PRESSING TOWARD THE PRIZE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-4-76 8:15 a.m.
We welcome you who are listening to the service on the radio of the city of Dallas on WRR. You are sharing with us in the First Baptist Church in Dallas the praise and glory of the presence of God in our lives, in our homes, in our nation, in our church. And this first Sunday of the new year is a call of rededication and re-consecration to those great principles to which our forefathers led our first and beginning colonies. The title of the sermon today, delivered by the pastor, is Pressing Toward the Mark. And the text is in Philippians chapter 3, verses 12-14:
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfected: 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 minutely you will find that its entire figure is taken out of the Greek games. Paul grew up as a young man in the Greek university city of Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia [Acts 22:3]. All of his life he was familiar with those athletic contests that the people watched in those Greek games. And you will find throughout his writings a constant reference to those athletic contests. You’ll see it in the figures that he uses, in the similes, in the comparisons, in the references.
For example, in chapter 6 of the Book of Ephesians and verse 12, he writes, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of darkness” [Ephesians 6:12]. The word “wrestle” there, hē pálē—substantive in Greek, “the wrestling,” “for us is not against”—and he names all of these spiritual wickedness in high places [Ephesians 6:12]; a wrestling match, popular in those Greek games since the days of Homer.
Again he would use an imagery of boxing. In the ninth chapter of the first Corinthian letter, he writes, “So fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” [1 Corinthians 9:26-27]: disciplining it. He uses two terms there out of the boxing world: “So fight I”—pukteuō—“So box I,” and then “I keep under my body”— hupōpiazō—literally “I give my body a black eye.” Using the imagery of the boxing world, hupo and hopos—hupo, under, and hopos, the section of the face under the eye, piazō; “I beat my body black and blue, I give it a black eye, I discipline my body for the boxing match” [1 Corinthians 9:26-27].
Look again; he will use a nomenclature that he finds in the Greek games of track meeting, of running, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all” [1 Corinthians 9:24]. The word translated there “race” means “race course,” the Greek is stadion. We’ve taken it bodily into our English language, “stadium.” “Know ye not that they which run in a stadium run all.” There were three great series of Greek games. The Olympian Games occurred every four years and lasted for something like one thousand two hundred years, every four years, and have recently been picked up by modern society, the Greek Olympic Games. They were played on the plains of Olympia. Then there were the Isthmian Games played every three years at Corinth. Then there were the Pythian Games played every four years at Delphi.
The stephanos, the crown of the Olympian Games, was a laurel, a wreath of olive leaves. The stephanos, the crown of the Isthmian Games, was a wreath of pine leaves. And the stephanos, the crown of the Pythian Games, was a wreath of laurel leaves.
Doubtless, Paul had seen those games many times. “Know ye not that they which run in a stadium” [1 Corinthians 9:24]—that was a course of 606 ¾ English feet—“they all run, but one receiveth a brabeion”—that was a deposit of money. It’s translated here: a prize. The stephanos is the crown, the brabeion is the prize—“and every man that striveth” [1 Corinthians 9:25]—and there’s another word out of the Greek games, agōnizo, we’ve taken that bodily into our English language, agonize, agōnizō—“every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. They do that”—he says—“to win a corruptible crown”—just a laurel crown or a prize of money—“but we run to obtain an incorruptible crown” [1 Corinthians 9:24-25].
Now in the text of our passage this morning, the whole language of it and the whole imagery of it is taken out of the athletic world. “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfected: but I follow after” [Philippians 3:12], and in the fourteenth verse it is translated, “I press,” diōkō. That is the man on the racetrack who is pursuing, who is pressing, who is running to win the prize—“I follow after, I press” [Philippians 3:14].
“If that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ” [Philippians 3:12]—we’re going to look at that word in a minute, katalabō—“if I may get hold of that for which Christ got hold of me” [Philippians 3:12].
“Brethren, I count not myself to have got hold of it”—I haven’t arrived—“but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth”—there is another verb taken out of the stadium—“reaching forth,” and it is a clumsy word when you translate it into English, epekteinō. Epi “is upon,” epekteinō is to stretch, and literally it would be “stretching out over”; the man’s body thrown forward and his hand thrown beyond his body and his eyes even beyond his hands, stretching out over, “unto those things with are before, I press, diōkō, toward the mark” [Philippians 3:13-14].
There is another word taken out of the stadium. “I press toward the mark,” Skopos, skopeō is “to rivet your eyes attentively on anything,” skopeō, to rivet your eyes, to pay close attention. And skopos was what a man would pay close attention to, what he’d rivet his eyes on. And in the stadium it was a pillar, a foursquare pillar at the end of the racecourse, opposite the entrance the entrance into the stadium. “I press toward the skopos, that mark, for the prize, brabeion, of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14].
