Our minds must be conformed to God’s mindset in order for us to see more of His Kingdom power, not the other way around; ensuring we are in line with His thinking, and not limiting our minds as per our human understanding or previous experience. The Apostle Paul had this right mindset. The ‘games’ analogy was ever-present in his mind, and investigating this further helps explain how Paul thought. He mentions the analogy often:
- “...if I may finish my course” [NIV: “finish the race”] in Acts 20.24; he talks of running and boxing and training in 1 Cor 9; twice in Galatians he speaks of running the race [2.2 & 5.7]; he writes to Timothy about competing as an athlete, and tells him in 2 Tim 4 that he has “finished the race”.
The passage we’re looking at investigates this image again and how it applies to our lives as Christians. First, some context:
- It is about 61 AD, about 30 years after Christ. Paul is writing from imprisonment in Rome to the church in Philippi (in modern Northern Greece). It was a Roman colony, and Paul had founded the church there about 10 years previously during his 2nd missionary journey, the 1st European church.
- The church had sent Paul a gift; he is writing them his thanks, and taking the opportunity to encourage them.
- He wants them to understand the secret to a joyful Christian life: that true contentment is found in seeking Christ and His mission more and more.
Paul knows we are running a spiritual race in a secular world; participation isn’t optional, but the outcome of the race certainly is. We WILL complete the race, but how will we run it?
The Olympics were a massive part of Greek culture; they had religious importance, tying in with sacrifices and ceremonies honouring the God Zeus, and of course took their name from Mt Olympus, the home of the Gods; winners of the events were immortalised in poems and statues. The winner would be presented with a crown of olive leaves, a symbol of peace.
In the same way, our Christian life is a race, heading towards the goal of eternity with Christ; an incorruptible crown, not one of olive leaves. But why did Paul throw in the subject of citizenship at the end of this passage? Paul knew that the Philippians (people he could put a face to, let alone names) would respond to the statement in two ways:
- In the Greek world, the only way you could compete in the games at all was if you were a Greek citizen. You didn’t run to gain citizenship, you needed it in the first place. The same applies to us in our Race for Life. If you are saved, you are involved...
- The city of Philippi was a Roman colony; they were Roman citizens in the Greek world. Hence, they had the same rights and privileges as the citizens of Rome itself; they could not be beaten by local officials; if not satisfied with local justice, they could appeal directly to the Emperor (which is exactly what Paul himself did in Acts 25 onwards, which is how he ended up in Rome). The knowledge of our citizenship must affect our mindset.
Paul is encouraging the Philippians and ourselves to run the "race" in such a way that we don’t forget WHO WE ARE. This is what makes the difference on HOW we run. We can’t perform our best until we know who we ALREADY ARE IN CHRIST JESUS. The most successful athletes are the ones that already believe they’re winners – focussed and specialised to do what they do to their utmost. This is not a gospel of works that Paul is preaching. He is not saying we should work harder (read: “train harder”) in order to see salvation, but imploring us to realise our mission and to want to do it well. Earthly athletes are only winners once they believe it and run and train as such; the slightest doubt could make all the difference. Thank God, then that WE ARE WINNERS ALREADY. It is formidable, God-given Truth that we are safe in His hands; nothing we can do or fail to do can change that. What Paul is talking about here is HOW we run. Our performance is affected by our mindset, our effectiveness in the Kingdom of Heaven is our choice. Who wants to fulfil every potential God has set in us? Let’s investigate further:
1) our home nation: WE ARE CITIZENS OF HEAVEN (also Eph 2.19)
- seated in heavenly places – Eph 2.6. As God's people, our names are written in the Book of Life; we have a whole new identity, a new bloodline.
- Paul could boast in his Jewish roots if he wished (Phil 3.5-6), but in v7 he says “whatever gain I had, I count as loss for the sake of Christ” – his glorious inheritance in Christ surpassed his earthly standing.
Like the folks at Philippi, we can understand that our citizenship gives us an automatic place in the race, and also that our citizenship gives us the rights and privileges of our HOME NATION:
- we wear the righteousness of Christ: (see most of Romans as ref!) His perfection has been applied to us in his death and resurrection.
- Angels serve us: Heb 1.14 tells us they are ministering spirits sent out to serve those who are to inherit salvation.
- We are co-heirs with Christ: Rom 8.17. We have a future inheritance of eternal life that is assured, but it is already active in the presence of the Holy Spirit and we can enjoy it now.
