Don't Look Back

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 3:4b–14

The great pitcher Satchel Paige, like his Hall of Fame counterpart, Yogi Berra, was almost as famous for the things he said as for his outstanding play. One of my favorites is what he once said of his fellow Negro Leaguer Cool Papa Bell. Cool Papa was so fast, Paige would say, that he could flip off the light switch and be across the room, in bed, and under the covers before the room got dark. Another of Paige’s witticisms, and one that later became the title of his autobiography, was, “Don’t look back—something might be gaining on you.”

Today is my birthday. It’s not a milestone birthday—that will have to wait until next year—but every year when the anniversary of our birth rolls around we are presented with an opportunity for reflection and evaluation; for looking back and looking ahead.

But both Satchel Paige and the apostle Paul advise against looking back. Paige said not to do it because the boogeyman you fear might be gaining on you. Paul likewise counsels the church in Philippi not to look back. He is writing in the first person, but it is clear that he expects the Philippians to emulate him. He says, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13b-14).

We need to take Paul’s advice seriously, and we will shortly explore in more depth what he means, but at the same time it’s important to acknowledge that looking back is not all bad. When we come to times of transition in our individual lives—birthdays, for example—or in our life together as a community, there is much value in recalling and taking stock of the past, and evaluating how that past should or should not shape our future choices. Jesus affirms the value of what has come before when he says in Matthew 13:52, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (emphasis added).

Yes, the Bible does talk a lot about newness. “See, I am making all things new,” God says in Revelation 21:5. Paul tells the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). And in Isaiah 43:18–19 God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” But this does not mean that the old is irretrievably bad. Even though God tells them not to remember the former things, what God means is that they should not let themselves be bound to the former things. As individuals, as families, and as a church, we ought to honor and cherish our heritage. What we must not do is to let our heritage paralyze us. We must not allow the past to become a set of shackles that keep us from growing into the future God has in store for us.

Don’t look back. The life of discipleship is about looking ahead. It’s about “fix[ing one’s] eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” as Hebrews 12:2 says. It’s about denying oneself, taking up one’s cross daily and following Jesus, in the words of Luke 9:23. And Paul tells the Philippians that it’s about “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (v. 13).

What is it exactly that lies behind? Paul’s answer comes in the first part of today’s passage from Philippians 3. In verses 4 to 6, Paul provides a catalog of his traits and accomplishments that once gave him “reason to be confident in the flesh” (v. 4). By “flesh,” he means those acts, behaviors, or indications of status that represent human effort or achievement, especially as they are distinguished from gifts received by grace.

One of the defining issues of Paul’s ministry, and therefore one of the principal themes in his letters, is his conflict with a group of Christian missionaries known as the Judaizers. These are a faction of formerly pagan Jewish proselytes, mostly, who think it is necessary for Christians to be circumcised and adhere to the whole law of Moses. Paul, on the other hand, believes that the righteousness of God through Christ is available to everyone without exception, and without going through the religious and cultural filter of Judaism. In his mission to the pagan Gentiles of the Roman world—in the city of Philippi, for instance—Paul takes a principled and impassioned stand in favor of what we Baptists would call soul liberty. He believes Gentiles can become part of God’s family—he describes it as being “in Christ”—without going through the intermediate stage of becoming Jews, and he does not appreciate it when the Judaizers come to the churches he has established and undermine his teachings.

It is in this context that Paul writes to the Philippians that he has more reasons to “be confident in the flesh” (v. 4). Paul’s characterization of the Judaizers is that they think of themselves as “super-Jews” who try to cow new Christians into following their advice through the strength of their example. His argument against them goes something like this: “So you think you’re a good Jew? Well, let me tell you, buddy. . . .”

He starts the list of his credentials by talking about accidents of birth. He claims to have been “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” (v. 5). Unlike the Judaizers, most of whom converted to the Jewish faith as adults, Paul can claim to have been born into Judaism. Each of the clauses in verse 5 strengthens his case. To have been circumcised on the eighth day, as the law required; to have been born a Jew and to be able to trace his heritage all the way back to one of Jacob’s sons; and to have been raised, even in the Gentile city of Tarsus, to read and speak Hebrew—all these things show his superiority to the Judaizers simply by virtue of his birth and upbringing.

But that’s not all. Paul’s actions as an adult also put him in a class far above his opponents: “As to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (vv. 5-6). As a young man, Paul had been a member of the Pharisees, the most rigorous sect in Judaism. Although they get bashed quite often by the gospel writers, the Pharisees were actually quite a progressive group, a renewal movement that called the common people to adhere to the Law and the purity codes. Because of their strictness, at the time of Paul they were a relatively small group within mainstream Judaism, and to be able to count oneself among their number was impressive indeed.

