Run to Obtain the Crown
For the final chapter of the book, I would like to describe one passage of scripture that has been regularly used to argue against the idea of perfectionism and unpack it. However, another reason I chose this particular scripture to complete the book is because of its remarkable ability to refocus and direct the church for a lifelong journey of colaboring with Christ. It also encourages believers not to ever be held back by anything but to always push onward, because we will not reach our ultimate final goal until we meet Jesus face-to-face. This section of scripture tells us our true end goal for this life very clearly, and it is not likely the end goal that you would hope for.
“Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected [finished, completed]; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have laid hold of it; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature [perfect], have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.” (Philippians 3:12–15)
With the verse 12 by itself, it is easy to presume that Paul is admitting he is still imperfect. It would seem that this goes against everything that I have written about perfection because the thought that comes to us is this: “If Paul can’t reach perfection, then how is anyone else in the church expected to reach perfection?” The biggest dilemma with this line of thinking is that this option is immediately refuted within the recorded verses. Notice that Paul says in verse 12 that he has not obtained perfection, but then in verse 15, he says, “Therefore, let us, as many as are perfect, have this mind.” Is Paul saying that he has not obtained perfection and then, two sentences later, including himself with others who have obtained perfection? Obviously not because that wouldn’t make any sense. Again, as before, the truth about the meaning behind this passage lies in the context. It is always helpful to go back many verses to obtain full context for any passage of scripture, but in this case, the key verses for this contextual explanation are simply the two verses prior in Philippians 3:10–11.
“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11).
Therefore, when Paul immediately follows these verses with “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected,” he is not talking about maturity and full growth in Christ with the word perfection here. In this case, the word perfection is referring to what we read two verses prior in the context: the fellowship of Jesus Christ’s sufferings, the conformation of His death, and the resurrection of the dead. Attaining the resurrection of the dead is what Paul is describing with the word perfection here because that is the ultimate goal and prize we are to press toward that Christ Jesus laid hold of for us. Do you see that Paul has a wonderful and focused view on life’s journey in this section, because he says that he forgets the things that are behind and always reaches forward to the things that are ahead? So even when you do reach a full age of spiritual maturity in Christ, that doesn’t mean that you are have finished your job. The end goal in Christ is what was laid hold of for us by Him: the fellowship of His sufferings (i.e., extreme persecution), the conformation to His death (i.e. martyrdom), and the resurrection of the dead. Did you know that all twelve apostles died a martyr’s death? (Yes, I am including John, who was executed by the Jews just before the turn of the century.)
Is the fact that the apostles were martyred mean we ought to have pity for them because of that? Not at all! They pressed toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus and succeeded! They knew that being martyred was a real, and probable, outcome of their faith, and I believe they viewed it as an honor to be conformed to Christ’s suffering and death in that way. How many believers do you know who have been martyred for their faith? Any at all? Do you know how rare that reward is? Do you realize there is a crown in heaven given to those martyred such as the apostles who received that prize (James 1:12, Revelation 2:10)? That crown must be glorious!
In verse 15, Paul states, “Therefore, let us, as many as are mature [perfect, full-grown, fully aged], have this mind,” and the reason that Paul says this is because mature believers understand that fellowshipping with Christ’s sufferings, being conformed to His death, and attaining the resurrection of the dead are truly some of the greatest prizes we can receive in this life, because these things are exactly what Jesus Christ went through on earth. This is a very mature position to take in Christ, because the last thing that most of us want is to fellowship in Christ’s suffering and death, which was an unimaginably horrible experience.
I know that this feels like a big pill to swallow, but let me show you how Paul makes this clearer just a couple of verses later. In verse 17, Paul says, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.” The example that Paul wants his brethren to follow is pressing toward the goal of fellowshipping in all that Christ went through on earth, even to the point of suffering, death, and then resurrection. Let me make sure to be totally clear about this: Paul is not saying that our primary goal is to experience suffering and be martyred, but the goal is to imitate Christ as much as possible, even to the ultimate point of death. Christlikeness is what we always press into, and if you do a really, really good job of being like Christ, then it is very likely you will be persecuted and martyred and receive the crown of life on resurrection day. Remember, the world hated Jesus and if you look like Him then you should expect the world to hate you too (John 15:18)! Then Paul goes on to explain the glory of our new bodies that will accompany us with our citizenship in heaven.
What a powerful section of scripture! When fully understood, this passage certainly gives believers laser-focused direction in life. Never forget that to fellowship in Christ’s sufferings and death is a glorious thing and should be viewed as a wonderful, heavenly reward! I pray that you follow Paul’s example and do exactly that for the sake of the kingdom of heaven!
- “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” 1 Corinthians 9:24–25.
- “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” 2 Timothy 4:6–8.