“Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing” (Philippians 3:12-16).
This is another of the most misunderstood and abused sections of Paul’s writings. Today many in the church think that there is no need to strive towards spiritual perfection as they believe that the Lord has already made them as perfect as they are going to be on earth. Their lives often show little evidence of such perfection. Some people in Paul’s day thought that he was claiming to be perfect, but it is clear from this text that he was stating the exact opposite. Nevertheless he does teach that God takes hold of the believer for a gloriously high purpose, that is, to bring him to perfection in Christ. Maybe the vision of glory had inspired Paul to reach beyond nominal Christianity towards the highest goal (2 Corinthians 12:4). He was determined to progress upwards until he reached the place he could see his Lord face to face.
None of us are spiritually perfect, yet we are called unto perfection. In the same way, because we are not physically or mentally perfect, we do not let that stop us from bettering ourselves either through exercise or education. We must follow Christ faithfully if we aim towards perfection in Him, nevertheless all true believers recognise their spiritual imperfections. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:18-19).
Paul’s desire was to follow Christ closely and continuously. He did not believe the notion of sudden perfection but that Christians ought to grow towards it as they live daily for the Lord. The words “follow after” mean ‘to keep up the chase’ and ‘press on’. The same expression is found in 1 Corinthians 14:1, “Follow after charity.” Also in 1 Timothy 6:11-12 he writes, “But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many witnesses” These are things we have to do rather than having them automatically imputed to us. Why is it any different with perfection? Some have a problem with this, but surely we should follow God’s purpose for our lives, not lukewarmly but in wholehearted service to Him! “Follow after” [Greek ‘dioto] is an athletic term used in running sports, therefore it cannot be those who lazily meander through life. Paul was not complacent but eagerly desired to reach perfection. Sadly many Christians pull up short and will never reach the finishing post. “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Galatians 5:7). This can be quickly remedied though. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).
“Apprehend” is similar in meaning to ‘attain’. Here it refers to something we must ‘lay hold of’ and ‘seize’ with a firm grip. Christ has firmly taken hold of us; therefore our grip on Him must not weaken. We ought to “lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:12, 19) and “lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18). We no doubt have heard of a policeman apprehending a criminal after a chase. The word used by Paul has the same meaning.
While Paul knew that Christ had “apprehended” him, he realise that he had not “apprehended” the “high calling”. In other words, he was not yet in the place he should be. He was as determined as a runner in an endurance race to reach his goal. He needed singleness of vision. He needed to “forget” everything from the past and focus upon Christ the “forerunner” (Hebrews 6:20). Let us not pass by the word “forget” without considering what it was he had to forget. In fact Paul has just reminded us of his old life in Judaism with its rituals and feasts, his heritage, his persecution of the church, and of his own personal suffering. None of these were permitted to hinder his service for God. The past needs to be forgotten, especially our human talents, abilities and achievements if we are to go on in the Lord.
“Reaching forth” means to ‘stretch forward’ like a runner nearing the finishing line. Our aim is not to gain the advantage over our fellow runners, but simply to be the best Christian that ever lived. “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Corinthians 9:24). This is amplified by the words “press toward the mark”. Paul pressed towards the goal, and wanted to be totally conformed to the perfection of Christ. “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). Is it not strange that those who stand firm for predestination ignore the need of conformation! Here is the “one thing” so many Christians turn a blind eye to.
It is impossible to advance towards perfection unless we are “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Looking back, like Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:27, Luke 17:32), will end with going back and making ourselves unfit for the Kingdom of God. “And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). We must “Strive to enter in at the strait gate” for as Jesus says, “many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24). The apostle Peter write exactly the same thing, “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16.). God always wants His people to “go forward” (Exodus 14:25). God continues to stir up our hearts to reveal where we are falling short, and His Holy Spirit convicts us of the need to be more like Christ in our daily lives. “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28) … “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God” (Hebrews 6:1).
The “mark” is Christ for He stands at the finishing post to welcome us home, and the “prize” is the “crown of life” to those who finish the course (James 1:12). Therefore the “prize” is not the “high calling” but the end result of it. “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). How few run well! “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
Our Christian lives must be in accordance with the “high calling” or ‘the calling from above’. In reality the devil has convinced preachers and their adherents to set an altogether lower standard of godliness. The calling is “high” because it is ‘upward’ not downward. Those who are always backsliding have to question their commitment to Christ. A part of growing towards perfection is maintaining that which we have already achieved in Christ. Trying to ascend in faith without holiness and sanctification is like a bird with no wings attempting to fly. We need to be disciplined enough to resist all hindrances to our growth. “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). It must be noted that Paul is also rebuking the ‘perfectionists’ of his day, for the word “perfect” in verse 15 means ‘to be mature’ rather than achieving a state of sinless or spiritual perfection. This word can also mean ‘fully fit to run’, that is, according to the principles laid down in Scripture. There are those who believe that they have reached a state of perfection, but in truth they are deceiving themselves.
There will always be those who cling to the idea that they have already achieved the state of perfection either through imputation or good works, but God has ways to reveal just how wrong they are. There will always be those who suggest that absolute perfection is impossible on this side of eternity, so it is not worth trying. How will they ever receive the “prize” for following the “high calling of God in Christ Jesus”? Are they truly walking “in the Spirit” or fulfilling the “lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16)? Those who claim to follow Christ ought to live according to truth found in 1 John 2:6, “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked”, otherwise they are fooling themselves. “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).
What level of perfection do we think we have advanced to? The spiritual determination that has brought us thus far will drive us forward, onward and upward in our relationship with Christ. It is not our willpower, but the power of the Holy Spirit who enables obedient Christians to aim higher towards perfection. Let us never stop pressing on.