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13. What is the Goal of the Christian?

Chapter 13

What is the Goal of the Christian?

Philippians 3:13-15
Montreal, September 8, 1996


We have a baptism today, so I would like to look at a few fundamen­tal questions about the Christian life that are brought out power­fully in Philippians 3:13-15. Note especially the words in boldface:

13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in any­thing you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. (Philippians 3:13-15, ESV)

Paul says that mature Christians think in a certain way (v.15). What way? This is explained in verses 13 and 14. A mature Christian does not think that he has already arrived at where he ought to be. But more than that, he forgets the things that are behind him, and focuses his life on what is ahead of him.

The exegesis of verse 13 is not as simple as it may seem at first glance. Nonetheless I would like to give this verse to our sister who will be baptized today, but also to every one of you here. It is a popular verse for Christian posters, though few people understand what it means.

This verse contains a very important principle. What does it mean to “forget what lies behind”? Does it mean to forget every­thing from the past, even the historical events that teach us important lessons? But a large part of the Old Testament is history. So if we forget the past in that sense, we cannot study history or read a large portion of the Old Testament.

When Paul says that he presses on, or presses forward, he is pointing to the goal in front of him. And what is that goal? If I should ask you, “What is your goal as a Christian?” how would you answer? I have met many Christians who are sincere in their faith, yet cannot tell me the goal of their Christian lives. Is it to know the Bible better? Or embark on a mission to preach the gospel? The mean­ing of this verse is not obvious to many Christians. But I hope that after this message, you will understand this verse much better. Let me try to explain it by way of three illustrations.

Saddam Hussein’s war with the Kurds

Every day I learn new spiritual truths from reading the world news. Every significant news item has a spiritual message in it. God can speak to us through the news if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Two weeks ago, something was happening in Iraq. Our friend Saddam Hussein was com­ing up with new ideas. After suffering a disastrous defeat in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, you would think that he has had enough of war. But he doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson, for now he wants to start a war in the northwest with the Kurds, potentially creating political and military conflicts among the surrounding nations. Suddenly cruise missiles are coming in again, and jets are flying overhead. What can we do to help him learn some basic lessons in life?

But isn’t this the situation with many Christians? I see the same basic thing happen­ing with them. They have one bad experience after another because of their disobeying God. But have they learned anything? No, they go on creating the same mess again and again.

The divorce of Princess Diana and Prince Charles

About ten days ago, another news item appeared. Again it has to do with relationship problems, this time involving royalty: the official divorce of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. We don’t call her “Princess Diana” any more. She is no longer “Your Royal Highness” but a commoner, having fallen from the heights of royal glory. But why would such a thing happen after 15 years of marriage?

The marriage of Diana and Charles was a fairy tale marriage that cap­tured the world’s imagination fifteen years ago. This beautiful commoner had become a princess, and it was theoretically possible for her to become the Queen of England! Wow! That is the dream of every little girl: “Soon I will be a princess and maybe later the queen!” This is the stuff of fairy tales, and now it is real! This commoner called Diana was going to be a princess, maybe even the queen. She was not marrying some ugly old king but a handsome prince. You recognize him in his royal uniform with gold braids and buttons, with a shiny sword by his side. He has handsome fea­tures and brown wavy hair. Every girl’s heart was going out to the future King of England! This is what dreams are made of!

Fifteen years ago the whole world witnessed their splendid and beauti­ful wedding, but now we hear the news of their divorce. Of course we are not surprised by this, having heard of their marital problems over the past years. And when their divorce was officially announced, the dream had come to an end.

But why? Why would two good-looking people with a glorious future and everything the world can offer, come to a divorce? What do you think? Do you have an answer to this question? You may say that it was the result of character differences, but every couple has char­acter differences. Which husband and wife are identical in character? Char­acter differences don’t usually destroy a marriage, for there are ways to resolve them. Yet nothing could save the marriage of the prince and princess, not even the pressure of public scrutiny. How in the world did all this happen?

