Keep On Running

Philippians 3:12-16

Athletic awards, achievements, and records continue to accumulate through history. Last Sunday, for instance, Tigst Assefa, a female runner from Ethiopia, smashed the women’s world record for a marathon time not by seconds only but by 2 mins. and 3 secs.!

Sports history is also filled with people who almost won an award, almost achieved a victory, and almost broke a record. Who hasn’t heard of or watched an athlete winning a race before crossing the finish line, only to stumble or be passed by another runner before the end. When it comes to following Christ, don’t be that guy.

Sadly, church history is also filled with people who almost finished. How many people have prayed a prayer, declared faith openly through baptism, continued for a while, and even served and contributed to the work of Christ, but failed to finish.

Why do people fail and drop out from following Christ? At the underlying heart level, the answer is that they never truly followed Christ in the first place. Whatever they said and did in the name of Christ was surface, superficial, and not genuine. Whether they did so deliberately or ignorantly (both are possible), they deceived not only other people but also themselves into thinking that they exhibited genuine faith when they did not. Whatever their reasons, whatever their motives – they had only followed Christ in an artificial way.

For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb 10:36-39)

Having answered this question at the inner heart level, let us also answer it from an external, behavioral level. Why do people fail and drop out from following Christ? Because following Christ is hard. That’s why Scripture describes following Christ as a race.

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. (1 Cor 9:24)

Similar descriptions appear elsewhere in the New Testament (NT). And when the NT speaks about a race, it uses a word that describes an intense battle, competition, conflict, fight, or struggle – even peril.

  • Paul uses the same word to describe his own personal conflict earlier in this letter – being mistreated, losing friends, and being imprisoned for Christ: “Having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me” (Phil 1:30).
  • He also uses the same word to describe the life of faith in Christ as a fight: “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called” (1 Tim 6:12).

So, when Paul speaks about a race, he is envisioning a long, grueling marathon with many obstacles, pitfalls, and plenty of pain. God has designed the Christian life in such a way that it weeds out those who are genuine from those who are not. Those who are genuine will persevere. They will push through the struggle, the pain, and the agony. They may stumble, they may second-guess, but they will not quit.

Have you turned to Christ and trusted in him alone as your God and Savior? If so, then have you recognized that following Christ is like a race? Have you experienced any doubts, any difficulties, any obstacles, any struggles, any pain? All of these experiences are normal, and they give you the opportunity to make one of two choices – either to reveal by quitting that you haven’t truly believed on Christ or to exhibit genuine faith in Christ by persevering through difficulties and continuing to run.

In the words we are looking at today, we read about how Paul persevered through difficulties as he followed Christ. And his mindset and approach shows us the mindset we all need who have also chosen to follow Christ today.

You haven’t crossed the finish line yet.
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended…

We see here how Paul acknowledged that he had not completed, finished, or fully accomplished what Christ had called him both to do and be. By “to do,” I am referring to “attained,” which describes taking or receiving something and involves personal effort on our part. By “to be,” I am referring to “perfected,” which describes work being completed or finished and involves personal effort and involvement from someone else, who in this case is God himself. So, Paul is recognizing first that he still has work to do for Christ and second that Christ still has work to do in him.

Knowing that work still remained for him to do and still remained to be done for him, he chose to “press on,” which means to pursue something aggressively with determination and resolve. He chose to persevere until he fully “lay hold” (which means to grab or grasp something firmly and tightly) all that Christ has planned for his life.

Paul doubles down on his acceptance and recognition that he was not finished. He said, “I do not count myself to have apprehended.” This is the same word that he has already used twice in the previous verse, which describe grasping something firmly and tightly.

To those who play ball sports, you know how important it is to properly secure the ball before taking your next action. You must firmly grasp the football ball before you make your next move, you must firmly catch the baseball in your glove before you transfer it to your throwing hand, and so on. And for athletes who perform baton relays, you know how crucial it is to transfer the baton to the next runner’s hand before they start running.

With these words, we see both certainty and uncertainty. First, we see certainty from Christ. Paul says that he believed Christ had “already grasped ahold of him.” In other words, Paul believed that his faith was in Christ alone and that Christ had fully secured his salvation. He did not doubt whether he was a true and genuine child of God.

At the same time, he recognized that his life had not yet fully demonstrated his faith in Christ. He had not yet fully accomplished or persevered to the end of all that Christ had intended to do in and through him, and he knew that finishing well was crucial to revealing the genuineness of his faith.

Keep on running.
…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead.

To persevere in his faith, Paul refused to look backwards. “Forgetting” things “behind” means making a deliberate choice to disregard, neglect, overlook, or care nothing about the past. This choice is not necessarily a one-time decision but requires frequent, regular decisions throughout an entire lifetime not to let matters from your past govern, guide, or preoccupy your mind.

Research studies indicate that we have thousands of thoughts every day. Research also indicates that normally:

  • 80% of those thoughts are negative
  • 95% are repetitive
  • 95% are about ourselves
  • 98% are from your past

What do you think about that last observation - that as many as 98% of our thoughts are from our past, whether yesterday or older?

Any runner knows that looking backwards will slow you down, at best, and at worst, it may cause you to lose the race entirely. Why would a runner look backwards? The common reason would be to find out how the competition is doing – whether or not anyone is close behind or about to overtake them.

But what does it mean for a Christian to look backwards and why would a follower of Christ not look backwards? Why should a Christian choose to forget “those things which are behind,” in the past?

To look back is to focus your mind and emotions on the past – desiring for the past, whether perceived as negative or positive, feeding and fostering doubts and dissatisfaction with the present. It’s what restless sailors do before they declare mutiny, believing it is better to abandon the voyage and return home rather than sail onward into uncharted, dangerous seas.

