Go for the Gold

Philippians 3:12-21

December 6, 1998 | Ray Pritchard

Students of the New Testament agree that Paul must have been a sports fan. Over and over again—many times in many places—he uses illustrations from sports to make his point. He speaks of wrestling, boxing, running, winning the race, winning the prize, and winning crowns. He talks about the discipline necessary to win and the danger of being disqualified. I don’t know if he himself played any sports, but it’s clear that he was fully acquainted with the athletic world of the first century. When he wanted to sum up his life in 2 Timothy 4:7, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The first phrase comes from boxing, the second from running.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that Paul probably would have enjoyed all those college football championship games yesterday. Now I know they didn’t have football back then, but I still think he would have enjoyed watching Miami squeak by UCLA and Tennessee come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Mississippi State. And I think the double-overtime Kansas State-Texas A&M game would have kept him on the edge of his seat. I didn’t watch all those games—but I did catch little snatches here and there as the day wore on.

I mention that to raise a familiar point, which is that football is the answer to all things. Those who have heard me preach over the years know that I return again and again to athletics in general and football in particular to illustrate important spiritual truths. After all, football teaches such valuable traits as discipline, training, perseverance, teamwork, the value of high goals, and learning how to keep victory and defeat in proper perspective. And as coaches like to say, football is a game of four quarters. It’s not enough to start well or to lead at the half. You’ve got to lead at the end of the game if you want to win.

In many ways the Christian life is like that. It’s not enough to start with a bang. You’ve also got to end well. Too many people enter the Christian life with great enthusiasm only to disappear into mediocrity along the way. So many lack purpose in life. They are like the man who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions.

We have too many amateur Christians who are a mile wide and an inch deep. Following Jesus Christ is not a hobby—like collecting stamps or bottle caps. It demands a total commitment of your life. In our text Paul shares four principles for winning the prize when the game of life is over.

Principle #1: Check Your Direction. 12-14

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (3:12-14).

If this text does nothing else, it should put an end to all dreams of sinless perfection in this life. Paul begins with an honest admission—”I’m not there yet.” Unlike so many contemporary leaders, he has no problem admitting his own personal shortcomings. He’s isn’t perfect yet and he knows it—and this becomes the place where his spiritual growth begins.

Twice he says, “I press on,” meaning “I’m not where I want to be, but I’m going to keep moving in that direction.” In the spiritual life, direction makes all the difference. True believers aren’t in heaven yet, but they aim their steps in that direction. In Paul’s case that involved both a sanctified forgetting and a resolute pushing forward. Note the fierce concentration implicit in his words: “one thing I do.” Here is a secret that applies across the board. To excel in any area of life, a person must say, “This one thing I do,” not “These 20 things I do.” A single-minded focus in any endeavor generally wins a great reward.

A great artist must say, “One thing I do.”

A gifted teacher must say, “One thing I do.”

A championship athlete must say, “One thing I do.”

A single parent raising her child must say, “One thing I do.”

A student who wants to graduate with honors must say, “One thing I do.”

Greatness in any arena comes to those who can say with the Apostle Paul, “One thing I do.” In his case, it meant looking to the heavenly goal of winning the prize. That phrase covers all that God has for us when we finally stand before Jesus Christ and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”

One hundred years ago a young man from a wealthy family entered Yale University. His family intended that after completing his degree he would enter a suitable career in America. But God gripped his heart with the needs of China and he volunteered to go to that country with the gospel, much to the dismay of his family and friends. He left America but never made it to China, succumbing to a disease before reaching that distant shore. After his death, a note was found in his effects that summarized his life: “No reserve, no retreat, no regrets.” I wonder how many of us could say the same thing?

Perhaps you have heard of Dr. David Livingstone, pioneer medical missionary to Africa. When he returned to Great Britain, he was asked, “Where do you want to go now?” His answer was immediate: “I am ready to go anywhere provided it be forward.”

Do you want to win the race set before you? First, check your direction. Make sure you are moving in God’s direction. Everyone goes somewhere in life. Where will you be when you get where you are going?

Principle #2: Follow Faithful Leaders. 15-17

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you (3:15-17).

