Born in 5 AD and dramatically converted to Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road in 34 AD, the Apostle Paul wrote the following words when he was in his mid 50’s near the end of his first imprisonment in Rome (60-62 AD):
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: 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 (Philippians 3:13-14).
A few short years later he would be imprisoned again in Rome and martyred under Nero in 66 AD (source: timeline located here). But what exactly does Paul mean when he stated, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead?”
GotQuestions.org answers that question with the following statement:
The apostle Paul ends a section in Philippians 3 by saying, “One thing I do: 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” (verses 13–14). Is Paul instructing us to forget everything that ever happened before we met Christ? Is this a command to purge our minds of all memories?
It is important to consider the passage that precedes these words. Paul had just listed all his religious qualifications that, to the Jewish mind, were of supreme importance. He then states, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verse 8). Paul is making the point that no fleshly accomplishment matters in comparison with knowing Christ and trusting in His righteousness alone for salvation (Ephesians 2:8–9). Regardless of how good or how bad we may have been, we must all come to Christ the same way: humble, repentant, and undeserving of His forgiveness (Romans 5:8; Titus 3:5).
The word “forgetting” in this passage means “no longer caring for, neglecting, refusing to focus on.” Our memories store millions of pieces of information gained through our senses since birth. Some experiences are impossible to forget, and any effort to forget them only makes them more prominent. Paul is not advising a memory wipe; he is telling us to focus on the present and the future, rather than the past.
It’s easy to “live in the past.” Whether it’s a past victory that our minds continually replay or a past defeat that hangs over us like a shroud, it needs to be left in the past. Nothing hinders present service quite like being mired in another time. Modeling Paul’s forgetfulness means we count the past as nothing. We cut the strings that tie us to that bygone moment. We refuse to allow past successes to inflate our pride. We refuse to allow past failures to deflate our self-worth. We leave it behind and instead adopt our new identity in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We are not to forget “everything,” however, in the sense of being oblivious to it. In fact, there are many times God instructs us to remember. In Deuteronomy 9:7, Moses tells the Israelites to “remember this and never forget how you aroused the anger of the Lord your God in the wilderness. From the day you left Egypt until you arrived here, you have been rebellious against the Lord.” We are encouraged to remember all God has done for us (Psalm 77:11; 103:2), others who are suffering for Christ’s sake (Hebrews 13:3; Colossians 4:18), and what we were before Jesus saved us (Ephesians 2:11–12; 1 Corinthians 6:9–11). But the remembering should be to the glory of God and for our spiritual benefit. If we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, then no judgment remains for past failures (Romans 8:1). If God chooses not to remember our past sins (Hebrews 8:12), we can choose to set them aside as well and embrace the future He promises to those who love Him (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 2:10). (Quote source here.)
The two themes of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi (the book of Philippians in the New Testament) are joy and unity (source here). That he wrote this letter while imprisoned in Rome is noteworthy. One doesn’t often equate joy with imprisonment, yet it was Paul who also wrote in this same letter the following words:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).
That last verse in the NKJV is worded, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” All things… even while he was imprisoned. It means being constantly sustained by Jesus Christ (through the power of the Holy Spirit) no matter what our circumstances happen to be at the present time. It means total reliance and dependence on Jesus Christ and not trying to manipulate our way out of unpleasant circumstances. It means not just giving “lip service” when we say we follow Jesus but actually giving him our very lives to use as He wills, and not just part of the time but all of the time.
In Philippians 4:13 the apostle Paul writes, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The “him” of this verse is the Lord Jesus, and Jesus is, of course, all-powerful (Colossians 2:10). But does this verse mean that we can do anything and everything we set our minds to?
The context of this verse focuses on the God-given power to endure any circumstance. Verse 12 notes, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Paul had faced times of abundance, yet he had also faced many trials for his faith.
In 2 Corinthians 11:24–27, Paul shares some of his sufferings up to that point in his faith: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” Despite these and other problems, Paul believed and taught he could persevere because he could do “all things through him who gives me strength.”
Also, the focus in Philippians 4 is what the believer can do through the strength that Christ gives. This is not a promise that Christians will have superpowers or that they will be invincible or immune to life’s challenges. Instead, the promise of Philippians 4:13 is that we will have strength from the Lord to faithfully endure the difficulties that arise in life.
This passage is not about having financial abundance. Some teach a prosperity gospel that says God will bless us financially if we are faithful; in contrast, Paul taught that the believer will endure suffering but can be content in any circumstance, given Christ’s strength. Just as Christ faithfully endured on the cross, His followers can faithfully endure the problems they face. In fact, Philippians 4:11 states, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Paul focused on contentment, not earthly abundance.
