Friday, April 21, 2006

Pressing On Toward the Goal (Philippians 3:11-14)

I was reading a book recently that suggested that the reason most churches don’t see many results is that they don’t know what results they are looking for, and therefore they don’t know how to pursue them. In other words, what is missing in many churches is a clearly defined goal, or as this author suggested, a common understanding of what it means to win. That statement struck me as both simply profound and profoundly simple. Yet, another obstacle stood in the way of defining that goal. One of the greatest descriptions I have ever heard for a church is that of a covenanted community of believers sharing life together. If that description is accurate, then it seems to me that before one could ever pursue defining a goal for the church, one must be certain that he or she understands the goal of life for the individual. As long as every member of the church pursues diverse goals in each of their lives, the church cannot move forward together toward a common goal. So let me ask you a question: “What is the goal of life?” If you listen to some in our culture, it is to accumulate as much wealth as possible as soon as possible so that you can enjoy as many years as possible pursuing your own leisurely desires. The ad populum force of that goal is hard to resist when one is moving along with the inertia of the world’s ideologies. However the Christian is not called to follow the desires of our culture. The call of Jesus is “Come and follow Me!” And following Jesus means going against the grain of the culture in countless ways, not the least of which is in determining the singular goal of our lives.

So, what is the goal of life? The Apostle Paul answers that question very directly here in these verses. In Philippians 3:4-6, Paul told of all his accomplishments, but in verses 7-10, he renounced them all in exchange for gaining Christ, being found in Christ having a righteousness not his own, and knowing Christ in the way that is only experienced through the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. Paul said in v10 that he desired to be conformed to the death of Christ. There is a daily dying for Christ that must occur as we determine each day to live for Him rather than for ourselves, but I believe Paul was looking further ahead when he said he sought conformity to the death of Christ. I believe he was saying that just as Christ’s life culminated in the offering of Himself as a sacrifice to God, Paul wanted his own life and death to count for something eternal. Paul wanted God to glorify Himself in his life and in his death. So is death Paul’s goal? Is the Christian’s life a morbid pursuit of death? Is it a suicidal tendency, some form of psychosis that needs medication or therapy? No, death is not the goal of Paul’s life – Resurrection is! Though verse 10 ends with the word death, verse 11 continues the thought with so that. Death is not the goal. The goal is something beyond death. This is our first point.

I. The Goal of Earthly Life is Eternal Life.

As I was browsing through a bookstore the other day, I couldn’t help noticing how many books dealt with discouragement, depression, stress, anxiety, and the like. The most troubling thing was that I was in a Christian bookstore! Could it be that we are beginning to realize that our ultimate satisfaction cannot be found in this life? Could it be that we have found the bankruptcy of believing that we can find ultimate satisfaction in our jobs, our relationships or our hobbies? In “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis said, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

But I would ask, “Are we really pleased?” If so, why so many pills? Why so much therapy? Why so many self-help books and pop-psychology gurus? We are not pleased because do not know the true source of pleasure. We are trying to find it here on this earth, when it is not available here. We are trying to find it in this life when it can only be found in the next.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” If the ultimate satisfaction of our hopes is going to be realized in this life, then indeed, as he says in 1 Corinthians 15:32, the Epicureans are right when they say, “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for tomorrow we die.” What difference does it make how we live if this is all there is to life? The writer of Ecclesiastes said in Chapter 3, verses 11, “He has also set eternity in their heart.” We have a longing for something that cannot be satisfied in this life. Lewis wrote,

“A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe … that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.”

The goal of this life is to be found in the next one. That is what Paul is telling us here in this passage. He says that the resurrection from the dead is what he is aiming for. It is this very thing he desires to lay hold of, for he says it is for this that Christ Jesus laid hold of him. Christ has laid hold of us so that we may lay hold of the greatest desire that we have in life. But the goal is not merely heaven. It is found in heaven, but it is not heaven itself. John Piper asks a very important question in his recent book God is the Gospel. He says, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, an no human conflict or any natural desires, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?” I suggest to you that if you think you could, then you have the wrong goal. The reason we long for heaven is not because of its many pleasures, but because of this singular one: there we shall be in the presence of Christ.

