Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Philippians 3:12
The tenses of the verbs within the verse intentionally change with the progression of Paul’s thought. Scholars struggle over and argue over the exact reading of what he is conveying, but despite the nuances, the overall picture here, and for the next couple verses, are those of the Greek races. There is a prize at the end of the finish line, and Paul describes the process from beginning to end concerning that goal. If that is kept in mind, then an overall understanding of his words is more easily grasped.
He has just spoken of the “resurrection from the dead,” and now he introduces the thought of being “perfected.” He has drawn the two together, as if they have the same overall meaning. This is seen also in Jesus’ words of Luke 13 –
“‘“And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ 33 Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.”’” Luke 13:32, 33
Jesus ties His death in with being perfected. How can this be when He is the sinless Son of God? It is because He assumed the likeness of man. He came and dwelt in the mortal flesh of humanity. Until He died and was resurrected, He bore this form. However, in His resurrection the corruption of the earthly body was cast off and He was adorned in a heavenly body. He saw no corruption in His earthly body (Acts 2:27), but the body itself could have corrupted if it was found with sin. It was not, and He never saw the corruption of the pit. The author of Hebrews alludes to the idea of death and perfection several times, such as in Hebrews 2:10, 5:9, 11:40, and 12:23. Some of these are speaking of Jesus, and others are speaking of what lies ahead for us.
This is what Paul now refers to. He has said that he has not “already attained” this state, meaning being “already perfected.” It may seem unusual that he would state this, but the erroneous claim was already circulating that the resurrection was already past (2 Timothy 2:18), and that the Day of the Lord had passed as well (2 Thessalonians 2:2). These claims were intended to then show that some had been perfected. They could then lead their followers down wayward paths of belief concerning the super-spiritual state they possessed. This heretical doctrine still exists. David Koresh claimed that he was the Lamb of God of Revelation. Others have made claims that they are the embodiment of Christ, or that they have been perfected. These claims always lead people down the heresy highway.
Paul is warning against such things, stating that he remained in his earthly body and the final goal lay still ahead. Because of this, he contrasts the notion by saying, “…but I press on.” No one presses on towards that which they have already attained. Instead, they look ahead to a prize which is still out of reach. Paul is not speaking of salvation, but of the state which is promised because of salvation. This is important to understand as well. If misinterpreted, one could come to the conclusion that he is still unsure of his own salvation, and was still working to ensure he would – in fact – be saved. Rather, he is speaking of what salvation promises. Until he was “perfected” through death and the new body which lies ahead, he was striving to be as Christ-like as possible while still in his earthly body. This is exactly what he has been talking about prior to this verse.
For him, this was all so “that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” He was striving to be perfected because the perfected Christ had granted him the surety of future perfection. Christ was the initiator and grantor of that promise, and so Paul, admitting that he was still imperfect, perpetually strived for perfection in order to be pleasing to the Perfected One.
His words are certainly given for a warning to all that perfection is not attainable in this life, but that it is rather an ideal that we can and should strive for while we live. Claiming sinless perfection while still in this corruptible body, or claiming that this corruptible body has been cast off prior to the resurrection from the dead, are both voluntary paths down Apostasy Avenue, and which lead directly to Heresy Highway.
Life application: We can and should strive for perfection, and we can and should strive to emulate Christ in all ways, but we should never claim that we have arrived, or follow anyone who makes such a claim. This will only happen when Christ comes and perfects us all together. Until then, let us be wise and sober about our fallen nature lest we get caught up in serious error.
Heavenly Father, what a great and blessed hope lies ahead of us. We have the promise of perfection because of the resurrection of Christ who stands in perfection, having gone before us in death, and unto life-everlasting. Because we have such a great hope, help us to emulate Him in all ways, striving to be more and more like Him until that glorious day when He calls us to Himself. May we be pleasing and faithful followers of our Lord from day to day until that Day! Amen.