The commitment of the apostle to the mandate from heaven, to the heavenly vision, to his high calling in God is an astonishment when we look at it closely. First: you notice the humility by which he evaluates his own condition and his own achievements. He says, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended [1 Philippians 3:13]. I count not”—logizomai—I reckon it is as though he had sat down and carefully scrutinized everything in his life. He had taken stock, he had taken inventory, he’d taken full estimation of what he had done—“I count not myself to have katalambanō [Philippians 3:13]—to have got hold of the thing for which God got hold of me [Philippians 3:12]. I haven’t arrived yet; I haven’t done it yet. I haven’t achieved it yet.” He says up here. “I have not been made perfect”—teleios [Philippians 3:12]. That is, “I haven’t matured in the thing to which God has called me. I am still reaching. I am still growing. I am still seeking. I’m still pressing. I’m still trying” [Philippians 3:13-14]
Now what is the amazing thing about that is, this is Paul’s estimate of himself and of his own work. And it astonishes me when I see it in him, the humility by which he thus evaluates and estimates all that he had done for God! There has never been a Christian like the apostle Paul—none. He is the greatest credential the gospel has ever produced. There has never been as remarkable a man in the Christian faith through two thousand years as Saul of Tarsus.
The letters that he wrote—without thinking anyone beyond the recipients would ever read them—the letters that he wrote are the greatest literary efforts, gems, geniuses in the world. There is nothing in language or literature to compare with the sublimity of the writings of the apostle Paul. And he, himself, was personally a noble Christian, a noble disciple of the Lord.
Upon one occasion he refers to the time when he was taken up into the third heaven, into Paradise [2 Corinthians 12:2-4], and yet with all of the achievements and blessings of God upon the life of the apostle, in great humility he says, “As I estimated it, as I look at it, as I take stock, I haven’t yet achieved that for which God called me” [Philippians 3:12-13]. You know, that is a characteristic of every great man of God. Without exception, all of them are humble. When they review their achievements, they never boast. They are never proud. They are never lifted up personally, but they lay their crowns at the feet of the blessed Savior.
I sometimes think of a brook, a mountain stream that boils and broils and babbles and bubbles. But a great river moves silently along. Among our fellow dwarfs and away from God we may have cause to boast; but in the presence of the Almighty, how lowly and how humble each one of us ought to be. Somehow in the presence of the glory of God, our achievements, whatever they might be, are so small. They’re so insignificant.
When we come before the Lord, it is best for us to leave off all of our ornaments, just take them off. As Hebrews 4:13 says, “All things are naked and opened before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” There are no things when we come before God by which we can dress ourselves or ornamentalize ourselves to make ourselves worthy and commendable unto Him. Our works themselves are like filthy rags in His sight [Isaiah 64:6].
Standing in a New York International Airport one time, I happened to get acquainted with a man standing next to me. His name was Theodore R. McKeldin, at that time, the governor of Maryland. He had delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention that had nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower for president of the United States. He was a wonderful and able and capable man.
As I visited with him—because the plane was late in leaving, he was there sending his daughter on the plane to a visit to Europe—he began to talk to me about the church—he was a devout Methodist—and finally about his dear old mother. And he said, “You know, all of my life I watched my mother at the communion rail”—as the Methodists do, you know they come and kneel at the communion rail and take the elements from the hands of the pastor—he said, “all of my life I watched my old mother at the communion rail and whenever she came to take the communion, when she knelt she took off all of her jewelry, all of her jewelry.” And he said, “You know, I found myself doing that. When I kneel before the Lord to receive the elements of body and blood,” he said, “I take off all of my jewelry.” And he said, “Pastor you know what?” He said, “Last Sunday, when I knelt at that altar rail to receive the communion, I looked at my teenage boy, and I noticed that he was taking off all of his jewelry as he knelt before the Lord.”
I think that man had caught from his own mother the spirit of a true disciple of Jesus. Somehow the closer a man gets to God the more unworthy and lowly does he feel, and all of his ornaments don’t belong; not in the presence of the great Almighty.
“Brethren, I have not katalambanō, I have not seized that—got hold of that—for which God got hold of me, for which God called me” [Philippians 3:13]. Isn’t that a wonderful thing that he describes here about the Christian life? The work of Christ for us is complete; it is perfected [John 19:30]. There’s nothing we can add to it. But the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of Christ in us continues day after day and year after year as long as we live. As the Bible would say we are being made conformable to the image of Christ as we grow from strength to strength and from grace to grace [2 Corinthians 3:18].
