3:12-16 Not that I have already obtained this, or that I am already all complete but I press on to try to grasp that for which I have been grasped by Jesus Christ. Brothers, I do not count myself to have obtained; but this one thing I do--forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching out for the things which are in front, I press on towards the goal, in order that I may win the prize which God's upward calling in Christ Jesus is offering to me.
Let all of you who have graduated in the school of Christ have the same attitude of mind to life. And if anyone is otherwise minded in any way, this too God will reveal to him. Only we must always walk according to that standard which we have already reached.
Vital to the understanding of this passage is the correct interpretation of the Greek word teleios ( Greek #5046 ) which occurs twice, rendered by the Revised Standard Version as Perfect in Philippians 3:12 and as mature in Philippians 3:15 . Teleios ( Greek #5046 ) in Greek has a variety of interrelated meanings. In by far the most of them it does not signify what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose. It means full-grown in contradistinction to undeveloped; for example, it is used of a full-grown man as opposed to an undeveloped youth. It is used to mean mature in mind and therefore means one who is qualified in a subject as opposed to a mere learner. When it is used of offerings, it means without blemish and fit to offer God. When it is used of Christians, it often means baptized persons who are full members of the Church, as opposed to those who are still under instruction. In the days of the early Church it is quite often used to describe martyrs. A martyr is said to be perfected by the sword, and the day of his death is said to be the day of his perfecting. The idea is that a man's Christian maturity cannot go beyond martyrdom.
So when Paul uses the word in Philippians 3:12 , he is saying that he is not by any means a complete Christian but is for ever pressing on. Then he uses two vivid pictures.
(i) He says that he is trying to grasp that for which he has been grasped by Christ. That is a wonderful thought. Paul felt that when Christ stopped him on the Damascus Road, he had a vision and a purpose for Paul; and Paul felt that all his life he was bound to press on, lest he fail Jesus and frustrate his dream. Every man is grasped by Christ for some purpose; and, therefore, every man should all his life press on so that he may grasp that purpose for which Christ grasped him.
(ii) To that end Paul says two things. He is forgetting the things which are behind. That is to say, he will never glory in any of his achievements or use them as an excuse for relaxation. In effect Paul is saying that the Christian must forget all that he has done and remember only what he has still to do. In the Christian life there is no room for a person who desires to rest upon his laurels. He is also reaching out for the things which are in front. The word he uses for reaching out (epekteinomenos, Greek #1901 ) is very vivid and is used of a racer going hard for the tape. It describes him with eyes for nothing but the goal. It describes the man who is going flat out for the finish. So Paul says that in the Christian life we must forget every past achievement and remember only the goal which lies ahead.
There is no doubt that Paul is here speaking to the antinomians. They were those who denied that there was any law at all in the Christian life. They declared that they were within the grace of God and that, therefore, it did not matter what they did; God would forgive. No further discipline and no further effort were necessary. Paul is insisting that to the end of the day the Christian life is the life of an athlete pressing onwards to a goal which is always in front.
In Philippians 3:15 he again uses teleios ( Greek #5046 ) and says that this must be the attitude of those who are teleios ( Greek #5046 ). What he means is: "Anyone who has come to be mature in the faith and knows what Christianity is must recognize the discipline and the effort and the agony of the Christian life." He may perhaps think differently, but, if he is an honest man, God will make it plain to him that he must never relax his effort or lower his standards but must press towards the goal, until the end.
As Paul saw it, the Christian is the athlete of Christ.