Pressing Toward the Prize
January 28th, 1990 @ 10:50 AM
PRESSING TOWARD THE PRIZE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-28-90 10:30 a.m.
Thank you for that song that fits this sermon precisely. The title of the message is Pressing Toward the Prize. And thank you, Fred, for the beautiful anthem that goes with it. And thank you, the multitudes of you who are sharing this hour on radio and on television. You are now a part of our wonderful First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message from the letter of Paul to the church at Philippi, chapter , verses 12 and 14.
Now to read the text in Philippians 3, starting at verse 12, "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect," arriving at the purpose of God for his life, "but I follow after," dioko, translated down here, "I press," I follow after: if that I may, "kata lambanÃ³," get hold of that for which also I am "kata lambanÃ³," got hold of the Lord Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have got hold of it; I have not arrived yet: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, "epekteinÃ³ " reaching over and out unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
The apostle Paul lived in a Greek world. It is true, it was in the Roman Empire, and Roman law was in evidence everywhere; but the culture and the life of the people were Greek. In every town they had a stadium; in a great city they’d have an amphitheater. And those Greek games were played throughout the civilized world. Paul himself was a citizen of a famous Greek city, Tarsus, in Cilicia, in which was a world famous Greek university. Those Greek games were played for one thousand two hundred years in and especially on the plains of Olympia: the Olympian games every four years. On the plains of Corinth, the Isthmian games, played every three years. On the plains of Delphi, the Pythian games, played for a thousand two hundred years, played every four years. And as you know, in our generation, in our time, there has been re-created those Olympian games, world famous.
Now, in keeping with the culture and the life in which Paul lived, he uses athletic terms so often. For example, in the last chapter of Ephesians, verse 12, he uses the word he pale, "wrestling," wrestling: "We don’t wrestle flesh and blood, but against the powers of Satan." In the ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians, "Know ye not that they which run in a race stadion," a stadium. "So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth, agonizomai," striving, "I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, pukteuo," that’s boxing and it refers to a boxer. "And I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, hupopiazo, hupopiazo" [1 Corinthians 9:24-27], hitting under the eye, blackening the eye, knocking the guy down, annihilating him, pulverizing him. These are all athletic terms. And that’s what you find in this passage I have read in Philippians: they are taken out of the athletic world, and especially out of the race course, out of the stadium, and out of the amphitheater.
Now when we look at the text, we cannot but be but surprised and overwhelmed at the humility of the apostle before his attainments, his achievements. "Not as though I had already arrived, not as though I had already been made perfect, that I’m where God wants me to be, I’ve achieved what God purposed for me: but I logizomai," logimos, a reckoning, take an inventory, "I look at myself; and seeing myself, I have not got hold of that for which Christ got hold of me" [Philippians 3:12]. Now I say that is astonishing from the lips of a man like Saul of Tarsus and Paul the apostle. There has never lived a man who was more representative of the finest of the Christian faith than this man Paul. He is almost alone in his Christian stature.
For example, the letters that he wrote, incidental letters, the letters that he wrote are the finest literature in human speech; and they are a part of Holy Scriptures, just the letters that he wrote. He met the Lord Jesus on the way to Damascus [Acts 9:1-6], and as such was a devoted follower of Christ, so much so that he says he was raised up into the third heaven [2 Corinthians 12:2-4], and heard there, he says, things unspeakable, things that he could not reveal; the third heaven. The first heaven is where the clouds go by and the birds fly. The second heaven is the heaven of the planetary spheres and the universe, the starry firmament we see at night; that’s the second heaven. The third heaven is up there where God is. Where in the earth is that? Above the created space that we see. And Paul says that he was raised up there into that third heaven, saw God, and heard, as he says, things that were not lawful for him to reveal.
Not only that, but he says that when he was converted he didn’t confer with flesh and blood, he never learned the gospel from Peter or John or from human lips; but it was taught him by the Lord Jesus Himself. For a period of three years on the back side of Arabia he was there alone with God; and God revealed to him personally all of the glorious story and message of Christ [Galatians 1:12-18]. Just think of that. And yet having said all that, he applies the word, "I have not attained; I am not perfect, I haven’t achieved what God has purposed for me." Humility is one of the most precious virtues of human life. It is adorable, it is inimitable, it is impressive wherever you see it or wherever you find it: someone who could be so proud and yet is sweet and gracious and humble.
Upon a day I was in Idlewild, Kennedy Airport, in Long Island, New York, waiting to go across the sea. And while I was there, I met Theodore R. McKeldin, who was at that time the governor of Maryland. He made the big speech at the National Republican Convention for the nominee who was elected president of the United States; one of the great statesman of America. He was placing his daughter on a plane to send her abroad and the plane was delayed, so we visited for a long time. Well, he learned that I was a pastor, and he began to talk to me out of his heart. He began to talk to me about his sainted mother. She was described to me as an old-time Methodist. And he said, "When we had communion at our church, in keeping with the Methodist practice, they came to the altar and knelt to receive the elements of the Lord’s Table." And he said, "All through the years of her life, when my mother came and knelt at the altar to receive the communion, she took off all of her jewelry, all of her jewelry. She took it off, and knelt there before the Lord. Well," he said, "you know, I did the same thing following her: when I knelt at that altar to receive the communion, I took off all of my jewelry." And he said, "Pastor, you know what? Last Sunday, my teenage son knelt by my side to receive the communion. And I watched him out of the corner of my eye; and he took off all of his jewelry." It’s imitable, it is impressive, it is beautiful, it is adorable, it is great: humility.
