Pressing on towards the goal…
I’ve never been a great hill walker, but what little I have done has shown me that you can rarely travel in a straight line. Every so often you have to look up to the summit you’re tackling, to check you’re still on track? Are we still pressing on towards our goal? In a similar way, it’s important for us, from time to time, to take stock of where we are on the journey of life. We need to look back at where we’ve been and what we’ve done, to rejoice in the progress that’s been made; but also to look forward, to set our eyes on the goal so that we can press on towards it.
That’s what Paul’s doing in his letter to the Philippians; ‘I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3:14)
Paul is arguably the greatest missionary the Church has ever seen; the man who, humanly speaking, was responsible for transforming Christianity from a small sect within Judaism into a world-wide faith. He was near the end of his life and ministry when he wrote those words. But was he content to sit back and take it easy? Not on your life! Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote, and had spoken already of the possibility of his execution; yet he was still pressing forward. Paul’s an example of pressing on to the end. His words, as the context shows, have significant implications for both personal life and the life of a Christian fellowship. In personal life there’s the desire for true Christian maturity – for holy, Christ-like living. The fellowship should be uniting in the service of Christ and the gospel. Let’s look at both in more detail.
1. Pressing on in personal faith and life
Verse 10 began with the words, ‘I want to know Christ…’ “But Paul,” his readers might have argued, “you’ve known Christ for years! He met you on the road to Damascus and turned your life around! You’ve told us about it many times.” Paul wanted to know Christ better, to become like Him, so that the power of Jesus’ life, suffering, death and resurrection might be seen in his own life. Paul’s very much aware that knowing Christ is the key to progress. There’s transforming power in a growing relationship with the Lord.
An American minister was staying with a young couple while on a preaching trip. They’d been married about a year. After a meal the young woman got up and said, “You two need to talk. I’ll just get these dishes squared away!” Something grated with the minister. The girl was a graduate of one of America’s most distinguished ladies’ colleges; and ladies from that college don’t ‘square things away’. But officers in the U.S. Marines do – and that’s exactly what her husband was.
As this couple had got to know one another at the deepest level his life had been influencing her, changing her. And over the next few days the minister was able to see ways in which her life had rubbed some of the rough edges off her husband. To know Christ, and to be growing in our relationship with Him, is to open up our lives to His transforming power. By His Spirit, the Lord Jesus is fashioning His people into His image, so that we can become like Him. A married couple may often find themselves responding to something that’s happened, or that they’ve seen, with precisely the same comment. They’ve influenced one another without realising it. For all their differences, they’ve become more like one another as their relationship has deepened. They’re thinking along similar lines; their minds in tune with one another.
Can we honestly say that the same’s true of our relationship with the Lord Jesus? We’ve known Him for years, perhaps decades even; but are we more like Him now than we were when we first met the Saviour? Or do we need to fix our eyes on the goal once more, to fix our eyes on Jesus, and press on to know Him better and discover the transforming power of a deeper relationship with Him?
Now this is a lifetime’s work, and more; it won’t be complete until we see Jesus face to face, when He comes or calls us home. Verses 20 and 21 make that clear. Meantime, we press on towards the goal, getting to know Jesus better: through worship, through Bible-reading, through prayer… and by trusting Him in the day-to-day issues of life.
And He will be at work in us. God’s not going to give up on the task part way through! Paul made that clear at the beginning of this letter. But it’s important that we do remember that this is a lifetime’s work. We don’t change overnight, so it’s helpful to realise that knowing Christ provides sustaining grace for the race of life. And when we talk of the Christian life as a race, as we can, then we have to remember that the race doesn’t go to the swiftest or the strongest; nor even to the wisest and the most resourceful. It goes to the faithful, to those who finish the course, to those who stick with Jesus to the end of the road.
Some Christians seem to shoot up; they rise like firework rockets only to explode in spectacular colours and fall spent to the ground as empty shells. Paul had seen that tragedy occur. Writing to Timothy, he spoke of two young men who had ‘shipwrecked their faith’ (1 Timothy 1:19). They’d crashed it onto the rocks. This sort of thing broke Paul’s heart. Speaking in this passage of those who’ve followed his example and pressed on, and those who haven’t, Paul says in verse 18, ‘For as I have often told you before, and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the mind is on earthly things…’ How sad!
You know some people like that, don’t you? Those in the Youth fellowship with you 10 or 20 years ago, perhaps even 50 years ago; but where are they now? Some are empty of faith, like the blackened rockets you sometimes find in your garden after Bonfire Night. Perhaps an unwise relationship, some glaring sin, or a busy, all-consuming career, has dragged them away from Christ. They haven’t pressed on towards the goal. It’s very, very sad, and Paul’s words about their destiny are sobering indeed. Let’s press on to the end in our walk with the Lord. Deepening our relationship – drawing daily on the grace of Christ.
2. Pressing on in fellowship
Our personal faith and life obviously affects the fellowship we worship with. But Paul has a specific word for the fellowship of Christians at Philippi, who were very much on his heart. He wants them to unite in love, and stand firm for the Lord. That’s because of the destructive influence of poor relationships – they stop people coming to know Christ. But while we’re still undergoing Christ’s transforming work it isn’t always easy.
Euodia and Syntyche, introduced in Philippians 4:2, were living examples of how difficult it could be. One college friend renamed them: ‘You’re odious’ and ‘Soon-touchy’. They didn’t get on. They were like a red rag to a bull to each other. There’s the old saying: “There’s none so touchy as Kirk folk.” It’s often attributed to nominal Christians, people who are part of the visible church, but not the invisible Church known to the Lord. Yet these women were real Christians, devoted to Christ. Verse 3 makes it plain that Euodia and Syntyche were loyal servants of the Lord, and fellow-fighters with Paul for the gospel. But they got right up each other’s noses! They needed help. Paul pleaded with them to bury the hatchet. He told one of the church leaders to get them together. Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
In one church choir at different times, two members fell out with the organist and other members. One said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever be back.’ But they were… after just one week! The other was still sniping from the side lines after I don’t know how many years! And it was a blot on that congregation’s life; oh the bitterness it has caused! Both were men, by the way; this isn’t only a problem for the ladies.
Can I make it clear that nobody has spoken about any such divisions in this fellowship. I certainly haven’t been aware of a problem in this realm. But I do know that such rifts exist in even the finest congregations. If it could happen in Philippi, it can happen anywhere! And nothing spoils the witness of Christian fellowship like backbiting. Nothing makes a church less attractive to the outsider. Paul urged the Philippians to ‘stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel…’
You see, there’s still so much to be done. So for the sake of our fellowship, and for the sake of those outside it, who need to be drawn in to find a living faith in Christ, let’s lay aside petty squabbling and minor differences of opinion, and work together for the Lord. So that the transforming power of Jesus may be seen in us in our fellowship, as well as in our lives as individuals, let’s press on together towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenwards in Christ Jesus. Our reading began, and ended, with Paul’s call to rejoice in the Lord.
My friends, there really is no greater joy than walking with Jesus, and allowing His love to overflow from our lives to our brothers and sisters in Christ, and those who by God’s grace will become part of His family through our faithful witness and testimony. Jesus said, ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:35)