Accomplished people will tell you that goal-setting is essential to achieving success in any worthy endeavor. Perhaps no other ambition is more important in the Christian life than the one the apostle Paul preached about in Philippians 3:13–14: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
What goal was Paul targeting? Like an Olympic athlete, Paul exerted absolute determination to cross the finish line of Christian maturity. For the remainder of his life on earth, Paul was resolutely committed to the passionate pursuit of this singular ambition. He explained to the Philippians that he had not arrived at his destination yet, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).
Take hold means “to win, acquire, possess, or make one’s own.” On the road to Damascus, Paul had been seized by the powerful, unbreakable grasp of the risen Christ (Acts 9:1–19). His life now belonged wholly to Jesus. Acts 9:15 reveals that Paul was God’s chosen instrument to proclaim salvation to the Gentiles and the people of Israel. But this was not the goal Paul pressed toward. Instead, Paul explained, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11).
The goal Paul pressed toward was twofold: to know Jesus Christ and to become like Him.
Jesus had saved Paul and made him His very own possession to bring him into an intimate and eternal relationship—one that would grow and increase throughout Paul’s earthly life and culminate in “perfection” or “perfect knowledge” at his death (Philippians 3:12, NLT). Crossing the goal line does not happen on earth. While we press toward Christian maturity in this life, “we see only a reflection as in a mirror,” but when we reach the final destination at death, “we shall see face to face” and know Christ fully even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The word press in Philippians 3:14 means “to carry out or participate in an activity, to pursue or follow.” Believers are to actively press forward in our knowledge of the Lord and in our fellowship with Him until we finally hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23, ESV).
Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, NLT). Giving up our own way, taking up our cross, and following Jesus are the activities of a Christian who is pressing toward the goal of becoming more like Christ. That is why Paul said, “For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better” (Philippians 1:21, NLT).
The apostle John described the action like this: “We are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3, NLT). We keep ourselves pure by imitating Christ in right living (1 Corinthians 11:1; Romans 13:12–14).
James taught that pressing toward the goal of Christian maturity requires determined endurance to stay the course through the trials of life: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).
The Christian growth cycle is ongoing, with a snowball-like effect of building from one success to the next. As we persevere and grow through hardship, we are strengthened and prepared for even greater challenges of faith down the road. We are continually pressing upward into greater maturity as we move toward our goal—our full potential of complete and “perfect maturity” in Jesus Christ.
The English Standard Version describes the goal we press toward as “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV). When Jesus took hold of us, God called all of us upward toward His heavenly kingdom through an intimate relationship with His Son. The direction we press toward is “up” because that is where the call comes from—directly from God’s throne. He called us from heaven and will eventually bring us home to heaven (Philippians 3:20; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Hebrews 11:13–16). We press toward that goal by following the call that keeps us moving ever-increasingly onward and upward in Christlikeness and in our knowledge of Jesus our Lord.