Press On Toward the Goal


When home is in sight, you just want to press on and get there1.

That’s how I felt last weekend. My family had been in Minnesota for a wedding, and the day after we climbed into the car for the 6-hour or so drive back to Two Rivers. (That might sound long, but 6 hours is still pretty nice since you’d have to add a good ten hours of driving time on top of that for when I used to live in New York.)

But then, as we started our drive, we ran into some delays. Some roadwork was being done on the interstate before we even made it across the border to Wisconsin. That probably added another hour to the trip. It was frustrating, but we had to press on.

So by the time we were making our way down 147 through Mishicot, I was ready to be home. Sure, I was tired from driving and from the weekend, but it’s amazing how you get that little burst of energy. You know home is near. You can practically see it. So you press on to get there.

I’m not much of a runner; in fact, I pretty much despise running. But I’ve done it enough to know how sweet the end, the finish line, looks. As much as I would like to give up and stop running, seeing that goal ahead does something. It reminds me that I’m close; I can do this. So I press on.

But what does that look like in our lives as Christians? Heaven is our goal; it’s our true home. It’s the reward Jesus earned for us where we get to spend all eternity. But it seems pretty far off. Unless we’ve received some sort of terminal diagnosis or are going in for major surgery, our entrance into heaven is not likely to be the first thing on our minds.

So instead of pressing on, instead of pushing forward with that heavenly goal in our sights, we just kind of exist. Maybe we go to church once in a while. And it’s really easy for our faith to not feel particularly urgent or even important on a day to day basis. After all, we’re already saved, right? So what’s the big deal?

But here’s the thing: we are all a heartbeat away from eternity. We don’t know when we’ll get there, but we need to be ready. We don’t want to be wandering aimlessly away from our faith and into sin. We want to focus on our goal. We want what Jesus won for us — heaven — to be in our sights at all times. And we want to press on toward it. We want to stretch out like a runner leaning into the finish line. We want to live every minute of our lives for the one who gave his life to us. And thankfully, we can do just that, because God gives us the strength. So press on! Press on toward the goal!

If there’s anyone who we would think had it all figured out, it would be the Apostle Paul. He traveled around the world as a missionary. He started a bunch of churches and strengthened other ones. We have all these letters he wrote in our Bible, full of encouragement, full of teachings from the Holy Spirit. But as we look at our text, we don’t see someone who was done growing. He kept going for more.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Phil. 3:12) Just before this, Paul had been talking about the resurrection — rising from the dead. So he made a pretty obvious point: he wasn’t there yet! He hadn’t risen from the dead; he was not perfect.

Yes, Paul wasn’t perfect, even though God did all these things through him. Every once in a while, I get the impression that some people think pastors are perfect, or that at least we’re somehow immune to many of the temptations that other people face. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth, unfortunately. I am far from perfect and all too aware of my sins.

So was Paul. In the book of Romans, he told us that. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. (Rom. 7:18) Paul had this sinful nature in him that led him to sin. So do I, and so do you.

But Paul doesn’t use his sinful nature as an excuse in our text. He doesn’t say, Well, we all sin anyway, so it’s not a big deal. At least we’re already forgiven! No, he says, I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. He knows he’s not perfect. He knows Jesus already saved him and that he’s been forgiven. But he keeps pressing on anyway.

But have you figured out yet how, exactly, Paul keeps pressing on? That’s the hard part for most of us. Maybe the next couple verses will help. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:13-14)

So, Paul again tells us that he hasn’t “taken hold of it.” In other words, he’s not perfect. But even though he’s not perfect, here’s what he’s doing: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. He knows Jesus called him to heaven. He knows Jesus has saved him. But he’s still “pressing on toward the goal to win the prize.”

Did you figure out what exactly he’s doing yet? He’s pressing on to live his faith. He’s not perfect, but he’s not letting that stop him from trying, from reaching, from pressing on in the life that God wants him to live. He’s trying to live a life of less and less sin and more and more good works.

Now, as Lutherans, we can be kind of scared of talking about good works. I mean, come on, next Sunday is Reformation Sunday, where we stress the fact that we’re not saved by works but saved by faith alone! Our works do not get us to heaven. Jesus did that!

But that doesn’t mean we don’t do good works. We do good works because we love God. We’re thankful to him for sending his Son to save us. We want to do these works because Jesus saved us, not so we can save ourselves.

That’s how Paul was pressing on toward the goal of heaven. Even though he was saved, he was straining toward heaven, pushing himself to keep living out his faith, to keep doing those works until God finally brought him to the home Jesus won for him.

