Warnings about Perfectionism—3:12-16
1. Perfection is not attainable, but press on to fulfill your purpose—3:12
Moving on to a new paragraph, Paul speaks of his goal in light of his loss. It is clear that Paul is speaking with respect to his own faith and life. Although the new paragraph opening is somewhat ambiguous in the Greek text, it is not precisely clear how it related to what has gone before. The sentence begins abruptly with ouch oti (lit. not that). It is a formula of a disclaimer (cf. John 6:46; 7:42; 2 Cor. 1:24; 3:5; 2 Thess. 3:9). As one looks at the paragraph, it begins with a parallel pattern, as show by Silva:
A (12a) I have not attained [lambano]
B (12b) I pursue [dioko] that I may reach [katalambano]
A (13a) I do not reckon to have reached [katalambano]
B (13b-14) I pursue [dioko] toward the goal
As one can see it is a contrasting negative/positive pattern. The question is to what do the negatives refer? Let us look at the text:
The first negative reads: “Not that I have already obtained [it] or have already become perfect” (Phil 3:12). This is an emphatic disclaimer. The Greek text does not have the word it; the word it may be implied, but it is not stated. Obtained is a transitive verb with the object omitted. The Greek word is lambano, meaning to take, take in hand, to receive, or seize. It should be pointed out that this is not the same word as found in verse 11, although the KJV translates it by the same English word (attain). The Greek word in verse 11 is katantao, meaning to arrive. The question is he has not received or seized what? It seems to me that the key to the answer is in the continuation of the phrase—or have already become perfect. The connector or makes these two phrases parallel and further defines what we have not obtained. What he has not received is perfection. The Greek word is teleioo, which has a wide range of meanings: to be brought to completion, accomplished; finished, perfect, or to be fully developed. Delling notes the word has the strong thought of totality. The word has a threefold use in Scripture: (1) Positional perfection is what we have in Christ (Heb. 10:14). (2) Relative perfection, that is spiritual maturity (Phil 3:15; Col. 4:12), and is gained progressively. (3) Ultimate perfection that is attained at the resurrection. Silva notes that linguistically, the implied object is simply the out-resurrection. The context here is that of glorification. It speaks of ultimate perfection of the body, soul, and spirit. But Paul denies that he has yet found its complete realization. IN PAUL there is clearly a tension between not having and having.
Many feel that this is an expression of caution to some at
that claimed a superior state of sanctification, even a degree of perfection.
However, Paul repudiates the idea of sinless perfection. As Lloyd-Jones
correctly and strongly points: “There is no such thing as perfection in this life
and world, it is impossible.” He
points out two errors that those who claim perfection make: (1) is incomplete
examination of themselves.
(2) The error of setting too low a standard. I
would add a third: Legalism, which centers upon only outward actions, not
internal cleansing and motives. Someone has defined legalism as the fleshly
attitude which conforms to a code in order to glorify self.
This negative is offset by the positive contrast—“but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12b). The word but denotes contrast, because he has not yet received its realization, he presses on. In considering this statement we cannot overlook what Paul said in Phil. 1:6. There are two aspects to find in these verses: First, God is working in you to reach His goal (cf. 1:6). Second, we see man’s part in reaching the goal. Paul therefore says “I press on” (3:12a). We must work in cooperation with the will of God to fulfill His will for us. The Greek word for press is dioko, meaning to put into action or motion, endeavor earnestly to acquire, to press on, or to pursue. O’Brien notes that the “present tense describes an ongoing pursuit that is clearly strenuous.” Pursuit of spiritual progress is a constant imperative in the Christian life.
“So that” is ei kai in the Greek. There is some question as to how this should be viewed. Is it to be used idiomatically thereby indicating the reason why he presses on, or should it be used to indicate purpose, thus giving the purpose or goal for pressing on? O’Brien notes that both uses make good sense. Kennedy comments that whichever way one chooses to see it, the sense remains the same. However, if one takes it to indicate the reason, then Paul presses on because of the work or call of Christ upon his life. If, however, one chooses to take it as purpose, it indicates he is endeavoring to carry out the purpose of Christ’s call. I tend to view it as purpose.
Now Paul refers back to his conversion experience; “so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” His aim or goal in service is to fulfill his calling. It also gives his motivation for his service. Here we find two forms of the same word (katalabo) which means to grasp, attain, to seize, or to lay hold of. The first is aorist active, indication that this is Paul’s action. The second is imperative aorist passive, indicating Paul had already received this action. Thus, the reason for his service is trying to attain or lay hold of the purpose in which the Lord took hold of him. This purpose was clearly revealed to him at his conversion as God’s ambassador to the Gentiles with the message of reconciliation (cf. Acts 9:15; 26:15-18, 2 Cor. 5:16-21). Part of laying hold of Christ is fulfilling His call; to be faithful because of Christ’s laying hold of him there on the road to
2. Perfectionism cannot be held, but one must press toward the goal—3:13-14
Again Paul expresses a negative. The Greek text is literally: “Brethren, I myself do not consider to have laid hold” (Phil. 3:13a). I myself is emphatic in form and position, stressing it is Paul’s evaluation. Here the verb consider (logizomai) means to count, calculate, consider, to infer, conclude, or to presume. It indicates thinking something through to its logical conclusion. Paul’s obvious and logical conclusion is that he has not attained all that Christ has called him for. “Self-complacency was no feature of the apostle's character,” notes Eadie.
