During the 2016 Summer Olympics, Allyson Felix was attempting to become the most decorated female athlete in U.S. track and field history in the 400 meters. After trailing the leader, Shaunae Miller, from the Bahamas, for the entire race, Felix began to gain on her down the back stretch, leading to this amazing finish.
Miller’s dive at the finish allowed her to win the gold medal by .07 of a second.
Here’s my question to you this morning. Is that the kind of effort that you’re giving in your journey to become more like Jesus?
As we begin a new year today, this is certainly an appropriate time for us to evaluate our walk with Jesus and think about the answer to that question. And as we do that, there will undoubtedly be some here this morning that will look back over the last year and who can honestly say that it was a pretty good year and that today you know Jesus much better than you did a year ago and that you are more like Jesus today than you were on January 1, 2016. And it is also likely that some of you would have to admit that honestly your relationship with Jesus isn’t much different than it was a year ago. And then there are the rest who fall somewhere between those two extremes.
But regardless of what your past year has been like, what God expects from each of us for this coming year is exactly the same. So go ahead and turn with me to Philippians chapter 3 in your Bibles. You’ll find that letter of Paul after the books of Galatians and Ephesians and before you get to Colossians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians.
The city of Philippi was located in Macedonia (now northeastern Greece) and Paul had visited there and founded the church on his second missionary journey around 49 AD. A little over a decade later, Paul wrote his letter to the people of that church, likely from a Roman prison. It’s important to keep in mind that by the time he wrote that letter, Paul had been a disciple of Jesus for over 30 years and had spent the last 15 years or so establishing and building up churches all throughout the area around the Mediterranean Sea.
I’m just going to read three verses this morning – verses 12-14:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 3:12-14 ESV)
In just three verses, Paul gives us a pretty comprehensive guide to how each and every disciple of Jesus needs to approach the idea of spiritual growth. While we are going to take some time to look at several important aspects of that process, we could summarize this entire passage with the words that appear at both its beginning and end and which make up both the title for this message as well as the entire six-week series that we’ll start the year with:
Without going any further or even defining what Paul meant by those words, I think we’d all agree right up front that Paul is making it clear here that there are no shortcuts to spiritual maturity. If the apostle Paul needed to still press on after all that he had accomplished in the name of Jesus over the last 30 years or so of his life, then certainly all of us in this room need to do the same.
HOW TO “PRESS ON” IN MY RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS
1. Be hungry
Self-satisfaction is the biggest barrier to growth. Almost every invention in history was the result of man being dissatisfied with something about his condition. The first known invention, the wheel, was undoubtedly a result of man being dissatisfied with having to carry around heavy loads on his back.
The same thing is true with our spiritual growth. Being satisfied with where we’re at today may very well be the biggest obstacle to growing in our relationship with God. But that was really not a problem for Paul, was it? Notice how he begins this section:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…
The “this” that Paul has not yet obtained is described in the first part of the chapter. While it’s possible that he is writing only of the “resurrection from the dead” at the end of verse 11, it seems to me that he is referring to the entire process of knowing God and becoming like Jesus that he describes in the first 11 verses of this chapter.
Paul writes that he is not already perfect. The word “perfect” could also be translated “complete” or “mature”. At a minimum, Paul makes it clear here that it is not possible for any Christian to ever achieve a state of sinless perfection here on this earth.
And then, just to make sure that we get this idea, Paul repeats it again in verse 13:
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own…
If there was ever a human being on earth who should have been satisfied with his spiritual maturity, it has to be Paul. I can’t think of any other person in history who did so much for the kingdom of God in such a short time or someone whose life was such a clear manifestation of an intimate relationship with Jesus. And yet, as Paul nears the end of his life, he is still hungry to take that relationship even deeper because he is not satisfied with where he was at.
I really like how Pastor and author Warren Wiersbe puts this idea:
A divine dissatisfaction is essential for spiritual progress.
So my question to you this morning is this: Do you have a divine dissatisfaction for where you are in your relationship with Jesus today? Are you hungry to take that relationship, wherever it might be right now, to a higher level? If so, will you will you joining me in telling that to Jesus right now? Go ahead and bow your heads and close your eyes and take a moment to pray and to tell Him that you’re not satisfied with where your relationship with Him is at right now and ask Him to keep you hungry to keep taking that relationship to the next level.
2. Be humble
We see Paul’s humility at the end of verse 12, where he writes:
…because Christ Jesus has made me his own
After our study in Romans, we shouldn’t be surprised that Paul would write something like this. During our time in Romans we learned that the process of sanctification – the process of becoming more like Jesus – while it does require my participation, it is the work of God. And that is what Paul acknowledges here. The reason that he desires to press on in his relationship with Jesus is out of gratitude for the fact that Jesus had made Paul His own and He is still working in Paul’s life to make him more like Jesus day by day.
