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13. Pursuing Spiritual Maturity

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Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, 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. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)

How should we pursue spiritual maturity—growth into the image of Christ?

One of the things I really love about Paul’s writing is his tendency to use athletic illustrations. It’s a common feature in his letters. In Ephesians 6:12, he uses a wrestling metaphor; he says, “we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but powers and principalities.” In 1 Corinthians 9:24 he uses a running metaphor; he says, “Do you not know that in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way to obtain it.” Later in the same passage, he uses a boxing metaphor; he says, “I do not fight like a man that beats the air” (v. 26). I would imagine that if I met Paul in person that not only would we have great theological conversations but also great conversations about sports. However, the reason he commonly used these sporting illustrations was because he saw many similarities between a competitive athlete and our spiritual lives. Christians should work at their spiritual life like a competitive athlete works at his craft.

This text is no different. Paul compares his pursuit of becoming more like Christ to a person running a foot race. In verse 3:12 he says, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” The word “press” can be translated “’to run’ or ‘follow after.’ It speaks of ‘an aggressive, energetic endeavor.’”1 Paul saw himself in pursuit of being like Christ in every way. What was it that Paul was running after? It was what he previously mentioned in Philippians 3:10-11. He said,

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul did not just want to know Christ intimately; he wanted to be just like him in every way. He wanted to have the power of the resurrection in his life, share in Christ’s suffering, die like him, and be resurrected like him. That was the reason that Christ “took hold” of him while he was traveling to persecute Christians in Damascus (v. 12). Christ grabbed Paul so that he could make him into his very image.

This reality of being called by God to look like Christ is true for each of us. Romans 8:29 says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Even before birth, this process of God taking hold of us began. It began in the counsel of God before the creation of the earth. Like a soon to be mother or father planning to have a child, each Christian was not an accident. He chose and predestined us to be conformed to the image of Christ.

How do we pursue this reality? How do we grow into the very image of Christ? How do we grow into maturity? In verse 15 he speaks to the mature and says, “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.” He speaks to the Philippians and says, “Those of you who are mature in Christ should think the same way. You should pursue Christ in the same way I am.” Next, he speaks to those who may think differently and says, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you” (v. 15b). He says if you don’t agree, God will reveal this to you.

How do we pursue maturity in Christ? How do we implement the disciplines of a competitive athlete into our lives so we can look more like Christ? We do it by modeling Paul’s disciplines. In fact, he will later explicitly call the Philippians, and therefore us, to model him in the next section. He says, “Join with others in following my example, brothers” (3:17). In this text, we will study Paul’s pursuit of spiritual maturity—knowing Christ—so that we can implement his disciplines into our own lives.

Big Question: What principles can we learn from Philippians 3:12-16 about pursuing maturity in Christ?

In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Attitude—a Holy Discontent

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me (Philippians 3:12)

What is the right attitude we must have in order to pursue maturity? Paul says, “not that I have already obtained all this or have already been made perfect.” Paul said, “I am not there yet.” Paul had a holy discontent. This is a very important attitude to develop if we are going to reach maturity.

Application Question: Why is it important to have the right attitude—a holy discontent—in order to pursue spiritual maturity?

1. Having the right attitude is important to spur growth.

Paul was probably the greatest Christian to ever live—he wrote almost half of the New Testament. His ministry led to the Gentile world being reached, and yet, he saw himself having not fully attained Christlikeness. This disposition is true of every great athlete. They are never content with their successes. And therefore, they continue to work hard to become better and to win more championships. Be careful of spiritual contentment. Many Christians are not growing because they are content with their attainments. They feel that they know the Bible enough, pray enough, serve enough, and therefore, they have ceased to progress spiritually. Spiritual contentment is the antithesis of spiritual growth; while a holy discontent is the catalyst for spiritual growth.

Are you content with your spiritual life?

2. Having the right attitude is important to deliver us from depression and discouragement when we fail.

Personally I struggle with perfectionism; meaning, I have an overriding feeling that I must always do things as perfect as possible. And when I have failed God, especially as a young Christian, this would often lead to bouts of discouragement and depression. Satan would at times attack me with great condemnation over my failures and even make me feel like I shouldn’t read my Bible or go to church. However, when a great athlete fails, it makes him work even harder. Michael Jordan would have a bad game where he only scored ten points, and then, the next game he would score fifty. Failures make great athletes work even harder. Similarly, Paul said, “Not that I have already become perfect, but I press.” His imperfection inspired him to seek to know God even more, instead of causing him to quit or give up. It should be that way in our spiritual life as well. Let your spiritual failures make you pursue Christ even more, instead of allowing them to encourage you to quit or settle for less than Christlikeness.

