One of the most theologically rich and at the same time practically helpful passage in scriptures is Philippians 3:12-21. The reason I say this is because it shows how we should conduct our lives as Christians, and grounds it with our knowledge of who Christ is and what He has done to perfect us and so bring us to himself. It shows the dynamics of the sovereign work of God in fulfilling his promises and our responsibilities to attain such promises. Now, that may sound contradictory to you because if God already made sure that he will bring to completion the good He started in us then what’s the point of aiming for that completion. My goal is to show how Paul himself considered his aim to attain what only God is able to accomplish.
The beauty of the Bible is that it clarifies what others might misinterpret from what was said before. In verse 11 Paul says that “by any means possible he might attain the resurrection from the dead.” The thing to take note of though is that he’s clarifying not the fact that he’s responsible for the attainment of resurrection but that one might think that he already attained resurrection or perfection in this life. That’s why we have verse 12; “Not that I have already attained this – that is, I have not already been perfected..” If there’s a right time to say that we are not responsible for attaining perfection, now is the right time. But instead, he enforces the fact that he was pressing on to make it his own. Another false impression that may arise from verse 11 is that he will do it by himself. The last part of verse 12 clarifies this for us; “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” No one can attain perfection without Christ making you his own first or counting you perfect, and justified first. That’s the grounds of all Christian duty. That separates Christianity from works based religions. We work out our Salvation because the one working in or literally energizing us both the willing and the doing for His good pleasure is God. We don’t coast or slack off, we yearn and press on not because we are unsure whether we’re going to make it to the end but because we have an unshakable confidence that Christ made us his own that’s why we will attain resurrection.
Now the statement of verse 12 ought not to be interpreted apart from verses 13-14 because of the parallelism between the two. He goes on to develop or explain the same idea from verse 12 in verses 13-14. He demonstrated for us the manner or mindset one must have by which to press on toward the goal. It is by 1) forgetting the things that are behind, and by 2) reaching out for the things that are ahead.
The question then would be what are the things behind Paul and what are the things ahead of him? The things that are behind him were his boastings in his achievements or pedigree and all things that would hinder him from gaining Christ in verses 4-9. Notice the same word he used to describe his zeal for law keeping before and his zeal for Christ now. In verse 6 he says; “as to zeal I persecute the church”. The word for “persecute” in verse 6 and the word for “strive” or “pursue” in verses 12-14 is the same word in greek. What he meant by employing this wordplay was that he no longer persecute Christians because of self righteousness but now he pursue Christ because He alone is his righteousness.
Now the things that are ahead of him is resurrection, holiness(1 Thessalonians 4:7), conformity to Christ(Romans 8:29-30), heaven and eternal life(1 Timothy 6:12) and Christ(1 Corinthians 1:9). The reason I stated it that way is because resurrection or perfection or glorification or perfect holiness are just means to an end, namely entrance in heaven or eternal life. But entrance in heaven is also a means to an even greater end, namely to be with, gain and behold Christ. That’s why I think that the genitive phrase “of the upward call” is not functioning as an epexegetical genitive modifying “prize”, that is the prize itself is resurrection. Instead resurrection, holiness, perfection has a prize, namely Christ. He said so in verse 8. So the ultimate prize or goal of forgetting the things behind us and reaching out for the things ahead of us is Christ himself.
Now based on the fact that we, like Paul was, are not yet perfect must have that same mindset as him. Verse 15 starts with the conjunction “therefore”. Since verses 12-14 is true therefore let those who think of themselves as “perfect” or mature, embrace the point of view of Paul. That point of view is referring to having the same means of attaining resurrection and same prize to look forward to. Then in verse 15-16 he conceded that since no one is perfect and therefore one might have a different view than Paul, God will eventually reveal to them their error, nevertheless one thing is clear and must always be in our minds, we must live up to the standard that we have already attained. So what he’s really saying is that there’s no reason to coast or to slack off towards perfection. We can’t justify our wrong doings with the lame excuse that “no body is perfect.”
