Pressing Toward the Prize
January 4th, 1976 @ 10:50 AM
PRESSING TOWARD THE PRIZE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-4-76 10:50 a.m.
We welcome you who are listening on radio and watching on television the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is W.A. Criswell, the pastor, bringing the message at this holy and heavenly hour. The title of the sermon this morning is Pressing Toward the Prize. And it is an exposition of three verses in the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, beginning in verse 12:
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 Christ Jesus.
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.
When you study that passage meticulously, minutely, you will find that it is filled with words from the stadium, from the Olympic games, from the athletic world. Paul grew up in a great Greek university city named Tarsus, the capital of the ancient province of Cilicia [Acts 22:3]. As such, he had been introduced from the days of his youth to the contest in the Greek stadium.
In his letters there are great numbers of references to those Greek games. For example, in the sixth chapter of the Book of Ephesians he speaks of “wrestling.” Verse 12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, the rulers of darkness” [Ephesians 6:12]. He uses the word there from the wrestling arena, he pálē. Actually in literal Greek, “The wrestling is not for us against flesh and blood, but against principalities”—a word out of athletic world: wrestling.
I turn again to the ninth chapter of the Book of 1 Corinthians and here he uses language out of the world of boxing. He says in verse 26, “So fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep my body under subjection [1 Corinthians 9:26-27]. So fight I, pukteuō, so box I,” and in the discipline of his body for the contest, “I keep my body and bring it under subjection,” upōpiazō: hupo is under, hopos is the area under the eye, piazō; “I beat my body,” I bruise it, I give it a black eye. It is a term out of the boxing world.
Then again the world of contest in the Greek stadiums: “Know ye not,” he writes, “that they which run in a race run all…” [1 Corinthians 9:24]. The Greek word is stadiōn, a racecourse. A Greek stadium had in it a course of six hundred six and three-fourths English feet. There were three great athletic Greek contests: one, the Olympian, which was held every four years on the plains of Olympia; the second, the Isthmian games, they were held every three years in Corinth; and the third, the Pythian games, they were held every four years at Delphi. The stephanos, the crown, of the Olympic game was a wreath of wild olive leaves. The stephanos, the crown, of the Isthmian games was a wreath made out of pine leaves. And the crown, the stephanos, of the Pythian games at Delphi was a wreath of laurel leaves.
“Know ye not,” he writes, “that they which run in a Greek stadium, Olympic game,” and those Olympic races were run for a thousand two hundred years, and in our generations have recently been recreated. “Know ye not that they which run in an Olympic race run all, but one receiveth the brabeion?” [1 Corinthians 9:24]—that is, the gift, the prize, separate and distinct from the stephanos, the crown. It was usually a prize of money, a brabeion. “But one receiveth the brabeion. So run that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery” [1 Corinthians 9:25]—another word out of the Olympian games—“And every man that agōnizo, that agonizes, that strives for the mastery is temperate in all things. They run and strive to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible crown. I therefore so run” [1 Corinthians 9:25-26].
These are but typical of the words that Paul will use out of the athletic world. When you study our text, you will find that it is filled with those words taken out of the arena and the stadium. “Not as though,” he writes, “I had already attained, either already perfected: but I follow after” [Philippians 3:12]—there’s a word out of the stadium, out of the Olympic game: diōkō, translated down here in verse 14 “I press” [Philippians 3:14]—diōkō, follow after, press. I pursue. I’m running. “If that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ” [Philippians 3:12]: katalabō, get hold of, if I may “get hold of that” for which also Christ Jesus “got hold of” me [Philippians 3:12].
“Brethren, I count not myself to have katalabō,” I haven’t seized it yet, I haven’t won it yet. I haven’t got hold of that for which Christ got hold of me, “but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before” [Philippians 3:13]—and here again is a word out of the Olympic game: reaching forth, epekteinō: epi, up; ek, out of; teinos, to stretch. If you were to translate it literally it would come out in a clumsy way like this: “stretching out over.” You can see the runner in the stadium as he throws his body forward, as his hand is extended, and as his eyes goes beyond the reach of his hands. “Reaching out over, stretching out over, under those things which are before, I press, diōkō, I pursue toward the mark” [Philippians 3:13-14].
