So that which lies behind Paul, which he is committed to “forget,” is all the great stuff on his spiritual CV that formerly shaped his identity. It was all his accomplishments, his law-keeping, his zeal for God, and his righteousness. He sets all these things aside so he might obtain new life, resurrection, through knowing Jesus and becoming like him.
Perhaps you’ve heard that you ought not dwell too much on the past. Especially your regrets, failures, or inadequacies. Or maybe you’ve been to a business seminar, inspiring you to keep the past in the past and press on toward a glorious vision of the company’s future. At such times, especially if it was a Christian business conference, you may have heard reference to Phil 3:13: “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead…” Now are these things really what Paul had in mind?
Context matters. When we learn to read the Bible properly—and not merely as a collection of sound bites or independent proverbial sayings—we’ll find that some of our most familiar verses mean something other than what we may have assumed.
Believe it or not, the phrase in question is part of a complete sentence:
“But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13b-14)
Paul states that he does one thing. And this one thing has three parts.
- Forgetting what lies behind
- Straining forward to what lies ahead
- Pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The first two parts set up the third part. So the “one thing” is really just the third part. The first two parts are the prerequisites for the third part.
So what Paul is after is to press on toward the goal, which is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. Now what does that mean?
The sentence immediately before this is: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own” (Phil 3:13a). A critical interpretive question we ought to ask is: “What is ‘it’?” What is the thing Paul has not yet made his own?
Going back one more sentence, we see: “Not that I have already obtained this…but I press on to make it my own…” (Phil 3:12). So here we see Paul pressing on for something—a good sign that it’s the same thing as “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” But we still don’t know what “it” is. What is the thing Paul wants to make his own, which he has not yet obtained?