12 Not that I have already attained or have already been perfected, but I follow after it so that I may lay hold of that for which I was seized by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers, I do not count myself to have attained, but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, 14 I press toward the goal to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
The LORD God, as revealed to us in the Scriptures, is the transcendent sovereign who governs the world completely on his terms. He needs no outside counsel, certainly not from us, so don’t bother submitting your resumé. One of the terms and conditions of his governorship is the placing of the created order in various rhythms and seasons of time. Six days God created the world, and on the seventh day, he rested. What this tells us is that God The Infinite interacts, participates, and even enjoys the concept of time and season, after all, it comes from him, and he does not give bad gifts. As the pinnacle of his creative design, man is finite and apart from eternal life, can only participate in the finitude of time. He cannot escape this reality no matter how hard he tries. The covenant Lord is eternal yet powerful enough to step foot into the created order. Mankind is created, earthy, and bound by the laws of time, impotent and unable to step into the infinite. Christ crosses the chasm.
What this means is that we are present tense people. None of us, despite our infatuation with time travel, can go backwards in time, nor can we go forward into the future. This unforgiving, precarious situation affects us in many ways. When it comes to sin and historical deviation from the covenant Lord, we cannot go back in time and fix it. What’s done is done. Yet we are also not permitted to predict the future, at least not entirely. We can learn from the past and attempt to mitigate future actions, but none of us has the power to orchestrate tomorrow. This is why Jesus says not to worry about tomorrow: you can’t deal with tomorrow, so deal with today instead (Matthew 6:25-34).
In Philippians 3, the apostle Paul explores the contours of what it means to be a present tense person. In the first part of chapter three, he laid out his rather impressive resumé, pushing the antithesis of his pre-salvation rebellion. He had reason to boast, his resumé was stacked (vv. 4-6). He put a whole lot of confidence in the flesh, as opposed to the Spirit. If anyone fit the bill for outward conformity to the covenant Lord it was Paul, a Jew who stood taller than other Jews in every way. This “gain” was actually “loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). Having an outward obedience without Spiritual regeneration is nothing short than a pile of dung (v. 8). The righteousness Paul needs, indeed the righteousness we need, proceeds from the perfect man, Jesus Christ, and this comes by faith (v. 9). When we participate in Christ the perfect Adam, we experience the power of his resurrection; we participate first in his death, dying to the law’s strict requirements and unfulfilled demands, and then do we participate in resurrection life (v. 10-11).
Based on these truths, Paul can say that he’s not perfect, but having been seized by Christ, he now lays hold of the Lord Jesus (v. 12). (Jesus always takes the first step.) Paul hasn’t attained the resurrection of the dead yet, so he has a decision to make while living in the present: he must forget the things behind him, that is, the righteousness he perceived to have through outward conformity to the covenant, while simultaneously reaching forward, striving to those things which lie ahead, namely, the goal of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (v. 13-14).
To summarize: Paul lived in the present which required him to forget the rubbish of the past and press on towards the greater goal, namely, resurrection life. He could not change the misguided zealousness of his past, nor can he entirely grasp that which lies ahead in the future. What he can do, is deal with the past and the future in the present. He can deal with Jesus Christ today. He has the Holy Spirit’s deposit, or downpayment, on the future promises of a consummate new heavens and new earth. That is his to enjoy today.
ALL OF CHRIST, FOR ALL OF LIFE
While meditating on this passage this week it occurred to me that there’s much more than meets the eye. Earlier in the letter to the church at Philippi, Paul emphasized that for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21). Paul understands that being a present tense person requires an attentiveness to the calling God has on his life in the immediate. He does not say, “For me to live is money,” or “For me to live is rapture doctrine.” No, for Paul, living—the totality of one’s existence here in the present—is all of Christ, for all of life. Life ought to be marked completely by Christ and his Kingdom. Every square inch of life should get its marching orders from the Lord Jesus Christ. Your money, your education, your pursuit of business, your learning to read (children), your calling to serve God and neighbor, your understanding mathmatics, your view of taxation, immigration, vaccines, the coronavirus….all of it belongs to the Lord Jesus and all of it deserves to serve him and his purposes. In his living and dying, all of it is Christ’s. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” To ‘die’ means ‘gain’ because dying gives way to resurrection and resurrection gives way to eternal life with Christ. That’s why it’s gain.