Another word out of the Olympic Game: skopos, “mark.” Skopaō means “to look at attentively, to listen earnestly, to fasten one’s eyes on,” and the substantive form, skopos, is what is looked at attentively, steadfastly fastening the eyes upon it. And that was the name of the pillar at the end of the stadium toward which the runner was reaching. It was always opposite from the entrance into the stadium. “I press toward that skopos, that mark, for the prize, the brabeion, the deposit of money, the gift”—other than the crown—“of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14].
When you look at the text, you cannot but be overwhelmed at the attitude and the appraisal that Paul makes of his own life and of his own ministry. “Brethren,” he says, “I count not myself to have apprehended, logizomai—translated here “I count”—logizomai, to reckon, to think through.” Evidently he had taken stock. He had taken inventory of his life, and reviewing it all, as much as he has wrought and as great achievements as he has won for the Lord, he yet says, “I count not myself yet to have got hold of that for which Christ got hold of me. I am not yet perfected. I have not yet reached the goal” [Philippians 3:13]. That is an astonishing thing in the life of a great, mighty man like the apostle Paul!
Saul of Tarsus [Acts 13:9], he’s the most remarkable Christian who has ever lived! In two thousand years of Christian history, there has never been one like Paul, Saul of Cilicia [Acts 22:3]. He is the greatest credential of the Christian faith that the gospel of the Lord has ever produced. The letters that he wrote, though he thought were but temporarily to be read, his letters are eternal. They are the Word of God. They comprise the greatest pieces of literature in human language. And his personal character was noble in the extreme.
One time he was lifted up to the third heaven, to Paradise itself [2 Corinthians 12:2], and yet this mighty man of Christ, reviewing his life, says, “My brethren, I count not myself to have arrived. I have not reached the goal yet. I run. I strive. I agōnizō ” [Philippians 3:13-14]. If you will notice in reading the lives of the great men of Christ, they all are just like that. They all are humble and lowly; not one of them ever boasts of his achievements or his victories. They are conscious of their imperfections, and what crowns they do win they lay at the feet of Jesus.
You know, a small stream rushing may boil and broil and fall and bubble, but a great river will silently, quietly move along. Among our fellow dwarfs we may be proud of ourselves and be boastful in heart and spirit, but not before God. Somehow in the light of the presence of the glory of Christ, our own righteousnesses are as filthy rags [Isaiah 64:6]. Our achievements are but the dust of the ground, and we fall short of the great high calling, the goal to which the Lord hath chosen us and elected us [Philippians 3:12-14].
When a man comes before God, if he’s conscious of the presence of the great, mighty, heavenly One, he somehow takes off all of his ornaments, all of the spirit of boastfulness and pride, and naked he stands in the presence of the mighty God. As Hebrews 4:13 says, “For all things are opened and naked before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” For a man to come before God in self-righteousness and in pride and in his own adornments, somehow just doesn’t fit.
Waiting for a plane from New York to Europe, the plane being delayed, I happened to be standing by a man who was also waiting for the plane on which he was placing his daughter for a trip to Europe. He was Theodore R. McKeldin, the governor of Maryland, and finding out that I was a pastor, he began to talk to me out of the deep of his heart. And as he continued visiting me while the plane long delayed, he began talking about his sainted, old mother. She was a devout, old-time Methodist, and in describing his mother, he said when she came to the altar rail to receive the communion, she always took off all of her jewelry. And he said, “You know, as I grew up by the side of that sainted mother, I found myself, when I came before the Lord to kneel down and to receive the elements of the Lord’s Table, I found myself also taking off all of my jewelry and all of my ornaments.”
And he said, “Pastor, you know what?” He said, “Last Sunday when we had the communion service at our church, I went forward and knelt down.” And he said, “I looked at my teenage son, and as he knelt I saw him also take off all of his jewelry.” That is the spirit of a soul who kneels in the presence of God. Somehow our boasting and our pride and our self-ornamentation does not belong. It does not fit in His glorious and heavenly presence.