Dreaming, longing, singing, and telling wistful tails about the past discourages morale and erodes confidence in the future. This is exactly what happened to the nation of Israel after God delivered them from slavery in Egypt, leading them into the wilderness to the Promised Land:

All the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.” (Num 14:1-4)

Only two adult men – Caleb and Joshua – insisted that they press on while all the rest insisted that it was foolish to follow God any further, preferring to look back at Egypt and return there instead.

Why are we, as followers of Christ today, tempted to commit the same fatal error? I can think of at least three reasons. I’ll share them with you now – can you think of any others?

  • We may look back at our past accomplishments to gain a sense of false security. We feel that we have already accomplished enough, changed enough, experienced enough, or suffered enough. Such feelings of false security and shortsightedness diminish our motivation to press on.
  • We may look back at our past failures. We recall our past sins, obsess over broken relationships. Then we consider or conclude that we are not qualified to be following Christ, that we are incapable of breaking old habits and resisting old temptations, or that we are unable to succeed at following Christ because we are no different than the person we once were.
  • We may look back at our past lifestyle as though it was better. We’re tempted to return to the sinful pleasures we once enjoyed, the false religious teachings we once followed, the foolish, abusive relationships we once pursued, and the normal, natural desires, impulses, priorities, and values that once guided us. We may also be tempted to focus more on nostalgia and “the good ole days” as though those days were better.

Whatever the case, followers of Christ should not look back. Christ himself said this:

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

Ironically, so much of our modern approach to counseling, psychology, pursuit of personal wellness encourages the opposite of what Christ teaches, and so do our natural inclinations. We focus on our past experiences, fixating and obsessing on all sorts of things while arriving at very little if any godly solutions. When this happens, we find ourselves doubting Christ and drifting away from following him.

Consider this heart-breaking example of a follower of Christ looking back then leaving Christ altogether:

Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you. (Col 4:14)

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. (Philemon 23-24)

Here we see a man who followed Christ not casually but intensively. He was a man who, for a while, had devoted himself to serving Christ alongside Paul and Luke. But how did his journey end? Not well.

Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica (2 Tim 4:10)

What is your trajectory? Are you committed to following Christ through any challenges that come your way or will you be like Demas, first “looking back at those things which are behind” and then returning to those things rather than following Christ to the end. True followers of Christ exhibit genuine faith by finishing the race, not following for a while then falling out of the race along the way.

Focus on the goal.
but one thing I do…I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Having stated his refusal to look back in dogmatic terms, he now states his determination to keep on following Christ to the end, no matter what challenges might come his way. To “press on” means to chase, run after, and pursue something aggressively. It describes an athlete who runs through obstacles, pushes through pain, and strains every muscle fiber and brain cell make progress and finish the race. And for Paul, that finish line is to complete all that God had called him to be and do through Christ. And in speaking this way he expressed the very same focus that Christ himself exhibited in his mission to rescue us from our sins.

Looking ahead to what Christ would do, the prophet Isaiah said this about his mindset and focus:

I have set my face like a flint. (Isa 50:7)

This prophecy uses an idiom that describes someone who refuses to look back or turn away from the mission that’s set before them, no matter how hard or difficult it will be for them to persevere. The gospel writer, Luke (who was also a close companion of Paul and Demas, as we’ve read previously), refers to this prophecy about Christ when he said:

Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

This statement describes Christ’s mindset as he prepared to travel to Jerusalem, where he knew that the religious and political leaders were plotting kill him. Knowing how uncomfortable, difficult, traumatic, and painful that would be for him, he made up his mind ahead of time that we would allow nothing to change his mind.

So, Paul exhibits the same mindset as his Master, Jesus Christ – determined to press through any difficulties to finish the life and mission to which Christ had called him. He showed the same resolve when other believers who loved him tried to persuade him from going to Jerusalem, knowing that he, too, would face persecution from the religious and political leaders:

None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)

If Christ had not determined to press on, we would have no hope of forgiveness of sins and a relationship with God. We owe everything to him and – like Paul – should determine to persevere for him through any challenges that come our way as well. Does this describe your singular focus and mentality as well? Is there anything that could persuade you to look back and to back away from following Christ?

Stick to the plan together.
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.

With these words, Paul teaches us that we should “have the same mindset” that Christ exhibited for us and he exhibited for Christ. Then he acknowledges that within the church, not everyone will have this mindset. But only through the challenges of following Christ over time will God reveal who is a genuine follower of Christ and who is not. There is no test we can take to determine this – only the challenges of life over time.

So, Paul urges us to keep on following Christ just as we have already done to the present. But he does so by highlighting the need to do this together not alone, to do this as a group not as isolated individuals. Notice how he uses plural pronouns: “let us,” “as many as,” “we,” “let us” (again), “let us” (a third time), and two uses of the plural ‘you.’

You see, Paul envisions this race as a team effort not an individual one. We need to assist one another, draw close to one another, press on with one another – not alone. When we isolate or withdraw from one another, we increase our risk of falling away from Christ. That’s what Judas Iscariot did before his eventual betrayal of Christ. And it’s also what almost happened to Christ’s other eleven followers – but thankfully their discouragement was only temporary, and they returned to Christ and demonstrated their genuine faith by persevering together in faithful service.

In closing, let’s hear how the writer of Hebrews encourages us to follow Christ:

Run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)

As followers of Christ, will you persevere in following Christ as Christ himself persevered in his suffering for us? This, not falling out of the race or looking backwards, is the path to true joy. As we reflect on and remember Christ’s suffering and death for us, may we recommit ourselves to persevere in following him and not look back, no matter what challenges come our way. May we refocus on “the upward calling” – the mission – to which God has called us.

Keep on running. Focus on the goal. Stick to the plan together. You haven’t crossed the finish line yet.

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