When you read the Bible’s description of a Christian, always it is couched in terms of our growing, our continuing, our advancing, our stretching forth to a great prize of the high calling of God. For example, the Bible will refer to us as the planting of the Lord, the planting of the Lord; we are the planting of the Lord [Isaiah 61:3]. And as Jesus would say, “First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn, growing” [Mark 4:28].
We are referred to as being born into the family of God [1 John 3:1-2]. That is, a babe, then a child, then a youth, then the maturity of manhood and womanhood. We are referred to, described as, pilgrims and strangers in the world [Hebrews 11:13]. That is, we’re pilgrimaging to a great and holy goal, a high and heavenly city [Hebrews 11:16]. We are referred to as competitors in a Greek game. We are reaching out; we are running; we are competing; we are striving toward some mighty goal [Philippians 3:14].
Brethren, I haven’t arrived yet; I haven’t got hold of that for which God has got hold of me, but [Philippians 3:12]; now his tremendous commitment; “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind” [Philippians 3:13]. We come now, looking at the apostle Paul in his own evaluation of his life, to his true evaluation of the past.
What would be a true evaluation of the past? Forget it. Forget it! Now in order to see what he means by that, Paul is describing a Greek game in a stadium, and you can see those runners with every energy and every ounce of fiber and muscle and being striving to win that prize, to reach that goal. Now that imagery, when he says, “This one thing I do forgetting those things which are behind” [Philippians 3:13], the obvious is seen in what the apostle says. If a man is running, if he’s striving, he can’t stop, not for any reason. If he’s the first, if he’s leading he can’t stop and look back and count the runners that he’s passed, that he’s ahead of: six, seven, eight, ten, fifteen of them. He can’t gloat over his achievements or exalt over his past victories; if he stops, if he looks he’s lost! He can’t look behind him! Nor can he stop to admit his injuries, or his failures, or his obstacles, or anything that might impede him. He can’t stop; he can’t look back. He must race! He must stretch out; he must run!
So it is with us, Paul says. We can’t stop; we can’t pause; we can’t look back! Now that’s what Satan would love for us to do. “Just stop,” says Satan. “Just stop. Pause and consider.” And he’d have a whole lot of things for us to consider and a whole lot of things for us to remember. Some of them he’d like for us to boast about, “These are our past achievements.” Well, that is wonderful, if we’ve done anything to boast over it and to glory about it and to think of our victories. But the victories yesterday don’t suffice for today. We must win them today. The manna gathered yesterday is not fresh for today [Exodus 16:16-19]. Whatever victories we’ve had in the past, we must have other victories tomorrow! I cannot look back; we must not!
And Satan does all kinds of things to deviate us, and to destroy us, and to detract us. He just spreads golden apples all around in the race: temptations and allurements and enticements to get our minds and our eyes off of that goal. We cannot stop; we cannot stop; we cannot look back. Whatever God has done yesterday, praise God, but we can’t live in the past. And all of our faults, and all of our failures, and all of our sins, and all of our mistakes, if we live in those memories, they drag us down. They take us out of the race. What shall we do with the past? Forget it. Whatever victories we’ve won, glory to God. And whatever it is of discouragement we’ve known, forget it; forget it. “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind”—and now our Greek word, epekteinō, stretching out over, “I strain; I run; I try”—pressing—diōkō, pursuing—“toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14].
Now we’re going to look at that for just a minute. Just exactly why does God call us to a strenuous, agōnizō, agonizing like that in this ministry of the Lord? In our worship and service of the Lord, why does God do that? Well, let’s go back ultimately and fundamentally. Why didn’t God assign to the angels the conquest of the fallen world? He didn’t do it; He assigned it to us. The whole gamut, the whole description, the whole delineation of the Christian faith and message is in our hands. And the conquest of the world is given to us. Wonder why? Well, I have an answer for that.
God did that in order that He might develop us strong in the Lord. It’s the challenge that makes us mighty before Christ. Did you read this? In one of our magazines, copied from a Baltimore newspaper:
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, that’s putting out more mice, isn’t that right? Every fifty-five days their population doubled.
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. The young became autistic-like.
Autistic refers to introversion; a fanciful daydreaming.
The young became autistic-like and spiritless. Shortly after the population reached two thousand two hundred, about half the planned capacity, all reproduction ceased. Not one inhabitant showed the slightest interest in rebuilding the society and the mouse population dwindled to zero.
There was not a mouse left, not one, in that paradise.
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, advance psychology and wonder drugs, the laws of God remain.
That’s not a sermon! That’s out of a newspaper article and from the National Institute of Mental Health.