I think of it shallow, like a creek when it runs shallow: it makes noise, it’s raucous. But a great, deep river will run silently. That’s people. People who are cheap and surface, they make lots of noise. But people that run deep with God are always humble in His presence. That’s Paul. With all of his attainments he says, "I have not arrived. I haven’t reached the goal for which God made me, called me, saved me."
Now the second thing I look at: "Brethren," he says, "I have not attained, I have not arrived; but forgetting those things that are behind, I press; forgetting those things that are behind" [Philippians 3:13]. How are we to think of the days that are past? He says it’s like a runner: when the runner is pressing toward the goal, he doesn’t stop to look back of him, he doesn’t stop to recount the failures and the mistakes that he’s made in the race, and he doesn’t stop to pride himself upon his achievements and what he’s done; but he presses, looking at the ground between him and the goal. He says we’re to be that way: not looking at the past, forgetting the past. Good God in heaven how we need that help from above! How many lives are dragged down by the remembrance of the weaknesses and the sins and the derelictions, the shortcomings and the failures of the past? What Paul says here, you forget them! Forget it! Forget it, no matter what it is.
That’s what God does with us. He says our sins and our weaknesses and our mistakes, He puts at His back; He doesn’t see them. He says they are drowned in the depths of the sea. He says they are blotted out. He says, "I remember them no more." [Hebrews 8:12, Jeremiah 31:34] I’m saying the exact words out of God’s mouth. So why should we live in the dirt and the drag and the filth and the remembrance of all of these things in our past? And we’ve all got them; things of which we are ashamed. There’s nobody here in divine presence who would stand in this pulpit and reveal all the things that you’ve thought about, and all the things that you have done. We are all human; we’re all fallen, all of us. There’s no one of us that can point to him over there or her over there and say, "Now you look at them, you look at them." Man alive, look at us! Look at me. What do we do in the race? God says forget it, forget it. Every dereliction, every shortcoming, every failure, every sin, forget it; and keep your mind and your heart and your eyes on the goal ahead. That’s what God says.
"And press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" [Philippians 3:14]. Now as he speaks of that he uses a word that I’ve already referred to, "reaching forth," epekteino, "stretching out over." You can just see that word as the runner stretches with all of his might, reaching toward the goal. In that ninth chapter of 1 Corinthians, remember it? He used the word agonizomai. The Greek word for a race is agony, aegony. Oh! putting forth all of the strength and the energies of our souls into the challenge God has placed before us, running toward the goal.
Do you ever sometimes think, why did God in His infinite wisdom and in His omniscience, why did God assign to us all of the things of the kingdom? Why didn’t He give it to angels? Why didn’t He commit it to the seraphim or the cherubim? Why did He give it to us poor, lost human beings made of the dirt of the ground? Well, God gave it to us for one thing, that we might rise to the challenge; that we might be strengthened in the race; for the challenge is good for us, and the race is a blessing for us. And in our striving, in our agonizomai, in our epekteinÃ³, in our throwing ourselves into the work of the Lord, we are blessed. And that is a purpose of God for us. It’s good for us to be challenged, to have a work assigned to us, to run in the race.
I copied this from a national magazine:
As an experiment, the National Institute of Mental Health built a miniature garden of Eden for mice. Nothing was spared to provide every goody and every environmental feature dear to a mouse’s heart. The scientists then stocked this paradise with enough supplies and space to support four thousand mice, but put in only four pair, eight. 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, 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 and spiritless. Shortly after the population reached two thousand, two hundred, about half the planned capacity, all reproduction stopped.
I want to say a nasty thing right there. Those mice lost interest in the female reproductive process. Isn’t that a sight? They had no interest in life whatsoever. The prettiest mouse could walk by, and they wouldn’t even look at her, wouldn’t even look at her.
Not one inhabitant showed the slightest interest in rebuilding the society, in living together. And the mouse population dwindled to zero.
There wasn’t a one left, not one.
These 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 still remain.
That’s the Lord’s truth. It is good for you to have something to do. It is good for you to be challenged. It’s good for you to have to work. It’s good for you to have responsibility. It is great for us in the church.