Note how Paul puts it in verse 17: “Follow my example.” That seems like an astounding thing to say. “If you want to learn how to pray, follow me.” “If you want to become a faithful evangelist, follow me.” “If you want to study the Bible, follow me.” “If you want to see compassion in action, follow me.” “If you want to know God better, follow me.” Who among us would dare to utter such statements? Yet six different times in the New Testament Paul says, “Follow me.”

Was he an egotistical braggart? Did he think he was a perfect Christian? Not at all. In verse 12 he clearly says that he has not yet arrived at spiritual completion. Well, then, how could Paul say, “Follow me?” What he meant was, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Think of the Christian life as a long parade from earth to heaven. At the head of the line is Jesus Christ, the Captain of our salvation. Step by step he is leading his followers to glory. It’s a long road with many twists and turns but he is fully committed to seeing that we make it in the end. Since the parade is long and filled with millions of people, we need folks in front of us who can keep us on track. We need mentors, models, heroes if you will, people who are farther along in the spiritual journey who can keep us pointed toward the Lord. Without such input, we’re likely to veer off the trail and end up in the wilderness.

Let me ask two questions: 1) Who are you following? Who is up ahead of you showing the way, pointing out the rough places in the road, and making sure you don’t make a wrong turn? We all need people like that in our lives. None of us ever reaches a point where we can say, “I can do this on my own.” Even though I’ve been a Christian for nearly 30 years, I find that now as much as ever I need the encouragement of being around people who pray better than I do, who witness more than I do, and who have a deeper knowledge of God’s Word. I need their example, their encouragement, and the challenge they provide to my life.

This touches a very practical point. Would you like to learn to pray? It’s not hard, just hang around people who pray. Would you like to grow in joy? Spend time with joyful people. Do you wish you had a heart for the world? Spend time with missionaries and watch your heart change little by little. Are you struggling with temptation? Find someone who has fought and won the same battle. Would you like to develop the gift of teaching? Great. Sit at the feet of gifted teachers and learn from them. Follow faithful leaders and soon enough, their godly example will make you a better Christian.

2) Who is following you? Think again about the image of a great parade. Jesus stands at the front followed by a vast throng. You strain to catch a better glimpse of the Lord but it’s hard to see him through the crush of people. So you simply begin to follow the crowd in front of you. As long as they are following Jesus, you are following him through their good example. Now look behind you. Do you see all the faces peering in your direction? They are following you—and you didn’t realize it. As long as you follow those who follow Christ, you will be following him too—and so will those who follow you.

Right now … someone is following you.

Right now … someone looks to you to show them the way.

Right now … someone prays because they heard you pray.

Right now … someone is watching you fight your personal battles.

Right now … someone wants to be like you.

Right now … someone is cheering you on.

Right now … someone sees Christ in your life.

Right now … someone admires your strength.

Right now … someone is borrowing your faith because they have none.

Right now … someone believes you are the best Christian they know.

Right now … someone is hanging tough because you are standing tall.

Right now … someone is smiling when they think of you.

Right now … someone thanks God for your friendship.

Right now … someone cares that you make the right choices.

Right now … someone is following you.

Keep on the path. Keep your eyes on the prize. Find some good examples and follow them. And don’t forget that someone is following you as you follow others who are following Jesus Christ. Don’t let that someone down.

Principle #3: Know Your Enemies. 18-19

For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things (3:18-19).

Here is the flip side of the previous principle. We must follow faithful leaders … and we must watch out for our enemies. Who are these “enemies of the cross?” I doubt if Paul would use such harsh language to describe people outside the church. I believe he is talking about professing Christians who are really “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Although they attend our churches and worship with us on Sunday, they are not one with us. Here’s the tricky part: they are not “out there,” they are “in here” with the family of God.

How do you spot them?

a. They claim to be Christians

b. Their lives betray them

c. They live for self-gratification—lust, gluttony, greed, sexual immorality, anger, drunkenness, and all the other sins of the flesh

d. They brag about their sins—”their glory is their shame”

e. They drag others down with them

f. They will destroy you if you let them

They are going to hell … Don’t go with them.

Let me say it this way. Not every relationship is good for you. Some people reading my words are aware of relationships in your life that are pulling you away from Jesus Christ. It may be a romantic relationship or a friendship at school or on the job or with a neighbor or perhaps a passing, casual acquaintance or someone you met at a social gathering or on a trip. God’s point is clear: if a relationship is pulling you away from Jesus Christ, you must break it off. Period. No ifs, ands or buts. Break it off. Do it now. Stop making excuses.

