The Nature of Paul’s Pursuit of Christ: Living in the “Now/Not Yet” (Philippians 3:12-16)
I. Translation as It Appears in the NET Bible
3:12 Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which I also was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 3:13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: forgetting the things behind and reaching out for the things ahead. 3:14 With this goal in mind I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 3:15 Therefore, let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If on some point you think otherwise, God will reveal this also to you. 3:16 Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard that we have already attained.
The relationship of 3:12-4:1 to its immediate context is difficult. It seems that 3:12-16 (and also 3:17-:41) is related to 3:2-11 by way of balancing some of his zealous comments about knowing Christ and thus trying to prevent any attitudes of perfectionism from developing within the church—attitudes which would prove disastrous for love and unity. This does not necessarily mean, as many commentators have argued, that the church was facing a specific false teaching along the lines of perfectionism—perfectionism related perhaps to the Judaizers and their emphasis on the Law, or to the Gnostics, or to other Christians. This may be the case, but the use of the term perfect (teleios), a term used by certain Jewish and Gnostic groups, is scarcely enough information to create certainty on this issue.
III. The Nature of Paul’s Pursuit of Christ:
Living in the “Now/Not Yet”
Lest the Philippians think that the apostle had totally arrived, he begins in 13:13-15 to bring some balance—by way of creating a healthy tension—to his thoughts in 3:2-11. In 3:12ff the apostle says that he has not already (ouc Joti hdh elabon) attained this. The word this is not in the Greek text and has therefore been supplied. But to what does it refer? What is it that Paul considers himself not yet to have attained? Some argue that he is referring to not having obtained the prize he speaks of in 3:14. Others claim that Paul is talking about the resurrection in 3:11. Still other scholars think that what he is referring to is the whole import of vv. 8-11, or the righteousness he mentions in v. 9. Since each of these suggestions has some merit, it may be that what Paul is talking about is “gaining Christ” completely and knowing him perfectly.179 Thus, it seems best to take it as a reference to knowing Christ to such a degree that Paul fully participates in his resurrection power and shares in his sufferings—attaining as it were to resurrection life—full and unhindered. The apostle says that he has not yet attained this kind of intimacy, that is, he had not already been perfected (h hdh teteleiwmai).
The reference to the already stresses the “not-yet” aspects of salvation in the present age and uncovers one of the fundamental substructures of Paul’s thought about life in Christ in the age of the Spirit before the consummation of the kingdom. He views people in Christ as new creations (2 Cor 5:17), possessing the Spirit (Rom 8:9), partakers of the new covenant (1 Cor 11:25), sharing in the promises (Eph 2:12-13) and being delivered from this present evil age (Gal 1:4). However, he knows that there is still more to come in the future at the consummation of all things when we are glorified (Rom 8:30) and our bodies are transformed into the likeness of his glorious body (Phil 3:20). Thus a certain measure of OT promise has been fulfilled already (the “now”) and the rest will come later (the “not-yet”). In order to understand why Paul qualifies 3:8-11 with the not that…of 3:12-14, some have speculated that there existed a group from within the church (or from without) which advanced an over-realized eschatology and considered themselves as having “arrived” (perhaps some form of the Judaism discussed in 3:2-3). There is no necessary need to suggest as much, though such a group may have been influencing the church. An adequate reading of 3:12-14, however, is achieved in light of 3:8-11, without the need to postulate some theoretical group. Paul’s point is that there is a “now” and a “not-yet” when it comes to our present experience of salvation in this life.
Nonetheless, Paul says, I strive to lay hold (diwkw de ei kai katalabw) of that for which (ef Jw) I also was laid hold of (katelhmfqhn) by Christ Jesus (Jupo Cristou Ihsou). Even though Paul considered it a monumental goal, that is, to know Christ, he did not quit, but pressed on (i.e., to strive) as it were. The verb strive (diwkw) is used 24 times in the New Testament. It is used thirteen times in Matthew-Acts, always with the sense of to persecute or hunt down, as, for example, in the case of Israel who always persecuted the prophets sent to her (Matt 23:34; Acts 7:52). Paul uses the term ten times (Romans 9:30; 12:13, 14; 14:19; 1 Cor. 4:12; 14:1; 2 Cor 4:9; Gal 6:12; 1 Thess 5:15; 2 Tim 3:12), both in the sense of “to persecute” (Rom 12:14; 1 Cor 4:12; Gal 6:12; 2 Tim 3:12) and “to ardently pursue” something, i.e., righteousness (Rom 9:30); love (1 Cor 14:1); doing good to others (1 Thess 5:15). Whether Paul is thinking here of the athletic metaphor of running a foot race, as Hendriksen suggests,180 the point is clear: it is strenuous and requires great effort and focus.
