Pressing Toward the Prize
September 13th, 1987 @ 10:50 AM
PRESSING TOWARD THE PRIZE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
9-13-87 10:50 a.m.
Lord be praised for you wonderful yokefellows who sing in our choir and play. And welcome the throngs of you who are sharing this hour on radio and on television.
The text is the one you read, “Not as though I had already attained, or already teleios”—translated “perfect” [Philippians 3:12]. To us it connotes sinlessness, holy perfection. The Greek teleios has no connotation like that at all. To be teleios is to achieve the purpose for which a thing is made. And he is referring to God’s purpose for us in our lives. “I have not arrived and I am not teleios, I have not achieved the purpose for which God called me. But I follow after”—translated down here, “press,” diōkō—“I pursue, if that I may apprehend, katalabō, if I may get hold of that for which I also am katalambanō, got hold of, of Christ. Brethren, I count not myself to have got hold of it”—that same word again—“but this one thing I do, forgetting those things that are behind, and epekteinō—reaching out over, stretching, running, striving, agonizomai, striving—toward those things which are before. “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:12-14].
Paul lived in a Greek world. The empire was under Roman law, but the life and the culture were Greek. When Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome, he wrote it in Greek. A characteristic of Greek civilization was their athletic games. Paul grew up in a great Greek city, the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, named Tarsus [Acts 21:39]. It was a university city. All through the empire everywhere were stadiums and amphitheaters, and those games were celebrated universally.
The Olympian games were every four years, played on the plains before Olympia. The Pythian games were played every three years on the plain before Delphi. And the Isthmian games were played every four years on the plains before Corinth. Those Greek contests, those Greek games were continued over one thousand two hundred years. And it is interesting for us in our generation to see these Olympian games recreated in the world.
Out of the symbolism of those Greek athletic contests Paul will use symbols and similes and metaphors again and again. For example, in the last chapter of his letter to the church at Ephesus he said, “For hē palē.” In our translation they make a verb out of it. It is a substantive, “For our wrestling—hē palē, our wrestling—is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness” [Ephesians 6:12].
When I turn to the Book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 9, “Know ye not that they which run in a race”—the word is stadion—“they who run in a stadion, all of them run, but just one receives the prize? You so run [1 Corinthians 9:24]. Let every man agōnizomai let him agonize, striving for the mastery. They do it for corruptible crown; we for an incorruptible one [1 Corinthians 9:25]. I, therefore, so run” [1 Corinthians 9:26].
Then he changes the metaphor, “So fight I”—pukteuō, it is a boxing word—“so fight I in the arena not as one that beats the air, “But I hupopiazō, I keep under my body, I discipline my body.” Hupo is “under.” That word connected with opos is the lower part under the eye. “I blacken my eye. I beat my body black and blue that I may win in the race” [1 Corinthians 9:27]. It just goes on and on, these figures from the athletic world. One of the most beautiful is Hebrews 12:1, “Wherefore seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us… run the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and the finisher of our faith” [Hebrews 12:1-2]. That’s the great amphitheater. All of those thousands tiered up, tier after tier, watching the runners race.
So this text, “I count not myself to have arrived” [Philippians 3:13]. Logizomai, logismos—your word logos comes from that; “logic” comes from that. It is as though he sat down and reckoned. That’s what the word means exactly. “I have reckoned, I have estimated all of the facets of my life, and my logical conclusion, I have not arrived. I am still striving” [Philippians 3:13]. That’s a remarkable thing when I think of that apostle. He was the greatest Christian who has ever lived. Even his incidental letters—and this letter to Philippi was a thank you for their remembrance [Philippians 4:14-18]; they had sent him a gift in prison in Rome, and he’s writing, thanking them—even his incidental letters are literature and inspired Scripture.
In Arabia, God over a period of three years revealed the entire gospel to him, all of it [Galatians 1:11-18]. One time he was taken up into the third heaven where God is: the first heaven, where the birds fly and the clouds go by; the second heaven, where the stars and the planets turn in their orbits; and the third heaven, where God is. And he was taken up into the third heaven and heard God speak [2 Corinthians 12:2-4]. And yet, with all of the accomplishments and incomparable achievements of this wonderful apostle Paul, he says, “I am still in the race. I have not achieved that purpose for which God called me. I have not arrived yet” [Philippians 3:12].
