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Not that I have already obtained it or am already perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12)

Paul emphatically states that he had not reached the goal (τετελείωμαι teteleiōmai). The word we translate as received (ἔλαβον helabon)[1] means to have obtained something. He goes on and adds that he was not perfected (Greek teteleiomai) or that he had not reached the goal or completed the race.

Paul states that he is encouraging them, that just as he is in pursuit of the finish, they should also be chasing the goal. He is giving the image of a footrace and says that he is pursuing (Greek dioko[2] or pressing on), and would not be like a runner who stops just short of the finish line.

His desire is to “lay hold on” Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus “laid hold on” him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Paul wants to have a fuller apprehension, appreciation, and appropriation of the life of Jesus in him.

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Not that I have already obtained it. In verses 12-14, Paul makes several indirect or passing references to the Greek Olympic Games. The Greek (ἔλαβον helabon) rendered “obtained it” has the sense of arriving at the goal and winning the prize but not to the point of receiving it. What does Paul mean here? He means that he has not obtained at this point what he hopes to be, that is, reach the heavenly goal that he has sought and to which he was called. Even Paul, a Christians of his stature, needed to keep in mind that he had not yet reached the final goal, and he must continue to steadfastly maintain himself and make advancement if he is to cross the goal line. All Christians’ lives are progressively maturing spiritually; continual improvement is required if they are to cross their goal line. Clearly, some in the first-century Philippian church had been Christians for some time at this point, and they have begun to exert less effort in this race for life, feeling that they had reached the goal, an acceptable level of spirituality.

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Or am already perfect. Paul undoubtedly knew that he was not a perfect man. It will not be until one is resurrected that one will reach the state of being free from sin. This is not to say that no one has ever been perfect because Adam, Eve, and Jesus Christ were perfect. Of course, Adam and Eve abused this gift and rebelled against God, losing perfection for themselves and their offspring. However, if we were going to point to a person whom we thought had attained perfection after their conversion, we would point to Paul. Who has exceeded him in love, zeal, self-denial, and true godly devotion to the service? Yet, he says, no, ‘I am not already perfect.’ Max Anders says Paul is telling us that he is “Not yet mature, he was still very much in the race of the Christian life. The perfection he would have at the future resurrection was not yet attained. He still had to deal with what in Romans 7 he calls ‘the flesh,’ an innate pull to sin. He had to deal with his sinful body and was only too aware of the need for further spiritual growth.”[3]

But I press on. Paul will continue pursuing, striving in the race for life, advancing, and growing spiritually stronger along the way. The finish line was right in front of his eyes, and he would continue to seek to obtain it diligently. Again, here the Greek (διώκω diōkō) has a sense of the Grecian races where the athlete seeking the goal line would steadily and increasingly pursue his course to the finish.

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So that I may lay hold of. Paul is trying to obtain or lay hold of the heavenly prize. He had his eye on the glorious life that lay ahead, and he was prepared to make the utmost tireless efforts to lay hold of it. The Greek (καταλαμβάνω katalambanō) rendered “lay hold of” has the sense of seizing suddenly, eagerly, acquiring through one’s effort, which is another indirect or passing reference to the Grecian footraces.

That for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Jesus Christ had (καταλαμβάνω katalambanō) ‘laid hold of’ Paul, seizing him suddenly, eagerly, with a view to Paul carrying out his ministry to the full, which would result in his obtaining the prize of heavenly life. Paul was to serve Jesus Christ faithfully here on earth, and he would then be rewarded with heavenly life. Like Paul, when a Christian is converted into being a disciple (learner, student) of Christ, he is seized by Christ, laid hold of suddenly, eagerly, with a view to his carrying out his ministry to the full. (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Acts 1:8) They to have the goal. They must be prepared to make the utmost, tireless efforts to lay hold of it.

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[1] This is the second aorist form of lambano (Wesley J. Perschbacher, ed., The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, ed. Wesley J. Perschbacher (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990). Page 253) and denotes having obtained (W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1996). Page 44.)

[2] W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1996). Page 485.

[3] Max Anders, Galatians-Colossians, vol. 8, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 244–245.

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