Jesus made it plain that there are two paths in life: one which seems wide and easy but which actually leads to destruction and one which can only be entered by a narrow gate but which ultimately leads to freedom and eternal life. (Matt 7:13-14) The early church soon faced a choice as to how people could be saved. Many felt that Jewish rituals (such as circumcision) had to be followed in order to be saved, whereas Paul was adamant that salvation for the Jew and Gentile alike was by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (see Rom 3:21-24, Eph 2:8-9).
The path of self-righteousness is always tempting because then we can do something to earn God’s favour. Paul had every reason to suppose his religious heritage would win him favour, but his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus totally changed him. In Phil 3:4-7, he spoke about how he had come to realise everything which had defined him meant nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus as Lord. He went on to speak about the need to continue pressing on in faith, which involves forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead. (Phil 3:13)
Forgetting What Is Behind
We can be haunted by past sins, failures and regrets and can allow these to define our present and limit our future, rather like the ancient mariner with his albatross around his neck. Paul urges us to forget what is behind and live in the freedom of forgiveness. (Ps 32:1-2) We can also be held back even by good things in the past, perhaps always feeling that the present never lives up to what we have previously known. We must forget what is behind us and press on with the God of now, the great ‘I Am.’
Straining Towards What Is Ahead
Paul uses the analogy of a race to talk about how we must be fuelled by the hope of the eternal reward Jesus has for each of us.The Christian life encompasses past, present and future, and it’s often necessary to keep the future in our vision as we strive in the present. Just as we have to let go of the past, we need the impetus of the finishing line and our eternal reward to be the motivators to keep running right now. Paul knows he has not arrived yet (Phil 3:12), but we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus in order to persevere in our race. (Heb 12:1-3) As we do this, we can rejoice always.