Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Any long-distance runners in the room? Did any of you excel in track and field when you were at school? I was one of those kids in high school who, whenever I went to such an event, routinely came home empty handed. I wasn’t like young Travis here who leaves every track meet with a fist full of red ribbons. There were a few events that I did reasonably well at – the throwing events like discus and javelin. And I did enjoy long distance running. My legs wouldn’t move fast enough to make me a sprinter but I could run all day long. One time, when the school organized a walkathon from Lloydminster to Hillmond, I managed to run a good portion of the way – some 30 miles. But I was no marathon runner.
Marathon is actually the name of a town in ancient Greece where a famous battle was fought between the Greeks and the Persians. And when the Greeks defeated them there, they dispatched a runner, Philippides, to take the news some 25 miles back to Athens. Philippides knew how to run! In the previous two days he had run to Sparta and back, some 150 miles, requesting help when the Persians had landed at Marathon. And now, on what would be his final run, he was dispatched to take the news of victory back to Athens. He ran the 25 miles, collapsing and dying on the spot with the word, “Nikomen!”  on his lips. It means, “We win!” And this is why we call the long distance race the marathon.
The picture of a long-distance runner pouring out his all for the sake of the race, singularly focused and utterly emptying himself in his quest to gain the prize, is one of two metaphors I want to build off of in my message today. The apostle Paul was fond of metaphors and more than once in Philippians he pulls on athletic metaphors to describe the Christian walk. Twice in the letter he describes the Philippians as “contending together” alongside him – the word is sunathleo, a compound word consisting of “sun” (pronounced soon), meaning “with” and “athleo” from which we get our word “athlete”. We find it in 1:27 when Paul urges the Philippians to “contend together” for the faith of the gospel, and we find it in 4:3 where Paul describes the women Euodia and Syntyche as those who have “contended together” with him in the gospel. Today in our text in Philippians 3 Paul doesn’t use the same word, but he describes himself with the athletic metaphor of a runner laying his all down for the cause of Christ.
Before we read our text for today, I want to bring one other word picture into play, a picture that I hope will help us to take hold of what Paul is saying. Yesterday afternoon Sabra and I drove to Saskatoon to see Garth Brooks perform at SaskTel Center. Our daughter Leanne and her husband Brad bought us tickets. Sabra had just finished spending the morning working on the wheel, making cups, and then displaying her pottery at the Arts Without Borders event in downtown Lloydminster, and so we got to talking about our passions. I don’t know what your passions are but one of Sabra’s is her pottery. And we had a wonderful little conversation about what that looks like in her life. Often times Sabra and I find common ground when we talk about our passions. Crafting a sermon in a study and crafting a cup on a potter’s wheel have more in common than what you might think. And one of the things that we note in conversation is the sense that sometimes it’s unclear whether we have our passions or if they have us. Is it Sabra that is eagerly pursuing her pottery or is it her pottery that is pursuing her? Does the clay beckon her and call her to shape it or does it work the other way round? The same could be said about a sermon. Do I craft it, or does it in some strange way craft me?
We were having this conversation while we drove the three hours to SaskTel place to watch Garth Brooks perform. I don’t know if you’re the type that would like to go and stand in the midst of 13,000 screaming fans as Garth Brooks takes the stage. Sometimes I wonder what that must do to one’s ego. But one thing was absolutely undeniable last night as we watched Brooks perform. He gave us his all! He absolutely emptied himself in his performance. Garth Brooks is my age, 54. But he ran around that stage and sang his heart out with the energy of a teenager. Before he was even halfway through his performance, he looked like he had run a marathon. He sang with such energy and passion that his shirt was utterly drenched with perspiration. As I watched him sing, I wondered what it was like to be that passionate about music. Did it feel like he had the music or did the music have him? Do you know what I mean? Perhaps you have passions like that in your own life.
Paul, it seems, felt like that in his walk with Christ. Take these two metaphors – the marathon runner, Philippides, who gives his all to reach his destination, and then supplement that metaphor with the artist who is so immersed in her craft that it seems to take on a life of its own, compelling her forward. Keep these two images in mind as we read our text today from Philippians 3. We’ll read the whole of chapter 3 in a minute, but I want to begin with the three verses in the middle of it which relate to these two metaphors.
Philippians 3:12-15 (My Translation)
12 Not that I have already received the prize or arrived at the destination, but I’m certainly in pursuit, seeking to take hold of that which I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it yet. But one thing is sure, forgetting what’s behind me and stretching out for what’s ahead, 14 I pursue the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul is passionate about his calling! He has no sense of sitting back as having already arrived; he is in zealous pursuit of the goal. Like Philippides the runner, there is only one focus – the destination, and Paul will give all that he has to reach it! And like my wife and her art, or Garth Brooks and his, Paul describes himself as taking hold of that which has taken hold of him. Isn’t that a wonderful way to talk about our calling as Christians? “Seeking to take hold of that which I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus.”