I can’t tell you who needs to hear these words, but I do know that someone does. Know your enemies. Mark them. Avoid them. There’s no other way to win the prize.

Principle # 4: Remember Your True Identity. 20-21

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (3:20-21).

Verse 20 begins with a huge contrast. The enemies of the cross live for earthly things … BUT our citizenship is in heaven. Those words would have had special meaning to the Philippians since they were granted Roman citizenship even through they were 800 miles from the imperial capital. They lived in Philippi but their citizenship was in Rome. In a similar way, we live on earth but our hearts are in heaven. As the song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”

If you do any overseas traveling, you know that a passport is required for entry into most countries. For instance, if you travel to Bangladesh, you take your US passport wherever you go. That way, you can prove you are a citizen of another country. Paul is saying that Christians have been issued a spiritual passport from the Commonwealth of Heaven. Then he lists two evidences of that heavenly citizenship: First, we’re eager for Jesus to return to the earth. The phrase “eagerly await” has the idea of a child standing on tiptoe waiting for his daddy to come home from work at the end of the day. Second, we’re expecting a glorious transformation of our earthly bodies. The word “transform” comes from a Greek word that is the root of our English word “schematic”—meaning a drawing or diagram of the inner workings of a device.

What do we know about our physical bodies? We know they are made from the earth—that is, from the dust. Second, we know they are constantly wearing out. Third, we know that our bodies will eventually return to the earth from whence they came. “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” That’s why the King James Version uses the phrase “our vile bodies”—an expression that becomes more appropriate as we grow old and nothing seems to work right any more.

Philippians 3 ends with a ringing declaration that one day God is going to “re-schematic” our earthly bodies. They will be raised from the dead and “re-engineered” to be like his glorious body. In the words of one commentator, we will be “raised and beautified.” I like the sound of that. I want to be raised and I definitely need to be beautified.

And he will do it by the same power that enables him to run the entire universe. Think of it. No more glasses, no more crutches, no more walkers, no more ICUs, no more AIDS, no more cancer, no more strokes, no more false teeth, no more diabetes, no more Alzheimer’s, no more kidney failure, no more disease and no more death.

“Keep Your Fork”

A few days ago a friend in Texas sent me the following story via e-mail. In a very touching way it illustrates the final truth of our text.

A woman who had been diagnosed with cancer was given three months to live. Her doctor told her to start making preparations to die (something we all should be doing all of the time). So she contacted her pastor and had him come to her house to discuss certain aspects of her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at the service, what scriptures she would like read, and what she wanted to be wearing. The woman also told her pastor that she wanted to be buried with her favorite Bible. Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the woman suddenly remembered something very important to her.

“There’s one more thing.” She said excitedly. “What’s that?” came the pastor’s reply. “This is very important,” the woman continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.” The pastor stood looking at the woman not knowing quite what to say. “That shocks you doesn’t it?” the woman asked. “Well to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request,” said the pastor.

“In all my years of attending church socials and functions where food was involved (and let’s be honest, food is an important part of any church event; spiritual or otherwise), my favorite part was when whoever was clearing away the dishes of the main course would lean over and say, ‘You can keep your fork.’ It was my favorite part because I knew that something better was coming. When they told me to keep my fork I knew that something great was about to be given to me. It wasn’t Jell-O or pudding. It was cake or pie. Something with substance. So I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, ‘What’s with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them: ‘Something better is coming so keep your fork too.’”

The pastor’s eyes were welled up with tears of joy as he hugged the woman good-bye. He knew this would be one of the last times he would see her before her death. But he also knew that that woman had a better grasp of heaven than he did. She knew something better was coming.

At the funeral people were walking by the woman’s casket and they saw the pretty dress she was wearing and her favorite Bible and the fork placed in her right hand. Over and over the pastor heard the question, “What’s with the fork?” And over and over he smiled. During his message the pastor told the people of the conversation he had with the woman shortly before she died. He also told them about the fork and what it symbolized to her. The pastor told the people how he could not stop thinking about the fork and that they probably would not be able to stop thinking about it either. He was right. So the next time you reach down for your fork, let it remind you that there is something better coming.

Go for the Gold. You can win the prize if you will …

Check Your Direction

Follow Faithful Leaders

Know Your Enemies

Remember Your True Identity.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?