According Robertson’s; ‘Paul pointedly denies that he has reached a spiritual impasse of non- development. Certainly he knew nothing of so-called sudden absolute perfection by any single experience. Paul has made great progress in Christlikeness, but the goal is still before him, not behind him. But I press on (dioko de). He is not discouraged, but encouraged. He keeps up the chase (real idea in dioko, as in 1Co 14:1; Ro 9:30; 1Ti 6:11). If so be that (ei kai). “I follow after.” The condition (third class, ei–katalabo, second aorist active subjunctive of katalambano) is really a sort of purpose clause or aim. There are plenty of examples in the Koiné of the use of ei and the subjunctive as here (Robertson, Grammar, p. 1017), “if I also may lay hold of that for which (eph’ hoi, purpose expressed by epi) I was laid hold of (katelemphthen, first aorist passive of the same verb katalambano) by Christ Jesus.” His conversion was the beginning, not the end of the chase.’
So the third misconception really, after Paul addressed the misconceptions raised by verse 11, was the idea that since no body is perfect, we should no longer try to attain perfection and Paul says “No”. Instead we even more so ought to be encouraged to strive for perfection. Be holy just as your Father in heaven is holy.
How then should we go on living up to the standard that we already attained? According to verse 17 by imitating Paul and watching carefully those who are living the same way. This is a great comfort for us because emulating Christ’s perfection in this life is impossible, and to command someone to be like Him now in an instant is out of touch with reality. God knows better and so while aiming to be like Christ in the future, we are called by God to imitate others who pursue the same thing now. Or to imitate those ahead of us as they imitate Christ.
Paul probably is nearer to Christ than others, nevertheless he still counts himself lacking and his pursuit continues. That’s the kind of Christian we are to imitate. Not the bigshot who starts well but stops midway. We are to imitate those who as they grow, the more they recognize how small they really are in comparison to Christ. The more accomplishment he has in Christ the more accomplishment he has to leave behind.
And lest you think that it’s hard even to imitate Paul who lived 2000+ years ago, verse 17 says keep your eyes on those who live according to the example you have in us. Paul made the command more closer to us than ever. Not only did he identified with us in saying that he’s not yet perfect but also he identified others to be like him. Imitate them because they are living examples for us.
Take note of the word “example”, “tupon” in greek. The underlying meaning of the word is that of an imprint or mark made by a blow or some mould or dye. The idea is to leave an impact or an imprint to those around us. We are to imitate those who made an imprint of Christ in us, and we must become like them also in making an impact to others. In other words, be worth imitating also. Even though we are not to claim that we have come anywhere near to perfection, we must follow Christ with so much commitment and zeal that we become living examples for others. That is what it means to live in the standard we have attained. To live as to show the worth of knowing Christ by counting everything as loss and forgetting everything that lies behind us. Every believer should be able to say “follow me”—follow my seeking after Christ—my seeking to be like Christ. “Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me” (1 Co. 4:16). “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Co. 11:1). “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Ph. 3:17). “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you” (Ph. 4:9). “And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost” (1 Th. 1:6). “Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe” (1 Th. 2:10). “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you” (2 Th. 3:7). “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Ti. 4:12). “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Ti. 1:13). “In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity” (Tit. 2:7). “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (Js. 5:12).
Now in verses 18-21 Paul gave us the grounds for imitating those who left everything behind for the sake of the ultimate prize of knowing Christ. Imitate Paul and others like him because there are many who claim to be serving God yet in reality they are enemies of the cross, but you are citizens of heaven, not enemies. Or to put it another way, there are two groups. One group is described as the ones whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly or appetite, whose boasting is their shame, whose mindset is earthly. If you don’t deny everything earthly in you for the sake of gaining Christ, you are an enemy of the cross. But theres is a second group. Those whose mindset is heavenly and their citizenship is heaven, and they await not the earthly gifts of the Savior but the Savior himself who will transform their humble bodies into the likeness of his glorious body. If you belong to latter then the command is for you. Imitate those whose lives demonstrate the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.
Rhea F. Miller wrote these very encouraging words that we ought all to live by and imitate:
“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold; I’d rather be His than have riches untold; I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands; I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand “ Than to be the king of a vast domain, Or be held in sin’s dread sway; I’d rather have Jesus than anything This world affords today. ” I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause; I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause; I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame; I’d rather be true to His holy name. He’s fairer than lilies of rarest bloom; He’s sweeter than honey from out the comb; He’s all that my hungering spirit needs; I’d rather have Jesus and let Him lead.”