Many scholars across a variety of disciplines agree: we make sense of our lives through the stories we imagine and tell about ourselves. In the days before Jesus, the Greek philosopher Aristotle suggested that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That may sound a bit obvious, so let me rephrase it. We are all, in this moment, in the middle of our stories. But our stories have a past: we’ve been somewhere that explains who we are today and the challenges we face. And our stories have a future: they’re going somewhere. If the story is a heroic one, we hope to overcome our difficulties, reach our goals, slay our dragons, complete our quests. If the story is a tragic one, we look forward only to defeat.
Whatever our current situation, we interpret it through a remembered past (though the memories themselves may be more implicit than explicit) and an anticipated future. The apostle Paul is no exception. As we’ve seen, in Philippians 2 he tells the story of Jesus as an example of humility for them to imitate. In Philippians 3, he tells his own story. His past was one of pride in his religious accomplishments. But being confronted by the Jesus whose followers he persecuted turned his story inside out. It changed how he understood both his past and his future.
Thus he says, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil 3:12, NIV). Like a runner straining toward the finish line, Paul bends his energies toward seizing the promised future; that’s the prize for which he himself was seized by Christ on the Damascus road.
Paul tells the story of Jesus, encourage the Philippians to follow the Lord’s humble pattern. Then he tells his own story, giving them a living example of what he’s wanting them to do. He says all this because he wants to change their story, too. They believe in Jesus: check. Their dedication is such that they are willing to suffer persecution for their faith: check. But Paul’s concerns about their “selfish ambition” (2:3) and susceptibility to false teaching (3:2) suggest that their goals and stories are still in need of transformation. Here again is part of what he tells them:
Brothers and sisters, 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)
These words point back to what he’s already told them about himself in chapter 2. This is who I was, and how I used to think. The things that used to be important to me are like rubbish to me now. That’s in the past; that’s behind me. I’m turning toward the future, straining toward it. That future — the prize! — is to know Jesus more fully, and to have a resurrection like his. That’s what God has called me to, and it changes everything about how I live now.
But note how he begins: he addresses them personally as his brothers and sisters. This is my story, he seems to say, but I want it to be our story, the story of what we all share in Christ Jesus. That’s why in the following verses he moves from “I” to “us”:
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Phil 3:15-16)
Admittedly, what he says sounds a little odd; let’s unpack it.
The words translated as “take such a view” and “think” are from the same root; it’s the word he used in chapter 2 (vss. 2, 5) to tell the Philippians to have the same mind as each other and to think like Jesus. The adjective “mature” is not necessarily a dig at anyone (as in, Oh, stop being so immature!). The root suggests completion or reaching a goal; the corresponding verb is translated in verse 12 as “arrived at my goal.” Paul has already admitted that he himself hasn’t reached full maturity, and surely he doesn’t expect the Philippians have either. What he’s saying is something like, For us to be as spiritually mature as we can be in the present, we have to keep our eyes on the right prize.
What about people who “think differently”? It’s easy to read a bit of snarkiness or condescension into the words, as if writing to an opponent: Well, if you don’t think the way that I do, God’s gonna change your mind! But the Philippians are his friends; he loves and trusts them even if he has concerns about their unity. If that’s the attitude, then he may be saying, I know that’s a lot to wrap your minds around, and you want to get everything “right.” But don’t worry. God will make clear to you whatever you need to know.
But having said this, he goes right back to “us”: let us — all of us, including me! — live up to what we have already attained. God’s already brought us so far; let’s not backslide!
Paul wants his story to reflect Jesus’ story. He wants the Philippians’ story to do the same. And as we’ll see shortly, it’s because of Paul’s dedication to embodying the story of Jesus that he also urges the Philippians to follow his own example.