He now expresses the result of his conclusion. “But one thing I [do]: forgetting what [lies] behind and reaching forward to what [lies] ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13b-14). It must be pointed out that the words one thing is a brief forceful interjection, suggesting “a singleness of purpose and concentration of effort.” The object of the one thing is found not in the immediate clauses following, but the principle clause of verse 14—“I press toward.” The word indicates a pressing on for a purpose and not aimlessly. That is the one thing Paul does. The immediate clauses following the one thing are “circumstantial clauses of manner” (Phil 3:23b). They describe how or the manner in which the one thing is done. One could think of them as two sides to one coin. The first side is forgetting what is behind. The Greek word is epilanthanomai, meaning to be forgetful, or to disregard. “The present tense indicates that his forgetting is continuous and ceaseless” To that which is behind indicates that part of the process is past. It also seems to speak of the time between entering the race (conversion) and where he is now in his Christian life. The imagery that is used in this context is that of an athlete, or athletic contest. Gromacki comments: “No person can erase from his memory what has transpired before, but he can keep the past from controlling the present and the future….A believer thus must not permit the past to cause him depression or overconfidence in the present.” The second side of this coin is “reaching forward to what is ahead.” The Greek word for reaching is epekteinomai meaning to stretch out, or to strain. It is a participle, followed by a dative of direction, which carries the idea of stretching out toward the goal. Many fail and fall because they do not keep their eye on the goal (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2). The goal is faithfulness in running the race until the end. Practical sanctification is not automatic. We must pursue it diligently by following the Lord (vv. 13-15; cf. Gal. 5:16; 2 Pet. 1:5-11).
It should be noticed that the goal is not the prize. The prize comes after reaching the goal. They are not the same. The prize comes after one has reached the goal. Here the prize is described as the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This is not a reference to the rapture. Constable points out the reason: “The Rapture is not a reward. God will catch up
(rapture) into heaven every Christian regardless of how he or she has run the race (1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:15-17).” The imagery comes from the athletic games at the time of Paul.
Hawthorne describes this:
In keeping with the vivid imagery drawn from the Greek games that pervades this section there is still another explanation of the 'upward call' that seems the most reasonable explanation of all. It sees in the expression tes ano kleseos ["the upward call"] an allusion to the fact that the Olympian games, which included foot-races, were organized and presided over by agonothetes, highly respected officers called Hellenodikai. 'After each event they had a herald announce the name of the victor, his father's name and his country, and the athlete or charioteer would come and receive a palm branch at their hands.'
The prize is awarded at the Bema seat of Christ (1 Cor. 13:11-15). It is there that our practice for Christ will be tested, but not our position in Christ, and will be rewarded for the race we ran.
3. For now, be mature—3:15-16
“Therefore” (Phil. 3:15) is a conjunction which connects the last sentences of this paragraph with the argument of the preceding sentences. It connects the facts with a call to action. Based upon what he just wrote, Paul now calls upon them to take two actions: “Let us, therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same [standard] to which we have attained” (Phil. 3:15-16). The two actions are set forth in our text by the words, “Let us.” It should be noted that both injunctions indicated by the words “let us” refers to the phrase, “as many as are perfect.” As noted above, this cannot refer to sinless perfection. Rather, there are two possibilities on how to understand this reference; some take it as irony reflecting the group of believers whose error Paul is addressing. Others take it as a reference to Christian maturity, which is the common way he uses the word when applying to believers (1 Cor. 2:6; 14:30; Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:28; 4:12). Constable observes: “In verse 12 Paul used the same root word and claimed he was not perfect. Probably there he meant that he was not absolutely perfect or mature, and here he meant that he was relatively mature compared to the immature.” I prefer the maturity view, but the debate rages on. Either way, the actions Paul calls upon them to take are the same. These two actions are:
- To have the same mind (Phil. 3:15).
These exhortations are a call for the readers to join Paul in these actions. The command is to have this attitude. The word phroneo is a key significant word in this epistle, which means to think, to mind, to be of the same opinion. It is used twice here and found in Philippians 1:7; 2:2 (twice), 5; 3:19; 4:2, 10 (twice) along with the compound word in 2:3 (tapeinophrosyne; humility of mind). The key to the Christian life is the mind. We are to be “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and [we are] taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). This can only be done by the renewed transformed mind (Romans 12:1-2).