“Superman” Christopher Reeve is paralyzed

A few days ago, I read a news story about Christopher Reeve, an actor who is most famous for his role as Superman. He is tall at 6 feet 4 inches, hand­some, and muscular. He wears a blue suit with a big “S” in front. He spreads his arms and flies in the sky. That is what dreams are made of. Wouldn’t you love to fly? We fly only in our dreams. When I fly in my dreams, I don’t do it properly because I am basically a swimmer. So when I fly, I swim at the same time! But Superman doesn’t need to move his arms. He puts his arms forward and goes off like a rocket!

But what happened to Christopher Reeve? By now we all know that he is paralyzed, a quadriplegic. Last year, 1995, he fell from a horse and broke his neck, so he is paralyzed from the neck down. I hardly recognized him when he was brought on stage to raise funds for people with spinal injuries. He looked so helpless, sitting on a wheelchair. A tube in his mouth assisted his breathing. He wasn’t like the handsome man in the film “Superman”.

What lessons can we learn from this? Reeve fell from the heights of glory, the glory of physical excellence that befits the role of Superman. In real life, Reeve was also a sportsman, and his muscles were real. His good-looking, muscular physique in a tight-fitting suit was very impressive! But now he sits bent on a wheelchair.

In all of this, I think God is saying some­thing to us. He is not saying that Christopher Reeve did anything bad to deserve this. But God nonetheless has a message for mankind. We think of Superman as one who can save the world from every danger, even by stopping missiles and rotating the planet. When you have this level of super power, you don’t need God. I think the message is this: Look at Superman now. He cannot save himself, much less mankind. Every time a child looks at Christopher Reeve, he or she would ask, “What happened to Superman?” It is ironic that this accident happened to Superman and not another Hollywood star. Is this a coin­cidence? When we read the news, do we learn any spiritual lessons? We learn spiritual lessons from the Bible, but also outside the Bible, for God speaks to us by many means if we have ears to hear.

Man’s root problem: The ego

Is there a pattern to these three incidents? The first is on the inter­nat­ional level (Saddam Hussein), the second is on the social level (Princess Diana), the third is on the individual level (Christopher Reeve). Interest­ingly, I got the three news items in that order.

When we look at the world, what do we discern as the root cause of man’s problems, whether on the international scale or the indiv­idual level? It is man himself. In order to treat a disease, you must diagnose it correctly. A wrong diagnosis can kill the patient with the wrong treatment. And symptomatic treat­ments are ineffective because they don’t deal with the root problem. So what is the root problem in man? Man’s funda­mental problem is the self, the ego. It is the most difficult thing to deal with.

What caused our friend Saddam Hussein to think of grabbing Kuwait? Everything he does is driven by self-glorifi­cation. He re­built the ancient city of Babylon which flourished in biblical times, even putting his name on each of the bricks used for the rebuilding. He wanted to be honored in history books as the con­queror of Kuwait. But he had bigger ambitions than Kuwait. That was just the first step. You would think that he would have learned his lesson after being inflicted a devastating defeat. But nothing can contain the self, so he seeks another way to establish his glory.

But is he really different from us? Look into your hearts. What motiv­ated you to do what you just did? If it was not done for your own pleasure, satisfact­ion, or personal glory, why did you do it? We know the answer: Man is motivated by the desire to fulfill the self.

What caused Charles and Diana’s dream marriage to fail? The clash of self. Neither side was willing to give in to the other, so something had to break.

Saddam wanted to take Kuwait but the world said no. Wars start when there is a clash of wills between nations. Even in churches there are clashes in which some say the leaders are wrong, but the leaders hit back, saying, “I know more spiritual things than you. I am right, you are wrong.

Why do we want power? It is to vanquish an opposing will so that we can do what we think is right. Notice the words, “what we think is right”. The self is so subtle that it won’t say openly, “I am doing this for my own glory,” because that is a bit too blatant. But one way or another, there will be other means of self-glorification, like Saddam’s claim that it is all for the glory of Iraq. But the glory of Iraq is his own glory. We hide our motives behind nice-sounding words. In the spiritual life, that is not only scary but disastrous.