This is why Christ laid hold of Paul. This is why Christ lays hold of us. This is why we are aiming for the resurrection – so that we may behold the glory of the face of Christ forever. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts.” And why has He shone in our hearts? Paul says, “to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” And so Paul says here in Philippians 3:14 that this goal, this prize, is the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. That’s the goal: To one day hear God call us forth through the doorway of death to enter the presence of this Lord Jesus Christ who has redeemed us where we will behold Him in all His glory forever and ever.

C. S. Lewis said, “I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you … We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it ….” But Lewis says we cannot find it in these experiences; if we try to we will only become idolaters. No, he says, “They are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” Yet Lewis goes on to say, “Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on the earth.” Oh, but friends, see what the Apostle Paul is placing before our shortsighted eyes in this text: The goal is not here; it is there. And the goal is not the place, but the Person with whom we shall dwell in that place. And if you are in Christ Jesus, then you shall hear that upward call of God and reach that goal in eternity.

But meanwhile, here we are. We are “stuck in the muck” of this life, with its pain, with its tragedy, with its sin and corruption. We are homesick for a country to which we’ve never been before. Why can’t we go now? Ah, that is the second point that Paul brings to our attention in the passage.

II. The pursuit of the goal is an ongoing process.

I once heard of a preacher who asked his congregation, “How many people here want to go to heaven?” He was shocked when no one raised their hand. Confused and disillusioned, he asked, “What is the matter with you people?” The old man on the front row stood up and said, “Well, preacher, it ain’t that we don’t want to go, it’s just that we thought you were getting up a group to go right now!”

No, we aren’t getting a group up right now. The attainment of this goal is yet future. There can be little doubt that the first century knew no greater servant of Christ than the Apostle Paul. Yet even he said in v12 that he had not already obtained it. He says in v13 that he does not regard himself as having laid hold of it yet. Though others may think he had arrived spiritually, Paul says, “No – I am still a work in progress.”

None of us have obtained it. The goal is still out there, yet future. We have undoubtedly received a foretaste of it. Paul says in Ephesians 1:13-14, “In (Christ), you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” By coming to dwell within us in the person of the Holy Spirit, God has given us just a foretaste of the glory to be enjoyed in Heaven. But the fullness is yet to be experienced by any of us. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that as long as we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. But there is coming a day for us when we shall be absent from the body and at home with the Lord. In the meantime, however, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:9 that our ambition is, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.

We have had a number of friends who have adopted children from various parts of the world. It is a lengthy process. Even once all paperwork is approved and all plans are finalized, there is still a wait. The child belongs to them by virtue of the completed adoption, but the child has yet to come home. So, the waiting time is filled with preparation: preparation of the home, as well as preparation of the child for the transition to a brand-new environment.

We have been adopted into God’s family. We just haven’t yet come to the opportunity to go to our new home. So, in this interim time, the time between adoption and homecoming, God is preparing us. He is perfecting us. Paul says even after nearly 30 years of walking with Christ, in v12, I have not already become perfect. But every day, God is working. He is shaping. He is crafting. He is developing. He is making us to be more and more like Jesus with every passing moment. And the more He does this, the more useful we are to Him here in this life. So we wait, and as we wait, He continues. But we need not fear that when the moment of the upward call comes, we will be found imperfect if we are in Christ. Through the divine act of justification, God has already declared those who have faith in Christ to be perfectly righteous as a free act of His grace. This is what Paul refers to in v9, being found in Him not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ. It has been declared positionally. It is now being developed practically. But John reminds us in 1 John 3:2 that although we may not know what we will be when that day of the upward call comes, we do know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. And John says, everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.

Paul speaks of the coming day of the resurrection of believers in Christ in 1 Corinthians 15 as a day of transformation. Not all will taste death before that day, for he says, “We will not all sleep,” but one thing is certain, “We will all be changed, in a moment in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet.” In 1 Cor 15:50 he says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” When that resurrection trumpet calls us to our eternal home, and beckons us to come and lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of us, an instantaneous transformation will take place. Paul says, “For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now, it is interesting to me that whenever the New Testament speaks of this coming victory, it does so with a view to the present, and 1 Corinthians 15 is no different. Paul concludes his thoughts on the resurrection there by saying this in v58: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” And so he says here in Philippians 3:13 – This one thing I do.

