PRESSING TOWARD THE MARK*
Sermon preached by Mr. S. Delves, at Brixton Tabernacle, London,
at the Anniversary service on Easter Monday afternoon,
April 12th 1971.
Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3.13,14.
If ever there lived a man who was concerned for the salvation of the souls of others it was the apostle Paul. It was to that end, by the race of God, that he preached, laboured, travelled and suffered. He put his heart and soul into it. He saw souls perishing everywhere and his heart went out to them. “Oh,” he said, “what would I not do if only I could be the means of saving some!” Neither did the apostle’s clear and definite knowledge of the truth of God’s election of souls to salvation, and of the certainty of the salvation of those whom God had chosen to obtain salvation, in the least degree lessen that ardent longing in his soul that he might be the means of saving .some. Some would have it otherwise; they say that these high doctrines diminish people’s concern for the salvation of souls. “It means,” they say, “that if God has definitely decided to save some He will save them, therefore there is no need to labour.” They had better learn a lesson from the apostle Paul. He knew more about that than they do; much more. He had a much clearer understanding of those doctrines than many who decry them, and a much better understanding than many do who believe them. What does he say? “I endure all things, for the elect’s sakes that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” They were not small things that Paul endured. No one knew better than that deeply-taught man that if God had not a people to be saved in His eternal purposes, and if Jesus Christ had not died specially for those people, there was no reason whatever why he should labour in the ministry as he did. He knew his ministry would then be a failure. This seemed to him perfectly clear. If God had not
a people to be saved, it would be of no use to labour for their salvation. Who it is God will save we don’t know, so we sow the seed everywhere. We know some will fall on unprofitable ground. Some, by the grace of God, we verily believe, will bring forth fruit.
What led me to make my opening observations was this. In this chapter the apostle writes very much of himself, and of the exercises of his mind with regard to his own spiritual state and salvation. You will notice as you look over the chapter that the personal pronoun is used in nearly every verse. It is ‘I’, or ‘me’; “this is my concern” he says; “The exercise of my mind; this is the way my heart goes.” The apostle was as concerned for himself as he was for others. Here again, it is easy to go wrong, to get unbalanced. Some it may be, in their concern for others think it too introspective to be concerned about themselves. They are wrong; they should be careful, unless in their concern for others, as Paul says, they should themselves become castaways. They should be concerned about their own spiritual state. Some may become so concerned about their own spiritual state as to become so introspective that they have no concern for others. That seems not agreeable to the spirit of the gospel, nor to the mind of Jesus Christ either. What an example the apostle is giving! Brethren, it is not profitable even to others to be concerned for their salvation, and be unconcerned about your own spiritual state. It is not profitable to be shut up entirely to ourselves. There was a secret side behind the apostle’s public ministry – an exercise going on in his own heart, a very warm, a very ardent exercise. I sometimes solemnly wonder whether the apparently small result of the ministry today is not owing partly to ministers’ unconcern about themselves. I am sure of this, if any minister is not concerned about himself, his ministry will not have much effect on others. An effect it may have, but not a good one.
As I read over this chapter before the service, two things struck my mind. One was that it is very reproving without the apostle intending it to be so. There is very little reproof in this epistle to the Philippians. Perhaps the only exception was some disagreement between two of the members, Euodias and Syntyche. There was not much reproof for them, but “beseeching them to be of the same mind in the Lord.” In general, the church at Philippi was a great comfort to the apostle. The unity and peace of churches is a great comfort to ministers, especially if they are pastors. My friends, unity and love in a church is like wine to a pastor’s spirit, but dissension, contention and bitterness are like gall to his spirit. The apostle much rejoices in the state of things at Phillipi. He did not reprove, I don’t think he intended reproof in this chapter. Why, then, is it reproving? Let us ask ourselves. Can we read of this ardent spirit of the apostle, this uniting of all the desire of his heart to this one thing
that he “might win Christ and be found in Him”. This counting everything but loss, this turning his back on everything that would divert his heart from the fellowship of His sufferings, to be made comformable to His death. Measure yourself by that! Let me measure myself by it, and see if it does not reprove me. His warmheartedness reproves our cold-heartedness. His pressing toward the mark reproves our slow movement. His forgetting the things that are behind reproves our looking back on them so much. It is reproof and this is the best kind of reproof when it is not personally directed, but when it is personally felt. The Lord pardon our lukewarmness, our half-heartedness, our slackness, our dis-united spirits, our scattered desires.
