Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the [heavenly] prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul was the greatest leader in the history of the church, but he wasn’t cocky. He knew he was still a work in progress. Paul’s days were filled with starting churches, managing leaders, and taking the gospel to everyone in the known world, but he reduced his job description to “one thing.” We’d interpret his comments in management as the rigorous commitment to a singular objective that has two parts: not dwelling on the past, but reaching ahead to achieve the vision of the future.
The past can bog us down in two distinctly different ways. Some of us feel ashamed by our failures in our personal lives, or in business, and our minds are haunted by those memories. Every decision we make is colored by our grief and fear that we’ll make the same mistake again. Others of us, though, live in past glories. We’ve enjoyed success, but instead of using our gains as a foundation for future growth, we keep reliving those memories. Living in the past, whether failed or successful, takes our lives out of focus. Paul says, “Forget the past and move on.”
In which direction should we move? We should reach forward to fulfill the vision God has for us. Paul encourages us to uncover and embrace a God-sized cause, one that has a positive impact on people and expands His Kingdom. We can have causes like that at work, in our neighborhoods, and at home as well as church.
“The day our memories become larger than our dreams is the day our soul begins to shrink,” says Ike Reighard.
“Discipline yourself to do the things you need to do when you need to do them, and the day will come when you will be able to do the things you want to do when you want to do them.
Of all of the apostles, it is no doubt that it was Paul who had a full life. Growing up as a devout Jew, he saw this new religion, Christianity as a heretical Jewish breakaway from the faith. Because of that view, he saw his role as defender of the faith and he set out to eradicate it. We read that he caused great havoc toward the church by having Christians arrested, jailed and beaten. We read that he held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death. As Paul writes to the Philippians to tell them to focus on what God has next, I’m sure he was speaking to himself as well as them and us when he said, “Forget what is behind and reach to what is ahead.”
This new religion disturbed Paul for it was a radical change from what he knew and he was sure that God had nothing to do with it so he felt in the best interest of Judaism he ought to get rid of it. Sometimes this is where we are when God wishes to lead us into places of opportunity we have never been before. Because the past is so familiar and so comfortable we hold on to it for dear life and we become protective of it just as Paul was. We feel justified in doing so for we know that it is a tired and true way of life.
We can even be flexible in some parts of our lives while at the same time we are rigid with others. Often it is easy to embrace social or technical changes while at the same time resisting any change in the church.
Having been in the church for almost 50 years I have observed a lot of change in the church and at each place, I observed the resistance to change. It not that those who are resistant are not godly people, it’s just that sometimes we’re afraid that new things will draw us away from the foundations of faith. This describes Paul until the day when he had an encounter with Christ.
As God made Himself known to Paul, he was given new purpose.
“As he traveled he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him [displaying the glory and majesty of Christ]; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice [from heaven] saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting and oppressing Me?” And Saul said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
What a revelation Paul received. From believing that he was defending God to seeing in reality he was persecuting Christ, Paul’s life and purpose took a dramatic turn. Most of us may never have such a dramatic intervention by Christ to move us into the vision God has for us but we all can be assured of two things. First, that the purpose of God and the church will never change. That purpose is making Christ known to every person in the world. It is the single-minded, focused, and primary reason for the church. Second of all, methods are not sacred and are subject to change. Paul was used to the old way of approaching and pleasing God with sacrifices and living by the law and now God was showing him that it was by faith and not by works. As a matter of fact, Paul says this clearly in Ephesians 2. What a radical change of moving from justification by works and the keeping of the law to justification by faith trusting in the work of Christ alone.
When Paul says that we are to forget our past, he is not suggesting that we discard our heritage but that we are to build for the future upon it rather than making it a burden over us that holds us locked in a vanishing world.
There are two things to consider when we reach toward the future. For those who are resistant to any change, they must ask themselves whether the current methods are effective in doing the work of God and in bringing people to Christ. If so, there’s no reason to change. If not, perhaps change ought to be considered. Too often we allow the past memories to take on a greater life that they really were. Somehow our memories blot out all the negatives and we remember only the good. We often talk about the “good old days” as though they were the best life could ever be and we long for their return. But many of the past methods won’t work in out current times. For example, we no longer have the windows open so that the community can hear the gospel because we like the comfort of temperature controlled buildings. I don’t think any of us would want to go back to the days without that comfort. When the church set 11 am as worship time, we were by and large an agricultural nation and that time was convenient for the farmer to come to church after feeding and milking and doing farm chores and the evening services were after the evening tasks were done. It’s amazing to me that the seating of most churches is still modeled after the seating of the 1800’s while our seats at home have become incredibly comfortable.
I remember the days of tent meetings and multiple week revivals and the like and I see small groups still trying to use those methods. The unfortunate thing is their audience is people who already know Christ so their effectiveness of bringing people to Christ is almost nil.
For those who are advocates of change, they must ask themselves whether the changes being promoted will have a greater impact on doing the work of God and bringing people to Christ. It is easy to embrace change because we have become bored with current ways and somehow they have become stale. But change for the sake of change becomes a master over us as well. Too often change comes from pressure to be like everyone else, to borrow what appears to be a successful method, hoping all the while that we can be as successful as those we are copying from. How often are we as individuals pressured to be a certain way, to do certain things, or even to dress a certain way so that we can be as successful as those who do those things.
Paul tells us to focus on this one thing, “forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to that which lies ahead, the goal to win the heavenly prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Not resistant to all change but also not changing for the sake of change. A carefully determined change that moves us toward the upward call of God. A change birthed in prayer, revealed by the Holy Spirit and approved by God. A change that affects us in drawing us nearer to Christ and leaves the effect of drawing the lost to Him.
Whether we change or keep our order of service, our style of dress, our genre of music or any other thing, it must at the end of the day be determined not by personal preference but by whether or not it gives us opportunity to expand the reach of the church to the lost.
One of the ways we know that change is needed is when we do not see much activity of God. By this I mean that we are not seeing people come to Christ in salvation for that is the activity of God.
Let us forget what is behind us- not living in the past but building upon it and let us reach toward the future with hope and expectation and let us make any course correction necessary to help us reach “the goal of winning the heavenly prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us remember that as individuals we must reach toward this prize, for if not, neither will the church reach for it. If we are personally resistant to all change so will the church be. If we chase change for the sake of change, so will the church. But if we seek direction from God and move with Him in progress of faith, so will the church. And both individuals and the church will experience a glorious future together.
Dr. John Thompson