And that’s a characteristic of all great men of God. The greater the man and the more abounding the blessings of the Lord upon him, the more humble he will always be. A shallow stream will run loud and furiously and raucously, but a great mighty river deep will run silently, quietly. That’s a remarkable thing, how a great man will be so humble before God.
Some time ago I was in New York City waiting for a plane to cross the Atlantic into Europe. While I was waiting, there was a distinguished man there waiting for a plane to come in. I met him; his name was Theodore R. McKeldin, the distinguished Governor of [Maryland]. He found that I was a preacher, a pastor, and began to talk to me out of the deep of his soul. He said to me that his mother was a devout Methodist. And when they went to church, they knelt down to receive the communion service.
And he said, “My mother always took off her jewelry when she came and knelt before the Lord.” Well, he said, “I began doing that, too. When I came and knelt, I took off all of my jewelry.” And he said, “You know, pastor, last Sunday when we had the service, I happened to turn to look at my teenage boy. He was doing the same thing, taking off all of his jewelry before the Lord.” That is true with all of God’s saints. In His presence we who are nothing, made out of dust and ashes, we have deigned to call upon the name of the Lord.
That’s Paul. “Brethren, I have looked, I have reckoned. I have estimated. I have counted and I have not arrived, I am still in the race.” Then he describes the running. “Forgetting those things that are behind, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:12-14].
Forgetting those things that are behind, what shall I do about yesterday? God says, “Forget it.” What shall I do about the providences of life? God says, “Forget them. They are in the past.” The image, of course, is the runner. What would you think if, in the midst of his race, he stopped and exulted in his triumphs? What would you think if, in the midst of the race, he stopped to lament over the failures and the hurts and the sorrows of his life? “Forgetting the things that are behind” [Philippians 3:13].
Satan may strew the racecourse with golden apples. We do not stop to look or to pick them up. On either side, the sirens may sing. We never pause to listen to the melody. There is a race to run. And the ground between us and the goal is to be covered. And God help us, “Forgetting the past and pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14]. He uses, as I have mentioned, a colorful dramatic word, epekteinō, translated here, “reaching forth,” epekteinō, “reaching over, beyond” [Philippians 3:13]. You can just describe the runner as he is racing toward the goal, epekteinō, “reaching over forward, striving, agonizō, agonizing” [Philippians 3:13].
Isn’t that in itself a marvelous and a wonderful thing, amazing? God never gave into the care and commandment and keeping and commission of His angels to evangelize the world, to build up His kingdom in the earth. But He gave it to us, we who are flesh and blood. And Paul calls it an epekteinō. He calls it an agōnizomai. It is a striving. It is a running. It is a reaching for. It is a dedication. It is a consecration. That is the Christian life. Wonder why God did that? It must be that the Lord blesses us in the striving, in the running, in the pouring of our life into this effort.
I hold in my hand a clipping that I cut out of the most popular and read magazine in America. As an experiment, the National Institute of Mental Health built a miniature garden of Eden for mice. Nothing was spared to provide every good and environmental feature dear to a mouse’s heart. This mental health institute stocked the paradise with supplies for four thousand mice and put in 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 55 days. They really got to know each other. But the researchers discovered when the number of mice reached 620, the growth rate declined. Social problems appeared. Cannibalism of some of the newborn began. The older mice became totally indifferent and the younger mice became autistic, introverted, daydreaming. Shortly after, the population was halved, and then all reproduction stopped, and the mouse population dwindled to zero. Not one was alive in the paradise.
Then the magazine has a little sermon, which is unusual for a secular publication. “There are lessons here for our people. Those physically healthy mice had lost the ability to recognize and respond to challenge. Challenge is necessary in all hopeful lives. Regardless of modern philosophy or advanced psychology and wonder drugs, the laws of God still remain.” Can you believe a secular article closed like that? No matter how we may think, or the psychiatrist and the psychologist and the technicians and the scientists rearrange the purposes of human life, God still is the same! And the purposes He has for us never change. And that’s one of them. He has called us for our good and for our blessing, He has called us into blood, and into toil, and into tears as we labor in His kingdom and build His church in the earth.
