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. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Verse 12 is loaded with significance that unfortunately is hard to get across in English from the original Greek. (And I know Greek in a sermon is very much like marmite; some people are readying their notepads with glee and others have quickly looked at their watch and are wondering how much longer. You can't please everyone)
Firstly, there’s a lot in that word ‘perfect’. the Greek word used is teteleiōmai. (The root word being teleios). And rather than being 'perfect' like spotless or without fault, It speaks more of a process that has finally been completed. So, remember Jesus’s last words on the Cross? [John 19:30] “it is finished” “It is accomplished” Tetelestai! It’s the same word; that sense that the job has been done and my purpose has been fulfilled. Paul uses the same word later on too in verse 15, but thats translated into english as the word 'maturity'. It’s a similar idea if you think about it. Children are in a growing process and eventually reach a point where they are teteleiōmai. They finally complete their growing process.
So Paul is saying that he hasn’t reached his finished state yet. He has not arrived at that goal he is striving for. He is still learning, still growing, still in the process of changing. He is still a caterpillar, not yet a butterfly.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Paul, who probably wrote at least half of the books of the New Testament, and who’s missionary work saw the founding and growth of countless churches across the Mediterranean. Who’s instruction and teaching on the Christian life has been invaluable in the growth of the global universal Church and who's wisdom and insight was, quite literally, inspired by God. This great apostle of Jesus Christ: is still a caterpillar, not yet a butterfly.
And then we move on to the second part of the sentence. And we see that there’s also a lot in that next phrase “... I press on to make it my own”. This is Paul pressing on; recognising that he is not finished yet. His unfinished status leads him to push forward ever harder… straining forward like a jockey on a horse (or a kid on a bike trying to break the speed limit!) The word to 'press on' is ‘Dioko’ and it means to pursue aggressively: to snatch hold of. Curiously, it’s the word they use in the book of Acts all the time to speak of persecuting the Church. In fact, when Paul has his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, do you remember what Jesus says to him? “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (ti me diokeis) "Why are you agressively pursuing me?"
And now…. Paul is using the same word! Paul has had his life turned around by Jesus. He has turned from aggressively pursuing Christ because he hates him, to aggressively pursuing him because he loves him and wants to "know him more". It's either a very clever choice of words by Paul, or a wonderfully ironic coincidence.
Thirdly, we get to the climax of the big sentence (and I’ll stop soon after this!). Paul is not finished, so he is aggressively pursuing further, so that he might make that goal his own. And why? Here's the big why at the end of verse 12: “Because, Christ Jesus, has made me his own” In the greek it speaks of Paul trying to grab hold of his prize (katalabō) because Christ Jesus has grabbed hold of him ( 'katelēmphthēn') The King James speaks of 'apprehending' here, which is probably more helpful for us today.
So Paul's goal is to know Christ. He knows he’s not there yet. but he is motivated to keep on going. and why? Where does this dogged determination come from? It’s because Christ has grabbed hold of him.
Dominic Smart once summarised this by saying: "Paul is not driven, he is called". He is not devoting his life to Jesus, out of fear or desperation. He isn't scared of not reaching his goal, or of losing Jesus. No, he is running with determination, thinking only of the goal… because he is expecting to win! and why? Because Jesus grabbed him first and said: “you! you’re the one… I have chosen you”.
That is the difference. Paul has that confidence of a man who has constant encouraging whispers in his ear. Someone saying “come on… you can do this, I know you can…” Picture a marathon runner who finally gets into the stadium for the last lap and as soon as he hears the crowds cheering his name - he somehow finds the energy to keep going, and to even run faster. But there’s no crowds in Paul’s ears - it’s just the encouragement of the very person he is longing to know: Jesus.
So here we are as Christians, living between the now and then. Our old life and the next. A bit like verse 13 [Phil 3:13] we've got things to leave behind, as well as so much to look forward to. It's hard to let go of the past sometimes, but it helps when you have something to look forward to. And we have that same knowledge that Paul had - Jesus has grabbed hold of us, turned us around and changed our destination! He has changed where we call home. He has pointed us towards that wonderful finish line and whispered “RUN! you can do it” - DO we need more motivation than that?
The Goal: To know Christ personally. to truly KNOW him. We can start now, we truly can… and the more we press on, push forward, the closer we get.
The Race: The race is an ongoing life-long struggle… we are not finished, but we push on ‘aggressively’ leaving behind what so easily entangles…
The Motivation: Because Jesus grabbed hold of us first and he will see us through to the end.
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.