7. Pressing Toward the Goal (Philippians 3:12-4:1)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (32:48)

St. Paul with his book (rotulus), Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy. Mosaic, early sixth century.
St. Paul with his book (rotulus), Arian Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy. Mosaic, early sixth century.

Paul has been talking about trading every religious advantage he has for the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus in his fullness. Now comes the reality check.

Still in a Work in Progress (3:12a)

The most common Christian cop-out is: "Well, nobody's perfect." Paul doesn't settle for such a flip answer regarding a serious quest for Christ's fullness.

"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." (3:12-13a)

He acknowledges that he isn't there yet, using two Greek verbs to describe where he hasn't yet arrived:

  • "Obtained" (NIV, NRSV) or "attained" (KJV) is lambanō, "take hold of, grasp." Here it has the sense, "to enter into a close relationship, receive, make one's own, apprehend or comprehend."[158] Paul hasn't yet taken hold of the fullness of Christ.
  • "Made perfect" (NIV) or "reached the goal" (NRSV) is teleioō. It can mean either "complete, bring to an end" or "bring to its goal/accomplishment, make perfect."[159] Paul realizes that he is still a work in process. God is still perfecting him, still pruning and shaping, still opening up for him untapped areas of the spiritual life, new vistas of God's glory. There have been some Christians, especially in the Wesleyan tradition, who claim they have reached sinless perfection. But Paul doesn't claim this. He specifically denies it and acknowledges that God is still working in him.

I wonder, was Paul's experience in prison part of God's perfecting process for him? Sometimes God puts us in places where we are hindered, hampered, limited -- our own "involuntary servitude." Why? Because at these places in our lives we are desperate enough to seek God and willing to change whatever is necessary in order to lessen our pain. The circumstance that you yourself are in right now may be a blessing in disguise, an opportunity God has selected to further his work in you.

Pressing in to Take Hold (3:12b-13a)

Paul realizes that he hasn't attained his potential in Christ, but he doesn't excuse himself by the difficulty of the calling:

"... 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." (3:12b-13a)

Now we see another pair of Greek verbs that describe Paul's unremitting quest for God:

2004 Olympic Games 37 cent stampThe first verb is "press on" (NIV, NRSV) or "follow after" (KJV). Diōkō, is often translated "persecute." Here it means, "to move rapidly and decisively toward an objective, hasten, run, press on."[160] The root idea of diōkō is "to chase."

When I think of this word, I remember a story from David's life (2 Samuel 2:12-23). Abner, general for King Saul's son Ish-Bosheth, loses many troops in a skirmish with David's men. Then Asahel, brother of David's general, "chased Abner, turning neither to the right nor to the left as he pursued him." The Bible records, "Asahel refused to give up the pursuit."

It is this kind of dogged determination that is the fire in Paul's belly. With the same zeal that he once persecuted (diōkō) the church (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6), he now pursues (diōkō) Christ. He will not give up the pursuit of God or take his ease. He must know Christ in all his fullness! It is from this concept that A.W. Tozer penned his classic book, The Pursuit of God (1948).

The second verb that describes Paul's quest for Christ is "take hold of" (NIV), "apprehend" (KJV), and "make it my own" (NRSV), a sort of purpose clause in Greek.[161] Paul presses in so that he might take hold. Katalambanō is an important word, since it occurs twice in verse 12b and again in verse 13b. The root idea is "to lay hold of." Here it means, "to lay hold of so as to make one's own, win, attain."[162] There is a deliberate word play between the verb lambanō in verse 12 and katalambanō in verses 12 and 13.

"12 Not that I have already obtained (lambanō) all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of (katalambanō) that for which Christ Jesus took hold of (katalambanō) me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of (katalambanō) it." (3:12-13)

Years before, Jesus had laid hold of Paul on the Damascus road at his conversion. Now Paul longs to lay hold of the fullness of this life in Christ and is unsatisfied until he does.

Running Flat Out in the Great Race (3:13b-14)

No, Paul has not obtained his spiritual goal yet, but he is not resting or turning back:

"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." (3:13b-14)

This passage has inspired me for decades, every time I read it, it speaks to me again. The imagery is from a race, drawn from the key verb "I press on" (diōkō), "to chase, run after, pursue," that we just examined in verse 12. Paul is single-minded: "But one thing I do!" (3:13b)

Forgetting What Lies Behind (3:13c)

A runner in a race doesn't keep looking back at who is behind him, lest he trip and fall on his face. Instead, he is intent upon the goal (skopos) up ahead. How many people do you know seem to live their life looking backward? They count their losses, their regrets, their failures. No wonder they are defeated.

