8 October 2014Philippians 3:12-16
“I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (v. 14)
As Paul writes these words of challenge, he turns to the image of an athletics stadium in order to make his point. The imagery is clear. Paul has begun the race in response to what Christ Jesus has done for him, but he has not yet finished that race (verse 12). There is a prize that awaits him. But to obtain that prize he must be committed and single-minded - "this one thing I do" (v. 13).
The athletic imagery is significant:
- A good athlete does not keep looking over their shoulder but instead forgets "what lies behind" (v. 13). Maybe Paul is here referring not only to his life before he encountered Jesus, but also to the earlier part of his Christian discipleship. Paul cannot simply 'rest on his laurels' (to use another image with roots in ancient Greek athletics) as a result of what he has already done as a Christian in the past.
- A good athlete is focused on the finishing line and strains 'forward to what lies ahead' (v. 13). Christians are not called to live in their own strength - but equally Christians are called to be focused on the work of God's kingdom and on their own growth in discipleship. This is in God's strength - but it does require a focussed and a disciplined life.
- A good athlete has the prize in view. For Paul, this prize is the "heavenly [or "upward" in the NRSV footnote] call of God in Christ Jesus" (v. 14). This image may refer to the way that victorious athletes were called "upwards", that is up the steps in the athletics stadium, in order to receive their prize. The detailed meaning of the phrase itself is debated, with some seeing the prize as a relationship with Jesus Christ which is experienced in this life, and others seeing the phrase as a reference to the invitation to be in God's eternal presence at the end of this earthly race.
What is clear in this image is that Paul is running this race with a single-minded focus (verses 12-14) and he invites his readers to do the same (verses 15-16).
- What will it mean for you today to forget "what lies behind" and to strain "forward to what lies ahead" (v. 13)?
- What do you understand by "the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus"?