Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, 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, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
What does it mean to “obtain” something? In this case, it means “to lay hold of” or ‘”to make as your own”. So Paul begins this passage by pausing in his exhortations to the Church, and letting his readers know that he hasn’t yet made “all this” his own. What is the “all this” he is referring to? It is everything he has written about to this point, everything we’ve covered in the first six messages of this series. By this point in the book of Philippians, Paul has encouraged the Church to begin where we are right now, to love those around us with the love of Jesus, to take the story of what Jesus has done in our lives everywhere, to “live as Christ” which is to die to ourselves, to model humility, to abandon ourselves and embrace Christ’s life in us as we focus on Him as our Lord–as the One thing that really matters. He outlines all of these things (and more), and then in the middle of chapter 3, he pauses. He stops to say that he hasn’t yet obtained these things, he hasn’t made them his own. And that pause is an invitation to stop and take a breath, to reflect and consider all that we’ve heard thus far. And to remember that, once again, this walk is not something we do in our own strength.
This passage highlights the tension between the now and the not yet. There is this picture of the ideal walk of faith that Paul has been painting for us, what it looks like to die to ourselves and live fully for Christ. And then there is the reality that we all-including Paul-fall short of that ideal. But rather than allow the truth that we’re not there yet to make us feel defeated or to cause us to lose hope in the process, Paul encourages us once again to remember that we are not the ones holding our lives together. He reminds us that we are not actually in control–and that is precisely why we can breathe and just keep going.
Where am I getting that? Paul says that he has not obtained all this, he hasn’t arrived, hasn’t yet taken hold of “that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. In these few verses, he is contrasting his own shortcomings-he hasn’t yet made all of this his own-with the surpassing power of Christ, who has already made him (and us) His own. The crux of verse 12 is not that we keep pressing on in order to take hold of Jesus, to cling to Him, to make Him our own. It is that we can keep moving toward Him, because He’s already holding onto us. It’s imperative that we see this rightly, or we live a life of striving, of attempting to grab hold of Jesus, but always falling short in our own strength.
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)
Just as dead people can’t make themselves alive on their own, humanity can’t manufacture the strength to hold onto the Divine, to the eternal. But because Jesus first took hold of us, we can now, in His strength, reach back to Him. This reaching, though, is not what we might think of when we think about “holding on” to something. It is not a white-knuckled grasp, a secure grip so as not to lose what we’re holding onto. Because it’s impossible to lose something that has taken hold of you-unless that thing lets go. We have zero control of our ability to hold onto Jesus. And realizing that is pure grace. What we may have perceived as a need to “hold on tight” becomes an invitation to completely let go. Because that which is holding onto us is Jesus himself. And He will never let go. There is nowhere we could go that He wouldn’t already be there waiting for us. We cannot lose Him, because He’s grafted us into the vine of Himself and placed His very life into us who were dead, and there’s no separating our life from His. It is a sheer impossibility. Inhale. Exhale. And find yourself completely safe within the hands that knit each one of us together and put His own breath in our lungs.
So what is the “pressing on” that Paul writes of, then? It’s an invitation to keep going. Understanding that Jesus has already made us His own, that we are forever held by Him, we can take the next step. We can stop worrying about all that we have to “do” to cling to Jesus and live present to His leading today, in this moment. Our “pressing on” is simply taking one step at a time on our journey of being made like Christ and living for Him.
If we see ourselves as responsible for holding onto Jesus, we’ll find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences of Him–and we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now. In verse 13, Paul writes of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”. Straining, in this context, means “to stretch out in the direction of something”. It is less about straining in the way we think of strenuous exercise or effort and more about which direction we’re going.
When I ponder this section, I can’t help but think of Isaiah 43, where God, through Isaiah, instructs the people to simultaneously remember and forget. Considering the two passages together, I believe the point is our orientation to time, because it determines what and how we see what’s happening in the now. In the beginning of Isaiah 43, and more specifically in verses 16-17, God reminds the people of all He has done, of how He has been their Deliverer, their Savior. And then, in verses 18-19, He says this:
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
rivers in the badlands.” (MSG)
So God tells the people first to remember, then to forget. Why?
Sometimes, we get fixated on what God did then, and how He did it before. Maybe the remembering is to remind us that God is and always has been, in the case of this particular passage, our Deliverer. But the forgetting is about the way He delivered then. It is a laying down of our expectations of how He will show up this time. The miracle of parting the Red Sea is not the miracle the people needed in the middle of the desert, when there was no water in sight. They needed to remember who God was to remind them that He still is that same God. But they needed to forget the circumstances of then, so that they could live present to now. If we find ourselves holding onto old ideas and past experiences with Him–we’ll miss the depths of what He wants to show us about Himself right now.
In our passage, when Paul says he is forgetting what is behind, it is in order to remain present to the Jesus who lives with us in the now. So that we can keep moving toward what’s to come. Dwelling on the past, whether it be about what we’ve done or failed to do, or how we’ve experienced Jesus before, robs of the gift of today. The depths of Jesus are unsearchable. We cannot dive deep enough to explore the breadth of all that He is. We can only see and grasp what He reveals of Himself to us. And if our eyes are fixed on what is behind us, if our expectations are based in who Jesus was to us then, we essentially dig our heels in and cease moving forward. We cannot continue to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus if we fix our gaze on a faded photograph of how He appeared to us back then. And as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the opposite of looking back is not looking forward. We have to have a different view of our now. We have to let go of our white-knuckled grip on the faded photograph of yesterday so that we can live fully present to our today, which will allow us to take the necessary steps that will get us to our tomorrow. That’s how it works.
Dear Church… we haven’t arrived yet. We didn’t have it together back in “the good ole days” (those days are an illusion-for so many, they were anything but “good”), we don’t have it together today, and-spoiler alert-we aren’t going to have it together tomorrow either. And that’s okay. We aren’t the captains of this ship-we never have been. What we are responsible for is waking up to now, to the leading of the Spirit in this moment. We can only take one step at a time, trusting that the One who has always been holding onto us will continue to hold us firmly within His capable, loving hands, and will lead us on until the day we are perfected and made complete in His presence, as His beloved Bride. Until that day comes, we practice all that we’ve learned so far, all that has led up to this point in the letter. We learn from Christ and we allow His life to overcome ours. We experience His love and then we share that experience everywhere we go. And when we feel overwhelmed by all that we have not yet obtained-we press pause. We breathe. And we remember that we can make Jesus our own only because He first called us His own. And we can only run after Him as He draws us in. We were dead. He made us alive. And we get to live for Him, one step at a time.
Dear Church… keep moving forward.