Thank God for forgiveness! In Christ, we can find forgiveness for our own failings. In Christ we can find the grace to forgive even the deepest hurts. So Paul doesn't look back. "Forgetting" is the Greek verb epilanthanomai, "not to have remembrance of something, forget."[163] I don't think that this means our mind is wiped clean of any remembrance of past hurts and failures, but that we choose not to go there any longer. We choose not to remember. We choose instead to look forward.

We can't run the race looking backward. We must turn our minds and hearts to the present race and to our goal. Paul looks toward the goal line, Greek skopos, from a root meaning "to look into the distance." Here it is the distant mark looked at, the "goal or end one has in view."[164]

When I was in high school I played on the varsity tennis team. How many times my coach would shout at us, "Keep your eye on the ball!" In baseball, a batter must keep his eye on the ball. A Christian must keep his eye on the goal -- fully surrender to and fellowship with Jesus Christ. If our eyes slip to the temporal world, we lose focus on the spiritual world and lose our bearings. Forget what lies behind. Keep your eye on the goal!

Q1. (3:13) How can the past get in the way of our quest to know Christ? What do you need to "forget" so that you may focus on Christ today and tomorrow? Is there forgiving you need to do so you can grow in Christ?

Straining Towards the Finish Line (3:13d)

Another word in this imagery of a race is "straining toward" (NIV) or "forward" (NRSV) and "reaching forth" (KJV). It is the Greek verb epekteinomai, "to exert oneself to the uttermost, stretch out, strain toward something."[165] If you watch the sprints and hurdles in any field even, you can see that as the leading runners reached the tape at the goal line, they will lean their body forward. In some of the heats, it is that extension of the body to its uttermost that wins the race. Paul is talking about his own flat out commitment to see this through to the end. No slacking off. No excuses. No laziness. Paul is serious about this, he is stretching all out to win the race.

In 1 Corinthians he switches from a racing imagery to a boxing analogy, but the idea is the same.

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

I don't think Paul is fighting for his salvation. That was already settled. But he is seeking Christ and his fullness. He is urgent and disciplines himself so that he will not miss out on the greatest prize of all -- knowing Christ.

One of the saddest days of my life was serving as an usher in church and helping to seat one of the great healing evangelists of the mid-twentieth century. He had healed thousands, won tens of thousands to Christ, and changed the spiritual history of one of the largest countries in South America. But when I saw him he was an alcoholic, helped to church by a friend, a shell of his former self. Will he be saved? Oh, I believe so. But what happened that he stopped in the midst of the race?

Have you stopped? Has some terrible event wounded you and opened you to attack by Satan? This happens. But Christ is able to forgive you and heal you. He can help you forgive yourself. He can turn your eyes from the past to the present and future with Christ.

Paul himself was a man who bore on his soul the memory of persecuting Christ himself and his church. He had to move past it. Paul had experienced inexpressible spiritual visions and ecstasies. But he had to move past it. Paul was very well aware that we cannot keep chastising ourselves for past failings or keep patting ourselves on the back for past spiritual victories. They take our eyes off the goal, which is Christ himself.

Pressing on Toward the Goal (3:14a)

Now let's consider the final words of this powerful Christian confession, phrase by phrase:

"I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (3:14)

Here's that keyword again: diōkō, "pressing on, pursuing, chasing, running flat out." But Paul doesn't run for the sake of running. He is intent on the goal line, the skopos, translated "goal" (NIV, NRSV) or "mark" (KJV). It comes from the verb skopeō, to pay careful attention to, look," so skopos is that on which the athlete fixes his gaze, "goal, target."[166] We're not told by analogy what the goal line represents for the Christian life. I don't think the goal is heaven or perfection for its own sake, so much as Christ-likeness and Christ-oneness. That certainly is Paul's goal.

To Win the Prize (3:14b)

"Prize" is the Greek noun brabeion, "an award for exceptional performance, prize, award."[167] The word occurs here and in 1 Corinthians 9:24 (quoted above) with respect to competition in an athletic contest. In our passage and 2 Timothy 4:8, the prize or wreath is awarded not just to the winner, but to all who finish the race, an endurance race more than a sprint.

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day -- and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Exactly what is this prize in our Philippians passage? Paul doesn't say specifically. The prize, however, is closely associated grammatically with the "call" of God.

