KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE (April 7, 2019)

Sermon Text: Philippians 3:8-14

Pastor Steven Pagels

In the name of Christ Jesus, dear friends:

Everyone loves a good story.  And judging from this week’s New York Times best seller list, it is also accurate to say that everyone loves a good true story. According to the most recent non-fiction best seller list, seven of the top ten books are biographical.

That means people love to read about other people.  And our interests are not limited to a certain kind of story.  The books that top this week’s list include a biography of the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the memoir of Peter Buttigieg, the first openly gay Democratic presidential candidate, and at number seven on the list (and I am not making this up) the life story of a chimpanzee named Mama.

Some biographies are written for entertainment purposes only.  Other authors want to share their stories and their experiences to teach the rest of us lessons about life.  And there are a few biographies that are able to truly inspire.

Our text for this morning comes from the pen of the apostle Paul.  Over half of the books in the New Testament were either written by him or about him. Technically, none of these books qualifies as an official biography.  But if someone were to take passages from all these books and carefully piece them together, the finished product would give us a pretty clear picture of his life.

Every book needs a title, so what would be a fitting title for this biographical sketch?  There are lots of possibilities, but I believe that Paul himself gives us the makings of a good title in Philippians 3. Using the experiences from his past, his struggles in the present, and his hope for the future, Paul writes to teach and inspire Christians. And the title I have in mind is also a fitting theme for today’s sermon…

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE

  1. Paul’s best efforts were worthless
  2. Paul’s righteousness in Christ was priceless
  • Paul’s pursuit of the goal was tireless

Philippians is called Paul’s “letter of joy” because Paul uses different forms of the word some sixteen times in four short chapters. The tone of the letter is overwhelmingly positive.  In fact, the only real negative part comes in the verses that come right before the text, where Paul warns the Philippians to watch out for what he calls “those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (2).

Also known as Judaizers, these people believed that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, but they claimed that it was still necessary to obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved.  Paul described them as “mutilators of the flesh” because they were insisting that all males had to be circumcised to get to heaven.

Paul knew that what they were saying was not true.  Even worse, Paul knew that what they were saying was dangerous.  Any attempt to make salvation dependent on human cooperation destroys the concept of grace entirely. And if anyone knew about law-based religion, if anyone had an intimate knowledge of a system that promoted performance-based salvation, it was Paul.

To refute these false teachers, Paul went back to a time in his own life when he was on the other side of the argument, back to the days when his name was Saul.  He said: “If anyone else thinks that he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (4-6).

Paul had been circumcised on the eighth day as the Law of Moses required.  Paul was able to trace his roots back to the tribe of Benjamin, which made him a full-blooded son of Abraham.  As a Pharisee, Paul not only obeyed the Law.  He held himself to an even higher standard.  He had been so zealous for his faith that he was willing to attack anyone who threatened it.

That was Paul’s pedigree.  That was Paul’s history.  So what did he think of it now?  “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (7-8a).

Everything Paul had done in the past to earn God’s favor didn’t really earn him anything.  In fact, it was a loss for him because those things only got in the way of his relationship with God. Apart from a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, even Paul’s best efforts were “rubbish,” garbage, useless waste destined for the incinerator or the landfill.

We can be grateful that Paul got his spiritual house in order.  We know that we can’t do anything to save ourselves.  We know that our salvation doesn’t depend on us in any way.  And so we can say with confidence that we are all on the same page….until we hear another Christian say things like…

“Of course, I’m going to heaven. I was baptized and confirmed, and I have the certificates to prove it.” “Of course, I’m saved. I am the product of Christian education. I went to a Christian grade school and even Christian high school.” “Of course, I’m going to heaven.  My family has been actively involved in this congregation for generations.”

Maybe thoughts like those have never entered your mind, or maybe they have.  It is amazing how Satan can take blessings like a Christian home or a Christian education or a Christian congregation, and transform them into obstacles if he can convince us that it is through these outward things (i.e. diplomas, certificates, church membership) we can somehow earn God’s favor.

It took a direct revelation to drive that point home to Paul.  It was a divine encounter with the risen Savior that changed his life forever.  From that day forward, and for the rest of his life, Paul lived with the knowledge that his righteousness in Christ was priceless.

“I consider them all rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (8-9).

The key word here is “righteousness.”  As a sinner, Paul entered God’s courtroom and stood before God, the righteous Judge.  The case was heard.  The evidence was presented.  And Paul was declared… “not guilty.”  He was acquitted.  He was set free.

That improbable (even impossible) verdict was possible because Paul’s righteousness did not come from within.  His righteousness did not come from keeping the law because he knew that God’s law demands complete perfection.  And Paul knew that he fell short, that he was guilty, that he deserved death.

So did God make a mistake?  NO! The righteousness God demands is also the righteousness God freely gives.  The righteousness that set Paul free, the righteousness that sets us free, comes only through faith in Christ.  Jesus took on himself the punishment we deserved.   Jesus paid the debt we owed.  When we come to realize how desperate our situation is without God, when we fully appreciate the blessings that come to us through God, the only word that even comes close to describing the value of Christ’s death is priceless.

Paul continued: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…” (10).  Any biography of Paul’s life would have to make the events of Acts 9 the climax of the book.  Paul was traveling to Damascus to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem.  But on the way, on the road, Paul experienced the power of Jesus’ resurrection in a very special way.  In a blinding light from heaven, the resurrected Jesus appeared to Paul.  And in an instant, the Lord called one of the church’s greatest enemies to be one of the church’s greatest missionaries.

As a servant of Christ, Paul was allowed to share in Christ’s sufferings.  Paul’s biography would have to dedicate at least several chapters to the many trials he endured. Whether it was on his first missionary journey when he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14), or on his second journey when he was flogged and thrown in prison (Acts 16), or on his third journey when he changed his travel plans at the last minute to avoid assassination (Acts 20), Paul considered it a privilege to suffer for his Lord.

Most of us aren’t that adventurous.  And our daily ives are not nearly as dangerous, but our relationship with God is the same.  We experience the power of the resurrection when we take to heart the words of Jesus: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).  And we share in Christ’s sufferings whenever our Christian convictions are challenged, when our intelligence is questioned, when we are openly mocked or quietly discriminated against because of what we believe.

After thirty years of mission work, after thirty years of any kind of work, it is reasonable to expect a person to be tired.  In Paul’s case, however, nothing could be farther from the truth.  If his words are any indication of what was inside his heart, Paul’s pursuit of the goal was tireless.

“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” (12).  Paul knew exactly where he was going, but he had also come to the realization that he wasn’t there yet.  His words and actions make him a role model for the rest of us, a model of Christian determination: “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” (13-14).

As Paul went about his work, he could have easily become distracted by guilt.  He could have looked back at his former way of life, how he nodded in approval when Stephen was stoned to death, how he had gone from place to place persecuting Christians. He could have remembered the many sins of his past and despaired.

Or Paul could have gone to the opposite extreme and been distracted by his many ministry successes, all the churches he planted, all the souls he saved.  But instead of looking back, instead of dwelling on his past mistakes, instead of swelling up with sinful pride, Paul’s focus was forward.  He pressed on toward the goal.  He kept his eyes on the prize.

Paul’s word picture brings to mind a sporting event I saw on television a long time ago, a compelling drama that unfolded at the end of the men’s marathon at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  As the athletes entered the stadium for the final lap, one of the runners was completely exhausted.  He was staggering.  He was weaving back and forth.  And then he fell.  No one went out to help him.  No one dared to even touch him because if they had he would have been disqualified from the race.  He was so determined to finish that race on his own that he literally dragged himself across the finish line.

Every Christian is running a race (and life is something like a marathon), but there is one major difference.  We would be disqualified for the prize if we tried to go it alone.  Without Christ’s atoning work, there would be no prize.  Without the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts, we would never reach our goal.  But with Christ, we press on.  When we fall, he picks us up.  When we stray from the path, he brings us back.  We look forward to that day when we will claim the prize that Christ has won for us.

Paul’s personal story was preserved in the pages of the Bible to teach us.  His experiences remind us that our best efforts to come to God on our own terms are worthless.  His miraculous conversion reminds us of our own miraculous conversion, demonstrating that the righteousness God gives through faith in Jesus is priceless.

But this is one biography that was also written to inspire, and I pray that Paul’s inspired words serve to inspire you.  Take them to heart.  Apply them to your life.  Press on toward the goal.  Keep your eyes on the prize. Amen.