Pressing Toward the Prize
September 13th, 1987 @ 8:15 AM
PRESSING TOWARD THE PRIZE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-13-87 8:15 a.m.
Bless you, wonderful choir, and once again welcome, the throngs of you, the multitudes of you who are sharing this hour on radio. I am encouraged beyond any way that I can express it in syllable or sentence by the multitudes that fill this great sanctuary here at the First Baptist Church of Dallas. This is the beginning of a new year. And the message announced, prepared before we went away in the middle of August, Pressing Toward the Prize, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus; it is a textual sermon based upon the passage we just read together in Philippians 3:12-14, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect,” teleios. That has nothing to do with sinlessness; it is achieving the call and purpose of God in our lives:
I follow after, if I may get hold of that, katalambanō—
translated here “apprehended”—
if I may get hold of that for which also Christ got hold of me.
Brethren, I count not myself to have gotten hold of it—
I have not 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, diōkō,
I pursue toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul lived in a Greek world. The empire was under Roman law, but the culture and life was universally Greek. When Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome, he wrote it in Greek. Greek culture, Greek customs were everywhere; and one of the most distinguishing features of Greek life was its games, its athletic prowess. Everywhere was the stadium and the amphitheater. The Olympic games were played every four years on the plains before Olympia. The Isthmian games were played every three years before Corinth. And the Pythian games were played every four years on the plain before Delphi. Paul was a citizen of a great Greek city, Tarsus, in Cilicia, which was also a university city [Acts 21:39]. And in his letters, time and again, will you find a reference or a symbol or a simile of those Greek athletic contests.
For example, in the last chapter of Ephesians, he says, “hē palē,” in the King James Version, “We wrestle not”; in Greek it’s the name of a wrestling match. “Our wrestling match, our hē palē is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers” [Ephesians 6:12]; it is a spiritual warfare. Here again in the ninth chapter of the Book of 1 Corinthians, beginning at verse 24, “Know ye not that they which run in a race,” the Greek is stadium:
They who run in a stadium, they all run but there is only one that receives the prize: and you run, that you may obtain. And every man that striveth, agōnizomai”—
our word “agony” comes from it—
every one that agonizes in that race is temperate in all things. I therefore so run not as uncertainly…
[1 Corinthians 9:24-26]
Then he changes the symbolic figure to a boxing match, “so fight I, pukteuō,” a boxing match, “so fight I not as uncertainly; But I keep under my body, hupopiazō,” hupo, “under” [1 Corinthians 9:27], ops, this place on the face under the eye—you could say, “I beat my body black and blue, that I may win in the match.” These are just some of the instances of how Paul spoke in terms of a Greek athletic contest; and he does so in the beautiful and incomparable text this morning. “Brethren, I have not won the prize; but reaching forth, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14].
He begins the passage, “Brethren, I count not”—logizomai, logismos, our word “logic” comes from it—”I have made an estimate, I have recounted all the providences of my life, and I have not won the prize yet; I am still in the race, I am running” [Philippians 3:13]. That is a remarkable thing for a man like the apostle Paul to say. He is the greatest Christian of all of the centuries; there’s none like him. This is the man whose letters written incidentally are not only great literature, but they are inspired Scripture. I’m reading from one of them today which is a thank-you letter for a gift the Philippians sent him in Rome [Philippians 4:14-18]. Nobody like him, nobody: in Arabia God showed him the gospel [Galatians 1:11-17]. One time he was lifted up to the third heaven [2 Corinthians 12:2]. No comparable Christian ever followed the Lord like the apostle Paul. But every great man of God is humble; nor is there any exception to that. And the greater the man, the humbler will God find him.
A shallow river runs loud and raucous, but a great mighty stream runs deep and silently. So it is with the apostle Paul: recounting all of the ministries and gifts and experiences of his life—humble. “I have not attained it yet, I have not reached the purpose for which God called me” [Philippians 3:12-13].
Then he says, viewing the past, its true perspective: “My brethren, forgetting the things that are past” [Philippians 3:13]. What shall I do about the past? God says forget it. What shall I reckon when I think through all of the providences gone by? God says forget them. And using the figure of the running of the race, what would a man be thought of who in the midst of the race paused in order to exalt in his victories? What would you think of a man in the midst of his race who pauses to lament over the providences that brought hurt and sorrow and disaster to his life? What do we do with the past? Forget it, and running to the goal that God has set in front of us [Philippians 3:13]. When Satan strews apples of gold along the way, we don’t stop to look at them or to pick them up. And when the Sirens sing on either side, we don’t listen. “We press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14].
And he uses a word here that is most graphic: epekteinō, “I reach out over.” You can see the figure of a runner stretching to the utmost of his ability, reaching out over, running toward the prize. “Diōkō, I press,” that’s a remarkable thing! Christian life is a consecration, it is a dedication, it is a striving. I’ve often wondered why didn’t God assign the task of converting the world, why didn’t He assign it to angels? Why place the purpose in our human hands, we who were made out of flesh and blood? In the providences of God, in the purposes of the Lord, and in the wisdom of the Almighty, the entire task and assignment of the kingdom of God in this world is placed in our hands. He likens it to a race, to an agony, to an epekteinō, to a stretching out over [Philippians 3:13-14]. It has in it toil, and tears, and blood.
