REALITIES OF THE CHRISTIAN RACE

A sports writer gives this report on the American speed skater Dan Jansen: “… the persistence and heart of Dan Jansen showed us all the true spirit of the Olympics.  Six years earlier, at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Jansen, the world sprint champion, was the heavy favorite to take home the gold in both the 500- and 1,000-meter events.  But on the very day he was to compete in the 500, his sister, Jane Beres, died from leukemia. While her death was not unexpected, it was obviously a crushing blow to the psyche of 23-year-old Jansen.  With the world pulling for him, Jansen took to the ice just hours after his sister's death.  But less than ten seconds into the race, he fell rounding a turn, slid off the track, and was eliminated.  The nightmare continued three days later at the 1,000-meter event, as Jansen fell again and failed to finish.  Four years later in the 1992 games in Albertville Jansen sought redemption. While no longer the overwhelming favorite as he had been in 1988, he was still the defending World Cup champion in the 500 meters, and the predicted Olympic champ.  But once again, it was not meant to be.  Jansen skated well, but one minor stumble was enough to keep him off the medal podium.  He finished in fourth place… Days later, a beleaguered Jansen finished the 1,000 meters in 26th place.  He entered the 1996 games in Norway figuring it would be his last chance for Olympic gold.  He came into the Games as the World Cup champion and new record-holder in the 500 meters, but his critics still bemoaned his Olympic failures.  Three hundred meters into the 500-meter event, it happened again.  Jansen lost his balance coming around a turn and dragged his hand on the ice.  In a sport where hundredths of seconds mean so much, the mistake was enough to push him back to eighth.  He would have just one more shot.  The 1,000 meters was his final race, and it was a distance that—by his own admission—wasn't his forte.  But Jansen went out like gangbusters and by the 800-meter mark was on a world-record pace.  When he staggered yet again, the whole world gasped.  But this time, he was able to right himself. Jansen crossed the finish line in 1:12.43, good for not only his first gold medal, but also an unexpected world record.  He took a victory lap in front of 10,000 screaming Norwegians and scores of clapping Olympians.  And in his arms he carried his baby daughter, Jane, named for his older sister” (Morrison)!  Wow, doesn’t that story touch our hearts?!  Like, Jansen, Christians are in race as well.  It is a race that we run everyday.  It is a race that takes determination.  It is a race where Satan will place obstacles in our way and we too can slip and fall.  It is a race that will not bring us Olympic gold but eternal gold!  And, it is a race that we can win together!  The apostle Paul has much to say about this race in Philippians 3.  Let’s quickly examine a dozen realities of our Christian race.

First of all, our joy is found in the Lord (3:1).  One commentator said that the expression rejoice in the Lord means to rejoice because we are the Lord’s or because of what He has done for us!  We are no longer slaves of Satan, we no longer are part of the kingdom of darkness, we are no longer hopeless!  Because we are Christ’s, we are God’s children, we are in the kingdom of light, we are part of a saved people who hunger and thirst for righteousness and holiness, and we have an enduring hope!  Over in Mark 5, Jesus once met a demon-possessed man whose name was Legion and who did all sorts of strange things.  Jesus healed him and restored his sanity to him.  He wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus told him: “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.”  Now here’s some questions, and hopefully they’re being asked with kindness, “Has Jesus done anything for you?  Has your life changed for the better because of Him?  Has His influence and teaching made a difference in how you look at life, in how you look at your family, in how you look at your job, in how you look at others?  Didn’t Jesus pay that debt to God that we could never pay?  Wasn’t it Jesus who washed us and gave us a brand new start with a clean slate?  Wasn’t it Jesus who sent the Holy Spirit to help us and strengthen us?  Wasn’t it Jesus who promised us that He would be with us until the end of world?  If Jesus did all that, shouldn’t we be the most joyful people in Prescott?  Hallelujah, praises be to the Lord of Lord, to the King of Kings, to Him who is alive and continues to bless us daily!  Our joy is found in the Lord!  

Our safety is threatened by false teachers (3:2).  Beware, beware, beware!  Satan has his teachers as well.  In fact, most commentators believe that these false teachers were Jewish Christians who wanted to add keeping the Law and Jewish traditions to following Christ!  Well, what’s so bad about that?  Paul himself had been a Jew, and he knew that the water of the regulations-works system would just not mix with the oil of the grace-faith system!  Christ’s cross would be canceled if the Philippian members bought into that perverted gospel!  Jesus must be the coach in our race, and we must listen to His voice above all others in order to finish strongly.  Sadly, there are still false teachers who threaten our safety as well.  This is why we must continually measure what they say against what Jesus and the apostles taught as recorded in the New Testament.  Beware, beware, beware!  Our safety is threatened by false teachers.
 

