By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)
There are times when the memories of our past sins haunt us, almost as tangibly as the spirits which tormented Ebenezer Scrooge on the Eve of Christmas. Sometimes, we-like Ebenezer-lose our way. We are careless, and we sin. We hurt God, we hurt the ones we love, and we hurt our fellow man. Perhaps sometimes we do not see it; perhaps sometimes we do not WANT to see it. But as the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future spoke to that wretched Ebenezer Scrooge, so the Holy Spirit speaks to us through His Word unto our conscience.
Perhaps we get to a point where we feel like the Psalmist:
Psalm 40:12 (NLT)-For troubles surround me—too many to count! My sins pile up so high I can’t see my way out. They outnumber the hairs on my head. I have lost all courage.
What do we do when we are ready to throw in the towel? When we have lost all courage-when it seems like we cannot see our way out?
That is what I want to consider with you for just a minute.
The Apostle Paul was one who understood and knew these feelings. He was plagued by his past sins. For a time, he was ignorant of Who Jesus Christ is, and he went around persecuting the church of Christ.
The first time we read of Saul is when he was consenting to the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. We read:
Acts 7:58-and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Saul, narrating the events of his remarkable journey to faith years later, recounts how he told The Lord:
Acts 22:20-And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
Saul is often pictured throughout the New Testament as being in opposition to Christ and His church. For example:
Acts 8:3-As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.
Acts 9:1-2-1 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Of course, what makes Saul’s sins so terrible (in many ways) were that they were not always committed in ignorance.
Indeed, he himself points out that there was a time when he started carrying out these deeds against the church when he was in willful disbelief.
The Bible term for this disposition is known as “unbelief” or “disbelief.”
1 Timothy 1:12-13-12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, 13 although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
Vine tells us about the Greek word “unbelief” here used:
“disbelieve” (or “disbelieved”) in the RV, in Mark 16:11, 16; Luke 24:11, 41; Acts 28:24; “disbelieve” is the best rendering, implying that the unbeliever has had a full opportunity of believing and has rejected it;” (W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 28566 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson Publishers)
Paul does not try to claim that he was merely ignorant of his actions; instead, he is quick to show that he was in a willfully chosen state of disbelief.
It is untelling how many lives Saul destroyed.
How many people did he cause to be put to death?
How many men and women did he torture, trying to get them to renounce Jesus?
How many little children did he cause to become orphans?
How many women did he cause to become widows?
We may never know.
Yet one thing is clear: the memory of his sins pained the Apostle Paul greatly (as his words to Timothy amply demonstrate). He even considered himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). There were no doubt times he “lost courage,” when it seemed like his sins were “piled high” and that there was “no way out.” So, how did Paul deal with his grief?
Thankfully, he tells us!
Philippians 3:12-16-12 (NKJV)- 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. 13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. 16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.
Philippians 3:12-16 (Easy To Read Version)-12 I don’t mean that I am exactly what God wants me to be. I have not yet reached that goal. But I continue trying to reach it and make it mine. That’s what Christ Jesus wants me to do. It is the reason he made me his. 13 Brothers and sisters, I know that I still have a long way to go. But there is one thing I do: I forget what is in the past and try as hard as I can to reach the goal before me. 14 I keep running hard toward the finish line to get the prize that is mine because God has called me through Christ Jesus to life up there in heaven. 15 All of us who have grown to be spiritually mature should think this way too. And if there is any of this that you don’t agree with, God will make it clear to you. 16. But we should continue following the truth we already have.
The first thing that I notice here is that Paul clearly understood his imperfections. He had not yet attained a point of perfect sinlessness.
Now, I have read a number of commentaries which suggest that this “perfection” is not indicating that Paul struggled with sin; instead, they teach that he had not yet been killed for Christ and that he expected to reach this goal.
However, the same Greek word is used several times in Hebrews (7:19; 9:9; 10:1) where the reference is to worshipers who could not be made “perfect” by the Law of Moses. In context, the passages speak to their “perfection” in regards to sin and conscience.
As such, I have no doubt that Paul here is at least including the idea of his continuing struggle with sin.
It helps me to realize that I am not the only Christian to struggle with sin and failure.
It helps me to realize that God does not expect sinless perfection from me, and that I will have difficulties and adversities in this life.
Camaraderie in a struggle brings strength through mutual fellowship as well as acceptance in common circumstance.
When we can acknowledge our temptations and our burdens, we are able to find help and healing through the sharing before our Father’s throne.
1 Corinthians 10:13-No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
James 5:16-Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
No doubt Paul not only describes his present and ongoing struggle with sin, but he also has in mind his “past” in which he persecuted and executed Christians (cf. Philippians 3:3-6).
Now, he had repented and been baptized to wash away his sins (Acts 9:9-11; 22:16), yet he continued to struggle with the guilt of sins he had committed.
This brings us to our next point.
Second, consider the “forgetting” that Paul had to do. His past sins continued to plague him; but there was something he did continually.