This chapter is also very encouraging. When we consider the apostle Paul, (he does not set himself to be considered, but we cannot avoid considering him), what a godly man he was! We can see what a godly man he was by his expressions. We may say, “Oh, he is far, far beyond me! If that’s godliness, I doubt if I possess it. If that’s true religion, is it in me at all? I seem to come so far short.” Now if the apostle was speaking to you he would say, “Don’t think that; I don’t think that of myself. I feel I come short. I am with you in it. You feel you haven’t attained. I haven’t attained. You feel you are not perfect; I’m not perfect. You feel to come far short of the mark, so do I. We are all in the same place. Don’t be discouraged. The Lord help you to press on. The Lord revive your spirit. None of us has fully apprehended; none of us has yet reached the prize.” Let us follow on that we may apprehend that for which we are apprehended of Christ Jesus. That is how it speaks to me, reproving me and encouraging me. It shows me how far short an eminent man of God may feel to be, and in that I can unite with the apostle.
Notice carefully how he puts this to us. Very careful attention needs to be given to the reading of the scriptures. The apostle speaks of the “pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus”. I think it would be helpful if I took the last part of the text first, and spoke of the mark and the prize, and the pressing towards it, and show how in the pressing toward the mark there is a forgetting of the things that are behind and a reaching forth unto those things which are before. With the Lord’s help we will take that course in our meditation.
“I press toward the mark.” This is important. The apostle does not say “I press toward the prize,” but “I press toward the mark for the prize.” My friends, there are those who press toward the prize who will never reach that prize because they do not press toward the mark for it. In another scripture the apostle lays this down very solemnly and instructively, that they who run this race and seek this prize not according to the way laid down in the word of God, will
come short of it. To win the prize, we must press toward the mark. So if I am enabled to show you what the mark is and then what the prize is, then what it is to press toward the mark for the prize, I feel we shall have the substance of this word. May the Lord witness life and power in our hearts.
What is the mark? It seems clear to me that what the apostle means was that perfection to which he had not yet attained. “Not as though I already attained, or that I am already perfect, but I follow after.” He felt he was not perfect. He felt perfection was the mark. He had not attained to that mark but was pressing towards it. What is the perfection? it is the knowledge of Jesus Christ. We have not attained to it. We cannot say, “I know Jesus Christ and there is nothing more I need to know. I know Him, fully, perfectly, completely.” Whoever can say that! But that’s the mark, the knowledge of Jesus Christ. This is not just a matter of informative knowledge, it is formative knowledge; the kind of knowledge that forms the likeness of Jesus Christ in the heart. There is that in the knowledge of Jesus Christ of the Holy Spirit’s revealing, teaching and applying, that imprints the likeness of Jesus Christ on the heart. I feel a trembling myself as I say this, but if we have no more knowledge of Jesus Christ than we have likeness to Him, we do not know Him very much, do we? If we just sit down and say. Well, I know I come short; I feel there is very little of the likeness and spirit of Jesus Christ in me, and leave it at that, is that pressing toward the mark? It certainly is not! We must press toward the mark. The mark is knowledge of Jesus Christ, knowledge that will conform my spirit to His. I want to know His love that I may love more; His grace that I may be more gracious; His humble spirit that I may be more humble in my spirit. That’s the mark, brethren. I know there are gospel blessings that are very much to be desired, if the Lord is pleased to grant us the experience of them. I would esteem every gospel blessing that the Lord may be pleased to enrich our hearts with. But the mark is to know Jesus Christ.
The rest follows: the power of His resurrection. For the knowledge of Jesus Christ is not the knowledge of a dead person, but a living person. It is the knowledge of One who died in very truth, but who verily lives now. If we press on toward this mark, we shall have our eyes on an ever-living and most blessed Person. He is a risen Christ, and to know Him is to know the power of His resurrection. That is the mark. It is to rise with Him. For what is the power of His resurrection as it is felt in the heart, but to rise with Him! “If ye then be risen with Christ.” To rise from the death of sin and so to the fellowship of His sufferings and to be made conformable unto His death.