Now, let’s step back and embrace the larger context. We’ll read the whole of chapter 3 and the first verse of chapter 4.
Philippians 3:1-11 (My Translation)
1 Summing it all up, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!
We’re hearing Paul’s passion here.
“Summing it all up,” he says. Summing what up? Paul has been driving at the heart of the gospel. He has taken us to the scene of what it is that defines us – Christ Jesus who utterly emptied himself in the embrace of the cross, and through it achieved victory. This is what drives Paul’s passionate plea to the Philippians throughout this letter: “Rejoice in the Lord!”
Paul repeatedly urges us to rejoice despite our trails, for in and through our trials we are identified with Jesus who has been given the name above all names. Because we are “in Christ” our suffering will ultimately result in exaltation as well, so celebrate! Our victory is found down the cruciform path!
Paul is eager that nothing get in the way of our glorious destiny; he is urging us to stay the course.
To write the same things to you again is no trouble for me, and it is a safeguard for you. 2 Watch out for the dogs! Watch out for the evil workers! Watch out for those who mutilate with the knife! 3 For it is we, not they, who are the circumcision! We are those who serve in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus – not those who place confidence in the flesh, 4 even though I myself have reason for such confidence. If there is anyone out there who thinks he has confidence in the flesh, I have more! 5 With respect to circumcision – on the eighth day! With respect to nationality – an Israelite! My tribe – Benjamin! Hebrew of Hebrews! According to the Law – a Pharisee! 6 According to zeal – a persecutor of the church! According to righteous behavior as defined by the Law - blameless!
7 But whatever things were gain to me, these I now regard as loss because of Christ. 8 Indeed, more than that, I regard all things to be loss because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have suffered the loss of all things and regard them as refuse – fit for the dung heap – in order that I might to gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not looking to the Law to tell me what my righteous behavior should be but instead embracing a righteous behavior that is defined by the faithfulness of Christ – God’s righteous behavior, which I embrace by faith – 10 so that I might know him and the power of his resurrection, participating in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if only in some way I might attain to the resurrection of the dead.
That was our text last week and we won’t rehash it this week but notice how Paul ends that section. “… so that I might know him and the power of his resurrection, participating in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if only in some way I might attain to the resurrection of the dead!”
These words are to be seen as resonating with the Christ Hymn of chapter 2 where Jesus’ story doesn’t end with the cross but exaltation. Paul is eager to be conformed to his death, knowing that resurrection is on the other side! “This is my story!” says Paul, “And this is your story too!”
And now, keeping the hope of resurrection before us, let’s enter into 3:12.
12 Not that I have already received the prize or arrived at the destination, but I’m certainly in pursuit, seeking to take hold of that which I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it yet. But one thing is sure, forgetting what’s behind me and stretching out for what’s ahead, 14 I pursue the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore, let all who are mature think like this. And if you think differently, God will reveal this truth to you. 16 Nevertheless let us hold on to the gains we have made.
Did you hear what Paul says immediately after he describes his impassioned pursuit of the upward call in Christ? He urges us to do the same. “I want you all to think like this!” Paul has been urging us throughout this glorious letter to “think differently”!
This is so, so, key to what Paul is doing here. The Philippians are having a hard time. They are facing great trials and because they are facing great trials some are being tempted to forsake their calling. “No!!” says Paul. “Don’t take your trials as a sign that you’re on the wrong track! Did Jesus take his trials as a sign that he was on the wrong track? Did the cross spell his end, his defeat? Or was it the doorway to victory? Keep on running! Don’t yield any ground! Think like I think! See it the way I see it, for this is the way it is!” This is Paul’s impassioned plea.
17 Imitate me, brothers and sisters, and take notice of those who walk in the same way. You have us as an example.
There we have it spelled out for us again. Paul is pleading with us to imitate him; to think as he thinks, to see the world and our trials within it as Paul sees the world and his trials within it.
“Imitate me! And imitate all those who walk in the same way I do! Use us as role models!” Paul is not shy about this. He’s in hot pursuit of Christ and urges all others to join him in the quest.
The alternatives, brothers and sisters, are not trivial…
18 For many have taken another path (I have spoken to you repeatedly of them, and now as I write I weep) – they live as enemies of the cross of Christ!
I like to imagine that if we had the original scroll that Paul wrote this letter on that at this point it would be stained with his tears. Paul loved these people; and he wept over them with the tears of Christ when they chose to forsake the path that leads to life.
This is perhaps Paul’s most agonizing moment in the letter. I don’t believe he’s writing about those who have never known Christ here. I believe he is writing about those who, in the midst of their trials, have turned away from the way of the cross and embraced again their former lives.