3. Having the right attitude is important to not be led astray into false teachings that emphasize “perfectionism”.

Some scholars believe Paul was indirectly attacking the belief of the Judaizers when he said that he had not been “made perfect.” It was common in those days for pious Jews to believe they could perfectly keep the law. When the rich man approached Christ about how to gain eternal life, Christ told him to keep the law. The rich man replied that he had kept it since his youth (Matt 19:16-20). Christ told him that perfectly keeping the law was enough for salvation so he could see that he had not kept the law and that he needed a savior. However, the rich man believed he had kept the law as many pious Jews did. Maybe, the Judaizers thought that combining law-keeping with faith in Christ could take them to an even higher spiritual plane. If they could keep the law without him, how much more could they attain perfection with him? Kent Hughes said this, “Paul’s enemies claimed to have reached a state of perfection that made them possessors of all the blessings of salvation, in effect the arrival of Heaven itself. Heavenly perfection was theirs now, they argued.”2 However, perfection is not attainable on this side of heaven. It must be our continual pursuit, our continual endeavor, but we will not reach it until the second coming of Christ. Listen to what John the apostle said: “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2b). We will never reach perfection on this side of heaven.

With that said, this belief in perfectionism has at times appeared throughout church history. Groups of Christians often from a Wesleyan background have taught that if they achieved a second work of the Holy Spirit after salvation, then instantaneously they could achieve holiness or perfection. Some even believe in the eradication of the sin nature. However, that was not Paul’s perspective. He said he had not achieved perfection. He also said in Romans 7 that the things he wanted to do, he didn’t do. He cried out, “who can save me from this body of sin” (v. 15-25). Also, perfectionism contradicts the rest of Scripture. John the apostle said this, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” he was not just denying perfectionism; he also was probably referring to a person being deceived about one’s salvation. The very theme of the book is assurance of salvation. He says in 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Since meeting God in Scripture always is shown to create an awareness of sin, a person that thinks they have achieved perfection is probably deluded about his salvation. Isaiah saw God and cried out, “’Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’” (Isaiah 6:5). This man saw how grave his sin was when he met God. Peter, when convinced that Jesus was the messiah, said, “Away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). Paul the apostle calls himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15). To truly know God means to keenly know one’s own sin. Therefore, to claim perfection is very dangerous; it might actually prove that one has never truly met God at all. Scripture vehemently denies the possibility of being perfect here on earth.

As mentioned, perfectionism is the antithesis of spiritual growth. If a person thinks they have attained perfection, then there is no reason to continue to grow and seek Christ. We must be aware of this teaching, and we must also be careful of living this out implicitly by being satisfied with our spiritual attainments.

Application Question: In what ways does Paul’s statement about not having achieved perfection yet encourage or challenge you in your spiritual life?

In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Effort

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12)

One wrestler asked his coach if he could wrestle without working so hard in practice. The constant running, weight lifting, and dieting had taken its toll on him. The coach replied, “Why, yes, you can. However, you can’t wrestle and win without working hard.” Another aspect of pursuing spiritual maturity we must develop is having the right effort. The word “press” means “’to run’ or ‘follow after’ and speaks of ‘an aggressive, energetic endeavor.’”3 The word in ancient Greek was used of a hunter eagerly pursuing his prey.4 If we are going to grow into spiritual maturity, we must give maximum effort. We must work hard in order to be like Christ just like a competitive athlete.

Look at what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” When Paul described his effort as an apostle he said, “I worked harder than all of them.” This doesn’t seem to be boasting but a realistic evaluation of his effort in serving Christ. Unlike most of the apostles, Paul chose to forgo pleasures like marriage in order to have more time to serve Christ. At times, he also forewent pay from churches and earned his money by building tents. He worked hard in accordance with the grace God gave him to become like Christ.

Why are so many Christians not growing in maturity? For many of them, they are not willing to “press.” They are not willing to work hard to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of them. If we were really honest in our evaluation of one another in the church, many people work hard but at things other than their spiritual lives. They work hard, even at times forgoing sleep, to get a project done for school or work. They get up early to go to a job interview, but many never do that for the kingdom of God. That was Paul’s continuous labor; he worked hard—he pressed to become like Christ.