What is it that he does here in the in-between days? He says he presses on toward the goal. Two participial phrases modify that action of pressing on. Forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies ahead. You cannot strive for the future by living in the past. The failures of the past will shackle you if you do not leave them behind. Do you think a Sunday goes by without the devil saying to me, “So, you are going to get up and preach now, huh? How can you stand and speak for God after all you’ve done in your life?” And every time that nagging sense comes over me, I just have to cling to this—forgetting what lies behind … I press on. Some of you know that feeling. You have some sin or some failure in your past that you have let become a ball and chain to keep you from being all you can be for Jesus in this day. I tell you as a fellow pilgrim on the journey – forget what lies behind and press on!

But I also want to tell you that we must not only forget past failures. Past successes can be just as much of a hindrance. The last several weeks have been very challenging for me as we move closer and closer to the day of celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Immanuel Baptist Church. God has granted some significant victories here in the past. And you need to love your past, but you cannot, and you must not LIVE in the past, because there is work to be done for Christ in the present, and a goal to strive for in the future! Whether success or failure, it needs to stay behind us. There are folks who say, “We should have moved 20 years ago.” Well, you didn’t. And I am glad you didn’t. This corner of High Point Road is the perfect spot for us to have an embassy of heaven. So let’s leave all talk of past regrets in the past. There are folks who say, “Once upon a time, we had a great ministry here.” Amen. Praise God. But leave it in the past, and start taking up the mantle to provide a great ministry here in the present! You have to if you are going to press on. God did not call me here to be a curator of a museum. I am as firmly convinced as I was in September that God has placed me here, for better or for worse, like it or not, to help guide this ship toward our heavenly harbor which is still out there beyond the horizon. And along the way to that harbor, we have a mission to rescue as many of the perishing as we can and bring them aboard. And we CANNOT turn back. We have to forget what lies behind and press on toward that goal.

Paul said, This one thing I do … I press on. And to press on, you not only have to forget what is in the past, you have to reach forward to what lies ahead. And what is it that lies ahead? Eternity with Jesus Christ. Are you reaching for Him? Is your sole desire at this moment in your life to know Him better than you ever have and serve Him more faithfully than ever before? If you are reaching out to Him, others will be able to see the reflection of His glory as you live for Him and serve Him. Some of you here have come to the point in your life where you realize that you have more years behind you than ahead of you. None of us have any guarantees. I am one of the youngest people in this room, and it may very well be that all of you will attend my funeral. So each of us needs to be asking the question, when the upward call comes, how do I want to be found? I do not want to be found sitting still, thinking about how good it used to be.

I want to be like that athlete who has run himself to the point of exhaustion but he knows he’s not at the finish line yet. So he keeps on pushing, striving, driving himself to keep going as hard as he can, and when he gets to the place that the end is in sight, he doesn’t coast across the finish line. He lunges for it with every ounce of remaining energy, sprawling out for that line as if it is the only thing he has ever wanted in life. And when he does, he won’t fall to the ground. He’ll be embraced by the Righteous Judge, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will say, “Welcome Home. You have finished the race. You have reached the goal. You have received the prize.”

If you want that too, then you need to look at the goal of your life. What is it? Where is it? Who is it?

Some of you will not be able to cross the finish line because you’ve never crossed the starting line. Pursuit of this goal begins by turning to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith and inviting Him to reign over your life as your Lord. Let us pray with you today as you make that decision. Others of you are in the race, and you’re running hard. Friend, I am running beside of you saying, “Keep it up! Hang in there! We’re in it together, and we’re going to make it!” You might need some encouragement today to keep pressing on toward the goal. And then there are others – in the race, but some have never left the starting line. Some have slowed down or stopped. Listen friend, you know if you are one of these, THE RACE ISN’T OVER YET! Keep running! Keep pushing! Keep pressing on toward that goal. Forget what lies behind and press on! I want to challenge you today to kick it into a higher gear and run harder than you ever have toward the goal! Hear and heed this admonition from Hebrews 12:1-2: “ … let us … lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith ….” Or as Paul would say, Do this one thing – keep on pressing forward toward that goal of spending eternity in the presence of the glory of Christ. Amen.


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