Today we’re in Philippians chapter 3, and Paul is addressing the maturity and the maturing of Christians. As followers of Jesus, we’re not actually supposed to be the same as we were a year ago, perhaps even a few months ago. Our hearts, our minds, our lifestyles are to be progressing toward Christian maturity, looking and living more and more like Jesus. In fact, in Ephesians 4, Paul writes that the very job of shepherds and teachers (in other words, pastors, my job) is to equip the saints for the work of ministry…until we all attain to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” That’s my job as your pastor, is to see to our maturing, our sanctification.
But, if there is any plague in the Christian church today, it might just be the plague of immaturity. Christians who are actually growing in their faith consistently (and I’m not talking by leaps and bounds, but just slowly and surely), Christians who are growing consistently seem to be the exception rather than the norm. And that’s an issue! And the issue is not with being immature, you know?
Immaturity is part of life! All of us, in all stages of life, are immature in certain ways. We were all immature as young children, then perhaps immature in different ways as teenagers, and then in different ways even as young adults, young parents. Even those of us who have lived a lot of life are immature in certain ways. The problem is not immaturity. The problem is staying immature in the same ways month after month and year after year.
We know there is something wrong when a child stops developing in some way. 2-5 year olds, we know should be developing more and more clear speech capabilities, right? They’re learning more words, then sentences, then better pronunciation, and so on. As Christians, though, it seems like not developing and growing in maturity has become the norm. That’s what we’ve come to expect! So, Paul’s words today I know can really challenge us to ask the question: Do we have the same heart and mindset toward maturing as does Paul? Do we have the same vigor and drive toward maturing as does Paul? So, Terri Morris is going to come and read for us, Philippians 3:12-16. Terri, take it away. Philippians 3:12-16.
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.
15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
Thank you, Terri. Five marks of Maturing Christians from these five verses. And they’re even almost in order going along with these verses. So, right off the bat, we see from Paul that…
- Maturing Christians know they haven’t arrived (12a, 15).
The first thing that Paul writes in verse 12 is, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on…” What is he talking about that he has not yet obtained? Well, if you look back to verses 10-11, we know he’s referring to his resurrected body, this promised perfection that is to come. One day, Paul will be completely without sin in the same way that we in this room, who’ve trusted in Christ for salvation, we will one day be completely without sin.
But, for right now, that’s not really true or even attainable, is it? You see, as Christians in this life, there is this tension between our redeemed souls, this full righteousness that we truly have from Christ, and yet our still-fallen flesh. When we first turned and believed in Jesus, we were immediately counted as righteous. This righteousness did not come from us, as we learned back in verse 9, but came from Christ. So, we’re immediately saved and our sin is fully paid for. And yet, we still struggle with sin. In our flesh, in this life, we still have maturing to do.
In the church at Philippi, there were apparently some going around teaching that final perfection was actually attainable in this life, not just this perfection and righteousness from Christ, but an actual personally attainable perfection. They were teaching that it was possible to be completely without sin in this life. Paul is saying, “No, no, no. We haven’t arrived, not even close. We have not been made perfect.” There’s work to be done. Maturing Christians, Christians who are consistently growing in their faith, know they have not yet arrived.
Have you ever noticed that the more we mature spiritually, the more we become aware of how much maturing we have left? I’ve noticed that at almost every stage of life as a Christian. Even since I’ve been your pastor, I’ve come to know more and more of my own inadequacies and “areas for opportunity,” if you want to call it that. That’s the positive way of saying sin and faults. But it’s like a child who thinks he knows everything, or for that matter an adult that thinks he knows everything! The fact that he’s a know-it-all actually reveals how much he probably doesn’t know.
So, are we aware of how much maturing we have left, or do we think we’ve arrived? If you think you’ve arrived, or think there’s not much left to do in pursuing Christlikeness, most likely your maturity has been stunted. Paul writes in verse 15, that “those who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” Perhaps this very text on this very day is God’s way of revealing to you your stunted growth, your stunted maturing.
Even if you’ve already read the Bible through, maybe multiple times. Even if you’ve taught classes or volunteered for years or even decades. Even if you’ve been a pastor like me. Maybe we don’t think we’ve arrived and we would never say that about ourselves, but are we living our lives as if we’ve arrived?
