In one of the most stirring passages in the Word of God, Paul gives this testimony to the church at Philippi:
“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” (Phil. 3:13, 14).
In so doing, the Apostle gives us another aspect of God’s call to the elect, namely, that it is a high calling.
Some form of the Greek word here translated as “high” occurs nine times in the New Testament. Its first occurrence is in the second chapter of John’s Gospel in relation to the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. In that passage the word is translated brim and refers to the rim of the clay pots that were filled with water which the Lord turned into wine. In five other citations the word is translated above, and in the two remaining occurrences the word is translated up. For some inexplicable reason, only in our text is the word translated high. But both the context and the standard meaning of the word suggest that the better translation here would be upward. In other words, Paul is not discussing the exalted position to which believers are called (truly a high calling as sons of God, joint heirs with Jesus Christ, etc.) but the upward, or the heavenly, calling whether through death or the rapture that is a believer’s heritage.
Paul views the calling of God as one that includes a “prize (“goal”). His allusion is to the laurel wreath awarded to the winner of an Olympic-style athletic contest. Paul suggests that a believer’s life takes the shape of an athletic contest, with this notable exception: in an athletic contest, only one winner receives the ultimate prize. But one of the blessings of salvation by grace is that every believer receives the prize of the upward calling of God.
Much modern religion focuses on temporal things. In fact, listening to the emphases of the charismatic movement, one might think that the purpose of religion is to afford health and wealth in this world. Certainly both of those may in some measure be the blessing of the Lord, but the Word of God focuses on neither. In fact, the New Testament makes it clear that the hope of the believer is not primarily a temporal one. What an adulteration of the eternal hope it is to encourage believers to live for things that will last for a few brief decades and then be gone forever. No, Paul holds forth the blessed, sure hope of an upward calling.
Believers are citizens of heaven, not of earth; they live for eternity, not for time. Their destination is to be with God. The “high calling” is a reminder that we might die at any moment or that the Lord might return at any moment, and we will find ourselves in the presence of the Lord in heaven. The prize of that calling includes, among other things, eternal life, deliverance from the very presence of sin and all its negative consequences, glorified bodies, both fellowship and heirship with Christ, and eternal service. Some rewards are conditional, that is, based upon our faithfulness and obedience. But the items listed above are all part of the “package” of salvation. As surely as He calls us with an effectual call to be redeemed, He calls us upward. Our end is certain: it culminates in heaven and in a place prepared for us by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul would not be sidetracked by any temporal prize (“goal”); his ambition was to live his life so that he might be eminently ready for the imminent return of the Lord. That God’s calling includes such a secure and blessed eternal end should stir our hearts to love and our hands to serve.
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