But what is Paul striving for? Some argue that the verb to lay hold of signifies “to grasp” or “comprehend” in the sense of “understanding an idea.” Hawthorne, while he regards katalabw as a truly difficult word, argues along these lines:
Paul’s one desire is to know Christ. But he is keenly aware that he has not yet grasped the full import of the significance of Christ. As a consequence, he sets out, very much like a runner, to see whether he might at last be able to comprehend (katalavbw) him fully.181
Admittedly the term katalabw can refer to “understanding.” But, the problem with Hawthorne’s exegesis, here in Philippians 2:12, is that it is too narrow and therefore fails to capture the full sense in which Paul wants to “lay hold of” Christ. It isn’t that he just wants to comprehend or understand Christ’s significance, for example, in God’s great redemptive plan, but that he wants to experience Christ to the point where he has totally overcome every obstacle and sin that would otherwise hinder. He not only wants to fathom the mysteries and depth of Christ, he also wants to live in relationship with him—the unfettered enjoyment of His presence. While this undoubtedly involves a profound measure of “understanding” it also involves the apostle’s whole being.
There is a certain ambiguity in the phrase of that for which (ef Jw)…. The prepositional phrase ef Jw can be translated in one of two ways: (1) “because”; (2) “for which.” The first translation is the more typical in Pauline usage (cf. Rom 5:12; 2 Cor 5:4). Thus, the first translation would indicate that Paul wants to lay of Christ because Christ had already taken hold of him. This translation indicates the ground on which Paul can pursue Christ. The second translation would mean that Christ laid hold of Paul for the purpose of Paul pursuing him. Though both interpretations are certainly true, this latter one seems to have the better of it here. Paul’s point is not that it is because of Christ that he can seek Him, but that Christ saved him for this purpose. Thus the reason Christ took hold of Paul—undoubtedly a reference back to his Damascus road experience—was so that Paul might know him fully.
Paul continues in verse 13 with the interjection brothers and sisters (adelfoi). This direct address has a way of getting the attention of the readers, stopping them in their tracks as it were, before the apostle repeats the affirmation of v. 12.
Verse 13 is an emphatic restatement of what was said in v. 12. Paul says: I do not consider myself to have attained this. Both the use and placement of the pronoun I (egw) in the Greek text along with the deliberate insertion of the reflexive pronoun myself (emauton) emphasize Paul’s personal commitment to the fact that he had not achieved his personal ambition of knowing Christ perfectly; he was not yet perfect in an absolute sense. And though it was his sober calculation (i.e., consider [logizomai]) about his own life, it was nonetheless true for others as well. Nobody had achieved a state of Christian perfectionism in which there was no more a need to strive to know Christ or overcome sin. The verb logizomai is used by Paul to refer to his own personal considerations but which considerations are also universally true as well. In Rom 8:18 he considers (logizomai) that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory to come. This is not just his personal musings, but the truth which everyone who is in Christ will someday experience.182 Thus everyone who is united to Christ in the present age—between his first and second coming and the complete establishment of the kingdom—knows the struggle of the “now/not yet” aspects of salvation. We are saved from the penalty of sin, and are being saved from its power. Someday we will be completely saved from sin, even its very presence. Thus every Christian ought to say with the apostle that they have not yet “arrived.”
It is true that as Christians we have not yet arrived, but this is no condoning of a lackadaisical attitude. So the apostle continues in verse 13 to give the paradigm in which he operates in the time before Christ’s return. He says “brothers and sisters I do not consider myself yet to have attained this, but instead (de) I am single-minded (Jen): forgetting the things behind (ta men opisw epilanqanomenos) and reaching out for the things ahead (tois de emprosqen epekteinomenos). Paul doesn’t live in a vacuum. He has put off certain attitudes and put on others (cf. Eph 4:22-24). Paul lived his life in a single-minded fashion. The metaphor behind this verse is that of the runner. The expression single-minded is actually a single word in Greek, namely Jen. It refers to “single-mindedness,” “having one purpose,” “being focused on one, single goal”—one and only one. There is no room for double-mindedness in this expression. And so it is with the runner who must not look to the left or to the right, but must keep his focus on the goal (cf. Phil 2:2; 1 Cor 9:19-27).