In the Parable of the Sowers in Matthew 13, four different soils hear the Word of God—the wayside, the stony ground, the thorny ground, and the good ground. I believe that only the person who hears the Word and bears fruit is really saved—the good ground. However, listen to how Christ describes the fruitfulness of the good ground: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matt 13:8). Some people who are truly born again produce a 100 fold, some 60 and some 30. What makes the difference? Is it the fact that God gives some people more grace? I don’t believe so. We each receive grace from God; however, some people work harder than others with it. Some people do what Paul did, “his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul essentially said, “I used the grace God gave me to serve. I pressed in my spiritual life to become more like Christ and complete the works that he called for me to accomplish.”

This must be true for us as well; we must have the right effort. Some people will never reach maturity because they don’t give any real effort to their spiritual life. Everything else in their life gets maximum effort other than their relationship and service to God. Paul said this to Timothy, “discipline yourself unto godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). It can also be translated “exercise.” We must work to be godly.

Remember the discipline that Christ put his disciples through right before going to the cross. He called three disciples to pray with him for one hour. However, when they fell asleep, he didn’t say, “Oh it’s OK. I understand that you are tired. Go back to sleep.” He said, “Pray another hour.” They fell asleep again and he said, “Pray another hour” (Matt 26:38-45). He disciplined them. I think really what we see in the Garden of Gethsemane is something of the discipline Christ implemented in their lives throughout the three previous years. He made them exercise themselves unto godliness. Remember they were following a Savior that prior to starting his ministry fasted from food for forty days (Matt 4:2). Christ disciplined himself unto godliness. He woke up early in the morning throughout his ministry and went to the mountain to pray (Mark 1:35). He was disciplined, and he trained his disciples to be disciplined.

I have never been a great reader other than reading the Bible and books that explain the Bible. (I am still working out my sanctification.) However, when I have gotten the chance to read biographies of men and women that God used greatly, I often am left astounded at their great discipline—their great effort in pursuing Christ. Martin Luther had a thriving prayer life, where he would at times pray for two hours or more. I have read of other ministers who constantly finished the Bible several times a month. These people were willing to “press.” Their lives were energetic endeavors of pursuing Christlikeness and serving others. If we are going to grow in maturity, we must similarly “press” to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of us.

Application Question: In what ways is God challenging you to be more disciplined in your spiritual life—to put more effort into pursuing Christ?

In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Focus

Brothers, 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 3:13)

Another aspect of pursuing maturity is having the right focus. Paul said, “But one thing I do.” This is the very reason many Christians are not growing; they have too many things they are focusing on. But for Paul, he had one thing that was above all other things and that was to know Christ and be like him. That was his one thing.

This is true of most people who became great at something in their lives; they learned the discipline of focus. Very few people are great at more than one thing. The great businessman, the great musician, the great athlete, the great scholar, the majority of them became great because of their focus. I remember, after my junior year in high school, my mom approached my varsity basketball coach and asked, “What does Greg have to do in order to get a basketball scholarship?” My coach replied, “Greg is going to have to live basketball. He must eat it, drink it, and sleep it. It must consume him if he is going to get a scholarship.” I remember taking those words to heart. I would sleep with my basketball and my Bible every night. I would bring my basketball and Bible in my backpack to school every day. It consumed me. This must be true of us as spiritual athletes as well. Christ must become our one thing before every other endeavor.

What makes this so difficult is the fact that the enemy of the best thing—knowing and being like Christ—is often not the bad but the good. We see this in the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Christ visited their house, and he was in the living room teaching everybody with Mary sitting at his feet listening. However, in the kitchen, Martha was working hard to serve everybody by being a good host. She became upset at the fact that Mary, her sister, was not doing anything except sitting at the feet of Jesus. She approached Christ about this, and he replied, “Martha, Martha, … you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (v. 41-42).

Martha was doing good things. She was serving everybody in the house, including her Lord, Jesus Christ. However, Mary chose the better thing which was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Christ was her one thing, even before ministry. This is very common for people who serve. We often get busy with many good things and neglect our one thing. This was what enabled Paul to be effective at ministry. His ministry flowed out of this one thing—an abiding relationship with Christ. Remember what Christ said in John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” This “one thing”—abiding in Christ—will actually enable us to do everything better.

