Passage – Philippians 3:12-4:1
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
4 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
It is easy to have an unhealthy relationship with our goals. We all know people with unhealthy, driven relationships with good goals. Some of us are those people. On the other hand, the absence of goals results in a poor stewardship of life. Directionlessness has shipwrecked as many lives as driveness. God made us for a purpose. Because of this, if we are going to be healthy Christians, we must have a healthy relationship with our goals.
In this passage, we’ll see how Paul – someone who was intensely zealous in pursuing his goals – allowed the gospel to transform his relationships with his goals. We’ll get an insider’s glimpse into how Paul pursued his goals. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, believed his approach healthy enough to recommend to all believers.
At the same time, Paul encourages Christians to learn from other believers who pursue their goals differently. Paul was self-aware enough to know that every believer was not wired like he was. Yet, Paul didn’t take an “anything goes” approach to goals and personal motivation. Paul makes clear that some ways of pursuing goals undermine our Christian faith. Whether you are driven or passive, have a 10 year plan or live in the moment, there is much to learn from this passage.
Good, Healthy Motivation (v. 12-17)
It is easy for students to assume their teachers have it all together. It is tempting for teachers to give students this impression. Paul removes this misunderstanding by acknowledging, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own” (v. 12a).
Paul has just spent 2.5 chapters differentiating healthy and unhealthy Christian leadership. However, even as Paul teaches on this subject, he wants this church to know he is a work in progress. Until we can acknowledge this ourselves, we have no need for goals because we think we have already arrived. The pre-step to a having a healthy relationship with our goals is acknowledging the goal is needed.
Next, Paul removes the competitive edge from his goals. Paul is not pursuing his goals to be better than other Christians, but simply to become the person God declared him to be (v. 12b). This mindset removes the dual temptations of pride and insecurity that frequently accompany goals. Paul wasn’t trying to catch up to someone else and he wasn’t worried about someone else passing him. His goals were merely about being the person God made him to be.
To use a sports metaphor to explain what Paul meant when he said, “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (v. 12b), Jesus drafted (i.e., chose) Paul and made him part of his team (i.e., the family of God). This bestowed Paul a status he knew he could have never achieved (v. 13a), no matter how hard he worked. This revolutionized Paul’s work ethic, rather than dampen it. It removed the fear that made Paul’s work ethic exhausting and the pride that made his worth ethic morally toxic. Now Paul’s striving was a celebration of what God had already done.
Paul, then, addressed another obstacle to the grace-based pursuit of godly goals: miring down in guilt and shame. When we remember what God saved us from, when we realize where we would be had God not “drafted” us, a sense of unworthiness can wither our motivation. It is likely that Paul felt this personally because he notes that he “forgets what is behind” (v. 14). He wouldn’t say this if he didn’t wince a little when he remembered his own story.
What does he mean when Paul says he “forgets”? It can’t mean he doesn’t remember. He just recited many of his vain successes and sinful failures in Philippians 3:4-6. This type of forgetting has to do with repetition and focus. Paul didn’t needlessly rehearse his pre-Christian history. But Paul was spiritually and emotionally sturdy enough to use his past failures as illustrations to help others. However, unless his past failures were beneficial to serve others, he remained focused on what Jesus did for him and what God called him to do.
When Paul says this is the “one thing” (v. 13b) he focuses on, it indicates this is an exercise he has needed to implement many times. There is no way Paul could have been the zealous Jew he was before Christ and not wrestle with intense guilt and sense of being unclean. We don’t narrow a tactic down to one, most important thing unless it is something we grapple with frequently. If you struggle with a persistent sense of guilt and being unacceptable, you can be encouraged you are not alone; you are in the good company of the apostle Paul.
In verse 15, Paul transitions from personal reflection to pastoral admonition. He commends this style of thinking to others, “Let those of us who are mature think this way,” (v. 15). Paul is commending this mentality of forgetting and focusing as a standard practice for how Christians ought to think. You get the sense that Paul has talked about the struggle with guilt and feeling unacceptable enough in pastoral counseling conversations that he knows it’s something that all Christian need to hear.
With that in mind, it’s significant that Paul stops short of saying this is the only way to redemptively reconcile our past sin and future purpose. Paul is a mature enough pastor to know that what works for him may not work for everyone.
In verse 17, Paul says we should learn from any Christian who balances these two things well. Paul’s way is highly cognitive (i.e., grappling with specific thoughts and beliefs) and regimented (i.e., boiled down to one main thing to focus on repeatedly). Paul recognizes this will not work for everyone. That’s why we have the whole body of Christ, to see godliness displayed in a variety of personality types and temperaments and pursued with different aptitude strengths and weaknesses.
Paul realizes this could easily be taken to mean that every approach to failure and purpose is equally valid. That’s not true. Some are rooted in the gospel; others are not. Paul gives two criteria to narrow what it looks like to pursue goal that allow us seek freedom from guilt and effectiveness in achieving God’s purposes for our life.
First, Paul focuses the identity that emerges from a goal. Paul says we are to hold true (i.e., remained focused on) what we have attained (i.e., our identity as members of God’s family). A healthy relationship with a godly goal will result in a deeper appreciation for who we are in Christ and our reliance on God. Godly goals are not about independence from God, but joyous and effective reliance on God as we embrace the adventure of becoming who God made us to be.