Now that is the mark. Perfection in these things of Jesus Christ,
knowledge of His resurrection life, the fellowship of His sufferings, conformity to His death. Anyone who feels these things come home to him, and I want them to come to you; I feel they come home to me – will say, “Truly I have not attained”. But if the Holy Spirit is pleased to reveal the truth of these things to you, it will not daunt or dishearten you. Why should it? If the Lord enable you to press forward, and enlivens your heart with His quickening power, though you may feel you are not perfect, you will gain the prize. Supposing someone should say to me, “I am afraid I shall never reach that mark; I am afraid I shall always come short of it. What if I never reach the mark? Shall I never win the prize?” If by the grace of God you are enabled to forget the things which are behind and reach forward to the things that are before, you won’t lose the prize! There is only one thing that will lose you the prize, that is to give up following after. If you are left to give up you will lose the prize. If you are able by the grace of God – and it is only the grace of God that can enable you, or I, to press toward the mark – in the end we shall have the prize. I could not possibly put it before you with a kind of legal spirit and say, Well, now, you must reach that mark or you will never have that prize. No, brethren, I should cut myself off! I can say this: if you are enabled and enlivened by the Holy Spirit to press toward the mark, however far you feel to come short of it, you won’t lose the prize.
Now the apostle says, “I press toward the mark for the prize.” Now there is such a thing as pressing toward the prize and not pressing toward the mark. There are those who are in that state of mind, they think to win the prize, but when you speak of such things as this, this earnest breathing of the heart, this begging of the Lord to give grace and strength to press on, this lively exercise of faith, hope and love to say, “O, Lord, do not let me go back, do draw me after Thee, Lord,” they turn that down and say it is just introspection. Yet they think to gain the prize, when they scorn pressing toward the mark. How deceived they are! How utterly wrong!
What is the prize? More than words could express. I know my words will be very poor. The prize is to win Christ and be found in Him. What more could we possibly win than Christ! What more spiritual a privilege could we ever enjoy than to be found in Him! For Jesus Christ is everything in Himself, in the gospel, and in the esteem of the believing heart. For if we are taught anything effectively by the Holy Spirit it is this, that in ourselves we are nothing but poverty and emptiness, that there is nothing in us worth anything spiritually. But if the Holy Spirit reveals Jesus Christ and gives us a spiritual discernment concerning Him, O what worth, what fulness, what richness, what life, what love, what holiness,
there is in Jesus Christ. If I could have Jesus Christ for my portion, I should lack nothing at all! If I have not Christ, I have nothing. If I have Christ, I have everything. It does not matter what I have in myself. You may say, I hope I have the grace of God, but I cannot say much upon it. I hope I have spiritual life, but sometimes it seems very dull. I desire the sanctification of truth, but I feel very much the lack of it. O, if I might have Christ! It surpasses any description I can give, or anyone else can give. To have Christ is not to have a portion of Him; it is to have Him! His richness. His eternal blessings. My thoughts hang on it! “That I may win Christ!” If I win Him I shall win holiness, I shall win righteousness. I shall win eternal life; I shall win eternal love – if I can but win Christ! My friends, how we need the Holy Spirit in this! We may have Christ set before us, in the scriptures, in the preaching, but unless the Holy Spirit enlightens the understanding and causes the light to shine into our hearts we are not attracted. When Jesus Christ is set forth, to some they are like a blind man directed to a beautiful picture or scenery. Describe the scenery to them and they look in the direction of it, but turn a blind eye. They look, but there is no sight in the eyes. This is how it is with us in our natural condition. We set forth Jesus Christ, we engage their attention. We desire to preach His beauty, His loveliness, His worth. They listen to it. They turn a blind eye. There is no spiritual sight. But when there is that spiritual sight, it is clear enough! It is surprising how clear spiritual things seem once the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual discernment. It seems so clear that we wonder why everyone cannot see it as we do!
“That I may win Christ, and be found in Him.” That is the prize. I had nothing to do with the choice of the hymns, but when the hymn was announced before the sermon, I was struck by its suitability:
He to eternal glory calls,
And leads the wondrous way
To His own palace where He reigns
In uncreated day.
Jesus, the Herald of His love
Displays the radiant prize,
And shows the purchase of His blood
To our admiring eyes.
I was not acquainted with this hymn, but it is a beautiful couplet. What is the radiant prize but Himself? What is the radiance of it but His own glory!
*This was the first of two sermons from the same text.