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Pentecost 20, “Press On Toward the Goal”

Pastor Gary Wong, October 18, 2020

Philippians 3:12-21

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus also took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it yet, but there is one thing I do: Forgetting the things that are behind and straining toward the things that are ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore, let all of us who are mature continue to think this way. And if you think differently about anything, God will reveal this to you too. 16 Only let us think the same thing and walk in line with what we already have attained. 17 Brothers, join together in imitating me and in paying attention to those who are walking according to the pattern we gave you. 18 To be sure, many walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. I told you about them often, and now I am saying it while weeping. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their appetite, and their glory is in their shame. They are thinking only about earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. We are eagerly waiting for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 By the power that enables him to subject all things to himself, he will transform our humble bodies to be like his glorious body.

“Are we there yet?” Anyone who has been on a long road trip has probably heard that question a million times. Sometimes it seems as though you’ve just backed out of your driveway when the first complaint starts!” “I’m thirsty!” “I’m bored!” “We’re never going to get there!” Now, it’s not as though the family doesn’t want to go on this trip. On the contrary, everyone wants to go to Florida, the cabin up north, or whatever their vacation destination might be. The end of the journey isn’t the problem; it’s getting there that can be nerve-wracking. Problems such as bad weather, a vehicle breaking down, sickness—can turn a dream trip into a horrible nightmare. What would you do if you were in that situation? Turn around and go home; or would you put the pedal to the metal? In today’s lesson, the Apostle Paul addresses a similar situation. All of us are on a journey called life. Our journeys, however, are often filled with problems and setbacks. We may get discouraged, and even tempted to give up. Paul, however, encourages us to keep our eyes on the prize. Motivated by the love of Christ and empowered by the gospel, let’s press on toward the goal of heaven.

Today’s lesson is part of a letter Paul had written to the Christians in Philippi. Ever since Paul had established that congregation, the Apostle had had a close, personal relationship with its members. Paul had expressed his love for them as he wrote, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Php. 1:3-5). In turn, the Philippians showed their love to Paul by sending him a gift when they found out that he was a prisoner in Rome. Paul wrote this letter not only to thank them for their gift, but to encourage them to continue in their spiritual journey of faith.

Paul could relate to the Philippians’ situation, and they to his, because they were all on the same journey. Now, Paul had been on an entirely different path when God turned his whole life around on the road to Damascus. Before his miraculous conversion, Paul had been a sworn enemy of Christ. Blinded by his hatred of Jesus, Paul persecuted Christians. In fact, Paul’s goal had been to eliminate anyone and everyone who dared to claim that Jesus was the promised Savior of the world. In his love for Paul, however, Jesus cured his spiritual blindness. Jesus told Paul, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you…I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:16-18).

From the moment Christ came to him, Paul was a changed man. Now, his sole purpose in life was to share the gospel—the Good News that Jesus not only offers but gives the forgiveness of sins. It gave Paul no greater joy than to see the light of the gospel turn people from their spiritual darkness. The Apostle was never happier than when he could preach and teach that Jesus has overcome the power of sin, death, and the devil. Paul’s joy was knowing that because of Jesus, he was going to heaven; Paul’s goal was to take as many people as possible with him.

Paul shared that message of forgiveness in the Roman colony of Philippi while he was on his second missionary journey. Paul and his fellow missionaries first shared the gospel with some women who had gathered at the river to pray. Among them was a woman named Lydia, whose heart was opened by the Holy Spirit. Her immediate response of faith was to have her entire household baptized, and then to invite Paul to stay at her house. On another occasion, Paul cast out a demon from a slave girl who had been telling fortunes for her owners. Her owners, however, did not respond the same way as Lydia had. Rather, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them in front of the city officials, falsely charging them with inciting a riot and encouraging the people to follow unlawful customs. Paul and Silas were beaten and then thrown into jail. But even while Paul was in prison, he continued to proclaim the gospel. The earthquake that shook off their shackles was a heaven-sent opportunity for Paul to witness to the jailer. As a result, at least one more family had come to believe in the one true God. When the city officials found out that they had illegally beaten and imprisoned Paul, a Roman citizen, they quickly came to appease him and urge him to leave the city. Before he left, however, Paul went to Lydia’s house where he met with his fellow believers and encouraged them to continue in their faith.

