12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
If there’s one message we get from Paul over and over and over, it’s that salvation comes as a gift from Jesus. It’s not something we can earn, achieve, or work to receive. So, Paul, then why do you talk about “straining toward what is ahead” and ‘pressing on toward the goal to win the prize’? Isn’t a prize something we work for and straining something we do? Where is the grace in all this? Where is the rest of faith? Straining does not sound pleasant to me.
The important thing here is to look at the context. The previous section is that Paul considers all of his pedigree and works as “rubbish” that he may “gain Christ” (3:8). His mission know is to “know Christ.”
- “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8)
- “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10)
In the past knowing Christ was not Paul’s mission. His mission was to lead a perfect life and somehow to attain to salvation (3:4-6). His new mission was to know Christ and all that went with that — his power and his suffering.
So when Paul says he wants to “press on toward the goal to win” and “straining toward what is ahead,” it’s the knowing of Christ that he desires. It’s an endeavor that never has an ending point. Although in death he will win the crown and the prize of eternal life. But he presses on as though it were a race he was contending for to win. His knowing Jesus wasn’t passive, but a pressing forward with all diligence.
I was reading a business book the other day, and it said that success is not what you say yes to, it’s how much you say no to in order to achieve your goal. I think the same is true of athletes. Superior athletes say no all the time to ordinary things. They train so much they don’t have the time to do “normal” things, but to compete at the level they do, it’s about saying no to something every single day, including the things they eat and the days they don’t want to work out.
The race that Paul speaks about here is similar in many ways. To know Christ it’s like a competition in which the things of the earth must receive a “no.” He says this, “Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven” (3:19). And because of this we do things different.
Paul isn’t striving and running to win salvation. Rather he is striving and running to know Christ. How much do we say “no” to in order to say “yes” to Christ?