More than once I have encountered the situation of a boy saying to a girl, “You have to marry me.” The girl says, “Why?” and he says, “Because it is God’s will for us to get married.” How do you argue with that? So she asks, “How do you know it’s God’s will?” He says, “I’ve been a Christian two years longer than you, and I know God better than you. And it is His will for us to marry.” Well, that is quite some marriage proposition, isn’t it? But I’m not joking here, for I know of at least two such cases. Dear sisters, please be careful! Some brother may approach you one day to tell you that it is God’s will for you to marry him, and he does this by invoking God’s name! That is the worst thing to do. It is not unknown in the church, unfortunately. It reveals the craftiness of the self. And what is the best way of dealing with this kind of falsehood? One sister handled it by saying, “I will marry you when God tells me it is His will!”

Forget the self, and press on to the things of God

What has this to do with the Bible verse I intro­duced at the begin­ning of this message with the important words, “forgetting what lies behind”? What specifically do we forget?

Saddam Hussein, in a wrong way, forgot what was behind, notably his failure in Kuwait a few years earlier. Now he is pressing forward, again in a wrong way, towards his own glorification.

Paul is not saying that we forget the lessons of the past, for he says in the same chapter, “I have suffered the loss of all things (which I cherished in the past) and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil.3:8). This attitude is very important. The things that were important to Paul are no longer important to him. Now he seeks some­thing else: “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. To know Christ Jesus, Paul forgets the things behind him, regarding them as rubbish. It means forgetting the things of the self. He said he was a Pharisee, which was a glorious title in his day (most Christians don’t catch this point because of their negative impression of the Pharisees). More than that, Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (v.5), the purest kind of Hebrew. He used to take pride in these things, but he now counts them as rubbish.

What about us? Do we feel proud of our family heritage or the univer­sity degrees we have earned? Just leave these things behind. They don’t matter anymore. They make the self proud, and there is nothing more dangerous than pride.

God answers prayers when the self is dealt with

Is prayer a futile exercise for you? You pray and pray, yet God never seems to answer your prayers.

The Lord Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt.5:8). If you have pride, you are not pure in heart, and won’t get through to God. That is why some people experience God and others don’t. Some have dealt with the self, others have not. That is the secret of the spiritual life. Paul expresses the mindset of every “mature” Christian: “I forget all the things that have to do with the self, and I press on to the things of God.” If you have that attitude, God will answer your prayers.

I have full confidence in my God because of my long experience of Him over the years. It has been 43 years since I came to God in 1953. That is a long time. Of the many, many prayers which I have made to God, I don’t recall one that He did not answer. Sometimes I have to wait a while before He answers, but the answer will always come sooner or later. Sometimes I had scarcely said the words with my mouth when He answered me! And there were times when He answered me even before I asked Him! That’s exactly what Isaiah 65:24 says: “Before they call I will answer.”

Forgetting the “me”, straining forward to Christ Jesus

To our sister who is about to be baptized, I ask the question: What is the meaning of this baptism to you? It is this: From now on, you forget what is behind, forget all the things that have to do with the self, namely, your selfish ambitions, your pride, and even the past hurts and wrongs that people have done to you. These you forgive and forget. Don’t let the past be a millstone around your neck.

I have counseled many people in my years of ministry, and many are walking around in life with big burdens of the past. You simply cannot move forward with a millstone around your neck. God wants to set you free from the past. That is why there are two parts to Philippians 3:13: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” You must be freed from the past before you can go forward. And baptism marks the begin­ning of that.

In the Greek text of this verse, the word for “forgetting” is a present parti­ciple, which means that you keep on forgetting. The words “straining forward” is one word in Greek, and also a present participle, which means that you keep on straining forward. In the Greek, straining forward (pressing forward) expresses an intensity that doesn’t quite come out in the English. It is a picture of disciple­ship: Jesus is in front, I am behind, following him by the leading of the Spirit. And what do I forget and leave behind? The “me”. Then you will know what freedom is.