2) our race venue: IF WE ARE CITIZENS OF HEAVEN, THEN WE ARE FOREIGNERS ON EARTH
- "strangers/aliens": 1 Peter 2.11, Peter exhorts us as “sojourners and exiles” (NIV = “aliens and strangers”... “to abstain from the passions of the flesh”)
- “in the world, not of the world” – Jesus’ prayer (in John 17) demonstrates this. We are His, we do not belong here, but we have to remain here for a while. We’ve got a job to do! He wants us to relate but not conform.
- We should be noticeable as foreigners. If I travel abroad, people would know I’m not local as soon as I open my mouth! So too should our conduct and speech be noticeable as foreigners here on earth.
3) our athletic mission: IF WE ARE FOREIGNERS ON EARTH, THEN WE ARE AMBASSADORS FOR THE GOSPEL
AMBASSADORS - not as 2 Cor 5.20 is often mis-quoted (context is of "we" being "Paul & Timothy" to the church in Corinth & the word comes from root meaning elders/seniors), but the principle itself still remains:
John 20.21-22: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you... receive the Holy Spirit”; Matt 28.19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...”; Acts 1.8: “...and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
As foreigners here, we need to understand we’re not tourists. That’s often a temptation; but we have a mission: Representatives/messengers/envoys... ambassadors...
Sports people, and similar, are proud to represent their nation at events; school uniforms are worn for a reason; schools tell their pupils, “You’re ambassadors of the school!”; the Salvation Army wear their uniforms so that they are recognisable and to help the wearer remember to live up to their Christian profession
How about actual Ambassadors?
- Their Embassy is considered a part of the nation that it represents. WHEREVER WE GO, THE KINGDOM OF GOD (“KING-DOM” = KING’S DOMAIN) IS RIGHT WHERE WE STAND.
- They are paid wages relevant to their home nation. We are building up treasures in heaven.
- They have the military at their disposal. We have an army of angels ministering on our behalf
- They have a direct line to their President, their Commander-in-Chief – SO DO WE!
- They have diplomatic immunity – SO DO WE! “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8.31b); John 10.27-29 = “My sheep hear my voice... they will never perish... no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand...”
The best sports ambassadors are the ones of integrity and honour. They’re the ones who conduct themselves in a worthy manner, the drug-free ones: we should not seek to be puffing ourselves up, but running purely on God-given gifts, relying on the Holy Spirit, letting everything we do point to Christ, to “conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel” to quote Paul to the Philippians again (1.27)
Conclusion and response:
"We're on a mission from God" (Blues Brothers...)
- I want to be broken; I want this mindset all the time, not some of the time.
- Paul gives us practical points in this passage:
- v13: “...forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward...” Our past can hold us back, but only if we allow it to. In truth, we are new creations, our sins are removed as far as the east is from the west, God has chosen to forget the aspects of our past that we often still hold on to...
- v17: “...keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us...” We have great role models to follow; some we know personally, some we read of. And maybe, just maybe, we could be one of those role models for others?
- 4.1: “...stand firm thus in the Lord...” Not conforming – a woman vicar on TV last week stated that a person practising witchcraft in her village was talking to the same God as she does, just demonstrating it in a different way. NOOOOOO!!!! That’s a fear of men, not of God. JESUS, HELP US TO PREACH YOUR TRUTH. (there was also the 1st gay ceremony in Anglican Church between 2 clergymen few weeks ago; where do I even begin...?) WE MUST STAND FIRM IN THE LORD, KNOWING THE TRUTH OF THE BIBLE.
- The disciples asked for boldness in Acts 4.29-30
- We are not alone, we have the Holy Spirit with us all the way.
“Fellow foreigners”, we are running a Race for Life. Not just for life in terms of number of years until we die, but for life in terms of preaching the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, King of Kings, Victor of all things. He’s the ultimate example of Victory and we are his body.
The motto of the modern Olympic games is, “Citius, Altius, Fortius" ("faster, higher, stronger”) – how much do we want to see His kingdom increase in Herne Bay? In the lives of our loved ones? In our own lives? How generous can we be with our time, our money, our gifting?
WHY? For Him. He’s our goal. He’s waiting at the finishing line, in the Father’s house, and one day He’ll return to take us there. In the meantime, let’s ask him what He wants from us as we run this Race for Life...