So Paul, in humility, having recounted every achievement of his life, he says, “I am not yet arrived. I have not yet reached the goal. I strive. I struggle. I run” [Philippians 3:12]. Then continuing he says, “But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind” [Philippians 3:13]. What about the things of yesterday? Forget them! Now you look at that carefully. Remember the whole imagery, all of the similes and comparisons and figures of speech are out of the Greek games, out of the stadium, out of the Olympics. And when he says, “But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind” [Philippians 3:13], he’s speaking of the runner who is stretching out and over to reach the goal. And what he says is, “As the race is run and as the runner reaches forth toward the goal, he can’t stop,” he can’t hesitate, much less look back. If the man is leading, he can’t stop and exalt in his victories—“look at those five, six, eight, or a dozen men that I’ve outrun”—nor can he look back to recount all of the obstacles, and the wounds, and the hurts, and the defeats, and the disappointments that he’s known in his life. He must not stop; he must run. He must keep his eye on the goal, and whatever of the past, it’s past, forgotten! We have our future before us, and we must run toward the goal; we must press toward the prize! [Philippians 3:14].
You see, when the runner runs, Satan does all that he can to distract and to disturb. He will even scatter golden apples of temptation and enticement in order for the runner to stop and begin picking them up. No! No! We must keep our eye on the goal. Paul uses the word here pressing toward the skopos, the skopos, that great signal and sign of the attention of the athlete. “I must press toward the prize. I cannot stop. Forgetting the things that are behind, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14].
Oh, how we need to remember that. One: the victories of yesterday do not suffice for today. The manna that was gathered for yesterday does not suffice for today. We must press; we must reach; we must go forward. There are other victories to be won; other achievements to lay in trophies at the feet of Jesus. And for us to exalt and to live in the laurels, the crowns we’ve won in the past, is to face defeat in the present and in the future—“Forgetting the things that are past” [Philippians 3:13].
And what of our mistakes and our sins and all of the things that hurt us and drag us down? To live in our mistakes and in our faults and in our failures is to quit running, is to be defeated. A man can’t run for God and be dragged down by the memories of a thousand sins, and a thousand defeats, and a thousand disappointments, and a thousand sorrows. Forget them. That’s what God says He does with our sins. He puts them behind His back and forgets them [Isaiah 38:17]. God says He blots them out [Isaiah 44:22]. God says He remembers them no more [Isaiah 43:25]. Every day is a new day, a fresh day for the child of God. All of our wrongs and sins are blotted out, and we begin anew, afresh with God our Savior.
“So forgetting the things that are behind, I press, diōkō, I follow after, I pursue, toward the mark for the brabeion, for the prize, of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14]. Ah, what an example for us, this runner; epi, upon, ek, out of, denaio, stretching out upon. You can just see the man of God as he strives to reach the goal for which God has called him, and for which the Holy Spirit enables him; striving and running to the great prize of the Lord God in Christ Jesus [Philippians 3:13-14].
That is about as apt a description of the Christian life that I know of. It is a going on. Every description of the Christian is like that in the Bible. He’s a planting of the Lord. That is, he’s growing, as Jesus would say, “First the blade, then the ear, then the corn” [Mark 4:28]. He is born into the family of God, a child, then a youth, then in maturity, the teleios of the child, the man toward which God meant the child to grow [Mark 4:28].
We’re described as pilgrims in the earth [Hebrews 11:13]. We are moving. We are pilgrimaging toward the great glory of God. We’re described as competitors in the game. We are running. “We are agōnizō toward the goal of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14].
Do you ever sometimes think, “Why is it that God has placed us in a ministry and in a calling like that?” When a man becomes a Christian, actually he enrolls in an army. He is a volunteer to fight and to work and to march for God [Ephesians 6:12]. Why did God do that? Why didn’t the Lord just make it so that, when we accept Him as our Savior and when we come into the kingdom, everything then is passé, it is quiet, it is peaceful, it is at rest, it has no activity, there’s no activism in it, there are no goals to reach? Why does God place challenges before us?
Why is it that God didn’t assign all of this work to the angels? Let them do it. The conquest of the world for Christ, why does God give it to us? Why does He assign it to our hands that are so feeble and so prone to error? I think there is a reason in the wisdom of the Almighty for us. God has a purpose in what we are assigned to do.