When we begin to pursue something in a way that distracts us from valuing our identity as God’s children, the goal has become destructive. Even if the goal itself is good, the effect of how we’re pursing that goal is becoming corrosive to our soul. As a driven person, Paul would have known well the grind that comes with pursuing good goals in excessive ways.
Second, Paul examines the effect of the goal. In the next section, Paul will make observations about leaders who tried to use Christian teaching for non-Christians purposes. The wanted to use the wisdom of the Bible and the prestige of the church to advance something other than the gospel.
Bad, Destructive Motivations (v. 18-21)
Paul returns to a previous theme in Philippians – distinguishing godly leaders from ungodly leaders in the church – to further reinforce the importance of motivation and goals. We might be prone to think, “Enough already… we know…do we have to talk about them again?” But motivation is no small part of preaching, teaching, and shepherding in the church.
A pastor’s qualification for ministry should not just be vetted based on what they teach (i.e., sound doctrine), but also by how they motivate people to follow God’s Word. A pastor may teach sound doctrine and be harsh in their motivational tactics. This is not a Christlike shepherd. A pastor may teach sound doctrine and be timid in calling the church to respond. This is ineffective shepherding. A pastor may teach sound doctrine in a way that makes them the “star” of the church. This is not a Christ-exalting pastor. How Christian leaders motivate others is important to ministry.
Whatever was being done by these false teachers was problematic enough that it was greatly disturbing to Paul. It brought him to tears and compelled Paul to call these teacher “enemies of the cross” (v. 18). The strength of these emotions in Paul and words from Paul indicate why these teachers get referenced so frequently in Philippians.
Paul describes them in four ways in verse 19.
- “Their end is destruction,
- Their god is their belly, and
- They glory in their shame,
- With minds set on earthly things.”
“Their end is destruction” indicates that Paul does not consider these teachers to be genuine Christians. Their error was great enough that they misconstrue the gospel and, therefore, are destined for an eternity separated from God.
“There god is their belly” is a reference to appetite, but not just for food. Paul is writing metaphorically to say that they preach and teach for what ministry gets them. These leaders were driven (i.e., motivated) by their appetites. Different leaders in this group were likely driven by different appetites; some money, some fame, and some the ability to control others.
“They glory in their shame” reveals that when our motivations are wrong, success is actually failure. This is a different way of encapsulating the modern mid-life crisis proverb, “I spent so much time climbing the ladder of success that I didn’t realize it was leaning against the wrong wall.”
These teachers must have been talented and effective. If they weren’t, they would not have merited Paul’s attention. Because of this, they achieved what their appetites compelled them to pursue. They did achieve the kind of “glory” they wanted. The problem is, because their motivation was not rooted in the gospel, their success was failure in the eyes of God.
There is a caution here for the church: fruit is not always an indication of God’s blessing. Whether we are pastors, teachers, parents, coaches, or business leaders, we are prone to point to outcomes to validate our approach. Doubtless when Paul confronted these leaders, their reply was, “It’s working, isn’t it? God must be in it then.” We need to hear that this test alone is not adequate to prove that our motivations and methods are God-honoring (Matthew 7:21-23).There is a caution here for the church: fruit is not always an indication of God’s blessing. Click To Tweet
“With their mind set on earthy things” is a contrast to the “one thing” mentality Paul mentioned in verse 13. Paul lived on earth for the purposes of heaven. These teachers leveraged heaven for the purpose of enriching their life on earth.
In that sense, this passage is expanded commentary on Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” These are false teachers because they reverse the order. Even if they reference the Bible in their sermons, their teaching is not Christian because it is using the Bible for selfish purposes.
Simply Faithfulness (4:1)
We might be prone to think that Paul would conclude this section with some bold call to action. If we are differentiating true teachers from false teachers, shouldn’t we do something significant in response? Surprisingly, no. Paul simply says, “Stand firm.”
In effect, Paul was saying, “Don’t be deceived by their false teaching. Don’t get sucked into what motivates them. Don’t get distracted by debating them. Just be faithful and pursue what God has called you to do. Stay on mission.”
That is refreshing. Everyone of us can do that. When we know enough to not be misled by false teachers, when we can discern healthy from unhealthy motivations, our calling is simple – stand firm; continuing doing what God called you to do and becoming who God made you to be.
- When your relationship with goals goes awry, what unhealthy dynamic emerges? Are you prone to be too driven or directionless?
- What is the bigger obstacle to your growth as a Christian: pride or insecurity?
- How well can you “forget what is behind” in the way described in this passage?
- How well does Paul’s “one way” of grappling with guilt and shame fit you?
- Who are believers, with a different temperament than Paul’s, that are good examples of responding to guilt and shame?
- What are current major goals in your life and how are you pursuing them in a way that reinforces your identity in Christ?
- Whether you are a pastor, teacher, parent, coach, business leader, etc., where do you need to hear Paul’s caution that success alone does not mean your approach is God-honoring?
- What does “simple faithfulness” look like for you, in this season of life, as you strive to become more of the person God made you to be?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.