THE MIND IN PHILIPPIANS
Confidence of mind
Unity of mind
Purpose of mind
Humility of mind
Mind of Christ
Attitude of Paul
Mind not earthly things
Be mindful (twice)
One cannot help but think of Philippians 2:5 which has the same translation in our text: “have this attitude.” In Philippians 2:5 it is to have the attitude of Christ. Here in 3:15, which is based on 3:11-14, it is the attitude of Paul as an athlete that we are to emulate. “In this context it involves continually pursuing the same Christ-centered ambition Paul has.” Paul is our example that we should follow (2 Thess. 7-9).
Then Paul adds a phrase that seems somewhat strange: “and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil. 3:15b). However, it should be pointed out that the word and (kai) in this instance “is likely an adversative conjunction, emphasizing a fact that is surprising, but nevertheless true.” The Greek suggests it is evident that some had this different mind or attitude. It could have been the attitude of sinless perfection, or the attitude of legalism which was displayed outwardly, but not inwardly; although the cause is not identified. It was an attitude that was different than prescribed by Paul, whatever the cause.
The correction comes by the enlightenment of God for, “Even this God will reveal to you.” There is little question that this phrase refers back to the last phrase. The verb will reveal describes God’s gracious work of enlightenment. Enlightenment is said in Scripture to be given by God the Father (Matthew 11:25; 16:17; Galatians 1:16; Philippians 3:15), Christ (Matthew 11:27; Galatians 1:12), and the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10; Ephesians 3:5). During this dispensation it more than likely refers to the work of the Holy Spirit. It should be noted that there is no doubt the idea of conviction indicated, since there is a wrong attitude to be corrected. It is the Spirit’s job to convict (cf. John 16:8-11).
- To be consistent (Phil. 3:16)
In this concluding sentence of the paragraph he urges them to be consistent. “However, let us keep living to the same [standard] to which we have attained” (Phil. 3:16). In giving this admonition, Paul is including himself (let us). We are to live up to the standard of maturity we have attained. Interestingly, the verb stoicheo (translated living) means to keep in line. It is a military term for marching in rank and file. It is used in Galatians 5:25 and translated walk. The KJV keeps this translation of the word in this text: “let us walk by the same rule.” In Galatians 5, two words are translated walk. The first is in 5:16 where we find the word peripaeo which means to walk, to walk in the ordinary, our ordinary physical walk, in verse 5:25 stoicheo. Paul’s argument in Galatians is that we are to walk in the Spirit in our ordinary everyday life, and once we do so we are to keep in line with the Spirit. Paul employs the same argument here; we are to stay consistent with the maturity we have attained, and live up to that standard.
This paragraph could be summed up by these points:
The plan is progress, not perfection.
The past is done, forget it.
The future goal is ahead, reach for it.
The present standard, be consistent with it.
 Hawthorne, WBC: PHILIPPIANS, 149.
 Ibid, 149.
 Silva, PHILIPPIANS, 198. Also see O’Brien, NIGTC: PHILIPPIANS, 419.
 This is not uncommon in the Greek language.
 This is the only place where Paul uses this term, although other forms are used. O’Brien, NIGTC: PHILIPPIANS, 422.
 Perschbacher, LEXICON, 404.
 Delling, “teleiow,” (Kittle), THEOLOGICAL DICTIONARY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, VII:84.
 Silva, PHILIPPIANS, 200.
 Lloyd-Jones, THE LIFE OF PEACE, 86.
 Ibid, 87
 Ibid, 88.
 This is a note that I wrote in my Bible some years ago, but I do not remember its source.
 O’Brien, INGTC: PHILIPPIANS, 424.
 Ibid, 425
 Kennedy, EGT: PHILIPPIANS, 3:456.
 Silva views it as indicating reason, 201.
 Baker sees it as purpose, 99.
 Eadie, PHILIPPIANS, 3:13.
 O’Brien, NIGTC: PHILIPPIANS, 427-428.
 Ibid, 428.
 Ibid, 428.
 Gromacki, STAND UNITED, 155.
 Constable, PHILIPPIANS, 58.
 Hawthorne, WBC: PHILIPPIANS, 154.
 Ibid, 156. For good arguments against taking it this way, see O’Brien, NIGTC: PHILIPPIANS, 435-436.
 Constable, PHILIPPIANS, 59.
 This is a hortatory subjunctive, and exhorts the writer and reader to take an action. See Wallace, BEYOND THE BASICS, 464.
 O’Brien, NIGTC: PHILIPPIANS, 437.
 Hawthorne, WBC: PHILIPPIANS, 156.
 Kennedy, EGT: PHILIPPIANS, 3:459.
 This is my translation of the Greek text.