Exegetical Paper on Philippians

The Book of Philippians 3:12-16 by the Apostle Paul

Main Idea: Philippians 3:12-16 encourages the readers to remain persistent till they reach the finish line and obtain their prize.


Racing is an excellent sport. One can learn some interesting facts by watching the contestants follow their lane when they race to win. The length of a race determines the techniques of the participants. Christianity is a lifelong marathon where the people compete with themselves, and the prize is a heavenward calling. In all his letters, Paul teaches Christians the right way to follow with Christ. In Philippians 3:12-16, the Apostle provides an example for the Philippian Christians as he informed them that he had not reached the aim, which he hoped to achieve. Reading about the Apostle and his achievements, one may wonder why he discussed the issue of reaching perfection when it seemed that he had already lived there. The aim of the text was to encourage the Philippians to remain persistent till they reach the finish line and obtain their prize.

Historical Context


The book of Philippians is one of four prison epistles written by the Apostle Paul. The opening verse of this letter presents Paul as its writer. The style of writing, the circumstances described, and the bold proclamation of commitment to Christ even in suffering are consistent with other books of this author. (Carson, Moo and Morris 323).

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Paul was a zealous Jew, converted on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians whom he saw as blasphemers of that time (Acts 9:1-30). He became one of those he hunted and transferred his zeal to knowing Christ even to the point of partaking in his suffering and death (Philippians 3:10). Faced with varied forms of persecution, including imprisonment, Paul remained committed to Christ. The conditions described in this letter indicate that the author was confined. Although the location remained undisclosed, there are three suggested possible places such as Rome, Ephesus, and Caesarea. Theologians favor Rome as the traditional place of the letter’s origin (Silva 5).

The Philippian Church and Their World

Paul founded the Philippian during his second missionary journey (Acts 16). The Christians at Philippi remained faithful in their service to God (Philippians 1:3), and they retained their love for Paul. They did not forget him (4:15-16), and he kept them in his heart at all times (1:7). The church experienced varied forms of persecution. The letter was a form of encouragement to them during their period of suffering.

Philippi was a Roman colony, which was the leading city in the district of Macedonia. The Philippians were proud of their citizenship. They enjoyed the same benefits as those who lived in Rome (Halley, Acts-Jude). The laws and way of worship of the Romans differed from that of the Christians. Any attempt to oppose the Roman law was a crime punishable by imprisonment and possibly execution. This culture was hostile to the Christians living in Rome and within the Roman colonies (Acts 16).

Literary background


The interpreters describe the book of Philippians as a letter of friendship, not only due to the choice of words used in the letter, but also considering the informality of this letter. Due to the complexity of the book, it is difficult to classify it as a single type. Most theologians consider that it is one of the most personal letters of Paul since he shares his circumstances with the Philippians and expresses his feelings of affection towards them (Silva 5).

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Flow of Thoughts

In the given book, the Apostle reassures the Philippians of his joy and healthy state of mind even in suffering. In addition, he warns them of false teachers and expresses his gratitude for their concerns and affection towards him. In Chapter 3:12-16, he established his determination to reach his goal and encouraged them to have the same mindset as they follow his example and that of other Apostles.

Analysis of Text

Pressing on to Apprehend (3:12-14)

In the given passage, the Apostle Paul uses the race metaphor to describe his Christian life and attitude towards serving God. He starts by clearly stating that he is still in the race and has not yet received his prize: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect” (3:12). The verb “obtained” requires an object, and translations provide one despite the fact that the Greek text does not identify it. A reasonable meaning of this verb in this context is “to enter into a close relationship, receive, make one’s own, apprehend/comprehend” (Hansen 250). This meaning supports the suggestion that Christ is the object of the verb in Paul’s statement (3:8). He has not fully apprehended Christ but has chosen to persist until he reaches his aim. At the end of his sentence, Paul uses a more intense version of the same verb in order to confirm his desire to apprehend. The goal of this action is to emphasize its importance. From the time of Paul’s conversion, where Christ got a hold of him to the day he wrote this letter and even to his last days, he remained committed to Christ. His desires to learn more about Christ has never changed. Moreover, they only grew.