We can’t even begin a relationship with Jesus without the humility to admit our own sinfulness and our inability to do anything about that on our own. And we certainly can’t take that relationship to a higher level without remembering and acknowledging that on a daily basis.
Paul is not the only disciple of Jesus who recognized the importance of humility in our relationship with Jesus. Both James and Peter also wrote about the need for humility:
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
(James 4:10 ESV)
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,
(1 Peter 5:6 ESV)
So the second question I want to pose to you this morning is this: Are you willing to humble yourself and acknowledge that Jesus has made you His own completely apart from anything you did to deserve that? Are you willing to thank Jesus for that and commit to growing in your relationship with Him out of gratitude for what He has already done for you? If so, will you join me in telling that to Jesus right now? Once again I invite you to bow your heads and pray in your own words to Him right now.
3. Be hard-working
You’ll notice that twice in this passage, Paul tells his readers that he “presses on”. As I pointed out earlier, that phrase is so crucial that I’ve used it as both the title for this message as well as for the entire 6-week series that we being the year with.
The verb that Paul uses there was used by the Greeks to describe a hunter eagerly pursuing His prey. It could be used in either a positive or negative sense, depending on the context. For instance, Paul uses that same verb back in verse 6 when he described himself as a “persecutor of the church”. But now Paul no longer pursued disciples of Jesus for the purpose of harming them. Instead, he now pursued Jesus for the purpose of knowing and loving Him.
In this passage we find three important elements of pressing on:
• A single-minded focus
Verse 13 is even more emphatic than it appears to be in English. When Paul writes “But one thing I do”, the words “I do” don’t appear in the underlying Greek, but have been added by the translators to make it read more smoothly in English. Literally Paul writes: “But one thing!”
As Paul pointed out earlier in the chapter, he had a lot of things going for him in life. He was well educated and zealously religious. But none of that mattered to Paul compared to his relationship with Jesus. 20th century missionary and theologian E. Stanley Jones does a great job of summarizing the lesson that Paul shares with us here:
Your capacity to say “No” determines your capacity to say “Yes” to greater things
Some of you may have heard this illustration before, but it bears repeating here.
A while back an expert on the subject of time management was speaking to a group of business students. After speaking to them for a while, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He set a one-gallon, wide mouthed Mason jar on the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks & carefully placed them, one at a time, inside the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit inside, he asked, “Is this jar full?” Everyone in the class said, “Yes.” “Really?” he said. Then he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel into the jar and shook it, causing pieces of gravel to work themselves down into the spaces between the big rocks.
Then he smiled & asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?” By this time the class was on to him. “Probably not,” one of them said. “Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it filled all the spaces between the rocks & the gravel.
Once more he asked, “Is this jar full?” “No!” the class shouted. Again he said, “Good!” Then he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour in the water until the jar was filled to the brim.
Then he looked back at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?” One eager beaver raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit something more into it!” “No,” the speaker replied, “that’s not the point. The truth this illustration teaches us is this: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”
For Paul, his relationship with Jesus was the big rocks and he made sure that he said “no” to many things so that he could make sure he had room for Jesus in his life first before he tried to fit in anything else. He only said “yes” to those things after he first made sure there was room for his relationship with Jesus.
So the obvious question all of us must answer this morning is this: Are there some things, even some good things, that I need to say “no” to in my life so that I can say “yes” to the things of Jesus? That’s probably not a question most of us can answer in just a minute or two, so rather than pausing to pray about that right now, I am going to encourage you to take some time to do that on your own this week.
• Not being held back by the past
When Paul wrote about “forgetting what lies behind”, he obviously didn’t mean that those things had been completely removed from his mind. In fact, he had written about some aspects of his past earlier in this chapter.
Forgetting, in the sense that Paul uses it here, conveys the idea of no longer being influenced or affected by our past. It means that Paul didn’t allow his past to control his present. And that kind of forgetting had two equally important components that we need to consider as well.
First, he did not allow his relationship with Jesus to be controlled by his past failures, like the persecution of the church that he had mentioned earlier in the chapter. Far too many Christians have been hampered in their relationship with Jesus because they can’t let go of something that they have done in the past that they think is just so bad that God can’t ever forgive them for it. But I doubt very much that any of you here this morning have ever done anything that rises to the level of what Paul had done in the past when he persecuted, and even killed, followers of Jesus.
But it is also just as important that Paul did not allow his relationship with Jesus to be controlled by his past successes either. No one could have really blamed Paul if he just decided to rest on his laurels. As we’ve already pointed out, he had done more for the kingdom of God and for the early church in a relatively short time period than any other human ever. But Paul wasn’t satisfied to just “retire” and let somebody else do the work for a change.