Application Question: What are some of scriptural benefits of living a life focused on Christ?

1. Seeing God is a benefit of focusing on Christ.

Matthew 5:8 says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The “pure in heart” means “the single-minded.” Jesus taught that the single-minded—those who are focused on God and the things of God—will see God everywhere. In the midst of a trial, when others only see problems and difficulties, the pure in heart see God and his abundant grace.

2. Fulfilling God’s purpose in our lives is a benefit of focusing on Christ.

Jeremiah 29:11-14 in the KJV says this:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity.

We often quote this passage written to the Israelites who were exiled in Babylon. God said he had plans for them to give them a hope and a future. However, we must ask, “How would Israel go from being under God’s judgment in Babylon to fulfilling God’s plans?” Here is the answer: when they would seek him with all their heart, God would not only reveal himself to them but deliver them from exile.

The very reason they were under judgment was for neglecting God, but when they sought God with all their heart, God would reveal himself and deliver them from exile in order to fulfill his promises to them. I wonder how many people are going through trials in their life, even right now, and all God is saying is, “Seek me. Just seek me. Make me your priority, and I will deliver you and fulfill my plans for you.”

3. God meeting our needs is a benefit of focusing on Christ.

Matthew 6:33 says this: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.” In the context, Christ told the disciples to not worry about what they would eat, drink, or wear. God would provide if they would put God’s kingdom first in their lives. Many Christians go through lack because Christ and his kingdom are not their priority. In fact, often they put other things first before God in order to make sure their provisions are met. However, when they put school, work, friends, and family before God, he often allows them to suffer lack until he becomes their priority.  Jesus said if we make God our priority, he will meet all our needs.

4. God answering our prayers is a benefit of focusing on Christ.

James 1:5-8 says,

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

James, in the context of teaching about trials, said that if we lack wisdom we should ask God, for he gives liberally. However, he said that we should ask in faith because a double-minded man will receive nothing. What is a double-minded man? A double-minded man is a person who is trying to live for God and live for the world (cf. James 4:3-4). He is not a focused man. God is not his priority. This person will receive nothing from God. God answers the prayers of those who make him their priority and live a life of faith.

5. God using us greatly is a benefit of focusing on Christ.

Second Chronicles 16:9 in the KJV says, “For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” The chronicler said that the eyes of the Lord are always looking for someone whose heart is perfect towards him. What does “perfect” mean in this verse? It seems to be referring to someone who is focusing on God—seeking him first with their lives. For those who do this, God shows his strength in their lives. Why did God use a youth named David mightily for his name? Why did God call a junior high girl named Mary to birth the Messiah? He saw they had hearts that were perfect towards him. He was their focus and God blessed them.

Making Christ our focus comes with many benefits. However, when we neglect him, we will find ourselves deprived. Christ must be our “one thing.” How do we keep the right focus?

Maintaining the Right Focus

“…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 3:13b-14).

After declaring his focus (But one thing I do), Paul described how he maintained a focus on Christ. Again, Paul is using a running metaphor. The focus of the runner is to win the prize and for Paul that was primarily intimacy with Christ and being like him. He describes disciplines that we all must practice in order to do this. How do we keep the right focus?

Observation Question: How did Paul keep a right focus on Christ in Philippians 3:13, and how can we apply this to our lives?

1. We maintain a focus on becoming like Christ by forgetting what is behind.

Interpretation Question: What does Paul mean by forgetting what is behind?

  • When Paul says forgetting what is behind, he is probably referring to all his achievements (Phil 3:4-9).

As mentioned in the previous passage, Paul was proud of his Jewish heritage and his accomplishments as a Pharisee. He was from the tribe of Benjamin, a tribe which produced many nobles. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews meaning that he never lost his Jewish culture. He was a Pharisee. However, when he found Christ, he counted his previous successes as a loss in order to gain salvation through Christ. Now it should be noted, Paul didn’t mean that he literally forgot his previous successes. “Forgetting what is behind” simply means that his past no longer had power over him. When God says in Hebrews 10:17, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” he doesn’t mean that he forgets. It is impossible for God to forget, it simply means that he no longer holds our failures against us.