Paul uses very strong language here – “they live as enemies of the cross of Christ!” What does he mean by that? What is he talking about? Read on…
19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their appetite, and they glory in what will lead only to shame, occupying their thoughts with the things of this earthly realm.
Notice that it comes down, according to Paul, to how you think. Paul is pressing on for the goal of the prize for the upward calling of God. These people’s end instead is destruction. They, instead of subjecting their heart, soul, strength and minds to God, subject it all to their appetites. As a consequence, the very things that they envision as leading to glory, says Paul, will only lead to shame.
This is a tragic and horrifying picture, and it closes with the scene of a people whose thoughts are confined only to this earthly realm. What is Paul talking about?
20 This road leads to ruin, for our citizenship is in heaven! And from heaven we eagerly await a Savior, Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our humble bodies, making them like his glorious body, demonstrating as he does his capacity to subject all things to himself. 4:1 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters whom I long for, my joy and my crown – in this same way stand firm in the Lord, my dear friends.
In direct opposition to those who occupy their thoughts with things of this earthly realm Paul urges us to remember that our citizenship is in heaven. “We don’t take our marching orders from this dimension! We don’t do life the way earthly rulers do! We don’t find security here! And our hope does not consist in what earthly rulers have on offer!”
Paul is writing to the church in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony. That means that Philippi, as a city, existed as a beacon for all things Rome. Philippi sat out on the frontiers of Roman civilization and her task was to shine forth the light of Rome into the world. And as a Roman colony (their citizenship was in Rome), if ever they should be threatened, their hope was that help would arrive from Rome. Lord Caesar who would show up with his troops to vindicate the citizens of Philippi over and against their enemies.
Paul’s gospel has subverted Rome’s gospel. Rome told her story; Paul tells his. Rome speaks of peace and salvation. So does Paul. Rome declared Caesar to be Lord. Paul declares Jesus to be Lord!
And therefore, when Paul presents this scene of hope for us, we would do well to hear all of that resonating in the background. Our citizenship is in heaven, not in Rome. And from heaven, not Rome, our Savior, Lord Jesus will arrive. And when he arrives all rival powers will be subjected to him, and we will be exalted!
This is a story about Jesus Christ arriving from heaven, transforming his people through resurrection to be like him and subjecting all rivals before him. We’ve returned to the Christ Hymn once more – every tongue confessing, every knee bowing – in heaven, under the earth, and on earth.
All earthy powers will be subject to our Lord Jesus. This is not about us going to heaven but about heaven coming to us. This is not about us abandoning our struggle here and being vacated to a home in the sky. This is about resurrection, real bodies raised from the dead. This is about God completing what he began in Jesus. This is about God’s ultimate victory over all evil and the reclaiming of his good creation for his good purposes – and we are a part of it all!
And how does Paul conclude this section? “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters – in this same way stand firm in the Lord!” In what way Paul? “In the cross and resurrection way! In the way of Jesus!” In the way that Paul stands firm – zealously pursuing, captured by his calling, laying it all down if only to embrace the way of the cross in the hope of resurrection.
As he said in 3:10,
10 so that I might know him and the power of his resurrection, participating in his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if only in some way I might attain to the resurrection of the dead.
And what stands opposed to all of this? What’s on the other side of this equation? Enemies. Enemies of the cross of Christ. And day after day we, like the Philippians, are tempted to forsake the cross and resurrection way as foolish and forge alliances instead with other empires. Day after day earthly thinking beckons us to mock the way of the cross, the way of Jesus; day after day our equivalent of “Lord Caesar” offers us a counter protection, assurance, and hope. This gospel of “earthly” power is what competes in our minds with the gospel of Jesus.
And Paul urges us – he urges us with tears! – not to go that way. He urges us, as he urged the Philippians, to stand firm in Lord Jesus Christ, to rejoice in him, run after him, lay it all down for him, and to never, never, lose heart. Our citizenship is in heaven brothers and sisters, and from there we eagerly await a Savior, Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our humble bodies, making them like his glorious body, demonstrating as he does his capacity to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters whom I long for, my joy and my crown – in this same way stand firm in the Lord, my dear friends.
 The word Nikomen is related to the name of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. You may have shoes by the same name.
 More literally translated as, “not having my righteousness from the Law but through the faithfulness of Christ – the righteousness which comes from God and is received by faith". The "righteousness which comes from God" is, as I see it, a further defining of "the faithfulness of Christ". Christ’s faithfulness demonstrates God’s right behavior in response to Israel’s (and, as a consequence, the entire human family’s) dilemma. God has proven to be faithful to his covenant with Abraham in and through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
 “that which I have been taken hold of” Or, “because I have been taken hold of”