There is a phrase Jesus used several times that gained much more significance once his disciples began to understand what it meant. It is that phrase about taking up your cross and following him. Maybe they thought he was using it like a parable, to emphasize how important the Kingdom of God is. But as soon as they realized he wasn’t just another prophet, that he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus started to tell them plainly where this whole story was going to end: At the cross.
Several times the Gospel tells us that they did not understand what he was telling them. Maybe they just couldn’t believe He meant it.
It is very American to want to win, to want to be a champion. We tell our kids all the time, you can be anything you want to be. You want to be president? You want to get to the moon? You can do it! In principle, there is nothing wrong with that. After all, someone has to be president. Someone will go back to the moon. Why shouldn’t it be you? Someone is going to get First Place; why shouldn’t you strive to be that someone? But If I told you, ‘I want my child to strive to be second best?’ How would you react?
Would you laugh? Would you tell me, ‘If you don’t set your goals high enough, you’ll never accomplish anything’? Maybe you would quote me:
Colossians 3:23 Whatsoever ye do, labour at it heartily, as [doing it] to the Lord, and not to men…
That verse certainly seems to tell us that we should strive for excellence in everything we do. But there is a difference between:
making our actions be the very best we can do
making our goals the very best we can imagine
Consider Paul the Apostle. If ever there was an overachiever, he was it. Telling the Philippians not to listen to those who would place confidence in the flesh, he tells them, ‘I could if I wanted…’
Philippians 3:4-6 … if any other think to trust in flesh, *I* rather: as to circumcision, [I received it] the eighth day; of [the] race of Israel, of [the] tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of Hebrews; as to [the] law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the assembly; as to righteousness which [is] in [the] law, found blameless…
And this was all before he met Jesus. To the Corinthians who were suffering misleading teachings by people calling themselves “superapostles”, he reminds them of all he has gone through for Christ:
2 Corinthians 11:23-28 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as being beside myself) *I* above measure [so]; in labours exceedingly abundant, in stripes to excess, in prisons exceedingly abundant, in deaths oft. From the Jews five times have I received forty [stripes], save one. Thrice have I been scourged, once I have been stoned, three times I have suffered shipwreck, a night and day I passed in the deep: in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from [my own] race, in perils from [the] nations, in perils in [the] city, in perils in [the] desert, in perils on [the] sea, in perils among false brethren; in labour and toil, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Besides those things that are without, the crowd [of cares] pressing on me daily, the burden of all the assemblies. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is stumbled, and I burn not?
This Paul, who of all people could have claimed he was the example of excellence for all disciples, continues this way in Philippians:
Philippians 3:7-8 but what things were gain to me these I counted, on account of Christ, loss. But surely I count also all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all, and count them to be filth, that I may gain Christ;
Clearly, for Paul, all worldly achievements, past, present, and future (all), are nothing compared to Christ.
I think all believers would claim to agree with that. When the question is put to us this way: Is any success in this world comparable to what Jesus has given us? Wouldn’t we all answer, No?
But if the answer is no, then how does that affect our lives?
How do our lives look different as a result of that assay of the balance of the scales? Jesus on one side, our life in the world on the other. If we declare (with Paul) that Jesus is what matters most of all to us, how do we then live?
When the song says, “the world behind me the cross before… no turning back”, what does that look like? I don’t think there is an easy answer. Because the decision to follow Jesus is not an easy decision. And, it is not a done deal: It is not something you declare once and then you magically live that way. It wasn’t that way for Paul. Look at the way he continues in Philippians.
Philippians 3:8-11 … that I may gain Christ; and that I may be found in him, not having my righteousness, which [would be] on the principle of law, but that which is by faith of Christ, the righteousness which [is] of God through faith, to know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if any way I arrive at the resurrection from among [the] dead.
Paul gave up everything, including the (false) assurance of righteousness on the principle of the Law to attain the righteousness that is based on the principle of faith: which comes with knowledge of the Messiah and the power of the eternal life He promised all who choose Him. That power was proved by His resurrection from among the dead.
But that Messiah already told us:
John 15:19-20 If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on account of this the world hates you. Remember the word which I said unto you, The bondman is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep also yours.
Matthew 10:22-25 and ye shall be hated of all on account of my name. But he that has endured to [the] end, *he* shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee to the other; for verily I say to you, Ye shall not have completed the cities of Israel until the Son of man be come.
The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the bondman above his lord. [It is] sufficient for the disciple that he should become as his teacher, and the bondman as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more those of his household?
Paul understood this. This is why it is no surprise that he includes in his definition of the life he has chosen in Christ, the fact that it will include suffering like Christ and being conformed to His death.
And, lest we think this was a simple decision for Paul, listen again to the way he ends that passage. After giving up all success in the world and accepting that he is called to carry his cross as he follows in the footsteps of Christ, he says: if any way I arrive at the resurrection from among [the] dead.
If any way…
Is Paul doubting his salvation? I don’t think so… but he is certainly telling us something that comes through in many of his letters (even if we don’t like to hear it): This is not a done deal. When Jesus said, “If any would come after me, let him take up his cross and follow me”, didn’t He mean it?
Does picking up the cross mean that we can coast through the rest of our lives knowing that, ‘hey, I got the ticket that lets me in’? That certainly doesn’t sound like a cross.
I really think this is what Paul is trying to tell us here, when he says if any way. I think he is saying: “Believe me, I know, this isn’t easy. There is pain, there is persecution, there is heartache. I know what I chose; I know whom I follow… I know I am following Him… but don’t ask me to explain how I am going to make it into His glory. If it were up to me, I would fail miserably. But that day is coming and when it comes, I know that I’ll make it, and that too will be a miracle, like every other miracle He has done in my life.”
This is why he goes on like this:
Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained [the prize], or am already perfected; but I pursue, if also I may get possession [of it], seeing that also I have been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus].
Did you see that “if also” here? Just like that “if any way…”
It is not a done deal because the deal is not done.
But the Promise has been given.
And that is what Paul clings to. He knows that, in the end, it won’t be him (in his strength) who snatches that prize. But he knows it is within his reach because Jesus has already snatched him from among the dead for that very prize.
The Goal is the Calling
It doesn’t matter what has happened in the past. In fact, it doesn’t matter what is going to happen in the future in this world. All Paul cares about, where his eyes are fixed, is on the goal: The reward, the prize, comes from fulfilling the divine calling that God set for him in this life in Christ Jesus.
And that was the point I wanted to make. Excellence cannot possibly mean making our goals the very best we can imagine because those goals we can imagine are not worth anything.
The real goal that matters, the one for which I can give my all, is the calling that God designed for my life as a believer, a goal He planted in me before I was ever born.
John 15:16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and have set you that ye should go and [that] ye should bear fruit, and [that] your fruit should abide, that whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name he may give you.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has before prepared that we should walk in them.