In other words, what God has done for us is, He has given us a challenge, He has given us a goal to reach, He has given us a task to do; He has given us a heavenly mandate, and if we are to be strong before the Lord, we are to exert—to epekteinō—to stretch forward to reach that goal for God. It’s good for us. it develops us; it makes us strong.
Years and years have I read that the best thing about tithing and giving on the part of the people is not the good that God can do or the church can do with the money but what it does for the man who does it! It grows him strong in the Lord. And so it is with the whole kingdom of Christ. It is our straining; it is our stretching; it is our running; it is our effort; it is meeting a challenge that grows before God great Christians.
When you see a people supine—spineless and lethargic—and lethargic, and spiritless, and indifferent, it’s because they’ve lost the vision! They’ve dropped out of the race. They have ceased growing in the Lord. What a mighty, mighty thing does the apostle lay upon our hearts: “Forgetting those things that are behind, and epekteinō—stretching forth—unto those things which are before, I press, I run, I pursue toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14].
My brethren, it’s good for us what God has laid upon us, building our Institute, that’s great. The last week in February our School of the Prophets and inviting all of the preachers of the whole world to come here, that’s great. Our Academy, our kindergarten and our elementary school and our high school, our First Baptist Academy, to build it, that’s great. To build our Foundation, that’s great. To accept from God’s hands that task and assignment, to complete our new building, the Mary C. Building, that’s great.
I have here in my hand; I have here a check, from a man who does not belong to the church, for $25,000 for this building here. He doesn’t belong to our church; $25,000! But we’re doing something for God! And when a man sees it, he’s inspired by it! “I want to help. I want to do something good. I want to have a part in the challenge,” that’s great. To extend our music program and our ministries to children and that great family recreational center; buying that Easterwood building as a home for our Institute and for our high school, that’s great. And then to receive as from God’s hands the whole Great Commission; we’re to make disciples of the whole world, and we’re to baptize them and to teach them the things of Christ Jesus [Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8]. That means our Jerusalem, Dallas. It means our Judea, our Texas, our state. It means our Samaria, our whole America. It means to the ends of the earth, that’s great! We assume it as from God.
And this vast expanded TV program that frightens me to death when I think of it, beginning that work today. All the men say, “You lack faith.” I need praying for. I need encouraging. It frightens me to death. The financial outlay of a program like that is tremendous. And God has to bless it. I’m just on my face before God as we enter into that vast TV program. But the brethren here say, “We ought not to contain in these four walls the exposition of the Word of God. We ought to share with the whole world.” So they’re getting ready to share it with the whole world.
There’s just one way to do all this. “Forgetting those things that are behind, and stretching forth to 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 a dedication for us. That’s what it is. And it is nothing else.
You cannot help but love to read about a Michelangelo, who so was consumed by his love for art that lying on his back, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he almost lost his eyesight; he went blind, but he did it for the love of his art. Or a Handel, who so loved to play on his harpsichord that his fingers, they tell me as I read about him, were like spoons. Or like John A. Broadus, the great first president of our Southern Seminary, he so loved the Word and so loved to study that he developed a permanent stoop, and when he stood in the pulpit to preach and expound the Word of God, he did so with a stoop. It’s such dedication like that, that we need, and without it, we’ll not succeed, and we will not reach the goal for which God has called us. You have to put your heart in it, and your soul in it, and your life in it, and everything you have in it.
You know what it’s like? A coach called his vaulter—the boy, the pole–vaulter—the coach called his pole-vaulter and he said to him, “Son, let me tell you how to do it. First of all,” said the coach, “throw your heart over the pole. Throw your heart over the pole. Then you body will follow your heart.”
When I read that I thought, “Man that’s what it is! That’s what it is. Let’s throw our hearts into it!” And that includes everything that is me: my mind, my soul, my love, my aspirations, my visions, my dreams, my effort, my life; everything that is me; throw my heart into it, and then all the rest will follow after. Just calling us as a congregation and as a people and as fellow members of a great, mighty mandate, calling us to march, to strive, to run, to press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus [Philippians 3:14]. And may the Lord in heaven speed us in the way.
We sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, if God has spoken to you, would you come down one of these stairways out of the balcony? Would you walk down one of these aisles on the lower floor? “Pastor, here’s my hand. I too give my life to the service and high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” “This is my family. We’re all coming into the fellowship of the church.” A couple or just you, make the decision now in your heart [Romans 10:9-10]. And in a moment when we stand to sing, stand answering God’s call with your life. “I’m on the way, pastor, and here I am.” Do it now; make it now; come now, while we stand and while we sing.