Let me give you an illustration of it. Listen to this. In a current magazine copied out of a Baltimore newspaper, I read this article. Listen to it:
As an experiment, the National Institute of Mental Health built a miniature garden of Eden for mice. Nothing was spared to provide every goodie and environmental feature dear to a mouse’s heart.
The scientist then stocked this paradise with enough supplies and space to support four thousand mice but put in only four pairs. The eight lucky rodents had a field day. They eagerly explored the inviting area. They got to know each other. Their population doubled every fifty-five days.
Now, brother, they were with it; they were at it.
But, but the researchers discovered when the number of mice reached six hundred twenty the growth rate declined. Social problems appeared. Cannibalism of some of the newborn young began. The older mice became totally indifferent to the paradise handed them and suffered from genuine stress and the young became autistic-like.
Introverted, daydreaming, fantasy-like, and spiritless.
Shortly after the population reached two thousand two hundred, about half the planned capacity, all reproduction stopped. Not one inhabitant—not one mouse—showed the slightest interest in rebuilding the society. The mouse population dwindled to zero—they quit and ceased to exist. There are lessons here for people. These physically healthy mice had lost the ability to recognize and respond to challenge. Challenge is necessary in all hopeful lives. Regardless of modern philosophy, advanced psychology, and wonder drugs, the laws of God remain.
That’s not a sermon; that’s out of a newspaper and reprinted in a current magazine.
God has a program for us; He has a challenge for us; He has a goal for us. And if we are to be healthy and strong, we gain that victory in our agōnizō, in our striving, in our epekteinō, in our stretching forth, running in the race [Philippians 3:13-14].
It’s like these things that I’ve read a thousand times. A man ought to tithe, not because God needs the money—He doesn’t—and not because the church might fail without it—though it might—but the man ought to tithe because of what it does for him. It gives strength and power in his own life as he makes decisions and takes God in as a partnership, and the whole world of conquest before us in Christ is just like that. God has assigned it to us to do it; to run for it in order that we might be developed strong in the faith, and not autistic-like and spiritless.
When I think of the challenges God has set before us, I praise the Lord of heaven that He matched our souls against them. We have a Bible Institute and are inviting, and young men and women are coming from all over this earth to attend our Bible Institute. A Bible Institute for the most part is made up of young men and women who are very poor. They do not come for the most part out of affluent homes. They need help; they need encouragement. But God called us to do it. And we are thankful for heaven that He assigned the task to us.
In the last week in February we have a School of the Prophets, to which we invite all the ministers and their staffs from all over this earth to come and to share with us in the ways and methods by which God can bless us in reaching souls for Jesus. It’s a great assignment, our Bible Institute.
We have our Baptist Academy, the kindergarten, the elementary grades, the middle school, the high school. And the blessing of the Lord is upon us as we teach these children every day of the week the mind of God that is in Christ Jesus. And we have our new building across the street in process of erection now, a tremendous assignment for us when we have so much else to do, but God honors the commitment!
I have here in my hands here a check that I received yesterday for $25,000 for that Mary C building. He doesn’t belong to our church. He’s not a member of our congregation. His family does not attend here. But he gives me a check for $25,000 toward the building. Why? Because we’re doing something for Jesus! Men are challenged by a great call and a great gospel and a great ministry! And when the Lord finds us at it and doing it, He raises up helpers from among the thousands of people to stand by our side and to make these things possible. That’s God; that’s the Lord.
And we have the Great Commission to obey; to make disciples of all of the peoples of the earth, baptizing them in the name of the triune God, and teaching them the things Christ has given us to observe and to keep [Matthew 28:19-20]. This is our Jerusalem, our city here. We have our Judea, our state. We have our Samaria, our nation to bring back to God. We have the whole world to its uttermost parts to witness to, concerning the saving grace in Jesus Christ [Acts 1:8]. All of it is committed to us, not to angels, but to us! And when we attempt it, when we strive for it, when we agōnizō toward it, God’s Holy Spirit blesses us as we grow in grace and in strength and in power and as God uses us to bless the whole earth [Matthew 24:14].