As you know, we’ve just returned from London, and from southern England. And while we were there arrangement was made for us to visit the Baptist church in one of the great, famous university cities of the world. I was interested because I am a devotee of Spurgeon—read him all of the time. And that’s where he began. So we were greeted and entertained by an illustrious librarian of the great university and a deacon in the church. And when I looked and visited and listened and heard, in a city of one hundred thousand people there’s a small little handful of worshippers.
They have no choir and no orchestra. And I cannot but comment, sweet choir and precious orchestra, I can’t tell you how much you mean to me! Nor can I describe how you lift up our hearts and souls in the praise and worship of God. They have no choir and no orchestra. And in an university city of eleven thousand students, on a good Sunday they’ll have forty-five. And this illustrious librarian, being a great scholar, had written the story and the history of the church over two hundred years of it, and he placed it in my hands. And when I went to the hotel room, I read it, every word in it. What they have built before their hearts and minds is in the halcyon days of the yesteryears when the church cost nothing, nothing.
And in those glorious days of the past, described in that brochure, they had a wonderful pastor, thirty-five years undershepherd of the congregation, and never paid him a cent. And the brochure representing that Baptist congregation looks back upon those glorious days when the church cost nothing and the pastor for thirty-five years was paid nothing. Great God in heaven, is there no cross for me to bear? Is there no price for me to pay? Is not Thy kingdom in its power and glory defined in blood, and tears, and toil, and sacrifice? O Lord, that there might be in our hearts that consecration and dedication and commitment that finds the deepest wells in our lives moved to respond. God, help me to be a faithful servant of Christ and a true soldier of the cross!
“I press—diōkō—I pursue toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14]. Sweet people, that will be the theme of the great literature of the world, a goal, a purpose, a striving and agonizing, a reaching over and out and beyond.
The greatest book ever written next to the Bible is Pilgrim’s Progress. With his back to the home and the house and the city, he faces the heavenly city of God. And the book is a striving of the pilgrim as he makes his way to God’s call in heaven.
All of those great poems of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of England, are that. Merlin, the prophet and magician and advisor to King Arthur of the Knights of the Round Table: the Gleam. The Gleam is the undying longing and search after the ideal life, the mother passion of all of the supreme artists of the world. Merlin as he lays dying speaks to a young mariner, and 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 followed The Gleam.
The magician prophet then recalls his past, his youth, his manhood, his early poems, his dedication to King Arthur—always following The Gleam, the heavenly idyll life,
And broader and brighter
The Gleam flying around, onward,
Wed to the melody,
Sang 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 closing 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]
The spirit in all of the great literature of the world! Our own great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
The 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, forward, higher—
“Oh, stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon my breast!”
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
Upward, forward, onward, higher.
“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
But still he answered from the height,
[“Excelsior,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]
Upward, onward, forward, higher! This is God’s call to us. “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14]. Brethren, we have not attained, we have not arrived. Forgetting those things that are behind, we epekteino, we reach out beyond, to those things that are before, running in the race for our Lord [Philippians 3:13].
I think of a coach who said to a pole vaulter, “Son, throw your heart over the pole. Put your heart over the pole. Then your body will follow after it.” Dear people, let’s give our hearts and our souls and our lives to Jesus our Lord. And all of the things that God hath purposed for us [1 Corinthians 2:9] will be ours to enjoy forever and ever: His presence and blessings in this present world and life and our eternal reward in the world that is to come [1 Peter 1:3-4]; running the race for Jesus [Philippians 3:13]. Now may we pray?
Our wonderful, glorious and risen Lord, “in our hands no price we bring, simply to Thy cross we cling” [“Rock of Ages,” A. M. Toplady].
Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend of grace,
To carry us on to God?
We must fight if we would reign,
Increase our courage, Lord.
We’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.
[“Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” Isaac Watts]
Running the race for Jesus, pressing toward the mark of the prize of our high calling in Christ Jesus [Philippians 3:14]; O Lord, give us these to strive with us, whom Thy Spirit has called in Thy service, in Thy love and grace, in Thy dear name, amen.
In this moment when we stand to sing our invitation appeal, a family you into the fellowship of our church, and welcome [Hebrews 10:24-25]; a couple you; a one somebody you, “Pastor, God has spoken to my soul, and I’m answering with my life” [Romans 10:8-13]. In the balcony round, down one of these stairways, in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, “Pastor, this is God’s time and God’s hour for me, and here I stand.” Come, and welcome, while all of us stand and sing.