I was so poignantly conscious of that a week ago. I wanted to visit a church that had a Spurgeon story as the young fellow began his wonderful and incomparable preaching ministry. And arrangements were made for me to visit the church; it’s in one of the great university cities of the world—has a population about one hundred thousand. And the gracious man who accepted us and spent the day with us was a retired librarian of the great university, and a deacon in the church. So, as I stood there and looked at the church—it has no choir; choir, I can’t say to you how much you mean to me. Oh, sweet wonderful members of this choir, how vital you are to the praise and the purpose of God in our worship of our risen Lord! They have no orchestra, and the congregation is a handful. And out of eleven thousand students in the university, on a good Sunday they’ll have forty-five, and as I looked at it in amazement—which is not peculiar or unique among our Baptist churches or any of the churches in England. There’s not one and one-half percent of the people that attend church in England, As I looked at it and wondered at the dearth and the poverty of their outreach, the librarian placed in my hands—he being a very learned man, he placed in my hand a large brochure which told the story of the church. And when I returned to the hotel room I read it, beginning to ending. And here’s what I read: that librarian, in behalf of the church, and looking back over the long two hundred year history of the congregation, he spoke of the halcyon days of that church and those people; and over those period of years, how the church had cost the people nothing.
They had a pastor in those glorious days for thirty-five years. And in that brochure he extolled him, “For thirty-five years the church never gave him anything.” Their idea of a holy congregation of God is one that cost nothing. As I read it and thought of the congregation and its strategic location in one of the great intellectual centers of the world, and their pride and their boast that in the great glorious days of their history it cost them nothing, I thought of David, who, when he was offered in his sacrifice and intercession before God, “Here are oxen for nothing, here are the implements of wood for nothing [2 Samuel 24:22-23], and here is the threshing floor for nothing,” and David replied, “I will not offer unto God that which doth cost me nothing” [2 Samuel 24:24]. What is needed is the blood and the toil and the tears of human heart and life poured into the ministry of Christ. That makes the church great. That is our epekteinō, our reaching out over, our pressing toward the mark of our high calling in Christ Jesus: pouring our very lives into the task [Philippians 3:13-14].
May I conclude in this moment? My time is gone. This figure here in Paul’s writing, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 13:14], a goal, a calling, a great dedicatory purpose, that is the theme in the literature that is mighty in the world, over and over and over again, pressing toward a mark. That’s the theme of Pilgrim’s Progress, with his back toward his city and house and home, and his face toward the heavenly city of God; that’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the greatest book next to the Bible that was ever written. That is the theme of these incomparable poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Merlin is the prophet and the magician, who was advisor to King Arthur, head of the knights of his round table. And “the Gleam” in the poem is the undying longing and search after the ideal light, the mother passion of all the supreme artists of the world. And Merlin is dying, and he says:
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.
He then recalls his past, his youth, his manhood, his early poems, his devotion to King Arthur, always following “the Gleam,” the heavenly, ideal life.
And broader and brighter
The Gleam flying onward,
Wed to the melody,
Sung thro’ 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 to the young mariner, his dying appeal:
Not of the sunlight,
Not of the moonlight,
Not of the starlight!
O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.
[“Merlin and the Gleam,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson]
Great American poet Longfellow expressed it like this:
Shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
Upward, higher, onward, forward—
“Oh, stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon my breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
And the young man answered, with a sigh,
Onward, higher, upward, forward—
Beware the pine tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last good-night,
And a voice replied from up the height,
[“Excelsior,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]
Higher, onward, forward, upward! The gleam, the call, the purpose, the prize God hath set before us; “Brethren, I count not myself to have arrived, to have apprehended, to have achieved what God has purposed for us; but this one thing I do, forgetting the things that are past, and pressing toward those things which are before, I look, I run, I strive, I agonize toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14]. And this is God’s call and purpose for us today.
A coach said, in the athletic contest, to his pole vaulter he said, “Son, throw your heart over that bar first, and your body will follow after.” My sweet people, give your heart to Jesus, make Him first in your life, exalt Him, love Him, follow Him; and all the rest will follow after. “Pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”: this is our wonderful calling for us in this great church in this coming year [Philippians 3:14].
And while we sing our hymn of appeal, beginning with us, a new commitment to our Lord [Romans 10:9-10]; in that balcony round, down a stairway, in the throng and press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, we’re coming today to join heart and hand in the pursuit of God’s calling in our lives.” A family, a couple, a child, a youth, just one somebody you, while we sing and make the appeal, on the first note of the first stanza, come. Do it, begin with us now, while we stand and while we sing.