Our confidence is not in our achievements (3:3-6).  If one wants to propose a regulations-works system, Paul says that he can beat them at their own game!  Now he is not doing this to toot his own horn, but to set up a contrast.  He wants to show the bankruptcy of confidence in fleshly achievements and then the supreme value of experiencing Christ!  As a Jew, Paul had all the pedigrees: he was ritually pure—circumcised early on; he was racially pure—an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin; he was culturally pure—a speaker of the Hebrew language who came from Jewish parents; ethically pure—a Pharisee, a zealous worker, a blameless keeper of the laws.  Yes, Paul had many checkboxes in the regulations-works system that he could check off!  But there is something wrong.  Notice how Paul says in verse 3 that Christians are not to put their confidence in their fleshly achievements.  Beloved, do we have our checkboxes in which we put our confidence?  Our marked off checkboxes just won’t cut it!  We can never do enough to earn God’s grace.  

Our supreme value is in experiencing and gaining Christ (3:7-8).  No, our confidence is not in our achievements, but it is in the saving work of Christ!  Paul uses the language of a rabbi here when he talks about losses and gains, just like Jesus did when He talked about gaining the whole world but losing one’s soul in Mt. 16:26.  For Paul, all those pedigrees were loss and rubbish when compared to the supreme value of experiencing and gaining Christ!  “I count all things loss” for what profit?  “For the excellence of the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”  Now this is really interesting.  You see, for the Greeks, knowledge was detached and intellectual—that’s like learning the facts out of textbook on astronomy.  But for the Jews, knowledge was direct and experiential—that’s like talking with the textbook’s author while going out into a field to look at the stars together!  Now let’s switch metaphors.  How much light does a candle give when you compare it to the sun?  All our human achievements are only a candle when compared to what the Son accomplished and what He is continuing to do!  Now Paul says that experiencing Christ is learning to share in His power, to share in His hurts, to share in His selfless devotion to doing God’s will (v. 10).  Another preacher correctly observed, “No preferment, … no mortal achievement, no wealth, social standing or earthly glory would the great apostle exchange for the knowledge of Christ [and His experiences]” (Coffman).  Have we made it our supreme value to experience and to gain Jesus?  

Our righteousness is from God by faith (3:9-11).  For the Jew, righteousness was a reward for keeping all the rules.  For the Christian, righteousness is a gift because Jesus kept all the rules, paid the price of redemption with His blood, defeated Satan and His forces, overcame death, built His church, sent His Spirit, and He continues to rule at God’s right hand!  Remember in our opening story about Dan Jansen how he carried his daughter Jane in his arms while he was skating his victory lap?  That is kind of our situation, too, isn’t it?  Could his daughter Jane really skate?  Not by her own power.  But could she “skate” in the arms of a world champion?  Sure, she covered the territory of the victory lap without any difficulty with Dan’s help.  Now Jesus is our world champion, and by our experiences with Him, by leaning on His everlasting arms, by imitating His actions, we can cover the territory of life as well with His help!   Now let’s switch metaphors.  In our Christian race, we’ll surely knock over some hurdles while we run and even fall, but as long as we stay on the track, don’t give up, listen to our Coach’s advice, and try to run our race in the same way that Jesus ran, we are seen as righteous in God’s sight.  Christ has already won the gold medal and shared His victory with us as we both stood on the medals podium listening to the national anthem!  So we don’t have to earn the victory.  We run out of gratitude that Christ has already let us share in His victory, and we look forward to that day when we will share even more fully with Christ, and Satan and all evil will be ultimately conquered!  Our righteousness is from God by faith in what Christ has already done and won!   

Our maturity comes by persevering (3:12-15).  See if you can fill in this blank: “If you keep all the rules, then you’ll be _____.”  Yes, then you’ll be perfect!  “You can gain perfection!”  This seems to be something of what the false teachers were telling the brethren in Philippi.  Paul pounces on that heresy like a lion!  “I’m not perfect.  We must all press on.  I’ve not gained the prize yet.  I still long for that day when my lowly human and weak body will be transformed into that glorious and strong body that Jesus possesses, when my mortal will put on immorality!”  “I press on” is the language of a runner who is giving it his all during the race or a hunter who is in hot pursuit of some game on the run.  Paul says that we should never think of ourselves as having reached perfection, but we can think of ourselves as having reached maturity.  But maturity won’t come if we stop and start patting ourselves on the back.  We must continue to run in the race.  Hebrews 12:1 states it this way:  “Therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance [or perseverance] the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher [or pioneer and perfecter] of our faith.”  If Paul did not claim perfection in light of all that he did, how can we ever think that we’ve arrived?  Our maturity comes by persevering.   