The Heavenward Call (3:14c)

"... For which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (3:14c)

The phrase "high calling" (KJV), "called me heavenward" (NIV), and "heavenly call" (NRSV) translate two Greek words. The noun klēsis is an "invitation to experience special privilege and responsibility, call, calling, invitation."[168] It is preceded by an adverb of place, anō, "extension toward a goal which is up, upward(s)."[169]

The heavenly calling of God and the prize have been interpreted in three main ways: (1) The prize and the calling are essentially one and the same,[170] thus the prize itself is God's calling to life in his eternal presence. (2) The call is the summons by the president of the contest (or perhaps even the emperor) to the successful athlete to come forward to receive his prize. In this interpretation, the calling or summons is the one that occurs at the end of the race. But this doesn't jive with Paul's usual use of the idea of "calling." (3) Paul is referring to God's act of calling to salvation, thus the sentence refers to "the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus."[171] Thus in this context the prize is "the full and complete gaining of Christ, for whose sake everything else has been counted loss." O'Brien concludes,

"The greatest reward is to know fully, and so to be in perfect fellowship with, the one who had apprehended him on the Damascus road. And this prize Paul wants his readers also to grasp."[172]

Q2. (3:14) What is it like to be called upwards by God? Have you ever experienced this? What causes God's call to become dim in our hearing? How can we renew our hearing of his call? What is the content or specifics of this message or summons or call?

In Christ Jesus (3:14d)

"I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (3:14)

Now let's examine the final phrase in this remarkable verse: "in Christ Jesus," a familiar phrase that characterizes Paul's epistles. The goal, the prize, and the call are all wrapped up in Messiah Jesus!

This quest for God is not an "all roads lead to Rome" journey that adherents of any religion can pursue equally. It is found in the Messiah himself.

As a result of a comparative religions approach to Christianity, many seminaries and pastors no longer believe and declare the exclusivity of Jesus' claims. It doesn't fit with the recent trend towards tolerance and unity among all religions. Many would rather see Jesus as one way, perhaps a preferable way to express one's human spirituality, but not, heaven forbid, the only way.

But in John's Gospel we read Jesus' audacious claim, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Before the Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus to death, Peter unashamedly declares,

"Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)

In a Mediterranean culture abuzz with many religions and spiritual paths, Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles declared unequivocally that Jesus was the way to God. If we are Jesus' true disciples, can we do less?

An Example for the Mature (3:15-16)

It seems that the occasion of Paul's explanation of his ongoing quest for God is that some in the Philippian church believed they had already arrived, that they were already perfect -- that they had "arrived" or "apprehended" the ultimate in spiritual possibilities. Paul is clear that he makes no such claim. In verse 15, Paul uses the somewhat ambiguous noun telios, which can mean both (1) "perfect, fully developed" in a moral sense, or (2) "full-grown, mature, adult."[173] He says:

"All of us who are mature (telios) 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." (3:15-16)

He challenges his so-called mature or perfect opponents to agree with his call for a continued, unremitting quest to knowing God more fully. Those who disagree will be corrected by God. Then Paul warns these "perfect" Christians, "Only let us live up to what we have already attained" (3:16) In other words, if you claim perfection, let it show in your life.

The Apostle's Example and Pattern (3:17)

Now, Paul calls his readers to follow his example:

"Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you." (3:17)

They are to "take note" (skopeō) of those who aren't really living out the Christian life they possess. I recall a Sunday School song I sang as a boy:

"If you're saved and you know it, clap your hands,
If you're saved and you know it, clap your hands,
If you're saved and you know it, then your life will surely show it,
If you're saved and you know it, clap your hands."

Paul uses the noun symmimētēs, translated variously "following my example" (NIV), "followers together" (KJV), and "join in imitating" (NRSV). It means one who joins others as an imitator, "fellow imitator," from the noun mimētēs (related to our English word "mimic").[174]

It's a pretty bold thing to call people to mimic you, but Paul does so. To the Corinthian church he says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1, NRSV), as he does elsewhere (1 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; 3:7, 9; 1 Timothy 4:12; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3). Sometimes we're afraid to tell others to imitate us, but frankly, that is Jesus' own method of discipleship and that of the early apostles of the faith. No, you're not perfect and you make mistakes, but as you follow Christ invite others to learn from your example. When you make a mistake, admit it, ask for forgiveness and go on. Don't let false humility stand in the way of you being a discipler of others.

Paul's goal in our verse is to alert the Philippian believers that those who don't live out the Christian life in practice can't be trusted as guides to the spiritual life, no matter how "perfect" they claim to be. Beware!

Q3. (3:17) How can Paul be so bold as to ask others to imitate him? Why are we so hesitant to do this? How does God use imitation in building disciples? Who is likely to imitate you?

Enemies of the Cross of Christ (3:18-19)

Now Paul reminds them of the sad fact that the lifestyle of some professing Christians is not at all a "perfect" or even "mature" life.