In continuing the athletic metaphor, this is true of any great athlete. Michael Jordan, who was one of the most successful NBA basketball players of all time, could have been really content with one NBA championship. However, it did not make him content; it just increased his hunger. He wanted to be even more successful, and he eventually won six NBA championships. In a sense, this must be true for us as Christians as well. We must always have a holy hunger. We must never be satisfied with previous successes in Christ. Moses had a more intimate relationship with God than all the prophets during his time—God spoke to him face to face. However, the fact that he was more intimate with God than others did not make Moses content. He said to God, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33:18). He wanted more of God—more intimacy with him. This must be the same for us as well. Even though Paul had started many churches for God, he wasn’t content with his spiritual success. He forgot his successes in order to continue to pursue Christ and his calling. This enabled him to stay focused on the goal of Christ.

  • When Paul says forgetting what is behind, he is also probably referring to his failures and the failure of others.

In mentioning his achievements in Judaism, Paul also mentioned how he previously was so zealous for Judaism that he persecuted the church (Phil 3:6). This no doubt was a big stain in Paul’s memory that may have taken many years to purge. Paul consented to the killing of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. After he was stoned, the Jews threw his clothes at the feet of Paul (Acts 8:1). All the Christians were afraid of him. No doubt, during his ministry he met the families of those he persecuted or even had a hand in their children’s murder. This blot was enough to destroy anybody’s ministry. Again, Paul could never truly forget his failures, but he could change the way he thought about them. Look at what Paul said about his past failure in persecuting the church:

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:13-14)

When Paul remembered his previous failures, being a violent man and a persecutor of the church, he only saw God’s mercy and grace. It reminded him of how God poured out faith and love in his life through Christ Jesus. Where, no doubt, Satan tried to condemn him and keep him from doing ministry, Paul saw the mercy and grace of God on his life. No, he never forgot his past, but he allowed God to change the meaning of it in his life.

This is the problem with many Christians. They remember how they failed God or how someone hurt them, and these sins keep them from ever fully serving God. For some, it even keeps them from attending church or reading their Bible. If we are going to stay focused on Christ, we must exercise a holy forgetting in order to keep the right focus. We must take God at his Word and allow him to change the way we think about things that happened in our past. He works all things to the good of those who love the Lord (Rom 8:28). We must let our past failures and the failures of others draw us even closer to Christ.

We see how God wants to change the power of the past in the story of Joseph. Consider how Joseph responded to his brothers who previously sold him into slavery. He said this: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph said their sending him into slavery was a grace of God to save many. Believe it or not, God wants to use our failures and the failures of others as well in order to help save many. It has been said that one’s misery often becomes his/her ministry.

Have you learned how to forget the past? Have you learned how to see God’s hand and grace even over your failures and the failure of others? Again, Scripture says, “God works everything for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). One of the things we must do if we are going to learn how to focus on Christ is develop a holy forgetting.

2. Christians maintain a focus on Christ by looking towards the prize.

“…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” (Phil 3:13b-14).

Again, in using the running illustration, a successful runner never looks back, to the side, or at himself while running. He constantly looks forward towards the goal. The phrase straining toward “describes stretching a muscle to its limit, and pictures a runner straining every muscle to reach the finish line.”5 Paul was straining toward the goal of the prize for which God called him heavenward.

Many Christians cannot grow spiritually because instead of looking forward they are always looking at others or at themselves, and it either discourages them or makes them prideful. They get discouraged because they are not as spiritually mature as others or as successful. Or they get prideful because they are more mature than others. Both hinder their spiritual growth. Competitive runners keep their eyes on the goal—not on themselves or others around them. It’s the same with Christians who are maturing in Christ.

Interpretation Question: What goal or prize was Paul straining and pressing towards?

It was the goal of knowing and being just like Christ (Phil 3:9-10), but it also seems to refer to him being approved and rewarded by him at the judgment seat of Christ. Paul said this:

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:9-10)

Paul aimed to please Christ because he realized that one day he would appear before the judgment seat of Christ. We see the athletic metaphor in this judgment as well. The word “judgment seat” used here is not the judgment seat of a court case but one from an athletic competition. It is the word “bema” which was a raised platform where the judge would give a reward for winning an athletic competition.

That was Paul’s goal; he wanted to look like Christ and be approved by him. This approval would ultimately come when Christ said, “Well done thou good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21).