So how does this work itself out in everyday life? For one, fear, guilt, and shame are all things which ought to be placed at the feet of Jesus. Guilt and shame from past sinful behavior is covered by the blood of the lamb. We must repent for the sin, go to the cross, find forgiveness, and really believe Jesus really dealt with it there. We learn from those things we cannot change in order to make wiser decisions in the present, which should shape a better future, the key operating word being ‘should’.
God’s historical feedback system of judgment and sanctions tells us how we’re doing. Generally speaking, there is blessing for obedience, cursing for disobedience (See Deuteronomy 28). When we’re faithful to God in the present, it generally means blessings for the future. This is not a quid pro quo, this for that, type of thing as though God stoops down to our skittish, transactional mindset. Rather, the long-suffering God chooses to bless and remove blessing depending on his shaping of history. Our job is to be faithful today, not worried about tomorrow.
It also means obeying Christ in what he’s put before you and not trying to obey Christ in what he hasn’t put before you. The goal of compound growth in the obedient life of a believer is the accumulation of blessing for the exertion of kingdom energy. None of us will turn the United States of America around tomorrow. We are neck-deep in sin and rebellion, and God has more purifying judgments in mind, I’m sure. (If we’re honest, we deserve far, far worse than what we have going on right now anyway). What we need is compound growth for all Christians everywhere. It is faithfulness piled on top of faithfulness that God blesses. If you’re too busy worrying about things you can’t control, or can’t change, there’s a good chance you’re ignoring what God has placed before you. You don’t have to eat the entire buffet.
Obeying Christ in what he’s put before you is exerting your kingdom energies in concentric circles. You simply must be filling yourself with the things of the Spirit. An empty gas tank takes no one anywhere. If you’re full, then fill your family. If your family is full, fill someone else. Present tense people are people who live in the here and now. They are not chained to the past, nor are they speculating about the future. Sure, they plan for the future, but the planning is done in the present. They practice the principle of reverse engineering one’s life. If you find yourself in a rut, it can help to find where you went off track and work back from there. But the best thing to do is change course today, not yesterday, nor tomorrow. Today.
Moving out from yourself to your family, to your church, to your neighborhood, to your city, to your county, to your state, to your nation, and to the world requires wisdom, and wisdom is vindicated by her children (Luke 7:35). It does no good trying to change the world when your kids are neglected and your marriage is in shambles. You can’t fill someone up if you’re empty. We must lead and serve from the overflow. If you don’t have something to give, you’re not paying attention. Abundant life is what Christ came to give us all.
As postmillennialists we know that ships like the USA don’t turn around overnight. They could turn overnight if God were to grant the repentance; Nineveh during Jonah’s hesitant ministry is a prime example. And God does outrageous things like that sometimes and we thank him for it. But for the seemingly mundane, repetitious, day to day living we call life, must give ourselves over to faithfulness today, not worry for tomorrow or shame for yesterday. Living as present tense Christians means forgetting what lies behind, keeping an eye towards the future, and working with your hands today. Little by little, inch by inch, we have the opportunity each and every day to wake up and do it all over again.
Paul’s past could have crippled him with fear and doubt. Rather than give himself to these time wasters, he recalls to mind that Christ seized him, and that by God’s grace, he can be a seized man pressing towards the goal like a runner striving hard during that last 100 meters. Be present with yourself. Be present with your family. Be present with your church. Be present with your city and county. Be present, in all things, because that’s what you are. You are present here with the ever-present God.
Heavenly Father, we confess that we do not always live as present tense Christians. We sometimes forget to deal with our past by taking it to the cross, and we sometimes worry ourselves about the future unknown. Having been incapacitated with what we can’t control, we fail to do the things today that we can control. You have called us into this dominion mandate which means that we are very much in need of your help. We do not boast in ourselves, our accomplishments, our self-deluded thinking, and so on. We boast in Christ who has seized us by his grace. Help us, Holy Spirit, to be present and focus on the things God has placed before us. We desire to be obedient and trust that in that, you will advance your kingdom, with or without us. In Christ’s name I pray, AMEN.
*This was a devotional/sermon given to the saints of Cross & Crown Church for Sunday, May 3, 2020.