So how’s that going for you? Do you find that you can easily press on toward that goal yourself? Are good works a major part of your life? I doubt it. We just don’t think that way. And we tend to have objections to thinking that way.

For example, we think we can’t do good works because of our sins. Trying to do good works is something that pastors can do, and maybe the people who make it to church every Sunday, it’s not for everyone else. But that’s just not true. Remember, Paul sinned, and he talked about that. Pastors sin. People who are in church every Sunday sin just like people who haven’t been to church in years.

But look what Paul said, Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal. Paul had persecuted Christians and been involved in their deaths. But he didn’t dwell on that and become obsessed in it. If he had, he wouldn’t have left his house, let alone gone on missionary journeys. For us, too, we don’t sit around dwelling on our past sins. We don’t keep punishing ourselves for what we’ve done wrong. Jesus was punished for us. He paid the price. We don’t have to anymore. Instead, we strain toward what is ahead. Press on toward the goal!

How do we do that, though? What do we actually do to press on toward the goal? I think it’s helpful to remember that we have a to-do list. A lot of you probably use to-do lists regularly; I know I do. Maybe you write yourself a list on a sheet of paper of what you need to do for the day. Maybe your husband or wife gives you a honey-do list. Either way, you get the idea. You have a list so you know exactly what to do and you’re not left guessing.

You realize that God gave us a to-do list right? He even handed out a hard-copy in the Old Testament. Remember? It was on a couple of stone tablets? Moses broke the first set and then God made another one? Yes! The Ten Commandments! I realize this sounds too easy, but there God has given us his divine to-do list of how to press on toward the goal every day of our lives.

If you haven’t looked at your Catechism lately, it’s a good idea. Because right there in the Ten Commandments section you will have a never-ending supply of things you can do to live out your faith and show your thanks to God. You’ll be able to use those commandments differently in different situations, but they always work.

Think of it: the first commandment: You shall have no other gods. We look at the situation of our lives and ask: am I putting something else in my life ahead of God? Then it’s become an idol. Is there a way I can better fear, love, and trust in God above all things? (There usually is.) Well, then do that.

There’s the second commandment, You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Are you using God’s name when you don’t have to be? Think about it! It probably happens more than you realize! Are you calling on his name in every trouble? Are you using it to pray, praise, and give thanks? Start using that way!

The Third commandment reminds us how to make hearing and studying God’s Word a priority, not something we do because we have to. The Fourth commandment reminds to honor our father and mother, and not just that, but to honor all authorities that God has put in front of us. Are you one of those people who likes to tell everyone how sick you are of this or that government official? Maybe there’s a way you can honor them according to this commandment!

I could go on and on about this, but seriously, look at a catechism! You will never get to the point where you have accomplished all of this. Press on toward the goal! Try to live out your faith! See how God might be using you to accomplish his will!

Paul goes on to talk about people who don’t do this. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. (Phil. 3:19) It’s not a pretty picture here. But it’s definitely a picture we can remember: their god is their stomach. This isn’t saying that they worshiped their stomach or worshipped food. It’s saying they were always looking to satisfy themselves.

Unfortunately, we see that tendency in ourselves. Sunday is my only day to sleep in. I know it’s wrong, but I don’t think it’s hurting anything. We see those sins and we think we’re happier with them than we are pressing on toward the goal of what Jesus won for us. We turn to sins instead of turning away from them. The warning in our text is pretty clear: their destiny is destruction. We don’t want those sins to destroy us — and our faith — for all eternity.

That’s why I’m thankful our text ends with the reminder it does. Paul tells us, don’t focus on earthly things! Don’t get bogged down by our past failures and sins! Focus on heavenly things and what Jesus has done for us! Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Phil. 3:20-21)

The same Jesus who died for us is going to make good on his promise to raise us from the dead. This life of sin and problems will end. Even death will not destroy us because we have a Savior who loved us enough to die and rise, and because he lives, we will live.

We will live forever in heaven. And until then, we will live for Jesus now. That’s what I want all of you to do. Live for Jesus. Press on toward the goal! You don’t know when God will call you home, but you know what to do until that time comes. Get out his to-do list and see how his power can work through you. See what his forgiveness can motivate you to shine out with your lives! Reach toward the prize he’s already won for you! Stretch out to that finish line! Press on toward the goal!

  1. Sermon preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost on October 20, 2014. Sermon Text: Philippians 3:12-21 

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