Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have [d]apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14
In the previous section of Philippians 3, Paul expresses an earnest desire to know Christ in the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death. Paul is clearly driven by his passion for Christ. That passion is informed by his faith in the risen Lord and his eschatological hope of eternal salvation through Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, Paul understands that he must continue to work out his salvation with fear and trembling because of the delayed Parousia. Paul does not want the Philippians to think of him as some super-Christian, despite his expressed desire to know Christ in the fellowship of his sufferings. Thus, in verse 12, he clarifies that he has not already attained the level of spiritual perfection he hoped to achieve upon his resurrection from the dead. Paul makes it clear to his Philippian audience that he remains a spiritual work in progress.
Paul uses the Greek word teleios—translated perfect—which has a variety of interrelated meanings. In most of its meanings, “teleios does not signify what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose. In that sense, teleios means full-grown in contradistinction to undeveloped. When it is used for offerings, it means without blemish and fit to offer God. When Christians use it, it often means baptized persons who are full members of the Church, as opposed to those who are still under instruction. In the days of the early Church, it is quite often used to describe martyrs. A martyr is said to be perfected by the sword, and the day of his death is said to be the day of his perfecting. The idea is that a man's Christian maturity cannot go beyond martyrdom.”
Paul uses the Greek teleios in verse 12, to indicate that he is not a complete Christian yet. He was fully aware that the Christian maturity he sought remained elusive while he was in the physical body. After all, Paul confesses in Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.” Thus, we can see why Paul felt it necessary to say that he has not already attained perfection. In the second part of verse 12, Paul says, “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” Paul uses the Greek dioko—transliterated “press on.” This word is used figuratively of one who, in a race, runs swiftly to reach a goal. Paul felt that when Christ stopped him on the Damascus Road, he had a goal for Paul; and Paul felt that all his life, he was bound to run swiftly to reach that goal. The goal in question was to evangelize the gentile world. That is the reason Christ laid hold of him on the Damascus Road.
In verse 13, Paul reiterates that he has not quite reached his goal. In the meantime, he is focusing his attention on the kingdom work that he is yet to do. That is to say; he will never glory in any of his achievements or use them as an excuse for relaxation. Instead, he is reaching forward. The Greek word for reaching forward is epekteinomenos. That word is used of a runner going blistering his or her way to reach the tape on the finish line. That idea is that of a person who is singularly focused on the goal at hand. In verse 14, Paul further elaborates on what he perceives the goal to be. He says, “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul is blistering his way toward the finish line because he is evidently running out of time as he awaits his day in court before Caesar.
As Christians, we are to press toward the goal for the prize of God's upward call in Christ Jesus. The idea is for us to prioritize God’s kingdom work over everything else. We cannot be too preoccupied with earthly accomplishments and personal gains. Instead, we are to press in sickness or health, as well as press despite the vicissitudes of life.
Some of Paul’s contemporaries called the antinomians believed they “were within the grace of God and that, therefore, it did not matter what they did; God would forgive. No further discipline and no further effort were necessary.” Paul makes it clear that the Christian life is about perfecting. None of us can claim perfection. We are all underdeveloped to some degree. It is foolish to assume that we can rest on our laurels until the second coming.
None of us knows when the second coming is going to happen. All we can do is to press forward in our service to the kingdom, for that is why we have been saved, according to Ephesians 2:10. The Christian life is a long journey, filled with toils and snares. At times, all we can do is to press forward. Our motivation is seeing Jesus and be welcomed in the heavenly kingdom.
The good news is that God is perfecting us all through his word and by the power of the Holy Spirit. That perfecting is different for different people. All we can do is to stay in the race no matter the number of times we stumble or fall. Paul had many stumbles. However, he stayed the course and finished the race. Our eschatological hope is to be caught up with the Lord during the rapture. Until that celestial moment, we have to press forward.
Bless Lord, please give us the courage to press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.