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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Pursuing the Prize: Knowing Christ at the End (3:12-14)
Resources » The IVP New Testament Commentary Series » Philippians » The Philippians' Affairs-Again (3:1—4:3) » Pursuing the Prize: Knowing Christ at the End (3:12-14)
Pursuing the Prize: Knowing Christ at the End (3:12-14)

Despite the unfortunate section break (with title!) in the NIV, Paul does not now begin something new. Rather, with a striking change of metaphors his story takes a final turn, which simultaneously looks back to verses 4-8 (forgetting the past), embraces the present (he is not yet fully conformed to Christ's death, nor has he arrived at the goal, vv. 10-11) and emphasizes his present pursuit of the final goal. Knowing Christ now and attaining the resurrection combine to give purpose to Paul's life—his "running," to use his current metaphor. He has seen the future, and it is ours—full of the single reality that marks the present: Christ Jesus my Lord. And everything in Paul's present life is drawn to a future in which Christ is finally and fully known.

So strongly does Paul feel about this divine pull that makes him run full tilt toward it, that he says it twice (vv. 12 and 13-14). Both sentences are structured alike: the main subject and verb, I press on, is preceded by a disclaimer about "not having arrived," followed by a word about what he presses toward, which is further qualified by the divine initiative (Christ has already "taken hold" of him; God has called him heavenward). The only additional item in the second sentence is the notation about disregarding (NIV forgetting) what is behind. It is the nature of such rhetoric that the second sentence reinforces or elaborates the first—and sometimes, as in this case, clarifies it as well.

There are some difficulties in interpretation, to be sure, mostly related to two phenomena: the first verb (elabon, "taken"; NIV obtained) has no object (the NIV supplies an interpretive all this); and Paul uses striking wordplays (first with katalabo [NIV take hold of], a compound of elabon which he milks for all it's worth; and second with cognates of teleios [ "reach one's goal"], which the NIV puts as perfect in verse 12 and mature in v. 15). This leads him to say some things in unusual ways, which are very difficult to transfer into English (it's like trying to tell a joke in a second language).

But kept in context, it all makes perfectly good sense. So far he has modeled for the Philippians that their own future does not lie in Paul's (now rejected) past (vv. 4-6) and that the "already/not yet" of the future lies singularly in knowing Christ, through whom we have been given present righteousness (vv. 7-11). Now he picks up the final ("not yet") thread from verse 11 and insists that the future is still future. He has not "already" gotten there, but he strains every muscle finally to do so. In context the "there," of course, is not heaven or reward as such but the final prize of knowing Christ even as Paul himself is known (1 Cor 13:12).

1. Pursuing him who took hold of Paul (3:12). The not that which begins this sentence is an idiom that qualifies something previously said so that readers will not draw the wrong inference. Along with the repeated adverb "[not] already" Paul thus offers a twin disclaimer—what not to infer about the already present future. The disclaimers emphasize that despite present realization of the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings, Paul has not yet reached the final goal. He has not already obtained ("taken/received") it, nor has he already arrived at the goal (NIV been made perfect). He will proceed to play on both of these verbs, the first immediately, the second in verse 15.

In light of what he says in verse 13 about "disregarding what is past," the implied object of obtained might be "all things"; more likely it refers to what has more immediately preceded. It must be remembered that Paul is not writing a new "paragraph"; that is our invention. This sentence follows hard on the heels of the preceding clause (v. 11). What he has obviously not obtained is that which he is pressing on to take hold of, which verse 14 makes clear is the final goal. Thus he adds, or have already "arrived at my goal." There is a sense, of course, in which perfection does happen at the end; but the root (telos) of this verb (teleioo) has the primary sense of "goal" or "aim," before it takes on secondary senses of "perfect, complete, fulfill, mature." Nothing in context implies that perfection is an issue. Since that English word conjures up all kinds of wrong connotations here, and since everything in these final sentences indicates that the eschatological prize is what Paul is pursuing with such vigor, the verb here almost certainly carries its primary sense of "reach the goal."

Since Paul has not yet "arrived," he does what he wants the Philippians to do, press on to take hold of ("seize") that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. With this wonderful wordplay he moves from not already "taking" to yet "taking hold of" the very thing/one who "took hold of" him. He will go on in the next sentence to elaborate what his own "taking hold of" means. In context the next phrase, that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me, points back at least to verses 8-9 (being found in Christ and thus having a righteousness that comes from God); but in terms of his own story, and especially the use of this strong verb, he probably intends them to hear echoes of the Damascus Road as well. A good dose of memory about one's beginnings in Christ can serve as the proper shot of adrenaline for the continuing race.