From our vantage point, it certainly seemed that the Philippians’ journey with Jesus was going very well. The gospel had been preached. When Paul left Philippi, there was a dedicated band of believers who carried on the work of proclaiming the gospel. Paul knew, however, that problems and persecution would come. He knew that the enemies of Christ wouldn’t go away without a fight. He knew that they would attack the gospel and its messengers. Indeed, it wasn’t long after Paul had left that some false teachers tried to convince the Philippians that in addition to believing in Jesus, they had to follow certain Jewish traditions in order to earn their salvation; other false teachers said just the opposite—that Christians are perfectly free to ignore or disobey God’s Word without fear of punishment. Besides having to deal with those false teachers, the Philippians then received the bad news that Paul had been imprisoned in Rome.

Yet, despite his own predicament, Paul was more concerned about the Philippians’ spiritual welfare. But since he was in prison, it was impossible for him to personally refute those false teachers. In addition, Paul knew that his imprisonment would probably have a chilling effect on some of the believers in Philippi. He knew how easily some Christians, especially those who are new to the faith, can become discouraged when setbacks occur. So, with the Philippians under attack by their enemies and their spiritual leader in prison, Paul wrote this letter to encourage them to press on.

When you think about it, our situation is not so different from that of the Philippians. Yes, we live in a different place, a different time, and a different culture. Yet, our faith is being challenged in very similar ways. Like the Philippians, we are also traveling on the road toward heaven. The devil, of course, would like nothing more than to keep us from getting there. Satan uses every trick in the book to derail us from the only path that leads to eternal life. One of Satan’s tactics is to try to divert our attention from the prize of heaven and focus on the temporary treasures and pleasures of this world. Another tactic that Satan uses is to take advantage of the bumps in the road that all of us inevitably hit. You know what those problems are—sickness, money problems, relationship problems, problems at home, school, or work. Whenever a problem hits, the devil uses it to drive us to doubt that God is going to keep his promises. The devil says, “Look! God doesn’t love you. If he did, why didn’t he take away your problem?” Satan also works on our consciences. He drags out past sins and tries to trick us into believing that God won’t let us into heaven because of them. Perhaps one of the devil’s trickiest and most effective tactics is to try to convince us that we’ve already got it made. If he can convince us that we can never lose our place in heaven no matter what we do, then we might stop running the race. Then we would be like the hare, who thought he had the race won, only to see the tortoise pass him by and win the prize.

Paul did not want that to happen to his beloved Philippians. So, he urged them to press on toward the goal. Paul encouraged them to follow his example and that of other believers who were following the pattern that God had laid out in his Word. Now, before Paul’s imprisonment, many people looked up to Paul and followed in his footsteps. But after seeing what happened to him, they might have been a little reluctant. When we consider that Paul had endured incredible hardships such as imprisonments, numerous beatings, being stoned and left for dead, and several shipwrecks, it would be a miracle if anyone would be willing to follow his example.

Yet, despite all of that suffering, Paul remained undaunted. What gave Paul the confidence and the strength to keep on going and to also encourage the Philippians to press on toward the goal? In a word, Jesus. Paul said, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Php. 3:14). Paul owed everything to Jesus. Despite the fact that Paul had been a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man, Jesus forgave him and appointed him as his apostle to the Gentiles. Like Paul, each of us ought to confess that we, too, are the worst of sinners, and that we deserve God’s wrath and punishment. Yet, Jesus, in his great love for us, kept God’s law perfectly in our place and then paid for our sins with his holy, precious blood. Even though he knew that it would cost him his life, Jesus pressed on toward the cross, so that you and I might have eternal life. Because of Jesus, we can look forward to a home in heaven at the end of our journey.

Friends, when we first began our journey in life, we were headed down the highway to hell. But by God’s grace, Jesus turned us around and we are now headed toward heaven. Are we there yet? By no means. You also know that the road that lies ahead is difficult. But even though we may stumble and trip over the obstacles the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh may throw in our way, we don’t need be discouraged. The gospel, which gives us life, also gives us the power to forge ahead, completely confident that we will receive the prize that Jesus has promised to all believers. Therefore, let us keep our eyes on Jesus as we press on toward the goal of heaven. Amen.

“Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (CW 203)

Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546, tr., composite

1. Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;

Curb those who by deceit or sword

Would seek to overthrow your Son

And to destroy what he has done.

2. Lord Jesus Christ your pow’r make known,

For you are Lord of lords alone;

Defend your Christendom that we

May sing your praise eternally.

3. O Comforter of priceless worth,

Send peace and unity on earth.

Support us in our final strife,

And lead us our of death to life.

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