The Apostle Paul and Olympic Glory
During the U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field, hundreds of athletes converge in a variety of disciplines hoping to punch their ticket to glory by making the U.S. Olympic team. Hours of hard work, days of dreaming and visualizing, weeks of intense discipline for this one opportunity. The Apostle Paul paints a similar pattern of hard work, visualizing and discipline to win the ultimate prize – eternal life with Christ Jesus in heaven.
Paul describes the Christian life as a constant straining forward toward the goal of eternal life that Christ gives us through grace. Throughout his life, Paul experienced “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings,” but knew he had not yet “attained” perfection. He pressed on toward living a holy and God-pleasing life, yet with the firm realization that he will never become perfect until we reach heaven.
By “pressing on” we grow and mature in our faith — living for Christ instead of living for ourselves.
“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. 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 3:12-14)
The Greek word Paul uses for “press on” can also be used to mean “to aspire, to seek out something or to pursue.” The word is most often used in the New Testament to mean “persecution.” Paul will use this word to describe how he persecuted the church. Now, with the same zeal Paul had before, he is now using to perfect himself in Christ. In both cases, Paul was striving to serve God. However, the former was resulting in nothing (no profit, rubbish), while the latter was resulting in everything (surpassing greatness).
Let’s take another look at this word in the context of sports.
Typically, success in sports depends on one’s ability, their level of conditioning, and mental toughness. A successful athlete needs to be ready both physically and mentally. Overconfidence, the lack of proper physical training, or lack of mental toughness when things get difficult have caused many athletes to suffer defeat in a race or competition they could have won. The same can be said for our spiritual lives.
We are reminded to “work out” or “exercise” our salvation. A believer who gets lazy, overconfident. or does not exercise their faith, can run the risk of losing God’s blessings or derail them from serving God. Our competition is tough, crafty. and a major deceiver. He will do anything to distract us. He will taunt us, cheat or discourage us, because he knows that he can’t win any other way. The goal of the evil one is to use the world to draw us away from God because only then, can he win.
Paul’s motivation is to take hold of (seize) in the same way Christ Jesus had reached out and seized him on the road to Damascus. Paul had seized the call of Jesus to serve him and to receive the promise of eternal life. God gives a call to serve for every believer. In that call, the Lord provides the means to carry out the task. To take hold or to seize is to put forth all of our energies as one would prepare and train for a competition.
There is no limit to the spiritual growth we can receive. Even the Apostle Paul recognized he hadn’t fully taken hold of it. He didn’t look back on past accomplishments or failures to hold him back. “Forgetting what is behind” does not imply to remove something completely from our mind, but the constant necessity of pushing something out of our mind. It is like running a race against other opponents. They are definitely on your mind, but you need to focus on your own race. Having competitors helps us to strive harder. Knowing the ability of our opponents, remembering past successes, even failures, can be helpful.
The finish line is the goal. Typically, the first person across the line receives a prize. For a Christian, the goal and the prize is the same thing. The goal is to end our lives as believers and the prize is eternal life in heaven, each made possible through Jesus Christ. Paul is encouraging us to keep that goal and prize in mind as we “strain” (stretch out toward) to finish the race of the Christian life.
When I was in college, I ran the 400 meter hurdles. I loved that race with plenty of zeal. To be an intermediate hurdler, you have to be a little nuts. It is a very difficult race and each finish will bring a new measure of pain. The race consists of ten hurdles evenly distributed around a four hundred meter track. It is extremely important for a hurdler to focus on one hurdle at a time. The worst thing a hurdler could do was to look back. Not only would looking back slow you down in a race, but you might crash into the next hurdle! Your focus was always ahead, one hurdle at a time, and conquer the pain of the last 100 meters to finish the race. A good intermediate hurdler set apart from the others is able to combine speed, conditioning and plenty of guts to “press on” toward the finish line.
Life presents many hurdles for each of us. Pain, disappointment, even tragedy are placed in our path. Our competition is tough, sneaky and very deceptive. We don’t look back on the “What if’s?” or the “Why’s” for that would only cause us to stumble. Nor, can we hope to cross the finish line soon, thinking it will be easy or without pain, for that would be discouraging. But, we focus on the race ahead, one hurdle at a time, knowing it will be a challenge and even painful. Healing and overcoming pain and disappointment in life is a process that takes one hurdle at a time.
It reminds me of how our Lord orchestrated all events leading up to the death of Jesus Christ, his one and only son. The end, Christ’s death and resurrection, was the final victory on behalf of us. He has made it possible for us to finish the race and receive the prize, eternal life in heaven. The race of our Christian life is difficult, challenging, even painful. And we know this! This is no surprise.
In the moments before starting a 400 meter intermediate hurdle race, I looked forward to the challenge, but also knew it was going to be painful finish. Sometimes, the difference between winning and losing was the person’s ability to “dig in” during those final few meters. Paul knew that a Christian needed to “strain” and “press on” toward that finish line. No matter what difficulties lie ahead, our focus is to finish the race. We can race with confidence, because the Lord will only allow us to run in a race that we can win. We won’t race against world-class athletes, or those who won’t give us much competition. He will use circumstances in our life, grant us tough competitions, so that we need to strain toward that finish line. The only difference is that Christ’s death and resurrection guaranteed that we will receive the crown of glory. We will be declared the victor when we cross the finish line.