Summary: God enables us to press toward the goal of the prize of the upward call.
Some humorist once said, “Consider the postage stamp: its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there” (Josh Billings).
Luciano Pavarotti tells how when he was a boy, his father, a baker, introduced him to the wonders of song. “He urged me to work very hard to develop my voice…. A professional tenor in my hometown of Modena, Italy, took me as a pupil. I also enrolled in a teachers college. On graduating, I asked my father, ‘Shall I be a teacher and a singer?’ ‘Luciano,’ my father replied, ‘if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.’ I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.”
I think Christians are sometimes suspicious of choosing one chair, as if God required us to be diluted in our focus and distracted by many interests. But the Apostle Paul was single-minded in his devotion: “one thing I do,” he wrote to his friends in Philippi, “one thing: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul then explains how the Philippians might also stay focused on the goal.
[Read Philippians 3.17-4.1. Pray.]
Many leadership books tell how Cortés began his conquest of the Aztec Empire and the colonization of the Americas for Spain. After landing at Vera Cruz in 1519 with a small force of seven hundred men, legend has it that he set fire to most of the fleet of eleven ships. As the men watched their only means of retreat sink to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, they realized there was now only one direction to move — forward into the Mexican interior to conquer whatever might come their way. They were prevented from turning back by Cortés’ decisive cutting off of any way of escape.
A wide variety of distractions threaten to steal our focus and turn us back from the goal to which we have been called. Fears, busyness, other interests, disappointments, besetting sins, conflicts. It is not even that everything which would divide our interests is bad. Once when Jesus was here he went to the home of two sisters for dinner. Martha busied herself preparing a meal, providing for her guests. But Mary set at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching. Frustrated, Martha complained: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But Jesus answered: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Serving guests is commendable, but when it distracts us from the one thing necessary, it is dangerous.
Another time Jesus warned that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62). Cortés was not much interested in God’s Kingdom, but he did realize the temptation to look back, so he burned the fleet. How do we burn our fleet of distractions so that we give undivided devotion to the Lord?
Last week we studied verses 12-16 and learned six principles for remaining in the race.
First, we found reason to press on in our imperfections: even the Apostle had not arrived, and that motivated him to pursue Christ like a runner stretching toward the finish line.
Second, we found confidence to press on in Christ’s purposes for us: those purchased by the blood of Jesus continue to press forward, regardless of the cost, without becoming self-reliant legalists, because Christ works his grace in our lives.
Third, we found strength to press on by focused, future-oriented, determination. Memories of past success can make us smug and self-satisfied, while memories of past failures make us hopeless and lethargic in our pursuit of God. So we look back only for the sake of moving forward.
Fourth, we found encouragement to press on from the heavenly prize. True believers realize that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Romans 8.18).
Fifth, we found the will to press on in God’s resources: even when we lack faith to walk by the Spirit, as we continue to seek God, he enables progress in the faith.
Sixth, we found the need to press on in the danger of decline. Sinful people in a fallen world do not race on firm ground, but against a “moving sidewalk.” When we stop running for the prize, we are propelled backward.