Dear me! I was talking to Dell Rogers the day before yesterday, and we were talking about this Stewardship Enrichment program and the tremendous – dear me! – the tremendous challenge that it carries with it. We’re going to pay for that campus for our college, teaching these preachers and getting them ready for the mission field and for their pastoral ministries, and the staff. We’re going to get a campus for them. We’ve already bought it, and we’re going to raise the money to pay for it; and that 505 North Ervay building there, and the expansion of our Sunday school. And I’ve already told Jody that he is to have eight thousand in Sunday school every Sunday, or he’s going to start janitoring here in the church; he’s not going to be minister of education, got a challenge for him. And not only that, but we’re going to buy, by God’s grace, and we’re signing the contract tomorrow for a million dollars, we’re going to build here in the heart of our great city the greatest ministry to the poor in the earth. There’ll be none like it. I have been in that Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, been in the Bowery Mission in Lower Manhattan in New York – nothing like the tremendous ministry that our church is going to have to the homeless and the poor in the city of Dallas.
"Well preacher, how in the earth are you going to fund and pay for these things?" God’s going to help us! We’re going to rise to the challenge. We’re going to do it. It’s going to come to pass. When April comes you’re going to have the greatest announcement in the world: we’ve got twenty-seven thousand or twenty-eight thousand members of this church; we’re going to have twenty-eight thousand people responding. It is great; it’s good for us.
About the time I get started I have to close. One of the things that you’ll find in reading literature – you know, I’ve been asked if I weren’t a preacher, "What would you like to be?" I’d love to be a professor of English. I would love it. I majored in English in the university – one of the things you’ll find in English literature and in all human literature is this presentation of the rising of the human spirit to meet a great challenge; pressing toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus [Philippians 3:14]. For example, Pilgrim’s Progress – the book that is second to this Book I hold in my hand – Pilgrim’s Progress; it starts off with Pilgrim, with his back toward his home and his house and everything in this world, and his eyes focused on the city of God. And the entire book is the challenge, the progress, the pressing toward the mark, the race, moving toward the heavenly city of God. That’s the whole book.
One of the great, great, great poems in the English language is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s "The Knights of the Round Table" in King Arthur’s court. And having read that, and all of you have, in that tremendous poem is Merlin: Merlin, the prophet magician who was advisor to King Arthur of the Round Table. And the gleam of which Tennyson writes and Merlin speaks, the gleam is the undying longing and search after the ideal goal, the mother passion of all the supreme artists of the world. So in this part of the poem, Merlin is speaking to a young mariner who’s ready to launch his ship, about Merlin’s coming death. Now I quote:
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 in the poem Merlin recalls his youth, his manhood, his early age, his poems, his labors, his working with King Arthur of the Round Table, always following the Gleam, the heavenly ideal goal. Then he continues:
And broader and brighter
The Gleam flying onward,
Wed to the melody,
Sang thro’ the world;
And I 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, in his closing appeal in the poem:
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,
Crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
Over it, follow it,
Follow The Gleam.
["Merlin and The Gleam"; Alfred Lord Tennyson]
That’s great! That represents the finest of the human spirit. And as I say, this is the finest in human literature.
Let’s take our own poet 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! Onward! Higher!
In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a moan,
"Oh stay," the maiden said, "and rest
Thy weary head upon my breast!"
A tear stood in the bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
Onward! Upward! Higher!
"Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!"
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
["Excelsior"; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]
Onward! Higher! Upward! This is the finest in human literature! It is the finest in human speech. It is the finest of the spirit of man, and it is the great call of Almighty God to each one of us. There’s a goal, there’s a gleam, there’s a calling, there’s an assignment, there’s a responsibility, there’s a work; and we are God’s servants to do it, running the race for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
The whole world is immersed particularly today in athletic programs. Tonight we have this annual Superbowl. I read something the other day. A coach is talking to a pole-vaulter, and he’s telling him how to throw himself over that highest pole, how to win the prize. And here’s what the coach says to the boy: he says to him, "Son, throw your heart over first, throw your heart over that pole first, and your body will follow after." That’s great.
Give your heart to Jesus. Love the Lord Jesus. Answer the call of the Lord Jesus. Accept from His hands the assignment from heaven, and God will help you achieve that final victory: you won’t fail.
And to you who have listened on television, may God grant a beautiful victory to you this Lord’s Day. All of us are created by the omnipotent hands of the Lord God, and all of us have an assignment in this world. We were born to serve Him. Give your heart to the Lord. Accept Him as your Savior. And you will find in life deep, beautiful, and heavenly meaning to every work of every day, even though it be menial. Come with me, love the Lord Jesus, and I’ll see you in heaven someday.
And to the great throng in the sanctuary, in the balcony round, down a stairway; in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles, "Pastor, the Lord has called me, and here I stand." Some of you into the fellowship of our dear church, some of you accept Jesus as Savior, some of you answering the call from heaven to a special assignment, on the first note of the first stanza, come, and welcome; 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)
Our text – the race course, stadium, amphitheater
II. His humility at present attainments
– he takes a reckoning, an inventory of himself
lambano – he has not arrived, not attained
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)
Humility one of the most precious virtues
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
God does with us – our sins, weaknesses, mistakes are blotted out (Hebrews 8:12, Jeremiah 31:34)
IV. He views the future in God’s will and
– "stretching out over"
– agony(1 Corinthians 9:26)
Putting 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
Our response to the call of God
toward the mark
Great theme in human literature
Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
Tennyson’s "Merlin and The Gleam"