In order to be single-minded, i.e., “this one thing I do, not these many things I dabble in,” the Christian must forget the things behind. For Paul this meant not turning around and reverting to his Jewish way of life and achievements. He had left behind the self promotion involved in legal obedience to the Law and would never return to it. He was dead to it and it was dung to him. Some have suggested that what Paul is forgetting here is his success in Christ up to this point, that is, success defined positively in terms of obedience to Christ and personal knowledge of him. This is unlikely and unnecessary. Fee explains:
In light of v. 16 and the appeal for them to live up to where they currently are in Christ, it seems altogether unlikely that “the things behind him” denotes the measure of ‘knowing Christ’ that he has already attained. This is a clear case of letting the imagery rather than the context dictate meaning, which is always a hazardous procedure. Such a view not only focuses on the wrong things in Paul’s story, but it fails to take seriously enough the basic “already/not yet” framework of Paul’s thinking that dominates this passage. What is ‘already’ is not what is to be ‘disregarded,’ but rather what does not count for a thing at all in light of Christ—even though at one time in Paul’s life he thought of it in terms of gain.183
Forgetting what lies behind, the apostle is always reaching out for the things ahead (tois de emprosqen epekteinomenos). Paul continues the metaphor with athletics. The term epekteinomenos signifies straining with all one’s energy and stretching out to cross the finish line in a race. The focus in the metaphor is not on winning the race per se, in contrast to those who lose, but on the idea of running with a goal fixed continuously before one’s eyes. For Paul, the things ahead include knowing Christ now as well as the hope of being found in him later, i.e., found in him by faith alone and not by his own attempts at meritorious works of the Law.
Thus Paul runs purposively toward the goal. The noun goal (skopon) occurs only here in the NT184, but its meaning is largely determined in context with Paul’s “running” metaphor and the use of prize (brabeion). It is the “finish line,” if you will, and Paul is running toward it and will not allow himself to be distracted in any way. He wants the prize which is here modified as the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Paul also uses the term prize (brabeion) in another related context, namely, 1 Cor 9:24 (cf. vv. 19-27). The passage is as follows:
9:19 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more. 9:20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. 9:21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. 9:22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. 9:23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it. 9:24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 9:25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 9:26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 9:27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.—(1 Cor 9:19-27 NET Bible)
Paul’s words to the Corinthians come in a context emphasizing the proper use of freedom, the human need to focus on what’s important, and the centrality of the gospel in all of that. Here the focus is on winning the race, but not defined as beating other people per se—as if other Christians were the opponents—but rather winning in the sense of living the Christian life in a disciplined fashion and finishing well. This, he says, is not for a perishable crown (a crown made from celery185), but an imperishable one.
The important point to walk away with from this passage is that the Christian life is a disciplined life with a view toward the finish line. This does not mean that we cannot live “in the moment” as God himself is in an “eternal now,” but it does mean that the quality of the moment depends on one’s long term focus. So Paul wants the prize and runs stringently to achieve it.
We return now to that interesting expression, namely, the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (ths anw klhsews tou qeou en Cristw Ihsou). This phrase has been interpreted along various lines186: (1) the “upward call of God” is the “prize” about which Paul speaks. This is unlikely since Paul generally uses the term “call” to refer to God’s initial act of calling someone to salvation. It is not a process per se nor does it focus solely on the end, but rather on the beginning of salvation (though it has an eschatological intent; see Rom 11:29; 1 Cor 1:26; 7:20; Eph 1:18; 4:1, 4; 2 Thess 1:11; 2 Tim 1:9); (2) the “call” refers to the call of the president of the games to the victorious athlete to step up unto the podium and receive his prize. Once again, while this picks up on certain cultural clues, it is probably not the image Paul intends here since in this interpretation “call” is being defined as something occurring after the race has been won. In contrast, Paul generally uses it to refer to God’s call to salvation when an individual is first saved (cf. Rom 8:30); (3) the term “call” refers to that initial salvific call of God to Paul on the Damascus Road. It was an upward (anw) call in that it had heaven as its immediate and ultimate goal (its eschatological end) and, it is the call of God since He was the One doing the calling. The reference to in Christ Jesus signifies the grounds and sphere in which the call was given. It also conveys the sphere in which the apostle experienced the immediate blessings of that call, including forgiveness, grace, and union with Christ. The third interpretation seems better on the whole, though there is much overlap between the various renderings. According to this reading of the text, then, the prize, refers to final and complete salvation in the eternal state, defined as knowing Christ perfectly and intimately without any hindrances. This is what Paul has his eyes focused on and that for which he runs with such discipline.