Do we even have in mind developing more and more into the likeness of Christ? Because let me just say something: if Paul hadn’t arrived when we wrote the majority of the New Testament, I don’t think any of us have arrived. We shouldn’t be indifferent when it comes to our own maturing, by thinking or living like we’ve arrived, and we’ve done enough growing, because the truth is, we all have a ways to go. In fact, Mark #2:
- Maturing Christians pursue maturity vigorously (12b).
Paul’s language here is actually pretty intense. Verse 12, again: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” He is intensely pursuing maturity! Perfection! Holiness! He “presses on to make it his own.” The word for “press on” is a word used for hunting. He’s hunting it down. It’s also used for running a race. It’s this mentality of getting to the finish line as fast as I can. And what is it that he is chasing after so intently? “Making it his own.” Laying hold of maturity, ultimately, the resurrection of the dead that he mentioned back in verse 11, which is like the final status of maturity. That’s the final picture and manifestation of Christlikenes.
But do you hear the intensity in his language? We hear it again in the second half of verse 13: “he’s “forgetting what lies behind” (which we’re going to talk about in a moment), and “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He’s straining, reaching and extending every fiber in his being to lay hold of maturity. That’s the idea here!
It reminds me of when I ran Cross Country in high school. I was never very good. I almost made it to regionals once (it seems like short legs don’t help when trying to run 3.1 miles as fast as you can). But, even though I wasn’t great at it, I certainly tried as hard as I could. I almost never finished a race without having left everything out there as far as my desire and my effort. I remember often in the last few hundred yards of a race, my legs would literally begin to feel like rubber because I was straining so hard to get there as fast as I could. I had no energy left, and yet I kept trying as hard as I possibly could. That’s the attitude here that Paul has toward pursuing maturity.
I’m not sure I have that same kind of vigor right now. And I’m not talking about running—certainly that’s true (I could not care less about running at all—Proverbs 28:1- “The wicked run when no one is chasing them”). But I’m talking about having this kind of vigor for holiness. I don’t know that I have that kind of vigor right now. I’m excited about different parts of my life: my role as a pastor, as a husband, as a dad. But this is a difficult question we need to ask ourselves.
First, not only do we have this same kind of vigor and drive as Paul, but first, is this a goal of ours at all? To reflect and live within the reality of being new creations in Christ, children of God, and to see that reality come to bear on our lives more and more and more. Are we “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another,” as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 3? Is this even on our radar?
If it’s not on your radar at all—maturing and pursuing holiness—if it’s not on your radar, and has maybe even never really been on your radar, you might examine your heart and, first, be sure you are a New Creation. Because we can’t pursue holiness in any meaningful way without having first experienced God’s grace.
In fact, 2nd Corinthians 3:18, the verse I just read about being transformed from one degree of glory to another, that verse ends with this statement: “For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Yet again, back here in Philippians 3, verse 12 makes clear that the only reason Paul can “press on to make maturity his own” is because Christ Jesus has first made Paul his own! Paul can only choose Jesus because Jesus first chose him. In fact, Jesus said exactly that in John 15:16.
So our sanctification, our maturing, is only by God’s grace. You must first experience God’s grace and believe in the gospel to be able to pursue maturity. Why? Because that’s how we find freedom to pursue holiness. John 8:32- “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Until we’re freed from the bondage of our sin, we can’t pursue maturity. All that would be is playing make-believe, as a prisoner in chains pretending to be free. True freedom to become like Christ can only come after you’ve truly been set free.
But, even as Christians, as those who have been set free, there is a great effort to be given toward pursuing maturity, because this maturing won’t just happen. You can’t just “let go and let God” because when you do, you just float away, and suddenly, “Oh, look: I’m more holy, I’m maturing. Wow, didn’t even mean for this to happen, I’m just becoming more like Jesus!” It doesn’t work like that. Paul certainly is not just floating; he’s vigorously aiming for one thing.
We will never just be carried away into maturity. We’re carried away into compromise. When it comes to your faith, if all you’re doing is floating, you’ll go wherever the wind of culture or the wind of desire takes you. Floating like a bubble won’t bring you to maturity. Not at all. You’ve got to pop the bubble, get in an airplane, turn on the engine, and aim where you need to go. By God’s grace, and our new identities in Christ propelling us forward, we can vigorously go after maturity, like Paul.
