Pressing On - Philippians 3:4-17

Biologists tell us the life and growth go hand in hand. Cells multiply. Plants develop roots, stems, and leaves. Eggs hatch. Babies grow and develop. If this process of growth with its accompanying changes stops, life itself ends. All throughout life we adapt, change, and respond to the environment all around us as a matter of course, even if there are certain elements of life we would like to freeze at some moment in time or at least slow down for a period. Life, however, calls us onward to new experiences and challenges, whether we like it or not. Hitting the pause button is just not an option.
As the biological world we inhabit responds constantly to change with growth and adaptation, so do our spiritual lives. God created the physical world we inhabit, after all. God created the physical aspect of our lives, and these same basic principles of growth, change, and adaptation apply to our spiritual selves just as much as to our physical nature. As much as we might like to simplify our lives, retaining the simple answers of yesteryear as sufficient to today's issues, life calls us forward to face challenges we might never have considered before.
Paul addresses some of this in his letter to the Philippian believers. He was writing in response to a legalistic influence on the church in Philippi. There was an understanding among many Jewish believers that after accepting Christ Jesus in faith one needed to adopt Jewish traditions concerning the Law of Moses on top of grace and faith. This was the heritage from which God had called and redeemed Paul. He had been that observant Jew in years past, but God had called him instead to accept the good news of Christ Jesus, giving his life over to wholly new concerns of faith, love, mercy, compassion, justice, and grace.
This Jewish legalism for Paul was a step backward in his faith development. He had come out of just such a tradition and could not countenance the church with whom he had worked being taken to a lesser understanding of God. In his response, he calls them to remember what he himself had once been. He reminded them that he had well understood this legalistic tradition within Judaism, but had walked away from it in order to accept the greater revelation of God in Christ Jesus.
Legalism is based on what we can accomplish on our own merits. It is founded upon our own righteousness. It stems from looking to ourselves and managing our future with God based upon all those things we have managed to accomplish on God's behalf or in alignment with God's will and purposes. What legalism cannot accomplish, however, is what Paul had found in Christ Jesus.
Paul took a look back to his religious formation in Judaism and called to mind just how far he had advanced within its circles. He had accomplished much more than most, rising to the very top among all who practiced and promoted Judaism. He had learned in Christ, however, to also step beyond the limits of where that legalism could take us. As Christ had called him, Paul stepped beyond his traditions into a new future that surpassed where the legalists wanted to return this beloved church.
Instead of growing in relationship with God, these legalists wanted to halt the church's growth in understanding God. They wanted to give more credence to what had been established. They wanted to halt the progress of the gospel in leading people to follow after Christ Jesus. They wanted to use the advance of the gospel to restrict people and bring them back into the legalism of traditional Judaism, rather than learning to live in the freedom of the gospel of Christ.
Paul had found that his legalistic heritage was insufficient to the task of following God. The call of Christ Jesus upon his life had rendered that heritage inadequate. He had since left it behind in order to follow after Jesus into a new reality. While there were things in his heritage that were important and had granted him a basis in understanding and following after God, in comparison with Christ they were of no worth at all. God called him forward into a continuing faith development. To remain enmeshed within the limitations of his heritage was counterproductive.
The good news of Jesus Christ had called Paul out of that heritage into a new stage of his faith development. It is in this new stage of his faith journey that Paul found worth. He had grown. He had been transformed by the good news of Christ and called to step beyond the limits of his traditions. Faith claimed him and prodded him to step into the future God placed before him.
This was no static shift from one heritage into another, however. Paul did not claim that his new grasp of Jesus and the way of the gospel was simply a better-packaged system than what he had previously experienced in Judaism. Instead, he spoke of the superiority of faith in Christ coupled with the need to continue progressing in his understanding of God and the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Growth and challenge and progress and transformation are all essential elements in this journey of faith in Christ. Paul had already left much behind to accept the greater revelation and value in Christ Jesus. Not pausing there, however, he stated that he was compelled to press ever onward to the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. Instead of reaching the desired level of faith, Paul claimed that the goal of faith is to become like Jesus, a goal which requires a lifetime of transformation and more.
Legalism can never bring us to perfection. It is thus a lost cause from Paul's perspective. Faith calls us further toward the perfection of Christ Jesus. That process also cannot get us to perfection. It can only call us forward into new growth, new challenges, new transformation, and new life. Once we learn a new lesson in faith, there is yet another lesson to learn, apply, and internalize. Once we take a step forward in learning to love others, we are called to a second lesson and a third.
Faith is a never-ending process of transformation. This is what Paul wrote of in addressing not only the threat of legalism but also the threat of accepting that in claiming Christ Jesus as Lord we have accomplished all there is to accomplish along the journey of faith.
We do not graduate Christianity by making a statement of faith. We do not take final exams in repeating the formulas of the faith and accepting the lessons of Sunday school. We listen to sermons, sing hymns, offer prayers, a tithe of our income, and read our Bibles, but not as the culmination of faith. These are just the stepping stones or the construction materials in developing and growing in the life journey of faith in Christ Jesus.
Paul's goal was to become like Jesus in his death and attain the resurrection of the dead. This author of most of the New Testament books did not consider that he had yet arrived at complete spiritual maturity. God was as yet not finished with the process of transforming him.

Maturity in faith is not a question of achievement. We can never arrive at maturity as long as we consider it a fixed destination. Maturity is rather a mindset of consistent growth and development. Paul called his readers to imitate him, not in what he had accomplished, but in his attitude of openness to a life of growth and transformation. We are not yet who we need to become. If we change daily throughout the course of our lives, we still will not have arrived. Maturity recognizes this consistent need for growth and transformative development. Will we commit ourselves to such? It is, after all, the only way in which our faith in Christ can truly live and be what God wants it to become.
©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin 


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