resurrected and get to celebrate the victory fully with all who fought. That you wouldn’t miss out on a thing. That all the rewards of battle would be given to all who fought! If you didn’t fight you get nothing. But if you did fight you’re getting hooked up!
Imagine all the struggles of living a Christ-centered life.
- to love and obey Jesus
- to stay focused on loving others
- staying focused on sharing the Gospel with others
- staying focused on forgiving one another
- loving one another
- helping others know the Gospel and follow Christ
- to not get defeated or distracted with all the things that get tossed at us in this life
- to not give up and just say forget it
- to deny myself
- loving my family and friends
- prioritizing my marriage and kids
- not gratifying immoral sexual desires
- not living to be gratified with money and stuff
- prioritizing the church
- building each other up
Imagine if you knew doing all that was going to cost you everything, including your life. But in the end, you were guaranteed to be resurrected, made in the image of Christ, and given all that God has.
Would it be worth it to you?
What if you knew that if you would just get in the fight… no matter how bad things went… as long as you were in that fight, a champion was coming and you would win.
Would you get in the fight?
Our champion has guaranteed that even if you get killed in the fight you will be raised from the dead as a victor! But, you have to be in the fight!
What prize are you pursuing and is it going to be worth it a million years from now?
Some of you may not be living for anything. You need to rise up, stop wasting your life, and pursue your calling in Christ.
But others of you may be like the ones Paul is talking about in this passage. You are exhausting yourself striving to achieve a prize that you may not even want in the end.
What is your life invested in?
Imagine if you invested the bulk of your money in a car instead of a house. Say you bought a $100,000 sports car.
You’re going to have a ball driving that thing!
But, it’s going to cost you a ton along the way. You’ll pay for gas, insurance, and regular maintenance. When the warranty runs out, you’ll have all the repair costs. Oh, and every day it will depreciate in value. So after 10 years, it might be worth $10,000 after you spent $150,000 to own it!
Plus, you spent all that money while living in a rental trailer working extra jobs to afford it. A rental trailer that is now worth less than when you bought it as well.
On the other hand, what if you purchased a $100,000 house and drove a $10,000 car? 10 years later, that house is worth $150,000 or more. That car is probably worth $3,000 and costs maybe a $1,000 a year to maintain and keep running. So you only put maybe $20,000 into the car over 10 years.
The other guy has $150,000 in the car. And no chance of ever getting it back. And can’t even get back what he put in the rental trailer… because it’s a rental! Even if you bought the trailer, they start losing value the second you buy it.
Your hard work made money and you got something to show for it while the other guy is functionally homeless with a car that doesn’t run anymore. You’ve got a house that is functioning as a retirement investment and will soon be paid for and be worth more than you bought it.
Bringing it Home
As a follower of Christ, you’ve been given a gift to strive and labor for something that will pay you eternally more than you ever put in it. But all too often, we Christians rise up to strive for shiny junk that not only pays nothing but literally takes life from us. It destroys life in us and around us. And in the end, leaves us with our head hanging low with regret.
Rise UP and strive for the prize worth chasing. Because you are guaranteed to get it if you’ll just strive for it.
- Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, p. 172). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, p. 175). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Foulkes, F. (1994). Philippians. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 1256). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
- Weidmann, F. W. (2013). Philippians, First and Second Thessalonians, and Philemon. (P. D. Miller & D. L. Bartlett, Eds.) (p. 69). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. Emphasis mine.
- Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: for the English reader (Vol. 5, p. 96). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
- Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: for the English reader (Vol. 5, p. 98). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
- Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, then later, Philippians) (Vol. Volume 8, p. 195). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.
- Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, then later, Philippians) (Vol. Volume 8, p. 195). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.
- Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, then later, Philippians) (Vol. Volume 8, p. 196). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.
- Weidmann, F. W. (2013). Philippians, First and Second Thessalonians, and Philemon. (P. D. Miller & D. L. Bartlett, Eds.) (p. 71). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, p. 177). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, pp. 182–183). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Philippians (Vol. 5, p. 184). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Foulkes, F. (1994). Philippians. In D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible commentary: 21st century edition (4th ed., p. 1257). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
- Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul Bound, the Gospel Unbound: Letters from Prison (Colossians, Ephesians and Philemon, then later, Philippians) (Vol. Volume 8, p. 198). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.
- Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: for the English reader (Vol. 5, p. 102). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.