I have dealt with many people afflicted with serious mental pro­blems, and do you know what is the main trait of these people? The complete preoccupation with the self. They are locked into them­selves.

The other day I went for a physical checkup, and while waiting at the doctor’s office, I picked up a booklet on mental problems. A sentence in this booklet struck me: “A symptom of mental illness is a turning inward, the complete obsession with the self.” How true to reality! If we measure people against this criterion—“the com­plete obsession with the self”—most would have a minor men­tal problem. It might not be to the extent of obsession, but it can develop in that direction. When you meet people who are preoccu­pied with themselves, they always talk about themselves and never get away from them­selves. Nobody wants to talk to them, so they get lonely.

Many are obsessed with themselves, but some like Saddam Hussein are clever enough to make it less obvious by subtle means such as talking about the glory of the country. Hitler was completely obsessed with him­self, and some regarded him as a madman. He kept on talking about the glory of Germany, but in his heart “Ger­many is me,” just as Louis XIV said, “I am the State” (of France).

Some time back, a sister in our church kept coming to me with her problems. Every time I talked with her, it was always me this and me that. It was so tiring. Various coworkers tried to help her but to no avail. Many people love to talk about themselves, yet on the other hand, they also hate this constant talking because it stems from real-life problems. So they are in a love-hate relation­ship with themselves. The coworkers finally gave up on her, for they didn’t know how to help her. So she came to me.

I said to her, “I’m going to give you just one instruction, and you must stick to it firmly if you are ever going to get out of your mess.”

She said, “What is it?” I said, “From now on, you are not allowed to talk about yourself, not even once. Don’t talk about yourself to anyone, not even to your husband.” Her mouth dropped, for how can you carry on in life without talking about yourself? I told her husband, “See to it that you never talk to her about her.”

And do you know what happened? She was later healed of her self-preoccupation! She was joyful over being freed from herself, having learned to forget herself. “This is more wonderful than I had ever thought!” In fact, in these past years she has stuck to this rule of not talking about herself, and has become a fine person. In the past, people would avoid her because she would always talk about herself. They would hear the same stories fifty times over. But now she has many friends because she is con­cerned for others. The power and simplicity of this principle is remarkable!

When you go into the water at baptism, you die with Christ. By this death the past is gone and forgotten, and you are buried in baptism. Then you are raised from the dead, and press on in a new direction. You are free from yourself, and you now follow the Lord Jesus who is in front of you. As a disciple you forget what lies behind, namely, the self. Then you press forward by God’s power to become like the Lord Jesus.

Press forward: Let God make you extraordinary

The Greek word for “press forward” in Philippians 3:14 is very intense (diōkō means “to pursue, persecute”). Few Christians have this kind of intensity, yet it is this extraordinariness that attracts other people. So I say to our sister who is going to be baptized today: Let God set you on fire so that you may be a light in the darkness. There is no point being a Christian unless you are an out­standing Christian for God’s sake. That is our calling.

I close with the words of David Livingstone, a servant of God and a famous explorer of Africa, which he wrote in his diary: “I have no un­usual endowments of intellect, but this day I resolve that I will be an uncom­mon Christian.” To our sister who is going to be baptized: be determined to be an uncommon Christian by God’s grace, for the church is full of ordinary Christians who lack fire.

Someone once asked John Wesley, “Why do crowds of people come to hear you preach?” He said, “It is because I set myself on fire, and people come to see me burn.” Wesley is summing up the secret of drawing people to God through his preaching: be on fire. That is wonder­ful! Here you see the intensity of one who presses forward.

I pray that God will make each of you a spiritual fire. But that won’t happen until you forget yourself and leave the self behind, and press forward with your whole heart to become like the Lord Jesus, who reflects the glory of God (2Cor.4:6).

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church