Finally, Philippians 4:13 is part of a larger passage that addresses Christ’s ability to meet our needs. Christ can give contentment during times of plenty and of poverty. He can help us do all things through His strength. In Paul’s case, it was the strength to serve as a missionary despite facing intense suffering. In our lives, this same strength is available. Whether we serve in another country or help someone in our own community, Christ’s power can enable us to stand firm on His promises and endure the most difficult of life’s challenges. As Paul concludes this passage with these words: “My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (verses 19–20). (Quote source here.)
This brings to mind another question, “How can I become more like Christ?”
GotQuestions.org gives us the following answer:
God’s desire for all who know Him [Jesus Christ] is for us to become more like Christ. We do this by first growing in our knowledge of Christ. It stands to reason that we cannot grow to be like someone we don’t know. The deeper our knowledge of Christ, the deeper our understanding of Him, and the more like Him we become. Among other reasons, we are to know and understand Christ so that we will be secure in the faith.
The Apostle Paul reiterates this truth in Ephesians 4:14-16: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” This fact is repeated once more in 2 Peter 3:17-18: “Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” These passages show us that growing in the knowledge of Christ will preserve us from faith-destroying error.
Of course, knowledge alone will not produce a Christlike character. The knowledge we gain from God’s Word must impact our hearts and convict us of the need to obey what we have learned. Romans 12:1-2 tells us emphatically that the process of filling our minds with the knowledge of God not only brings us closer to Christ-likeness, but obedience to that knowledge aligns us with the perfect will of God: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The natural consequence of knowing and obeying God is that He becomes greater and greater, while we become less and less as we yield control of our lives to Him. Just as John the Baptist knew that “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), so the Christian grows to reflect more of Christ and less of his own nature. Luke sums it up best when he describes what Jesus told His disciples: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). The cross was an instrument of death, and Jesus encourages us to take up our cross in order to put to death our old sin nature upon it. God wants us to forget about this world and all its temporary pleasures and be obedient to His Word. Jesus is the living Word (John 1:1), and the Bible is God’s written Word. Therefore, conforming to the Word of God is conforming to Christ.
It is important to realize that becoming more like Christ starts by receiving Him as Savior from our sins. Then we grow in our knowledge of God by reading the Bible daily, studying it, and being obedient to what it says. This process causes us to grow and occurs over an entire lifetime in Christ. Only when we have entered Heaven for eternity with God does this process reach its culmination. (Quote source here.)
It is important to note that Paul starts off his letter by stating, in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Being in prison, he did not know if he would die there, and he didn’t during this first imprisonment. It was during his second imprisonment in Rome a few years later that he was martyred. However, as noted by GotQuestions.org, “the importance of the phrase, ‘to live is Christ,’ cannot be overstated and should be central to every Christian’s life.” GotQuestions.org continues by stating:
In this statement, the apostle Paul is saying that everything he has tried to be, everything he is, and everything he looked forward to being pointed to Christ. From the time of Paul’s conversion until his martyrdom, every move he made was aimed at advancing the knowledge, gospel, and church of Christ. Paul’s singular aim was to bring glory to Jesus.
“To live is Christ” means that we proclaim the gospel of Christ. Paul preached in synagogues; he preached at riversides; he preached as a prisoner; he preached as an apostle; he preached as a tent maker. His message was constant: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). He brought the message of Christ’s sacrifice to kings, soldiers, statesmen, priests, and philosophers, Jews and Gentiles, men and women. He would preach to literally anyone who would listen.
“To live is Christ” means that we imitate the example of Christ. Everything that Jesus did and said, that’s what Paul wanted to do and say. The church benefited from his godly example: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). What would Jesus do? That’s what we want to do.
“To live is Christ” means that we pursue the knowledge of Christ. We want to know Christ better and better each day. Not just a set of facts about Christ, but Christ Himself. “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).
“To live is Christ” means that we are willing to give up anything that prevents us from having Christ. Paul’s testimony in this regard: “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9). We cling to the promise of our Lord in Mark 10:29-30 that our sacrifices for Jesus’ sake will be repaid a hundredfold.
“To live is Christ” means that Christ is our focus, our goal, and our chief desire. Christ is the center point of our mind, heart, body and soul. Everything that we do, we do for Christ’s glory. As we run the “race marked out for us,” we lay aside the entangling sin and worldly distractions, “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1-2). He is our life. (Quote source here).
For those of us who believe in Him, Jesus should always be. . .
Our focus, our goal, our chief desire . . . .
He is our life . . . .
YouTube Video: “That Was Then, This Is Now” sung by Josh Wilson: