Pressing Toward the Prize
May 26th, 1957 @ 10:50 AM
PRESSING TOWARD THE PRIZE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
5-26-57 10:50 a.m.
You’re sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and this is the pastor bringing the Sunday morning message entitled Pressing Toward the Prize or Reaching Forth Unto Those Things Which Are Before. For over eleven years, I have been preaching through the Bible: where I leave off Sunday morning to begin Sunday night; where I leave off that Sunday night to begin the following Sunday morning.
Last Sunday night, we concluded with the last verse of the second chapter of the Book of Philippians. As I thought of this baccalaureate occasion, I first was tempted to turn aside and to speak upon some special and separated and different topic. But I began to think, "This is God’s hour. We have come to church." And so I gave myself in preparation to the continuing of that long series of messages from God’s Holy Word.
So this morning, in the third chapter of the Book of Philippians beginning at the seventh verse and reading through the fourteenth:
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I might win Christ,
And be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death;
If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Jesus Christ.
Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
And I repeat the text:
Not as though I had already attained, either had already arrived: –
made perfect –
but I follow after, if that I may apprehend –
get hold of –
that for which also Christ Jesus got hold of me.
Brethren, I count not myself to have got hold of it yet: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Back of that text is a very plain and simple imagery – one that Paul had seen all over the Graeco-Roman world. Paul had been brought up in the Greek city of Tarsus, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia [Acts 22:3]. And as such, he had seen there, and all over the Roman Empire, the famous and celebrated Greek games. Time and again, as you read through the work of the Apostle, you will find similes and metaphors taken from those Greek athletic demonstrations.
For example, in the sixth chapter of Ephesians and the twelfth verse, he takes a word out of the wrestling ring. Wrestling was popular in the Greek world from the days of Homer onward. And he uses the exact word: "For we wrestle not," he palē. They make it a verb here in the English, he palē: "the wrestling to us, not flesh and blood against, but . . . " then he describes the principalities and powers of the air. "Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood" [Ephesians 6:12] – a simile taken out of the world of the wrestling ring.
Now, here in the ninth chapter of the first Corinthian letter, he takes an image out of the boxing ring. He says: "So fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection . . . " [from 1 Corinthians 9:26-27]. Now, those words are athletic words. Pukteuō: "so box I." It’s translated here, "so fight I." The actual Greek word pukteuō: "so box I, not as one that flails the air, but I" – and there’s one of the most unusual words you’ll find in the language: hupōpiazō. It means "to hit under the eye, give it a black eye." "But I keep under my body," it’s translated. "I beat it black and blue. I hit my body a knock-out blow under the eye." All of those words are taken out of the boxing ring.
Here is another one in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews – a magnificent piece of imagery out of the great amphitheater. "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight" – the weights that the runner put on his feet that when he took them off felt light and agile – "let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith" [Hebrews 12:1-2a]. You couldn’t find a more magnificent piece of imagery in literature than that.
"Wherefore seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses" [from Hebrews 12:1]. In that vast amphitheater, in the great circus, or in the vast Coliseum, row upon row, tier upon tier, looking down upon the combatants below, Paul says, "So the angels in glory and so the saints of God’s heaven look down upon us as we run the race in the course set before us."
Now, here is another one, and the language, the very words, are taken out of those Greek stadiums. Here in First Corinthians [1 Corinthians 9:24-25]: "Know ye not that they which run any race" – the Greek word here is stadion. Stadion: a stadion was 600 Greek feet – in English feet, 606 feet and 9 inches:
Know ye not that they which run in a stadion, in a race, run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.
And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
[1 Corinthians 9:24-25]
They ran in that race – in the Olympian race. They ran to receive a crown made out of olive leaves. In the great Isthmian games, held every three years at Corinth, they ran for a crown made out of pine leaves. In the great Pythian games, held the third year of every Olympiad, they ran for a crown of laurel leaves. "Now, they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible . . . I therefore so run, not as uncertainly . . . " [1 Corinthians 9:25-26] and so on.
Now, I say, in my text, there is an identical piece of imagery taken out of the Greek athletic world:
Brethren, I haven’t arrived yet: but this one thing I do,
forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the skopos . . .
[from Philippians 3:13-14]
Translated "mark," the skopos was the square pillar on the other side of the stadium from the entrance. And when the runner made the race, he kept his eye on the skopos, and it encouraged him and challenged him as he raced toward the finish goal. "I press toward the skopos, for the brabeion, the prize" [Philippians 3:14]. There was a deposit there of precious things for the one who run and ran and won in the race. "I press toward that skopos, where is deposited the brabeion of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
So, I say, Paul has taken there a piece of imagery out of the Greek athletic world and applies it to the Christian race and the Christian course. First of all, he begins with a just estimate of his own present condition, and, in humility, he sums up his own present achievements: "Brethren, I count not myself to have achieved" [Philippians 3:13]. I haven’t arrived yet. "I count not" as though he had summed it up, looked at his life, carefully considered it, taken stock and came to a definite conclusion concerning it. "Brethren, I have not arrived yet."
Think of the man who is saying that. The man who said that is the greatest credentialed the Christian faith and Gospel has ever produced. The man that said that has written literature beyond any comparable literature in the history of the world. Thirteen, nay, fourteen of his epistles form a part of the Word of God itself. This man has nobility of character beyond those born of women: one of the great, great, great of all of the men in the history of the world, this man, Paul of Tarsus. Yet, he says, "I count not myself to have apprehended. I haven’t arrived yet" [Philippians 3:13].
That’s been my observation of all of the truly great men of this world. They are humble men. They do not boast or glory in their past achievements. They are humble men, and before God, they bow in humility and in reverence: "O God, there is still much to be done. There’s still of the race much to be run. O God, compared to Thee and perfect knowledge and true artistry, I haven’t arrived." I say, the truly great man is always a humble man. Among our fellow dwarfs, we may be of stature and of size, but in the presence of infinite knowledge and infinite goodness, no man can boast. We lay aside our ornaments and are naked, humbled before God. We have not arrived yet.
In the Idlewild Airport in New York City, about a-year-and-half ago, waiting to go over in a plane crossing the Atlantic, I met the governor of [Maryland]. His name is Theodore R. McKeldin [1900-1974]. He gave the keynote address at the first Republican Convention in which Eisenhower [Dwight David Eisenhower, 1890-1969] was nominated for president. He was there bidding his daughter goodbye. She was going over to visit Europe that summer. The plane was delayed, and I visited with the Governor about thirty or forty minutes.
And being a pastor, he began to talk to me about things of his religious life. And of the things that he said, he described his old mother. He said, "She was an old-time Methodist." And he said when she went down, as the habit of the Methodist church is, knelt, received the elements of the Communion service, he said his mother always took off the jewelry on her hand, for, he said, it was against her religion to reach up with a jeweled hand to receive the broken bread and the shared cup. And he said, "Pastor, from her, I got that same habit in spirit. When I kneel to receive the elements," he said, "I’ll always take off my ring." And he said, "Pastor, last Sunday, in our church, kneeling to receive the elements as our custom is, I happened to notice my boy kneeling there just beyond me." And he said, "Furtively, I saw my boy take the ring from off his finger and slip it in his pocket as he reached up his hand to receive the elements of the Lord’s body and the Lord’s blood."
That is the true greatness of a true man. Before the Lord, all of our ornaments cast aside; before God, all of our vain boastings and glory gone. The shallow brook may bauble and babble, but the great river runs silent and still. So of our hearts, and of our nature, and of our lives, and of our souls: humble before God. Our achievements, however they may have been, "I still haven’t arrived. I haven’t got there yet. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended." There’s a race yet to be run; there’s a battle yet to be won. There is a work yet to be done. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended."
Every one of the figures of the Christian life imply immaturity and growth. We are "made conformable to the image of Christ" [from Romans 8:29] growing "from grace to grace" [John 1:16]. We are the Lord’s planting in the Lord’s field: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the air. We are born into the family of God [John 3:3] babes, then children, then young people, then men and women [Hebrews 5:12-14]. We are pilgrims in the earth [Hebrews 11:13] from place to place to place, from strength to strength. We are warrior soldiers with a conquest to be made, with a great battle to be won [2 Timothy 2:3]. "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended" [Philippians 3:13].
Then, he has a just estimate of the things that are past: "But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind" [Philippians 3:13]. Now, you lose all of its meaning if you don’t keep before you his athletic imagery. "Forgetting those things which are behind." He means the runner in the race. If he had passed two contestants, and three, and five, and six, and then halfway – halfway to the goal – he turns and looks, "There are two I passed, and here are four others that I passed," and he begins to gloat and to glory and to boast – "See what I have done!" – he’d lose the race.
Paul says the faithful runner must keep his eye on the goal reaching forth to the rest of that achievement to be won, not to look back, not to tarry, but to concentrate on the distance between him and the goal! [Philippians 3:13]. And so, he says, with us – not to be bound down by past failures or past disappointments or past sorrows or past trials but to face forward, full-breasted, with all of the energies of our lives concentrating on the race that is set before us.
Then he describes the reaching forth unto those things which are before: "Pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" [Philippians 3:13]. That word there, "reaching forth unto those things which are before," is one of the most interesting words. In our language, if you translate it literally, it is very cumbersome and clumsy: epekteinō. Epi is "over, above," and ek is "out," and teinō is "to reach and to stretch." So, if you were to translate it literally, it would be "stretching, reaching out over."
But I can see the imagery of that, can’t you? As that runner races in the course and his eye is ahead, and then his hand is stretched out, and his feet following after: reaching out, stretching out and over, pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling in God in Christ Jesus [Philippians 3:13-14], running that race with all of the energy of his soul and his body. That’s the only way we ought to run.
One of those coaches said to his pole vaulter, he said, "Son, throw your heart over the pole first, then your body will follow after." What a good advice: "Put your heart in it; put your life in it; put your soul in it." Pressing to the mark, reaching forth, out and over, to those things which are before.
How Paul did it himself: recounting his conversion and his ministry to the Gentiles before King Agrippa, he said to Agrippa, "O King, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision" [Acts 26:19]. Into that high calling of God in Christ Jesus, he poured the soul and flame and energy of his life, and so ought we. No man ever attains unless he pours into the task to which he believes God has called him all of the flame and fire and furor of his life.
Michelangelo [1475-1564] had never been the great painter that he was had he not, day and night until his eyes almost went out, painting, painting the glorious figures of that Sistine Chapel ceiling. Handel [George Frideric Handel, 1685-1759] had never been the tremendous musician that he was had he not so gave himself to his call in God until, playing on his harpsichord, they said that his fingertips were like spoons – hollowed out, playing on the harpsichord.
Ah! the challenge of God: not to dissipate and to prostitute and to waste our God-given talents in nothingness but to devote them to the great mark of the prize of our own high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
In my going to school, I majored in English literature. If God would give me several lives, one of them, if somebody would invite me, I’d love to be a professor of English teaching youngsters our literature, English literature. Of the two poets of the Victorian Era, Browning [Robert Browning, 1812-1889] and Tennyson [Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892], I have chosen out of Tennyson a thing in his own life that so wonderfully and beautifully and adequately illustrates this text here of the apostle Paul.
In Tennyson’s late years, an old man, he, like all of our mortal men, could easily see just ahead the day of his death – his own approaching death. And he wrote a poem ["Merlin and the Gleam," c. 1889]. And in that poem, Merlin, who was a prophet and magician of the fifth century and was the advisor to King Arthur of the Round Table, Merlin, he makes to speak for himself. And "the gleam, the gleam" is the undying longing and search after the ideal light: the mother passion of all the supreme artists of the world. "The gleam, the gleam": to paint that picture, oh, to do it better next time; to sing that song, oh, to sing it better next time; to do that work, to do it better next time; to preach that sermon, to preach it better the next time." The gleam – that holy passion, that light of a true artist: beyond, beyond, however he has done, to do it better and still better.
