Past, Present, and Future
In last Sunday’s message, there was a quick mention of something the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians in the city of Philippi. What Paul wrote was his determination to strain forward in his Christian race, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ. The call to righteous living now and to Heaven, which is the reward for those whose relationship with Jesus endures to the end.
In today’s message, we are going to get into Paul’s thoughts more deeply. We will do that by considering some more verses in Philippians 3, along with some snippets in other New Testament Books written by Paul. Verses in which Paul added to the challenge to strain forward, the addition being his willingness to look back as well.
To begin, let’s remember that part of Paul’s background was very positive. A background that began just a few days after his birth, when he was, as he reported in verse 5 of Philippians 3, circumcised. The significance of that statement is that Jewish boys - the male type of the people of God - were circumcised when they were eight days old.
The point Paul made with that statement is that he was not late to the Jewish faith. He had never been a heathen. He was Jewish from birth. That was a positive thing for him.
Also in verse 5, Paul was of the people of Israel. Again, he had never been a heathen. He had always identified as a follower of God.
He was also of the tribe of Benjamin. That tribe had, throughout history, been the elite tribe of the Jews. Benjamin had been born of Rachel, his father’s favorite, most-loved wife. Benjamin was the only son of his father born in the Jewish Promised Land. It was that tribe that was the focus of the rebuilding of the nation after a time of exile in Jewish history. Members of that tribe usually led whatever battles were fought.
Paul being circumcised, being of the people of Israel, being of the tribe of Benjamin - all those things were privileges given to him by his parents. In addition, there were many things he himself accomplished.
For instance, he identified himself, still in verse 5 of Philippians 3, as a Hebrew born of Hebrews. Of course, his birth was his parents’ doing, but, Paul wrote, he was still a Hebrew, which means he had, throughout his life, retained the Hebrew language and religious practices. Paul had grown up in the non-Hebrew city of Tarsus. It would have been easy for him to be assimilated into non-Jewish culture, including language and religion, but he had refused to be assimilated. He had been strong enough to maintain his Jewish ways.
In addition, Paul was a Pharisee, which was quite an accomplishment. One place I read Pharisees described as the spiritual athletes of the Jews.
It took a lot of training to be a Pharisee. It also took great amounts of discipline to stay a Pharisee because Pharisees separated themselves from most of the rest of Jewish society, their only purpose being to learn and obey every single detail of religious law.
The Old Testament lists many laws, those coming from God. The Jews worked at defining what God meant by those laws. The Jews had, over the centuries, developed at least thousands and thousands of rules and regulations they taught had to be followed if a person was to obey God. Pharisees dedicated themselves to knowing and obeying every one of those rules and regulations.
Here are two examples of that I would consider extreme.
I have read that some were called bleeding Pharisees, that description earned by Pharisees who took so seriously the law to not look at a woman with immoral thoughts, they closed their eyes when walking in public. The reasoning was that if they did not look at anyone, lustful looks toward a woman could not occur.
The problem, of course, is that if you walk around with your eyes closed, it is likely you will run into things like walls. That is what happened with those Pharisees. Hence injuries that caused bleeding.
The other example is this. When some of us were in the Holy Land a few years ago, we were in Tel Aviv on a sabbath day. Our lodging was a high-rise hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
One of the elevators in the hotel was called the sabbath elevator. Each sabbath day, that elevator was programmed to stop at each floor all the way up and all the way down. Why? Without that, a person getting on would have to push the button for the floor he or she wanted. Pushing buttons is considered work. God said work should not be done on the sabbath.
I am not sure that is what God had in mind with that law of His, but it is part of what the Jews determined He meant
Paul was a Hebrew. He was a Pharisee. What great accomplishments both those things were. Along with him having been circumcised, him being of the people of Israel, him being of the tribe of Benjamin, he was, as he wrote - this is verse 6 - righteous and blameless. Those words mean there was no demand of Jewish law Paul did not fulfill.
Paul was given at birth and he attained on his own some very impressive things. Things that were positive parts of his background. But there was a nasty streak that wove its way through his background. It was seen in how he treated those who were Christians. Paul wrote in verse 6 that he had had a zeal in persecuting the church.
Three examples of that.
In Acts 7, an early Christian named Stephen was martyred.