Indifference, and all this floating going on, just hinders us from becoming the men and women God wants us to be, reflecting the nature and heart of his son Jesus. The summary statement for this mark might be this: Don’t float; instead, pursue! Something else that can hold us back from maturing is being caught up with our past. This is the 3rd mark of a Maturing Christian:
- Maturing Christians don’t let the past define or influence them (13).
Now, I want to explain here, because obviously the past will influence us and it should influence us—because we can learn from the past—but what I mean here is that we shouldn’t let the past negatively influence us. Verse 13: “Brother, I do not consider that I have made it my own.” [Yet again, Paul’s making clear that he hasn’t arrived at perfection at all.] And then he says, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”
How Paul writes this actually is rather abrupt. He’s writing and thinking about really chasing after maturity and wanting it, and even though he’s not perfectly mature yet at all—he hasn’t yet made that his own—there is one thing he has made his own. There is one thing that he absolutely has captured, and grabbed ahold of, and this is it: his past does not define him. His past will not hold him back. He’s straining forward, not letting his past hinder him.
For Paul, “what lies behind” is a few things. First, back in verses 5 and 6, he gives all his Pharisaical accomplishments and privilege. He uses all that to make a point with the Jews who are in Philippi trying to add requirements from the law for Christians. So he lists all these advantages he had. How easy it could be for Paul to let those past descriptors be one of two things.
First, he could so easily let that be a source of shame. How so? He was a persecutor of the church, a murderer by our estimation. He hated God’s church, he hated Christ and everything he and his disciples stood for. He sought out Christians to persecute and thought he was so holy by his own standard. He even says that in verse 6: “as to the law, blameless.” How easy it would be for Paul to be held back from moving forward by questioning whether or not he, of all people, could really be a child of God. Look at what he’s done.
On the other side of this, how easy it would be for Paul to let his past become a source of pride. And I’m talking about, especially, since he became a Christian. Not before becoming a Christian, but what he’s done since he became a Christian. Think about what Paul has accomplished by the time he’s writing this letter to the church at Philippi. He’s started churches. He’s been imprisoned. He’s preached the gospel everywhere and seen thousands upon thousands of people saved! How easy it could be for his past, as in his accomplishments even as a Christian, to hinder him in moving forward. To think, “I’ve already done enough,” or “God’s probably pretty impressed with me.” But Paul doesn’t think like this. Paul strives to forget his past. Not forget as in literally erase the past from his mind, but forget, as in, not dwell on his past. Instead, he’s moving forward.
I don’t know all of your pasts. Maybe you’ve been divorced, or maybe divorced a few times. Maybe you have a long track record of complacency as a Christian. And maybe some of your biggest mistakes in life you can’t blame on not knowing Jesus. Maybe some of your biggest mistakes were made since you’ve known Christ. Listen: God did not forgive only the sins you committed before you became a Christian, and after that, you’re somehow on our own. No! Past, present, and future sins, PAID FOR. And when we truly understand that truth, it compels us toward holiness!
On the other side of it, before or after you become a Christian, maybe you’ve done some great things. Maybe you are an impressive individual. Don’t let that area of your past hinder you by thinking that God saved you because he was impressed.
Do not let your past hinder you from growing in Christ. Your shame is gone. It’s been nailed to the cross. Your pride is gone; it’s been nailed to the Cross! Your shame is gone! Your pride is gone! What could possibly be left?! The love of a Father. That’s it.
God won’t ever reject you because you have too much shame. And God certainly didn’t accept you because he was impressed. Instead, you and I are children of God simply because God wanted us as his children. He adopted us. He chose us. He made us his own.
God can be displeased with our disobedience in the same way that I can be displeased with my son’s disobedience. God can be pleased with my obedience in the same way that I can be pleased with my son’s obedience. But my identity as a child of God does not change according to my wavering obedience. My identity as a child of God is as sure as Christ’s identity as a sufficient sacrifice for my sin. And guess what? That’s a pretty sure identity! He’s trustworthy.
Relish in that this morning. Savor it, and don’t let the past define you or hinder you from pursuing holiness and moving forward. Next, Paul shows us what we should focus in on. No, not our past, but instead, the prize to come. Verse 14: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” The 4th mark:
- Maturing Christians keep their eyes set on heaven (14).