So he begins. Tennyson, speaking as Merlin:
O young Mariner,
You from the haven
Under the sea-cliff,
You that are watching
The gray Magician
With eyes of wonder,
I am Merlin,
And I am dying,
I am Merlin
Who follow the Gleam.
Then as the poem continues, he recalls his past: his youth, his manhood, his early poems, his critics, his great labor on King Arthur of the Round Table – always following the gleam, the heavenly and the ideal light:
And broader and brighter
The Gleam flying on onward,
Wed to the melody,
Sang through the world;
And slower and fainter,
Old and weary,
But eager to follow,
And so to the land’s
Last limit I came –
And can no longer,
But die rejoicing,
For thro’ the Magic
Of Him the Mighty,
Who taught me in childhood,
There on the border
Of boundless Ocean,
And all but in Heaven
Hovers The Gleam.
Then, he turns to the young mariner and closes with a final appeal:
Not of the sunlight –
more than that.
Not of the moonlight –
more than that.
Not of the starlight!
It’s beyond the stars.
O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel,
Crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow The Gleam.
[from "Merlin and the Gleam," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1889]
One of the most meaningful poems, I think, in our language, saying the same thing the Apostle says here: "Brethren, I count not myself to have got hold of it: but this one thing I do, forgetting the failures and mistakes and my achievements of the past, I reach forth unto those things which are before, and press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling in God in Christ Jesus" [from Philippians 3:13-14]. After it, follow it: "follow the gleam."
Now, may I conclude? The whole thing for which Paul is making appeal is this: "Not as though I had already attained or were already perfect – I had arrived – but I follow after." Now, listen to it: "if that I may apprehend" [Philippians 3:13].
I have tried and tried and tried to think of some word that would translate that word here that you have translated "apprehend," and the only thing that I can think of doesn’t sound pretty. The actual Greek word is "get hold of." That isn’t beautiful English, but that’s exactly what the word means. "But I follow after, if that I may get hold of that for which I also was got hold of by Jesus Christ."
What Paul is saying is simply this: that there is a plan and a program and a destiny of God for every man’s life. There is something – there’s a high purpose, there is a noble calling – and Paul says, "I haven’t got it yet. I haven’t arrived there yet, but I follow after, I press on, if I may get hold of that thing for which God got hold of me."
And young people, God has a purpose and a high destiny for you and your life. There is something for which God has got hold of you, and our great life’s dedication is to get hold of that thing for which God hath got hold of us. "If I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Jesus Christ" [Philippians 3:12]. And you find that in God: in the will of God, in the purposes of God, in the destiny of God, in the high calling of God. There is a place in the economy of heaven for you, and your life and your task is to find it and to do it and to press toward it – that mark of the prize of your own high calling in Christ Jesus.
God bless you, young people, as you run the race, face forward, reaching out to that final verdict when God shall say: "Well done, this is your incorruptible and imperishable crown" [Matthew 25:21, 23; 1 Corinthians 9:25]. God speed you as after it, following it, "following the gleam."
We’re going to sing our song of appeal. I realize that practically all of our people this morning are visitors, but there may be some who, this hour, would dedicate their lives to the Lord; some to put their lives in the fellowship of the church; some, in faith and trust, to commit their lives to the Lord Jesus as Christ and Savior.
While we sing this hymn, down these stairwells to the front, from side to side, somebody you, taking the Lord Jesus as Savior or putting your life with us in the fellowship of the church. However God shall open the door and lead the way, while we sing this song, you come and stand by me. "Pastor, I give you my hand; I have given my heart to God." While we stand and sing, you come.