There is a story about a great pianist who had just finished a concert and the crowd stood and gave him a raving applause. However, the renowned pianist did not seem satisfied. Only when a man in the rafters stood and began to clap did the pianist smile and bow before the audience. The man in the stands was his teacher. Only the approval of his teacher mattered, and this should be true of us as Christians as well. We press to receive the approval of our Master.

In seeking the approval of the Master, Paul also wanted to be rewarded by him—possibly the ultimate form of approval. Listen to what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Paul did not want to be disqualified from the prize—the approval of Christ and the rewards that came with it. This was always on his mind. In fact, look at what Paul said at the end of his life:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Paul, like a competitive runner, kept his eyes focused on the prize. For him, the prize was knowing Christ, looking like him, and being approved by him.

If we are going to stay focused on Christ in a secular world, we must be motivated by heavenly things. We must be motivated by the approval of Christ and his reward. Jesus said this: “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12).

Practicing these truths will help us stay focused. We must forget what is behind, including past successes and failures. We must continue to look forward at our goal in the future, which is Christ.

Application Question: In what ways is God training you to practice a holy forgetting so you can progress in your spiritual life? What distractions—achievements or failures—commonly keep you from pressing forward to know Christ more?

In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Practice

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:15-16)

A great athlete never neglects his basic disciplines. The basketball player practices dribbling, shooting, passing, and defense over and over again. The runner focuses on the swing of his arms, the distance of his stride, breathing, and pacing himself. All athletes are faithful in practicing the basics which eventually makes them successful in competition. It’s the same with a spiritual athlete pursuing maturity in Christ. In order to pursue spiritual maturity we must have the right practice.

In verses 15 and 16, Paul calls for those who were mature in the congregation to practice the same disciplines as him in pursuing Christ and Christlikeness. However, he recognized some in the congregation might not agree with him. Maybe, they believed that sanctification was a process that God did all on his own without the believer’s help. This is at times taught today. “Let go and let God,” some say. But Paul taught spiritual maturity was attained, at least in part, by our rigorous effort. He said to those who disagreed with him that God would make it clear to them, but “only” if they lived up to what they had already attained (v. 16). What they had already attained may have seemed liked basics, but they needed to continue to practice them if God was going to reveal further revelation to them.

This is true for each one of us. If we are faithful with what God has already revealed to us, he will give us more. We will know Christ more and grow in Christlikeness. We see this principle taught in other parts of Scripture. Christ said this to the disciples:

“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” (Mark 4:24-25)

Christ told the disciples that the measure they used what God had already revealed to them, it would be given back and even more. Those who were faithful in practicing the truths that God had already taught them, would be given more, but those who did not, even what they had would be taken away.

When you look at any person who is growing in the Lord, you can be sure this principle is working in their lives. God has taught them truths, and they are applying it to their lives. They are faithfully practicing it and sharing it, and therefore God is giving them more. However, instead of growing, many are going backwards based on the same principle. God taught them to delight in and meditate on the Word of God day and night (Psalm 1:2), but they choose to delight in other things. God taught them to let no corrupt communication come out of their mouths (Eph 4:29), but they instead talk much like the world. God taught them to forgive so they will be forgiven (Matt 6:14), but instead they harden their hearts against others. Therefore, God takes away.

If the Philippians who did not agree with Paul’s assessment of following Christ and growing in maturity were faithful to all God had already taught them, then eventually he would correct their wrong theology. When we are faithful, God by his grace enables us to progress into the image of Christ. However, when we rebel, there is a taking away, a hardening of a person’s heart (Matt 13:12-15).

Are you living up to what you have already attained? If so, God will give you more. If not, God will take away. Great athletes never stop practicing the basics, and it’s the same with mature Christians.

Application Question: In what ways have you seen the principle in Mark 4:23-24 happen in your life or others? Are there any areas where God is especially calling you to live up to what he has already taught you, so you can grow in maturity?

Conclusion

How do we pursue spiritual maturity in Christ?

  1. In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Attitude—a Holy Discontent
  2. In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Effort
  3. In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Focus
  4. In Order to Pursue Spiritual Maturity, We Must Have the Right Practice

1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 245). Chicago: Moody Press.

2 Hughes, R. K. (2007). Philippians: the fellowship of the gospel (p. 146). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 246). Chicago: Moody Press.

4 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 2, p. 90). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

5 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (p. 247). Chicago: Moody Press.

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