Our unity comes when we pursue together (3:16).  The same rule and same mind is that we’ll never reach perfection in this life.  If we truly know this, then why do we so often play the Christian comparison game to see how many medals we have on our uniforms?  Forget the past achievements, and let’s press on to an even greater future!  Let’s just keep putting into practice what we know we should be doing.  When we do that, we’ll all be pulling together rather than pulling each other apart.  One writer puts it this way: “The biggest problem to be faced is not understanding but application.  Paul knew very well the tendency Christians have not to practice what they already have in Christ” (Luter Jr.).  Ouch!  Our unity comes when we pursue the prize together!  

Our leaders can help us to press on (3:17).  Back in Paul’s day, the members at Philippi did not have a completed New Testament, and they needed some guidance.  Paul told them to look to himself and those who were following his example.  Today, God has blessed us with good elders and deacons to follow.  Let us imitate them as they strive to imitate Christ!  If you ever have spiritual problems, please know that our leaders’ doors area always open to talk.  Our leaders, because of their experience in our race, can help us to press on!

Our enemies would have us to focus on the earthly (3:18-19).  Paul warns the Philippian members and us that there are those false teachers who have become enemies of the cross.  Their destiny is destruction because they have rejected the salvation found in Christ alone.  They serve their stomachs with kosher foods.  “Making their glory their shame” may be a polite reference to their insistence upon adult males being circumcised.  Their minds are set upon prescriptions and rituals.  Did you notice how everything is focused basically on the earthly?  But do we do the same thing, beloved?  Have we put our emphasis more on buildings and budgets, and our problems, and business and barriers, and our difficulties rather than focusing on souls and salvation, and our service, and spirituality and sensitivity, and our support?  Are we daring one another to go further than we can see?  Will we always settle for predictability or will we risk for impossibility (while realizing that all things are possible with God)?  Our enemies would have us focus on the earthly.       

Our mindset and residency are on the heavenly (3:20).  You see, Paul says, it’s not about regulations, and foods, and feasts, and rituals.  No, our mentality and our citizenship are no longer tied to this earth!  We are focusing on something beyond this life that will outlive and outlast the things of this world.  As Christians, we travel light looking towards our heavenly home.  Hebrews 11:13-16 says that we should see ourselves as foreign aliens and pilgrims while we pass through this earth looking for a better homeland, a heavenly country where God is preparing a city for us. Like the old hymn says:  “We’ve a home prepared where the saints abide: just over in the gloryland.  And we long to be by our Savior’s side: just over in the gloryland.  What a joyful tho’t that our Lord we’ll see: just over in the gloryland.  And with kindred saved, there forever be: just over in the gloryland.  Just over in the gloryland: we’ll join the happy angel band and with the mighty hosts we’ll stand: just over in the gloryland!”  Let us help as many as we can to reach that gloryland.  Our mindset and residency are on the heavenly.    

Our perfection comes only at the end (3:21a).  Paul notes that true perfection will only be attained when Jesus transforms us from our physical existence to our spiritual existence.  Paul speaks of this transformation in 1 Corinthians 15:44-49: It is shown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.  And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’  The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual.  The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.”  Praise the Lord that flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God!  The Christians true perfection never comes in this life but only at the end of all history!  

Our guarantee is Christ's authority (3:21b).  How do we know that our bodies will experience such a dramatic transformation?  Paul says that Christ is our guarantee.  In fact, through Christ power, He will subdue everything in the universe to Himself.  That great power which is able to control the universe is the same power that will transform our corruptible and perishable bodies into those that are incorruptible and imperishable.  The scriptures don’t reveal much about those bodies, but they do say that they will be like those of the angels, they will be recognizable, and they will endure forever (Matthew 22:30 and 17:3;  1 Corinthians 15:53)!  The guarantee of our future transformation is Christ’s authority!  

Another Olympic winner with a great story was Eric Liddell, the flying Scotsman who took the gold medal in the 400 meter race on July 11, 1924 with a new world’s record!  You may remember from the movie Chariots of Fire how Liddell did not run in the 100 meter race since it was on Sunday, and he preached in a church in Paris while the race was going on.  The 400 meters was not his strong race either, but on that day he finished 5 meters ahead of everyone else.  But for Liddell, the Olympics was not the ultimate race.  He saw his own life as a race, a race for the kingdom of heaven.  He became a missionary to China.  He died of a brain tumor in 1945 while serving others who were imprisoned with him in a Japanese prison camp, just 5 months before the camp was liberated.  His last words were: “It’s complete surrender.”  Yes, the Christian race is a race of complete surrender.  Won’t you surrender today to the lordship of Christ and become part of the realities that this race entails?