The word “forgetting” is very interesting in the Greek New Testament. The word used here was a term that applied to the Greek Olympics. Notice:
“All three clauses, however, are part of the athletic imagery, and together they present a composite picture (ἓν δέ) of the runner who keeps his eyes fixed on the finish line and does not intend to falter or be overtaken in the last and decisive stages of the race. ἐπιλανθάνoμαι 2190 means ‘to forget’ (Mt. 16:5; Mk. 8:14; Jas. 1:24), or ‘to neglect, overlook, care nothing about’ (Lk. 12:6; Heb. 6:10; 13:2, 16). Here at Phil. 3:13 it is used in the former sense of the runner who does not look over his shoulder to see how much ground he has already covered or how the other competitors are getting on. 2191 The present tense indicates that his forgetting is continuous and ceaseless, while τὰ . . . ὀπíσω (lit. ‘the things behind’) denotes that part of the race already completed. 2192” (Peter T. O’Brien, The New international Greek Commentary: The Epistle To The Philippians,10708-10715 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company).
The Greek is in the present tense, and the middle voice. In other words, this “forgetting” was something which Paul continually did for his own benefit.
When we are in Christ, we are able to thus “forget” those things which are behind (including our sinful past). The reason we are able to thus “forget” is not because of our own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ which has been imputed to us who are in relationship with Him:
Philippians 3:8-9-8 Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ, 9 and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;
Philippians 3:8-9 (Amplified Bible)-8 Yes, furthermore, I count everything as loss compared to the possession of the priceless privilege (the overwhelming preciousness, the surpassing worth, and supreme advantage) of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord and of progressively becoming more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him [of perceiving and recognizing and understanding Him more fully and clearly]. For His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish (refuse, dregs), in order that I may win (gain) Christ (the Anointed One), 9 And that I may [actually] be found and known as in Him, not having any [self-achieved] righteousness that can be called my own, based on my obedience to the Law’s demands (ritualistic uprightness and supposed right standing with God thus acquired), but possessing that [genuine righteousness] which comes through faith in Christ (the Anointed One), the [truly] right standing with God, which comes from God by [saving] faith.
Please observe my friends that Paul’s hope of salvation was not in himself and in perfect law-keeping; it was in his personal relationship with Christ.
If we are hoping to be redeemed through our personal worthiness, we will be disappointed. We must never adopt the mindset where we believe that our salvation has been merited by our obedience God’s Law.
Salvation is always a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9), and even though there are conditions for appropriating and maintaining possession of that gift (1 John 1:7-9;Hebrews 5:8-9), we must remember that it is in the saving blood of Jesus-not our law-keeping-that such grace is bestowed.
Isaiah 64:6-But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.
Third, please observe that Paul is not only forgetting those things which are behind; he is continually “pressing forward” to those things which are head.
Only through pressing ahead to the goal may we finally arrive at that point of sinless perfection and full maturity in Christ at His Second Coming.
Only when we continue to “seek those things which are above” and “set” our “minds on things above” (Colossians 3:1-3) will we fully and finally find “Christ, Who is our life” (Colossians 3:4).
Indeed, the imagery Paul uses here in Philippians shows that he is pressing forward and looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ.
To the Christian, this Day is salvation! It is the time when we will finally be with our blessed Lord and with each other in the heavenly kingdom! So we must not lose sight of that; we must continue pressing toward that goal at all costs. Our brethren in the first century looked forward to that Day (1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20), and so should we. We must continue to press forward to that great Day of His Return.
Finally, please notice that Paul clearly understands this is a calling which Christ Himself has set out for him.
Christ is able to see our shortcomings; He knows our struggles, our temptations, and our sins; and looking at all of this, He STILL calls us to forget those things which are behind and press forward.
There are at least three things I take from this.
First, Christ knew before I was even born how often I would fail Him; yet He still loves me. He still was willing to shed His blood for me. Indeed, “the Son of God loved me” and “gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Such incredible love demands my full devotion and service. Such love calls me to continue forgetting those things behind and pressing forward to those things which are ahead.
Second, the passage suggests the idea that Paul was determined to continue in the race because he understood that Jesus had a special providential plan for his life, and he did not want to frustrate said plan. As William Barclay has pointed out:
“He says that he is trying to grasp that for which he has been grasped by Christ. That is a wonderful thought. Paul felt that, when Christ stopped him on the Damascus road, he had a vision and a purpose for Paul; and Paul felt that all his life he was bound to press on, in case he should fail Jesus and frustrate his dream. Everyone is grasped by Christ for some purpose, and therefore we should all press on throughout our lives so that we may grasp that purpose for which Christ grasped us.” (William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letters To The Philippians, Colossians, And Thessalonians, 77 (Kindle Edition0; Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)
Christ has a plan and a purpose for our life (Psalm 138;8; Mark 13:34); and if we fail to “forget those things which are behind” and if we stop “reaching forward to those things which are ahead,” we risk veering off that purpose and disappointing the One Who loved us and who gave Himself for us.
Third, this reminds us that Jesus-Who has already finished the race (Hebrews 12;1-2)-has seen our own victory if we will be persistent and not give up.
So how do we deal with guilt when we mess up? We forget those things which are behind, we press forward (making amends where we need to-James 5:16; 1 John 1:9) and we keep our eyes on the Goal of Heaven and the plan and course Jesus has called us to.
My friends, if you need that fresh start that only Jesus can give (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Matthew 11:28-30), why not today as a believer repent and be baptized by the authority of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and that you may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38)?
If you are a child of God who needs to come back to The Lord, why not repent and pray to Him today (Acts 8:22)? Your brethren are ready to assist you!
The grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.