Nothing is more important for a believer in Christ than to be growing spiritually. After all, spiritual growth is nothing more than being conformed to the image of Christ, which, according to Romans 8:29 is God’s ultimate plan for our lives. Although God has predestined that all Christians will be Christlike in glory, He has commanded us to grow spiritually while we are in this world. Paul told the Ephesians that they were all to attain to “…a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (4:14). In other words, we are all to grow up into maturity, so that we don’t remain spiritual infants and children.
Even great men of God like the Apostle Paul needed to grow spiritually. And in Philippians 3:12-14 Paul tells us how he grew in the Lord by revealing FOUR THINGS THAT WERE NECESSARY FOR HIS SPIRITUAL GROWTH, and these are exactly the same things necessary for our spiritual growth.
1. AN HONEST APPRAISAL OF HIS LEVEL OF SPIRITUAL MATURITY – vs. 12a
In Phil. 3:12a Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect…” The Apostle begins by making an honest admission that he hadn’t arrived spiritually. He says that he isn’t fully mature in Christ; that he isn’t completely Christ-like. But notice the way he puts it; he says, ‘Not that I have already obtained it…” So, what is he referring to? What is the “it” that he hasn’t obtained? Well, those are the desires he previously mentioned in verse 10, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.”
Paul is just honestly evaluating himself spiritually, and expressing that he’s not where he wants to be in his Christian walk. He doesn’t know Christ like he’d like to know Him. He hasn’t been as obedient and as submissive as he could be. He hasn’t experienced all that he’d like to experience in his relationship with the Lord. There is still so much more that he’d like to experience with Christ.
Now, this is something of a surprisingly admission by the Apostle Paul because he is considered by most to be the greatest Christian who has ever lived. And yet, with about 30 years of spiritual growth and maturity since his conversion, and with all of his experience in the ministry, and with all of the divine revelation given to him by God, he says, “I haven’t arrived; I’m not where I want to be spiritually; there is so much more I want to know about Christ.” If that’s the way that Paul felt, then what does that say to us about our spiritual lives? If the greatest Christian who ever lived wasn’t content with his spiritual life, then how much more should you and I not be content with our spiritual lives? If you want to be closer to Jesus then you have to honestly evaluate where you are in your spiritual walk, and not let yourself be deceived into thinking that you are further along then you really are. And there’s only one way to have an honest evaluation of your spiritual maturity. You have to stop comparing yourself to others who make you think that you are better than they are. That only breeds self-righteousness, arrogance, and deception.
The only way to see how much you need to grow spiritually into Christlikeness is to see yourself in light of Christ’s perfect character. This is how you cultivate a holy discontentment in your relationship with Christ. And when you do that, far from causing you to be defeated and giving up with the attitude of, “what’s the use?”, it should spur you on to deepen your desire to grow in Christ and pursue spiritual growth. Knowing how much you need to grow in Christlikeness should create in you a deepening desire to be like Christ. That’s exactly how Paul reacted to his being discontent with his level of spiritual maturity, and it led him to a second thing that he saw as necessary for his spiritual growth.
2. A STRENOUS EFFORT IN PURSUIT OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH – vs. 12b
We read in Phil. 3:12b, “but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” Paul says that being aware of how much he needed to grow spiritually caused him to press on in pursuit of it. The particular word he used here that’s translated “press or “press on” tells us a great deal about how serious Paul was about his growth in Christ, because this particular Greek word means “to chase, to run after, to chase something or someone down.” It is the very same Greek word that is translated in the New Testament as “persecuted”, because that’s what it means to persecute someone. You chase them down and pursue them until you catch them. And that’s exactly what Paul used to do before coming to Christ—he relentlessly chased after Christians— running them down so that he might throw them in jail.
But instead of pursuing Christians for evil purposes as he used to do, Paul says that he now is in pursuit of something else. He says that he presses on for the purpose of “laying hold of that for which I also was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” And what he means by this is that he runs hard, pushing with everything he’s got so that he might catch the very thing for which Jesus Christ caught him. In other words, he’s in pursuit of the very same thing for which Jesus pursued and caught him when He saved him. And what was that? As was mentioned earlier, the ultimate purpose for which Christ pursued and caught Paul on the Damascus Road, the supreme reason that Jesus saved Paul and every other believer, is revealed by Paul in Romans 8:28-29, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.”
Paul says that God’s ultimate purpose in saving him was to make him more and more like His Son, Jesus Christ, so that Christ would be the head of a people who resemble Him in His character. Now, in theological terms this is known as “progressive sanctification” or spiritual growth. And practically speaking it means that God is constantly shaping and molding us to become more and more like Jesus in our attitudes and actions. This is the purpose of spiritual growth, and it starts the moment you become a believer, as God not only saves your soul, but begins to shape and mold you to be more Christlike. Using all of life’s experiences, but especially the hurts, the trials, the disappointments, the pains, the heartaches, and the sufferings, the Lord makes us more loving like He is loving, more holy like He is holy, more compassionate like He is compassionate, more gracious in our speech like He is gracious, more joyful like He is joyful, more submissive like He is submissive, more peaceful like He is peaceful, more forgiving like He is forgiving, more trusting like He is trusting, and more humble like He is humble—and so much more.