This is the positive side. We don’t let our past hinder us. Instead, we look to what lies ahead. What, specifically do we look forward to? The prize! That’s our goal! The ultimate goal of the “upward call,” which is this call summoning us out of our rebellion and into fellowship with God, specifically through the reconciliation that Jesus accomplished on the cross. The goal of this calling we’ve received and responded to is heaven! The resurrection of the dead! The new heavens and the new earth! It’s being with God himself!
This has to be one of the biggest reasons we are so lacking in maturity, and lacking in holiness. Because we have our eyes squarely focused on this world. And some of this has to be reactionary. Maybe in the past Christians have focused too much on heaven, and getting into heaven, that they neglected what we’re to do while we’re here on earth! Maybe that was the emphasis in the past, and so now, it’s like we don’t like talking about heaven or about the prize we’re to receive in the end, because it feels wrong. It feels like it might make us focus too little on this life now and too much on that life later.
This is hogwash, and it’s why we have to let Scripture determine how and what we think. For Paul, especially, this is exactly what he’s straining toward, ultimately. Finishing the race is his goal! Why? Because of the prize! Paul isn’t ashamed of saying this, either: “I’m not doing it for the reward.” Well, sure, you’re doing it because you love Jesus. But you’re also looking forward to that reward! Not heaven as in the place, but heaven as in the very presence of God Himself.
Even though Paul doesn’t specify in these verses what the prize is, we know from other passages in Scripture what he means. Just one example, 2 Timothy 4:7-8- “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me—but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” He’s relishing in his reward that is to come. And some scholars say that this crown of righteousness is really Jesus himself, because he is our righteousness. And that certainly makes sense. On that day, we’ll be with him, and forever after that day.
But this has to be one of the biggest hindrances to really maturing as believers. We’re too busy focused on the here and now. Our mind is set on prizes in this world, as opposed to THE prize in the next. Our hearts are so enchanted by movies, ambitions, pleasure, worldly creativity, and whatever else that this world has to offer. That’s why it’s very easy to become numb to far-more-real spiritual world.
So how do we combat this, and seek out all these marks of maturity we’re talking about this morning? And then, Mark #5, how do ensure that we hold on to the maturity we’ve already attained?
- Maturing Christians hold on to the maturity they’ve already attained (16).
How can even being to truly do any of this? I’m speaking as practically as possible now. We “behold the glory of the Lord.” We get into the Word and see and savor God Himself, Jesus Our JOY. 2 Corinthians 3:18, the verse I quoted earlier: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
As we read the Word, as we see and savor who God is and what he has done, we will mature. We will continue to be transformed. We will not lose the maturity we’ve already gained, which is a legitimate concern! If we were to go around, maybe we would be able to share particular areas in which we used to be more mature, more like Christ, even more than we are now.
That’s Paul’s concern with this last statement he makes in verse 16: “Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” I like the way the New Living Translation translates this verse: “We must hold on to the progress we’ve already made.” Again, how? We must be in the Word of God. We must continue to be more and more impressed with the Gospel of Jesus as we come to grasp it with more and more understanding and wisdom. 1 Peter 2:2 puts it like this: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk (which we know from two verses before this is the Word of God), so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” That’s 1 Peter 2:2. I love that.
The more you taste and see from the Word of God how good the Lord is, the more you will crave the Word of God, and the more you will grow up and mature.
As Paul’s vigor and his drive have already implied, savoring the Gospel, and becoming more and more mature in our faith and in our Christlikeness, is not something that will come without effort. Yes, our salvation is accomplished and our sanctification is propelled forward by God’s grace. But, God does expect of us, grace-driven labor—grace-driven straining toward maturity.
Paul seemed to desire nothing more than to grow up. He wanted to grow up in Christ, to be fully like Jesus. And so, he chased after this vigorously. Like a child who desperately wants the privilege and freedom of staying up later, or getting their driver’s license, or moving out on their own, so we should desperately pursue the privilege and freedom of maturing in Christ. Let me close with what I consider to be our mission as a church, and hopefully your goal as a Christian: Ephesians 4:11-15.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”
Let’s grow up, church. Let me pray.