Week of Jan. 27: Standing firm in the faith even when hard-pressed
By HELEN AND REV. SAM ROGERS
Lesson Scripture: Philippians 3:12-16
Background Scripture: 3:12-4:1
In this final lesson from Philippians, Paul uses two themes from the culture of the Greek/Roman world to build his message upon. One is athletic and the other military. Both are used to stress the Christian life as a long-distance journey requiring endurance and focus.
He begins with a surprising disclaimer. “I have not already obtained all this or have already been made perfect …” This statement explains what he means later, in verse 3:17, in having not yet attained the resurrection. This eschatological (end time) understanding of the goal of the life in Christ is crucial. What is true for Paul certainly applies to us. As the little boy said, “God ain’t through with me yet!” There is more to come with the rest of the story. For Paul, the Philippians, and us – how we finish the race requires our ‘utmost for his highest.’
The powerful metaphor is taken from the athletic field to the long-distance race of life. A primary lesson a runner must learn is to never look where the other runners are in the race, but to focus only on the finish line. Sam forgot this lesson one memorable day in an inter-fraternity track meet at Emory. His race was the low hurdles. Surprisingly, he was leading, and turned to look where the other runners were. When he did he lost his stride, clipped the top of the last hurdle and sprawled on the cinder track—never finishing the race!
Paul knows there is a double danger for the Christian in looking behind. For some, they become hung up on their achievements of the past. Pride raises its ugly head and they feel complacent about life because of their awards. Helen’s high school class has periodic dinners (not reunions), and at every one a classmate talks about when he played football. Yes, they were a great team and won both state and national awards, but that’s where he lives at 75.
The other danger of looking backward is to be burdened with the guilt and hurt of yesterday, preventing victorious living today. Paul sets the pattern of how to live with sin—even great sin! He persecuted the church. He caused countless deaths by stoning these Christian heretics. But when he was grabbed by Christ on the Damascus Road, his focus changed. Now he looks only forward, “forgetting what lies 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” (verses 13-14 NIV).
God had a big job for Paul, and God has one for each of us. If we bog down in the yesterdays of our life, we will miss the opportunity to accomplish what is to be done today. The sins we have committed have been forgiven and forgotten by God! That too is part of His amazing grace. The hurts others have done to us are dead and gone. They cannot hurt you anymore—unless you continue to dwell upon them. Let them go like God has your sin. Press on!
One other comment about this passage: the literal translation in NIV is correct—“brothers.” The NRSV, in being inclusive, uses the genderless “beloved,” but something important is lost. The CEB uses “brothers and sisters” and that is Paul’s intent. We relate as Christians in a familial setting. We are on this journey together. Only as brothers and sisters do we have the support and encouragement to give our best in the race of life.
I have difficulty in understanding parents who offer monetary rewards for doing well in school—cash, clothes, even cars. The only motivation needed to do your best is pleasing your family – our parents, ourselves and others. Who do you try to please in living your life? Everyone is an example to another—for good or bad. The world judges the church by how Christians live. Here is Paul’s meaning when he speaks of the mature taking such a stance. “Have this mind in you that was in Jesus…”
Recently the Pew Foundation released new statistics about Christians and the Church in the United States. Fewer and fewer Americans attend or belong to a church. That fact will have a bigger impact on our nation’s future than which political party is in control of the government. The almost universal comment for why a person doesn’t belong is the breakdown between profession and practice.
Paul saw this danger a long time ago. Without pride, he exhorts the Philippians to follow his example. This statement may sound contradictory to his disclaimer that he wasn’t perfect, but perfection is not a requirement to be a good example. A person may be very good at some study or task, but how great it is when they can teach someone else how to do or learn it. This talent separates great teachers or coaches or Christians from the ordinary.
He contrasts some who have an earth-bound view of life with the heaven-bound view of the Christian. Here Paul speaks of citizenship. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony, founded as a retirement locale for Roman legionnaires who had served the Empire faithfully for at least 21 years. Everything about the city spoke of that citizenship—dress, government, architecture, culture, lifestyle. Philippi was a small duplication of Rome. Paul is saying what Christians are in the world – colonies of heaven – and everything we do and say reflect that reality.
The military metaphor now comes into focus. In 4:1 he calls the Philippians his joy and crown. They are the signs of his victory in the race. And in the battle of life, they are like soldiers, hard-pressed by the enemy. They are to STAND FIRM!