2. Pursuing the final prize—knowing Christ fully (3:13-14). What could otherwise be ambiguous about verse 12—because of Paul's wordplays—is clarified by this sentence, now turning the verb "pursue" (press on) into a full-fledged metaphor from the games. The vocative "brothers [and sisters]" does not signal the beginning of something new but emphasizes what he is about to repeat. The disclaimer in this case picks up the immediately preceding language (not . . . to have taken hold of it); but before picking up the verb press on, he recalls his singular passion to know Christ from verse 8 (cf. 1:21) in terms of but one thing. There is no I do in Paul's narrative; the language is terse and stark: his whole Christian life has been one thing—the pursuit of Christ.

The metaphor itself begins with a "not/but" contrast. Pictured first is the runner whose eyes are set on the goal in such a way that he "pays no attention to" (the runner had better not forget) what is behind. This imagery always brings to my mind the famous "miracle mile" (the first time two milers ran under four minutes in the same race) run in 1954 in my present hometown (Vancouver, B.C.) by Roger Bannister and John Landy. Landy had led all the way, but coming off the final turn toward the finish line he looked over his shoulder to find out where Bannister was, only to be passed on the other side and beaten to the wire. The picture of that event has always been for me commentary enough on Paul's metaphor. In context what is behind probably refers to verses 4-6, but it would also include all other matters that might impede his singular pursuit of Christ.

The flip side of the image is the runner's straining toward what is ahead. The picture is of coming down the home stretch, leaning forward, extending oneself to break the tape. It is generally hazardous to press metaphors, and this one can be pressed in all kinds of wrong directions. Paul's purpose—both his use of this metaphor and its intent—is singular; not "perfection" is in view, but perseverance. As Paul "runs" toward the Christ who has already taken hold of him, he does so in the same focused, full-tilt way a runner does who is intent on winning. To be sure, his using such a metaphor results is one of those small inconsistencies that are created by active minds as they move quickly from one point to another. He has just recalled Christ's having "taken hold of" him, so it is clear that he does not totally disregard the past. This is imagery, pure and simple, whose meaning will be given in what follows.

The "what" that Paul presses on toward continues the athletic imagery; it is to reach the goal and thus win the prize. But no mere "celery wreath" for Paul (the ordinary prize in the games). The goal is God's eschatological conclusion of things; the prize is Christ, which in context means the final realization of knowing him. This is what Paul would gladly die to gain (1:23); this is what his whole life is about; no other reward could have any meaning for him.

What draws him on is a combination of the past and the future: that God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. This has been said by a series of Greek genitives ("of" phrases), which intend the following relationships. First, God has called us to himself, which will culminate in glory; second, that call, which began at conversion, is heavenward in terms of its final goal; third, God's call found its historical and experiential location in Christ Jesus; and fourth, at the end of the race we will gain the prize, Christ himself, the tangible evidence that the goal of God's call has been reached.

Paul tends to see all of Christian life in terms of God's calling. It begins as a call into fellowship with his Son (1 Cor 1:9), thus a call to "be saints" (1 Cor 1:2) and thereby joined to his people who are destined for glory. The present usage is unusual in looking at our calling from the perspective of its completion rather than its beginnings. This has been the aim of God's call right along, to lift us heavenward to share in his eternal Presence.Here, then, is the first note of what will be emphasized at the end of the appeal in verses 19-21: some, who are no longer walking in the way set forth by Paul, have their "minds set on earthly things," whereas Paul and the Philippians are among those whose "citizenship is [already] in heaven," from whence they await the coming of the Savior. Thus he turns immediately (vv. 15-17) to press on them the need to follow his example—with a "mature" mindset like that just described.

This singular and passionate focus on the future consummation, which Paul clearly intends as paradigmatic, often gets lost in the contemporary Western church—in an affluent age, who needs it? But Paul's voice needs to be heard anew. Part of being human is that by nature we are oriented to the future; in a day when most people have no real future to look forward to, here is a strikingly powerful Christian moment. The tragedy that attends this rather thoroughgoing loss of genuine hope is that our culture is now trying to make the present eternal. North Americans are probably the most death-denying culture in the history of the race. How else can one explain cosmetic surgery's having become a multimillion-dollar industry?

In the midst of such banal hopelessness, the believer in Christ, who recognizes Christ as the beginning and end of all things meaningful, needs to be reminded again—and to think in terms of sharing it with the world—that God's purposes for his creation are not finished until he has brought our salvation to its consummation. Indeed, to deny the consummation is to deny what is essential to any meaningful Christian faith. Paul finds life meaningful precisely because he sees the future with great clarity, and the future has to do with beginnings—the (now redeemed) realization of God's creative purposes through Christ the Lord. There is no other prize; hence nothing else counts for much except knowing Christ, both now and with clear and certain hope for the future.

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