12 Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.
13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [NASB ‘77]
Paul continues the thought he began in verse 8, that his life is all about gaining and knowing Christ. In these verses he makes it clear that he hasn’t yet arrived. He hasn’t reached a point where he knows Christ completely, he fully enjoys the power of Christ’s resurrection, and he’s finished the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. Thus he will continue to press on to realize those things throughout his life. Contrary to what he thought before Damascus – that he was blameless under the Law – he now knows he’s sinful and will be until he attains to the resurrection of the dead. Until that time, he will expend all his energies pursuing Christ with the prize of spending eternity with Christ ever before him.
Not obtained, Not laid hold
The first thing we need to figure out as we look at this passage is what Paul refers to when he says “it.” What is it that he hasn’t obtained and hasn’t laid hold of? In the Greek, there isn’t a direct object in any of these verses, so Paul obviously assumes his readers will simply understand what it is. For us, however, it’s not quite so clear.
It could be he refers to what he just said in verse 11 – he wants to attain to the resurrection of the dead. That seems to be how the text flows. But if that’s the case, why would he have to say that he hasn’t obtained it yet? He presumably has to die to attain to the resurrection of the dead, and he doesn’t need to tell the Philippians that he’s not dead quite yet.
What seems to make sense, then, is that he refers to the whole idea of verses 10 and 11. What he hasn’t quite obtained and what he strives for is to know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection of the dead. So ‘it’ is really sanctification – fully knowing and becoming like Christ. He hasn’t completed his sanctification but it’s what he presses on toward.
It’s interesting that he’s so intent on making sure the Philippians know he hasn’t achieved it – that he isn’t perfect. He says it twice – Not that I have already obtained it – Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet. Perhaps since he will tell them to follow his example and walk according to the pattern they’ve seen in his life (vs 17), he first wants to establish that he hasn’t reached the ultimate end. He’s an apostle but he’s still human – he’s not complete. Notice how this is unlike his view as a Pharisee when he considered himself blameless under the Law (vs 6).
By saying this Paul gives us encouragement and a pattern for our life. Paul is human just like us. And he’s going to grow in his sanctification his entire life without reaching perfection or ever fully knowing Christ. He won’t get to a point where there isn’t room for growth. Just like us. He isn’t like us in his experiences or his miracles or his writings, but he’s just like us in his fallibility and lifelong sanctification. And if realizing there’s always room for growth is true for Paul, then it’s certainly true for us (which lends another nuance to verse 17 – we should model his conduct and his understanding of his need to pursue Christ). We will never reach IT, and that should keep us humbly approaching the Throne of Grace and humbly interacting with others. Our sanctification is a lifelong process – just like Paul’s.
Press on, Lay hold
What does Paul do since he hasn’t obtained full knowledge of Christ? He presses on, he lays hold, he reaches forward. He works like crazy to know Christ. He expends enormous amounts of effort to pursue Christ. He disciplines himself to follow Christ. His strength and desire and energy are all focused on Christ.
The words he uses to describe his pressing on are the same words he used in verse 6 to describe his persecution of the church. Just as he zealously pursued Christians and worked to stamp out what he thought was heresy – and it’s telling that his conversion effectively ended the persecution of the early church (Acts 9:31) – so he now zealously pursues Christ. He was all in on stopping Christians; to the point that he was willing to travel to foreign cities and oversee executions. Now he’s all in on becoming more and more like Christ and knowing the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings. In both cases, it’s an all-consuming life-enveloping passion.
Along those lines, he also says it’s the one thing I do. He doesn’t get weighed down by the cares of this world. He doesn’t get attracted to the shiny things of life. He has an obsessive focus on following and knowing Christ. There is nothing else that vies for his attention like the pursuit of Christ. The NET Bible translates this as, “I am single-minded.” In Chapter 1 we saw that his life is all about the gospel when it comes to others. Here we see that it’s all about pursuing Christ in his own life. In either case, it’s all about Christ.
David says something similar to this in Psalm 27:4. In the midst of hardship and danger he says, “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to meditate in His temple.” What is the ONE THING David wants? It’s essentially to know and experience God. He wants to dwell with God and meditate on God and behold His beauty. He wants to know God just as Paul wants to know Christ. David expresses the Old Testament version of sanctification – dwell with God in His temple.