Having spelled out his own life and perspective on knowing Christ and the contrast with the Judaizers (3:1-14) Paul now turns to apply what he has said to his listeners (3:15-16ff.). As is typical of this entire letter, the apostle consistently uses examples in order to bring home his point—examples which include himself earlier (1:12-26), Jesus (2:6-11), Timothy (2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (2:25-30). He says in 3:15: Let those of us who are “perfect” embrace this point of view. If you think otherwise, God will also reveal this to you. Several questions come to mind in the interpretation of this verse. In what sense does he intend perfect? In what ways could they think otherwise or differently? How will God reveal this to them and what does he mean by this?
Most of these questions (as well as some not stated) relate to the meaning of the term perfect (teleios). Therefore, we will begin our discussion here. The noun teleios is used 19 times in the NT, of persons and things. It refers to having “attained a purpose,” “being mature,” “complete,” or “whole.”187 It never means to be absolutely perfect and free from sin in any and all respects in the present time. That is the ultimate eschatological goal inherent in the term, but it is never used absolutely as such in the NT.
The likely background for Paul’s use of the term here in Philippians is the spiritual/ethical teaching of the OT, though it may have been used in current religious thought to designate initiates into the mystery religions as well. It is used approximately 19 times in the Greek OT (LXX) to indicate (1) Noah’s blameless character in the context of the generation in which he lived (Gen 6:9; Sirach 44:17); (2) the Passover lamb which was required to have no blemish, that is to be perfect physically, in order that it be acceptable for sacrifice (Exod 12:5); (3) Israel’s blameless (i.e., perfect) character evidenced as she refused to engage in the heathen practices of witchcraft, etc. going on around her; (4) a heart totally devoted to God as evidenced by complete obedience to his commands (1 Kgs 8:61; 11:4; 15:3, 14); a teacher as opposed to a pupil (1 Chr 25:8); Solomon’s perspective on his new wife (i.e., she was perfect, without flaw in his eyes; SS 5:3; 6:9); the whole (teleion) number of Judah taken into exile. Thus teleios, in its spiritual and moral sense in the OT, communicates the idea of completely devoted to God according to the revelation of the Law.
In Philippians, when Paul uses the term, he is thinking of obedience to God, but now it is an obedience or perfection understood from the perspective of the “now/not yet” substructure of his thinking. It is not the revelation of the Law that is in view, but that of Christ, the cross, and the Spirit. The one who is teleion, says Paul, is the one who realizes the inaugural character of the present salvation offered in Christ and knows that there is still much to come in the future. That person, therefore, recognizes the strenuous nature of the Christian life as presently conceived and exerts all their energies to “work out their own salvation” (Phil 2:13). In affirming this, though, Paul knows that the antecedent grace of God is the context for all so-called “perfection” (cf. 1 Cor 15:10). It is not akin to the idea of “buckling down and trying harder.” It is the effect of the grace of God in a person’s heart and its expression in their lives (Rom 5:1-5). A good translation for the term is “perfect” (so that the connection to v. 12 is not lost), but “perfect” in the sense of “mature.” Paul used the term similarly in 1 Cor 2:6; 14:20; Eph 4:13; Col. 1:28; 4:12.188 Thus, the use of the noun teleios in 3:15 is somewhat different than the use of the verb in 3:12. The verb does refer to complete spiritual perfection such as is often envisioned in the eternal state. Recognizing this difference avoids a contradiction, i.e., Paul saying he has “not been perfected” in 3:12, but nonetheless names himself among the “perfect” in 3:15 (i.e., “let us” think).