Because of his pharisaic commitment to the Law, Paul in his earlier days had seen the young Christian movement as a threat, so he also asserts his “good Jew” status by saying, “As to zeal, [I was] a persecutor of the church.” And he rounds out this list of his reasons for putting confidence in the flesh by asserting that he was “blameless” when it came to “righteousness under the law.”

This crescendo of accomplishments clearly sets Paul apart from his opponents. He certainly does have more reason to “put confidence in the flesh.”

But look at what he says next: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (v. 7). These are the things that “lie behind” that Paul has vowed to forget in his pursuit of the goal of the heavenly calling from God. And they are mostly good things. Assets, not liabilities. Apart from his description of his younger self as “a persecutor of the church,” which must have brought a twinge of shame to him whenever he remembered it, Paul is not thinking of failures, sins, or episodes of moral turpitude when he says he forgets what lies behind; he is talking about advantages and accomplishments for which he could rightly have been proud. Only when we read these lines through the lens of Christian triumphalism can we construe Paul’s words as a condemnation of his Jewish heritage. All these things—circumcision, Pharisaism, righteousness—are good things. Anyone who can boast of such accomplishments should be applauded—if we still measure our lives “according to the flesh.”

But this is where Paul swerves off the road of conventional religion. As he points out in 2 Corinthians 5:16, “From now on . . . we regard no one from a human point of view”—that is, according to the flesh. For Paul, all the mileposts by which he had once measured his progress in righteousness, his status in the eyes of God, have been torn down. An earthquake has come and obliterated all the old rules, burying them under the rubble of a broken religious edifice. A revolution has taken place within Paul, and nothing will ever be the same.

That revolution, that earthquake, is his encounter with the living God through Jesus Christ. After that encounter, Paul’s perspective is changed utterly, and all the things he once considered assets have been moved to the loss column of the ledger, “because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (v. 8). He goes on to say of these things, “I regard them as rubbish”—the Greek is even stronger; it means “dung”—“in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (vv. 8-9).

The righteousness that comes from human effort is nothing—in fact, is “rubbish” or “dung”—in comparison to the righteousness that comes from God when one trusts in the faithfulness of Christ (which is perhaps a better translation of what the NRSV renders as “faith in Christ.”) There is simply no comparison, so Paul determines to leave it all in the dust. “Forgetting what lies behind,” he says, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal” (vv. 13-14).

As I celebrate my birthday today, and look back on my life so far, I know that I could make a list similar to Paul’s. I was born a white male American. I cannot deny the tremendous advantages I enjoy because of those accidents of my birth. I have been blessed with intelligence, creativity, and a quick wit. As for my accomplishments, I could talk about my education, my experiences in the field of human rights advocacy, the years I spent in ministry with college students, the book I wrote, and the other things I have done in the name of God and for God’s reign.

At the same time, of course, I could talk about the many ways I have failed to follow Jesus faithfully—my recurrent sins; my unwillingness to forgive; my tendency to “go it alone” far too often in my spiritual life, relationships, and career; my arrogance and self-centeredness. Unlike Paul, I can make no credible claim to having been “blameless.”

But all these things “lie behind.” I need to avoid the temptation to look back—not, as Satchel Paige would say, because something is gaining on me—but because the goal is ahead. The call of God leads us always onward. If our memories encourage and embolden us to keep running the course set before us, they are beneficial. But when the things that lie behind threaten to make us complacent, or tempt us to rest on our laurels, or keep us bound to a sense of failure and worthlessness, or cause us to take our eyes off the cross of Jesus for any reason, we need to jettison them. Forget them. Leave them behind. And press on toward the goal for which God is calling us heavenward.

Some have seen a contradiction between Paul’s emphasis in verses 5 and 6 on righteousness apart from the law—that which comes solely from God’s grace—and his description in these latter verses of the life of discipleship as a race in which one must strain forward toward the finish line. But there is really no contradiction at all, as Fred Craddock points out in his commentary on Philippians:

Faith for [Paul] involved running, wrestling, striving, and fighting, none of which would end until the day of Christ. We must remember that for Paul all that effort was not for merit but was rather the activity of one who had abandoned all claim to merit. Trust in God’s grace did not make Paul less active than the Judaizers but rather set him free now to run without watching his feet, without counting his steps, without competing with other servants of Christ. His goal is clear: to be with Christ in the resurrection. To that end he can seek, because he has been found; he can know because he has been known; he can apprehend because he has been apprehended. In a word, Paul sought to lay hold of him who had already laid hold of Paul (Craddock, 61).

Let us also, like Paul, by God’s grace forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. Let us run without watching our feet. Let us press on every moment for a more profound experience of God, for a greater conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ, and for a deeper communion with the Holy Spirit.

Press on to the goal.

Don’t look back.

Craddock, Fred. 1985. Philippians. Interpretation: A Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press.

Robert TurnerComment