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In the following verse, Paul repeats that he has not attained perfection: “Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it” (3:13). The used verb shows that admitting to imperfection is a result of careful thought and self-evaluation but not mere speculation. One may consider that the need to emphasize perfection have arisen to address attitudes of other religious people who claimed it. The given individuals were probably those about whom he warned the church at the earlier part of this letter (3:2). They lived and behaved as if they had already achieved their goal and did not need to develop farther. This kind of attitude hinders all the forms of spiritual growth, and Paul did not want that his brethren follow their way of life. Paul, who has walked faithfully in the Spirit, performed different types of miracles, taught many people and put much effort to forget his accomplishments and eliminate oppositions to pressing forward. Considering his achievements and level of maturity, one would agree that he is one of many others who he has reached his goal. Paul declares otherwise and shares his secret for pressing forward: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead” (3:13). Due to this statement, Paul confirmed that he could reach the set goals because he could forget the past. Regardless of many acts of kindness, which he did in the past, he does not allow that the weight of those achievements restrains his plans. “Straining” appears in the New Testament for the first time in this verse. This verb means to “exert one’s self in the uttermost” (Hansen 255). Using that word, Paul implies that the whole of his being is anticipation of reaching his goal. His choice of words demonstrates the seriousness of his race.

Paul does not forget to inform them that the race is not a vain exercise as there is a prize to win. However, he expresses the following opinion: “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). The Cambridge Bible Commentary states that glory is everlasting as the result and triumph of the work of grace, of the life of faith, and the calling is not merely the external invitation but the internal and effectual drawing of the soul by grace (Bible hub). Running would be pointless without the set goal. Paul knows and understands his goal as well as the prize, which he intends to receive, when he reaches the end of his race. Therefore, he forgets the past, accepts the future challenges with the hope to accomplish his goal. He concentrates on his aim but remains focused on the prize at the finish line as he runs towards it.

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Maturity (3:15-16)

“All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” (3:15). It is interesting that Paul refers to a category of people as “perfect” just after establishing that he has not attained the state of perfection. The statement could be an exhortation to those who are aiming at perfection to remain persistent until they reach their goal. It could be also a way of response to those who claim to have attained perfection, convincing them that if they have attained such level of growth, they would reach the same mindset. He does not make any attempt to argue that the mindset which he described is the one that they all should have. Instead, he tells them that God would clarify any misunderstandings. He understands that these arguments would not provide understanding to a person who lacked clarity in the issues he discussed whereas only God can grant understanding of spiritual truths.

In the last verse of this part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the Apostle encourages them: “Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (3:16). As Paul described the attitude with which he ran, he did not mention that they needed to disregard their current level of achievement. He only encouraged to forget the occasions, which they faced in the past and follow the life considering the future. Any attempt to ignore present accomplishments and all the efforts that contributed to obtaining them would result in stunted spiritual growth. The way to prevent regression is to maintain the current level of maturity as more efforts are required in order to develop further. Paul urged them to live up to the standards that brought them to what they have already obtained.


As people experience different phases of their life, they are occasionally tempted to regret about their actions, stop and relax after certain physical or spiritual achievements. Paul teaches through this passage of his letter to the Philippians that the journey to perfection requires a lifetime commitment, not an occasional dedication to the cause. When people consider that they have arrived at perfection prevents from the possibility to grow or achieve their goals. Since people live on the earth, there is more facts to learn about God, more spiritual goals to achieve, and a greater aim to attain. Understanding the goal of Christians would require much effort in order to obtain the necessary results.

One way of preventing oneself from progressing is concentrating on the past while attempting to live further. Many Christians still carry guilt and shame of past experiences or sin. There is the need to remember that God has already forgiven and empowered people to live righteously. Some other Christians might say that they have a clean record and no history of shame as their past consists of upright acts. Paul encourages people to forget the past and concentrate on the future.

True believers have a common gift, which is salvation. In order to obtain this state, it is necessary to live accordingly. The circumstances such as trials and persecution will always be present in this life, but people may not lose what they have already obtained. Christian maturity entails having the mindset that the Apostle Paul described in the Philippian church. Even if during some period of lives one fails to understand this kind of mindset, God can always explain it. People only need to ask, and He will listen to their requests.

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