"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)

Paul says these opponents "live as enemies of the cross of Christ." The cross of Christ is the way of suffering and self-denial, in sharp contrast with a self-indulgent lifestyle that glories in the activities of which one should instead be ashamed. It is an earthly mindset that will result in destruction (Greek apōleia, "loss, destruction, annihilation, ruin"[175]). Paul affirms elsewhere that this direction doesn't mean entering the Kingdom of God, but its opposite (Romans 8:5-8; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:17-21; Ephesians 5:5).

Citizens of Heaven (3:20-21)

In contrast, Paul describes a heavenly mindset:

"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)

"Citizenship" (NIV, NRSV) or "conversation" (KJV) is the Greek noun politeuma (from polis, "city") and means "commonwealth, state."[176] The New Testament reminds us that our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God; here on earth we are to consider ourselves exiles and aliens in a foreign land (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13; 1 Peter 1:17; 2:11). The old Gospel song may be corny, but it expresses an important truth:

"This world is not my home,
I'm just a-passin' through...."[177]

Heaven should be our focus, not the illusory and transitory world in which we live. And from heaven, Christ shall return (fulfilling Daniel 7:13-14; Acts 1:11), resurrect those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), and transform the bodies of those Christians still living into Christ-like resurrection bodies.

Q4. (3:18-21) Why is recognizing and affirming your citizenship and allegiance vital to discipleship? How does it keep us from the temptations outlined in verses 18 and 19? What are the dangers of a church combining and confusing the concepts of temporal patriotism with a Christian's true citizenship?

Stand Firm in the Lord (4:1)

Finally, Paul calls on his readers to "stand firm in the Lord."

"Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!" (4:1)

"Stand firm" (NIV, NRSV) or "stand fast" (KJV) is the Greek verb stēkō, which we saw in 1:27. It means in a metaphorical sense here, to be firmly committed in conviction or belief, "stand firm, be steadfast."[178] Temptations abound, within the church and without. But with great affection, Paul calls his readers to a higher calling: "stand firm in the Lord."

Higher Ground

This entire passage examines Paul's holy intolerance with a status-quo faith. He wants more. He wants to know Christ in his fullness. With every fiber in his being, he is straining all out for the prize of knowing Christ, of being "in Christ" in all his living, of "the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (RSV).

Where are you, my friend? Have you settled for a Christianity of the mind rather than the heart and spirit? Have you excused yourself so often that you are complacent with your spiritual experience?

I can say with Paul that I certainly haven't attained where I want to be in Christ. I still fight the temptations of Satan that try to derail me and cause a train wreck. But my heart leads me on, as I sense yours does, too, to an all-out pursuit of God.

Johnson Oatman, Jr. captured this spirit of pursuing God in his 1898 hymn, "Higher Ground."

"I'm pressing on the upward way,
New heights I'm gaining every day;
Still praying as I'm onward bound,
"Lord, plant my feet on higher ground."

   Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
   By faith, on heaven's table land,
   A higher plane than I have found;
   Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Philippians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, JesusWalk Bible Study Series
Available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats

I want to scale the utmost height,
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I'll pray till heaven I've found,
'Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.'"


Father, forgive my complacency. Purify my heart that its single focus might be on you. Help me to pursue you only, not turning to the right hand or the left. Help me. Guide me. Lead me on! In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"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." (Philippians 3:13-14)


[158] Lambanō, BDAG 584.

[159] BDAG 996. Teleioō was also used as a technical term of some of the Hellenistic mystery religions, "consecrate, initiate," though I don't believe that is Paul's reference here.

[160] Diōkō, BDAG 254.

[161] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, in loc.

[162] Katalambanō, Thayer. BDAG 519-520.

[163] Epilanthanomai, BDAG 374.

[164] Skopos, Thayer.

[165] Epekteinomai, BDAG 361.

[166] Skopos, BDAG 931. O'Brien 430.

[167] Brabeion, BDAG 183.

[168] Klēsis, BDAG 549.

[169] Anō, BDAG 92.

[170] O'Brien, 431, taking the construction as the Greek genitive of apposition or definition.

[171] O'Brien, 432, taking the construction as the Greek subjective genitive or indicative of belonging.

[172] O'Brien 433.

[173] Telios, BDAG 995-996.

[174] Symmimētēs, BDAG 958.

[175] Apōleia, BDAG 127.

[176] Politeuma, BDAG 845. We saw the related verb politeuomai in 1:27, "to conduct one's life as a citizen."

[177] "This World is Not My Home" first appeared in a songbook in Joyful Meeting in Glory No. 1, edited by Bertha Davis (published 1919, C. Miller of Mt. Sterling, KY). It has since appeared in books by both Albert E. Brumley (1939) and J.R. Baxter (1946), but they are not the authors.

[178] Stēkō, BDAG 945, 2.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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