Laid hold of by Christ, Upward call of God in Christ Jesus
Paul works like crazy in his sanctification, but he works always through the power of the Spirit and with the knowledge that he wouldn’t have any desire to pursue Christ if it weren’t for Christ saving him. When he says that he was laid hold of by Christ Jesus he’s not kidding. Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and miraculously saved him. Paul had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t seeking; he was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians. But Jesus intervened on the way and changed him – He gave him a new heart and a new direction for his life.
With that in mind, Paul says he wants to lay hold of Christ the way Christ laid hold of him. And he says he strains toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. So he’s been laid hold of and called. He strives and presses on and obtains, but does it all understanding that Jesus grabbed him and called him. He doesn’t work alone and he doesn’t work in his own strength and he doesn’t work in his own desire. Everything he does is of God. He pursues Christ only because Christ pursued him and he desires Christ only because Christ instilled his faith in him.
This goes along with what he said earlier about working out our salvation (2:12-13). We work out our salvation – which involves effort – but we do it knowing that God works in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure. He gives us the strength and the will to work out our salvation. If that weren’t true, we wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t pursue. Sanctification is not an either/or proposition; we work and we depend on God.
It’s interesting to consider Paul’s statement about being laid hold of by Christ and how it applies to us. It’s likely that none of us was converted quite like Paul. We didn’t have Jesus appear to us physically in a blinding light and turn our lives around. That doesn’t mean, however, that we weren’t laid hold of just like Paul. We wouldn’t believe except through Christ’s intervention in our lives. We wouldn’t be disciples apart from the Spirit’s work. Thus we can say with Paul that we now strive to lay hold of Christ just as He laid hold of us. Christ’s pursuit of us should motivate our pursuit of Him.
Forgetting what lies behind
Included in the one thing Paul does is forgetting what lies behind as he strains toward the goal. He doesn’t dwell on the past to the point that it gets in the way of the pursuit. He doesn’t rest on his laurels (seeing Jesus, healing others and even raising some from the dead, starting churches all over the known world, writing inspired scripture, likely rising from the dead himself, seeing the third heaven) and he doesn’t let past sins – like executing believers – keep him from going forward (notice how Paul doesn’t have small achievements or small sins – he goes after everything with zeal). This doesn’t mean he never remembers the past – he calls himself the chief of sinners and refers several times in his writings to his life before conversion – but he doesn’t let it keep him from striving on. He knows the past but he doesn’t let it either weigh him down or make him lethargic. The past has no bearing on what he does today.
This goes along with Jeremiah’s words that God’s mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:21-23). What we did yesterday doesn’t mean we can’t pursue God today. Yesterday’s actions may very well have ramifications for today, but they don’t keep us from again striving to know God. And in the same vein, what we did yesterday for God’s kingdom shouldn’t make us complacent today. It’s a new day and a new opportunity to live for and know Christ our Savior. Our goal every morning is to dedicate that day’s work to the pursuit of Christ regardless of what yesterday was like.
The last thing Paul says in this text is that he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. What is the prize? It’s the ultimate end of pursuing Christ. It’s the greatest gift for the one who strains all his life to know Christ. It’s Christ himself. When Paul finally attains to the resurrection of the dead, he’ll spend eternity with the One he’s pursued all along. Christ is the prize. God gives His followers their ultimate heart’s desire – the One they’ve followed.
John puts an interesting twist on this thought. In his letter to his spiritual children, he says about Christ’s appearing – And now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming (I Jn 2:28). This is the corollary to Paul’s words. If we don’t spend our lives pursuing Him, then how will gaining Him in eternity be the ultimate prize?
We should instead have Paul’s perspective that he relates in verse 20 – For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. For the one whose life is all about pursuing Him, there’s no better prize.
We must make it our life’s overarching goal and obsession to know Christ.
We must make every effort toward this goal, working in the strength of the Spirit and the knowledge of our calling, and forgetting everything else in our pursuit.
We must look to the ultimate prize – spending eternity with the One we’ve spent our lives pursuing.