Have you ever been ‘apprehended’ by the strong arm of the law? Thankfully, that has never been my experience, though we have all witnessed it happen to others, at least on TV.
But, the fact that you are reading these words suggests you have been — or perhaps are about to be — ‘apprehended’ by the stronger arm of grace, in the person of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul, who wrote the letter to the Philippians, knew what it was to be in the strong yet gracious grip of Jesus’ hand. As he looks back over his life, he is able to say, ‘Christ Jesus has laid hold of me’ (see Philippians 3:7-14).
He is thinking, of course, of Jesus’ encounter with him on the Damascus road, and of his subsequent conversion (Acts 9). Paul knew that Jesus had taken hold of him, because he came to have a whole new set of values (vv.7-8); a new standing of righteousness in relationship to God (v.9); and a whole new set of spiritual and Christ-centred ambitions (vv.10-11).
While our experience of conversion may have been much more gentle than Paul’s, nevertheless we should find a similar newness of values, righteousness and spiritual ambitions through our own experience of Christ.
With Paul, our new ambition will be to know and grow in our knowledge and experience of Jesus Christ. It will be to know him in his resurrection (which is the way we first encounter him, is it not?), as the living, risen, powerful Christ, who has already defeated death and is alive for evermore.
It will be to know in our own experience the power of that resurrection, making us alive in Christ — alive from being dead in trespasses and sins. It is the same power that will enable us to ‘attain to the resurrection from the dead’ and our bodies to rise at last from the grave.
But, if we are truly going to know Christ, then we will also come to know him in his sufferings, and something of fellowship with him in these sufferings.
If you press on to know Christ more fully, you will begin to experience the hatred of the world that he also experienced, and you will begin to feel the pain of the injustice and hurt felt by (relatively) innocent sufferers in this world.
You will enter into, even in some small way, the burden and pain of bringing about reconciliation between one brother and another in Christ; and will enter into the burden and groaning pain of Christ and his Spirit, as we await the full flowering of God’s purposes for the whole of creation.
We will know Christ in the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, even to the extent of ‘being conformed to his death’.
Paul, then, talks about his new, Christ-centred ambitions — to know and experience Christ in the fulness of his person and work. But Paul goes on to show us quite clearly that this is still an unattained goal for him: ‘Not that I have already obtained all this … Brothers I do not consider myself yet to have apprehended …’ (vv.12-13).
So also for us. We have not yet attained fully the new, God-given ambitions that Christ has planted in our hearts, and we will not attain these fully until our own death and resurrection.
But the God-given ambition remains, and, if we are at all like Paul, we ‘press toward [that] goal’ (v.14).
As we start this New Year, let me encourage you to nurture the ambitions Paul speaks of here. Let me caution you against any sense of having come near to achieving these ambitions or goals, as yet.
But let me also encourage you to be men and women of one purpose (vv.13-14): ‘Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead … press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.
The goal or prize is our experiential knowledge of Christ that makes us completely Christ-like in all the relationships of life. In that sense, we cannot become Christ-like in a cocoon. We are sanctified, rather, through all our life experiences and relationships, which is one reason God has given us a matrix of relationships, in family, at work, etc.
Have we not needed all of these to show up the many areas where we have not been Christ-like and where we need to become more Christ-like? It is in the whole mix of relationships that make up your life and mine that the knowledge of Christ will come.
In this year of the London Olympics, let each of us press on, by the grace of God, to take hold of that prize, that ‘medal’ of Christ-likeness, for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us.
Let us press on towards the goal, to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.
The author is principal of Highland Theological College, Dingwall