Stephen had been preaching in favor of Jesus, which alienated Jewish leaders such as Paul. When those leaders hassled him, Stephen accused them of being stiff-necked and resistant to the Holy Spirit. That verbal attack resulted in Stephen being arrested and killed by stoning.
Throwing stones was quite an exertion. Many of the throwers took off their outer garments. Guess who watched those garments. Paul, who, as it is worded in verse 1 of Acts 8, consented to Stephen’s death.
Right after that, Paul himself engaged in persecution.
Acts 8:3 reports that Paul ravaged the church - the Christians - in Jerusalem. H he entered house after house in Jerusalem, I am guessing without a search warrant, dragging away, not only men, but women as well. Any adult he found that he even suspected of being a Christian, he dragged off and committed to prison.
Then, after that persecution led many Christians to flee Jerusalem, Paul was determined to go beyond the city.
According to chapter 9 of Acts, Paul went to the Jewish High Priest. Paul asked for and received letters giving him permission to go to Damascus and search for Christians there. Paul’s goal was to find whatever Christians he could, bind them, and send them back to Jerusalem, where they would be imprisoned.
As we know, it was on his way to Damascus that Paul was met by Jesus. In that miraculous meeting, Paul was changed from a persecutor of Christians to a believer and very dedicated servant of the Lord.
But until that miracle, Paul was, as he himself wrote later in the New Testament, the foremost of sinners. A sinner who, through his actions and his words, had blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Jesus.
All that - the good and the bad - were part of Paul’s background. A background that could, after he became a follower of Christ, have affected him negatively in either of two ways.
Paul could have had an arrogant attitude, based on his heritage, his education, his accomplishments. And hey, they were impressive. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things.
Or Paul could have had a debilitating remorse, based on regrets of how he had treated other people.
Paul had an interesting background. A background that could have made his present mood either arrogant or remorseful. However, neither arrogance nor remorse happened.
Concerning his positive accomplishments - Philippians 3:8 - whatever gain he had, he count as loss. Concerning both the positive and negative - Philippians 3:13 - he forgot what was behind. That means he was not going to rest on his accomplishments. Nor was he going to let his past sins keep him from growing in his faith.
Verses 13 and 14 of Philippians 3. He strained forward to what lay ahead and pressed on toward the goal of blessings here and now and of Heaven later.
Paul recognized the past, but that would not negatively affect his present faith. And speaking of continuing to strain forward and press on, I am always amazed at what Paul faced as a Christian.
A list of those things is found in II Corinthians. Listen to the list.
Five times he was lashed by his fellow Jews, each time receiving 39 lashes. Forty lashes was known to often result in death, which is why they stopped at 39. That, though, means he was nearly whipped to death, that happening five times.
Three other times Paul had been beaten with rods. Those beatings, too, were almost to the point of death.
Three times Paul was shipwrecked.
For a night and a day he had been adrift at sea.
On frequent journeys - journeys to spread the Christian faith to others - he faced many dangers, including rivers, robbers, other Jews, Gentiles who also disagreed with his Christian faith. Paul faced dangers in cities and in wilderness areas.
Paul was willing to strain forward through all those problems. Added to them were sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, being cold, the daily pressure of wondering about the churches he started. Through all that, too, Paul was determined press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
That straining forward and pressing on are so very impressive. However, Paul himself was not impressed. Again in Philippians 3, this time verse 13, he did not consider that he had made it his own. And in I Timothy 1, he acknowledged he received mercy through the patience of Jesus Christ.
What a wonderful reminder that is for us. Of course, it is up to each individual to accept the salvation Jesus offers, but it was Jesus’ death that made salvation possible. It was and is Jesus’ idea to offer salvation. It is His patience toward us that makes salvation possible.
Paul knew his ability to strain forward and press on, despite his earlier accomplishments and failures, was a gift from Jesus. And consider this. It was a gift he knew he had not yet completely received. In verse 12 of Philippians 3, he admitted he had not already obtained perfection.
Paul knew he still needed to grow in his faith. Isn’t that true for all of us? He was willing to keep growing. To stay in the Christian race until the finish line of Heaven.
Which leads us to a story.
In last week’s message, there were two sports stories about athletes who did not give up, despite difficulties.