I always tell people that whenever I finally officiate the perfect match or game, that I’m going to quit and go out on top. But because that has never yet happened, I still referee. And the same is true for my relationship with Jesus. No matter how great it gets, no matter how high the mountaintop experience might be, it won’t ever rise to a level of completeness or perfection. So I must continue to “press on”.
We don’t know for sure who wrote the book of Hebrews, but at least these two verses from chapter 12 sure sound a lot like what Paul wrote here in Philippians 3:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV)
So whether that weight that clings so closely is some failure or whether it is some success, we need to lay it aside so that we can continue to run the race. Once again, that’s not something any of us can do in just a few minutes this morning, so I encourage you to take some time this week to evaluate your own life and ask God to reveal anything from your past, either failures or successes, that are holding you back in your relationship with Jesus. And then ask Him to help you let those things go.
• Moving ahead in the present
Paul writes here that he is “straining forward to what lies ahead”. The verb that Paul uses there is a compound word that literally means “to overextend oneself”. That doesn’t sound like someone who is just going through the motions in his relationship with Jesus. Even though, as we have already seen, Paul knew that becoming more like Jesus was 100% God’s work in his life, in order for that work to be effective Paul had to do all he could to cooperate with that work.
That kind of balance can be demonstrated by thinking about three different kinds of boats:
o A raft just sits in the water and doesn’t do anything. Some disciples of Jesus are a lot like that just sitting and waiting for God to do something but never doing anything to join in the work He is already doing.
o A rowboat depends totally on the strength of the person doing the rowing. And there are some people who live their lives like everything depends on them so they just ignore God and work as hard as they possibly can.
o But a sailboat requires both the wind to fill the sails and the skill of the sailor to adjust those sails and steer the boat. A life lived like that requires us to let God fill our sails with His winds and empower us, but then it requires hard work and skill on our part to keep that boat on its course.
Pressing on like that is not an easy thing to do. And I think that if most of us are honest, we’d all admit that we could do a better job of living like that. But as a church, we want to do more than just preach about this kind of living and then leave you to figure it out and implement it on your own. So last October our Elders held a retreat for the purpose of evaluating how well we’re doing at equipping all of you to live like that and to grow in your relationship with Jesus regardless of where you’re at right now.
I’m really excited this morning to introduce you to two important tools that came out of that retreat. All I’ll really have time to do this morning is to introduce these ideas to you. But over the next five weeks, we’re going to be developing these ideas in some more depth to help you to understand them and to appropriate them into your lives. And I’m confident that if you’ll do that, you, too, will be able to “press on” in your relationship with Jesus.
Although there was nothing particularly wrong with our existing mission statement, as we evaluated it more closely we began to see how it could potentially inhibit seekers and new believers from checking out our church because it could be read to imply that we were only interested in serving those who were already mature disciples of Jesus. So we’ve developed a new mission statement that we believe more accurately communicates our mission as a church:
Know Jesus. Grow & Serve. Go & Share.
This mission statement reflects what we want to be able to do as a church:
• To be a place where people can come to learn about Jesus and come to know Him personally.
• To be a place where those who have come to know Jesus can grow in their relationship with Him and serve others both within and outside the body.
• To be a place where people are equipped to go out into the world and share their faith with others.
The second tool that we developed is a discipleship path. We’ll be exploring each step in this path in more detail over the next five weeks. So for now, let me just give you an overview.
The idea here is that we want to provide everyone in our church family with some simple, clear steps that they can use to both identify where they are in their relationship with Jesus right now and to determine what they need to do next in order to take that relationship to the next level. Or to put in in the terms we have been using this morning, to help people “Press On” in their relationship with Jesus.
You’ll note that this process is pictured as a circle to remind us that, as we’ve seen this morning, we never reach full maturity or perfection in our relationship with Jesus here on earth. It also reminds us that our task is not only to mature in our own personal relationship with Jesus but also to help others to enter into this same process as well.
So I really hope that you’ll join us each week for the next five weeks as we develop this process in more detail.
Shaunae Miller won that 400-meter Olympic race because of something she didn’t do and something she did do. First of all, if you watch the video of that race carefully, you’ll see that even though she sensed that Allyson Felix was gaining on her, she never looked back. Had she done so for even a moment, she would have surely come in second. But she also won because of something she did do. As she approached the finish line, she had a single minded focus on that finish line and she strained to reach it with all that she had. That’s the way that I want to press on as I live my life for Jesus. Don’t you?
Before I share a few announcements, let me remind you of what actions all of us need to take this week in response to what we’ve learned today:
o For Jesus to keep me hungry
o For humility
o My focus
o My past
o My effort
• Adjust my life accordingly