And while this work of spiritual growth into Christlikeness will never be completely perfected in this world, as it will be the moment we arrive in heaven, nonetheless it is still to be the primary pursuit of our lives. Paul understood that Jesus pursued him; that He interrupted his life and saved him for a purpose; and that purpose was to make a man of God out of him. And now Paul says that his primary purpose in living is to pursue Christlikeness, the very purpose for which Christ saved him.
And that is exactly what you and I are to pursue with the same kind of zeal and passion that drove Paul. But the only way you will grow like this is by putting some strenuous effort into it. This is what Paul is referring to when he says that “he presses on.” He is speaking about the effort and strain necessary if he is to become like Christ. This word “press” that was mentioned earlier, meaning “to chase,” also carries the thought of aggressiveness—the same kind of aggressive zeal with which a hunter chases down his prey, or a runner pursues the prize of winning a race.
All of this takes work and energy, and in the spiritual arena, holy sweat! There is nothing passive about spiritual growth. You will never grow in Christ by sitting back and hoping it will happen, without doing anything. Spiritual growth is never about just “letting go and letting God take over.” It is never about “just praying about something, and doing nothing.” Being conformed to Christ takes self-discipline and hard work. This is how the Apostle Paul described it in his own life in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
Paul pursued spiritual growth by straining with all he had to become more like Christ. And that’s exactly what it will take in your life if you are going to pursue Christlikeness. It means that you are going to have to put some effort into studying your Bible. It means that you will have to work at spending time in prayer, getting up earlier in the morning and disciplining yourself to do this. It will mean forcing yourself to serve others even when you don’t feel like it. It will involve going out of your way to be in a place where you will have intentional fellowship with other believers in Christ. It requires being diligent to worship the Lord and to evangelize the lost. All of this is involved in pressing on, and it’s what Paul said was necessary for him to grow spiritually, and therefore it’s necessary for you as well.
3. HE CONCENTRATED ON BECOMING LIKE CHRIST – vs. 13
Paul wrote in Phil. 3:13, “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.” Once again, the Apostle admits that he hadn’t reached his desired goal of being like Christ. But that wasn’t going to stop him from pursuing it. In fact, it drove him to become completely focused on pursuing Christlikeness to the point that it became the most dominating issue in his life.
In saying, “But one thing I do,” Paul was expressing what was the most important item on his agenda. He said it came down to one thing, and that one thing was that he chose to forget what was behind him and he concentrated with a single-minded focus on what was ahead of him. What he means by “forgetting what lies behind” is that he deliberately put out of his mind anything in his past that might distract him from pursuing Christ and going after Him.
So, what in Paul’s life might have distracted him from pursuing Christ? The very same things that can so easily distract us—past sins, past failures, past conflicts with people, past disappointments, past hurts—but also past victories and successes in ministry. You see, anything that hinders you by diverting your attention from pursuing Christ with all of your being is what you need to forget by putting it out of your mind and refusing to dwell on it. Whatever happened in your life in the past is over! If it’s sin, then confess it and stop thinking about it. If it’s a conflict with a fellow believer, then resolve it and stop thinking about it. If it’s some wonderful success you’ve had in your life or ministry, thank God for it and stop reliving it by dwelling on it. You have to stop living in the past if you are going to pursue Christ in the present.
But in addition to “forgetting what lies behind”, the Apostle also said, “and reaching forward to what lies ahead.” In the Greek language “reaching forward” means to stretch out, and is the picture of a runner’s body bent forward as far as it will go, as he strains every muscle to reach the finish line of a race. This is what Paul says he does because his total concentration is on becoming like Christ. He strains every spiritual muscle in his body to pursue Christ, and it is the overriding ambition of his life, and it takes all of his concentrated energy to pursue it.
Do you have that kind of concentrated focus to become like Christ? You can if you will stop thinking about the past and allowing it to hold you back. You have to put everything into pursuing Jesus and allow nothing to distract you. And what will help you to keep putting maximum effort into this race is to remember the prize that you are after. It’s the pursuit of this prize that Paul says is the fourth and final thing that was necessary for his spiritual growth.
4. DETERMINATION TO WIN THE PRIZE – vs. 14
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). Having already stated in vs. 12 that he pressed on, here Paul states that he presses on “toward the goal,” with this word “toward” meaning “down”, as in bearing down on something. Once again, it is a picture of a runner in a race, and as he sees the finish line he also sees the prize ahead of him. So determined is he to get this prize that he bears down and goes after it with everything he has in him. Refusing to look behind him, he presses forward to the prize that is before him.
And what is that prize for which Paul was so desirous to obtain? What is the goal that motivated Paul to bear down with such intensity? It was Jesus Christ Himself and being completely conformed to His image, a reality which we will fully experience when the Lord takes us home. This is why Paul called it “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” It is that call by Christ to come up to Him, either at the rapture or at death, when He takes us to glory and we become completely like Him. That’s when our race is over. But until then what motivates us to keep running with intensity and determination to be like Christ is that in the future we will be like Him. That is to say, the closer you get to the finish line—which is glory and ultimate Christlikeness—the more determined you should be to pursue Christlikeness now. It will happen someday, so keep pressing on until it happens!