One of the athletes, Chris Couch, was hailed at age 16 as the next phenom in golf, but he did not win his first and only PGA tournament until he was 32.
The other athlete was Florence Chadwick, who failed a first attempt to swim from the coast of California to Catalina Island, 21 miles away. Florence failed because fog kept her destination out of sight. But Florence kept training until, two months after the failed attempt, she accomplished the feat, that time overcoming the fog problem.
Here is another sports story with an example of keeping going.
Joop Zoetemelk is a bicyclist in the Netherlands. He is known as that nation’s most successful cyclist. Why? Because he never gave up in his quest to win a Tour de France bike race.
Over all, Joop started 16 Tour de France races. He finished all of them, getting as high as second place five times. It was not until the 16th attempt, that one in 1980, that Joop won the race.
Remember the call is to keep working and working and learning and practicing and doing. That was the case for Chris Couch the golfer and Florence Chadwick the swimmer. It was also the case for Joop Zoetemelk the bicyclist.
In a spiritual sense, that was certainly the case with Paul.
Let me ask you - and myself - is there something in your background - in my background - that needs to be overcome? That usually refers to something bad. Is there something bad in your background that needs to be overcome?
In a recent message I talked about Jimmy Swift, a boy in one of my classes in elementary school. He was kind of a dirty. He was an unpopular kid who had a mean streak. One day something happened on the playground. A cute little girl got hurt. She blamed Jimmy, who denied having done anything wrong. When the teacher asked who believed Jimmy was lying, all the hands in the class went up. Including mine. Even though I had seen nothing, I joined everyone else in condemning Jimmy.
As stated in that message, I gave a false report that day, for which I am sorry. But that part of that message caused someone who heard it to remember an incident in his background. Another playground incident, which he committed, but when asked about it, instead of admitting it - he was reluctant to admit his guilt because his teacher liked him and he did not want to disappoint her - he pointed to another student and told the teacher that student was the guilty party.
The one who shared that incident with me felt bad about what had happened, including the fact the one falsely blamed was, a few years later, a resident of the jail in that town. The question asked was, do I suppose what he did in falsely accusing the other student was one of the things that led to his incarceration?
My answer was that the one in jail is the one who made the decision to break the law. However, what an interesting, sobering question. What a challenge that we always speak the truth.
But there is something else. You and I cannot do anything to change what has happened in the past. We can, however, from this moment on, do what is right. I have done better since my Jimmy incident. I know the one who shared about his elementary school lie has done better since then.
So again, is there something bad in your background that needs to be overcome? If so, think of Paul. I mean, how worse could your background be than his, in which he blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Jesus by doing everything he could to eliminate the followers of Jesus?
Paul did not let his past sins keep him from Jesus. May you and I be like Paul. Repent of what you have done wrong. Accept forgiveness from Jesus. From that point on, keep growing in your Christian faith.
Or is there something in your background that could cause you to rest on your laurels. To think, like Paul could have, you might be a little bit better than other Christians.
Again, there is nothing at all wrong with having a very positive, successful background, but, like Paul, know that salvation is a gift. A gift from Jesus. A gift based on His mercy.
Whatever your background - whatever bad or good things are in your past - be sure to accept Jesus now. That way you will have the Lord’s blessings now. With those blessings, like Paul, let’s together strain forward and press on. Let’s keep working and working and learning and practicing and doing our Christian faith to the eventual reward of Heaven, all the way thanking Jesus for His mercy and love.
The closing song for today is the hymn Take Time to Be Holy, verses 1 and 3. As we sing, let’s make it our request of ourselves and of God that we speak often with God, asking for His strength and discipline to know and follow His word. That we will feel His power as we keep straining forward and pressing on.
Take time to be holy, speak often with God;
Find rest in Him always, and feed on His word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
Take time to be holy, let Him be your guide,
And run not before Him, whatever betide.
In joy or in sorrow, still follow your Lord,
And, looking to Jesus, still trust in His word.
Lord, help us, even in our good feelings about past successes and as we regret past failures, to know that what we do from now on is most important. Help us to keep working and learning and practicing and doing our Christian faith. Help us, like Paul, to keep straining forward and pressing on. Help us, like him, to know that even that comes from You. Help us to be holy, now and forever. Amen.