And as I said and as you know we are entering this tremendous TV ministry throughout the great populated areas of our nation. I tremble before it. I am on my face before God before it. How could such a thing be sustained? How could such a thing succeed? It can be sustained because God moves the hearts of men and women and families and people to share it with us, to support it by our sides, bringing the glorious gospel of the message of Christ to all men everywhere.
“Brethren, I count not myself to have got hold of that for which Christ got hold of me: but this one thing I do, forgetting the past with its triumphs and with it tribulations and reaching forth unto those things unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14]. It’s our dedication, it’s our consecration, it’s our commitment that God will bless.
God calls us to be consumed, literally, by the appointment and the election He has given us to serve in His name [Philippians 3:13-14]. Michelangelo was consumed with the love of his art, and on his back painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel he almost went blind. Handel was so consumed with the love of his music that as he played his harpsichord his fingers became shaped like spoons. John A. Broadus the great illustrious first president of our Southern Seminary so was consumed in His love for the study of the Word of God that He developed a permanent stoop. And when he stood in the pulpit to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, he stood there stooped. It is that kind of a consuming commitment that God needs in this earth today. And when He finds it in us, God blesses us and His Holy Spirit works with us.
A coach called over to him his pole-vaulter, and he said, “Son, listen. You throw your heart first over that bar, and then your body will follow after. Throw your heart over first and your body will follow after.” It is so with us. Put your heart in it, your prayers in it, every vision and dream of your soul in it. Commit to God a consuming, sacrificial commitment and dedication and see if the whole after-following of life does not glorify the name of the Almighty in heaven and does not strengthen you and bless you in the faith. This is the glorious call of God to us as we face the greatest year we have ever known, this bi-centennial year of the two hundredth birthday of our nation, doing God’s work, answering God’s call in the world.
And to give your heart in a like commitment to the Lord, would you answer with your life today? In a moment we shall stand and sing our invitation hymn. In the balcony round, on this lower floor, out of the press of people, down one of these stairways, walking down one of these aisles: “Pastor, today I give you my hand. I am giving my heart to the call of God. The Holy Spirit of Christ has spoken to me, and I’m answering with my life.” A family you: “This is my wife and these are our children. All of us are coming today.” Or just a couple you, or just one somebody you, make the decision now in your heart, accepting Jesus as Savior [Ephesians 2:8], resolving to be numbered with the redeemed of the Lord [1 Peter 1:18-19], placing your life with us in the sacredness of the communion of this dear congregation; as God shall speak, answer. Make the decision now, and when you stand up in a moment, stand up walking down one of those stairways or walking down one of these aisles. May God bless you and the angels attend you as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
TOWARD THE PRIZE
was a Greek world in which Paul lived
Greek games universal – stadium, amphitheater
Paul’s use of Greek athletic terms and images
Wrestling (Ephesians 6:12)
Running(1 Corinthians 9:24-26)
Boxing (1 Corinthians 9:26)
Kata lambano – he has not arrived, not attained
Epekteino – reaching out over
Dioko – press, pursue toward
Skopos – the mark, the prize, the brabeion
II. His humility at present attainments
“I count myself not to have apprehendedâ€¦”(Philippians
– he takes a reckoning, an inventory of himself
lived a man more representative of the finest of the faith
letters he wrote are finest literature in human speech
was caught up into the third heaven(2
He learned the gospel by the Lord Himself (Acts
9:1-6, Galatians 1:12-18)
Humilitya characteristic of all great men of God(Hebrews
Governor Theodore R. McKeldin – his mother took off her jewelry to receive
III. He views the past in the true light
Following the figure of the Greek runner – only hope is to press ahead
may strew the course with apples; on the side sirens may sing
in our lives
Past laurels, victories do not suffice for today
live in our mistakes and failures is to quit running, to be defeated
IV. He views the future in God’s will and
reaching, exerting, trying
forth all of the strength and energy of our soul into the challenge God has
placed before us
could have assigned the work to angels
The mice paradise
dedication to the heavenly calling
stewardship program – Bible Institute, First Baptist Academy, Mary C. Building,
The Great Commission
calls us to be consumed by the appointment He has given us to serve in His name
a. John A. Broadus
to pole-vaulter, “Throw your heart over the poleâ€¦body will follow”