But the apostle says to the Philippians that If on some point you think otherwise, God will reveal this also to you. But what does he mean by their thinking otherwise (Jeterws)? And, what does this (touto) refer to? In 3:2-14 Paul has been arguing for the proper orientation to life and faith in the “now time” (nuni de as he is accustomed to saying in Romans), that is, the interim time before the Lord’s return. The proper orientation to God through Christ is not some form of legal obedience as the Judaizers advanced. Such a posture is not only worthless to the Christian, it is also detrimental to a healthy relationship with Christ and is, therefore, not an option; it is inimical to any kind of growth by faith. Having made this point abundantly clear, and being convinced that the Philippians understand what true perfection is, he then proceeds to tell them that if on something (ti) they think otherwise God will reveal this also to them. The term otherwise (Jeterws) may indicate “fault” or “blame” due to error, as for example, in the case of Jeteros (adjective) in Galatians 1:6. But more likely it simply means, a different “take” on something (ti) minor or of relatively little importance when compared to the proper understanding of Christian perfection. Lightfoot explains the two options:
Here Jeterws seems to have the meaning ‘amiss’…It may however be ‘otherwise,’ in reference to touto fronwmen; in which case eiti will mean ‘in any minor point’: ‘If you are sound at the core, God will remove the superficial blemishes.189
Paul says that if they think differently on some minor point God will reveal this also (touto goes back to ti) to them. Paul is not saying that God will give them more revelations on top of the ones he has already given. He is not talking about any revelations they may or may not have received in the past.190 Rather, he is simply saying that if they differ on some point God will make that point known/plain to them. The verb reveal (apokaluyei) speaks of divine revelation and is used some 26 times in the New Testament. Jesus said God reveals secrets about his identity and the nature of his mission to the humble and not to the wise and learned (Matt 11:25; Luke 10:21). At Caesarea Philippi the Father revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Matt 16:17). Further, the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel (Rom 1:17) and the Holy Spirit reveals God’s wisdom in Christ to people (1 Cor 2:10). Near the time of the end the man of lawlessness will be revealed according to God’s schedule (2 Thess 1:6, 8). In all its occurrences in the NT, the verb has God or the Holy Spirit as its subject so that what is “revealed” is not something man dreamed up or reasoned on his own, but something God himself made known. The noun form of the term, namely, apokaluyis, also carries this same force in all of its 18 uses in the NT (Luke 2:32; Rom 2:5; 8:19; 16:25; 1 Cor 1:7; 14:6; 14:26; 2 Cor 12:1, 7; Gal 1:12; 2:2; Eph 1:17; 3:3; 2 Thess 1:7; 1 Pet 1:7, 13; 4:13; Rev 1:1). In Phil 3:15, then, Paul is saying that God will “make known” to individuals the nature of the disagreement they have and its relationship to the proper Christian attitude outlined in 3:2-14. The one who had begun a good work in them would carry it on until the day of Christ Jesus. Though the way in which God will do this is not expressly stated,191 this aspect of “revealing” is part of that good work and ensures that it does indeed move forward.
Concluding the paragraph in 3:16 the apostle makes the appeal: Nevertheless, let us live up to the standard (tw autw stoicein) that we have already attained (plhn eis Jo efqasamen). Paul says that whether they have disagreements or not—and he recognizes that this is important—he wants them to nevertheless live up to that standard of teaching and ethics that he has already given them over the years of his relationship with them. They are not to depart from that while in the process of working through disagreements. They are instead to live up to that which was already established by Paul in their community. This includes foundational ideas of humility, unity, and others-centeredness.
IV. Principles for Application
1. Any form of Christian perfectionism that includes in it the idea of sinlessness in our present experience is heretical and must be abandoned. The first place to start to live for Christ is to understand that your life according to God’s salvation in the present age can be marked by love for others and intimacy with God, but there will never be a time in your life this side of heaven where you will be completely free from sin. Therefore, sinlessness is not the goal. Striving to know Christ perfectly and to love others purely; that is the goal. We know that this does not come without its share of struggles.
2. Realize that in the midst of your struggles that it was Christ Jesus who laid hold of you so that you might know him. He is on your side in the fight (Rom 8:31-39). Therefore, don’t give up, but humbly come to him for the strength that you need (Phil 4:13; Heb 4:15-16).
3. Forget the things behind, meaning anything you used to trust in…let it go. It’s over and you can no longer trust in that for anything. Instead, trust in Christ and him alone for everything!
4. In the pursuit of holiness and knowing Christ, remember that the prize is Christ himself at the end of the race. Keep your eyes fixed on him and this will ferret out any sinful attitudes and beliefs. May God help us to live according to the example of Paul. Contemplate Phil 4:9.
179 Cf. O’Brien, Philippians, 422-23.
180 Hendriksen, Philippians, 170-71.
181 Hawthorne, Philippians, 152.
182 Cf. O’Brien, Philippians, 426-427.
183 Fee, Philippians, 348, n 42.
184 The verb occurs six times (Luke 11:35; Rom 16:17; 2 Cor 4:18; Gal 6:1; Phil 2:4; 3:17).
185 See Fee, Philippians, 348-49.
186 See O’Brien, Philippians, 430-32, for more details on the following summary.
187 BAGD, 809.
188 See O’Brien, Philippians, 437; cf. Lightfoot, Philippians, 151.
189 Lightfoot, Philippians, 151-52.
190 See O’Brien, Philippians, 438.
191 It may be that Paul has in mind a thought similar to 2 Tim 2:7: “reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” Or, perhaps the Lord would reveal directly to each person the nature of their differences.