Philippians - Lesson 9

By Curt Niccum

Philippians 3:12-16


  1. The class will discuss how the track analogy employed by Paul in this passage provides solid advice for dealing with one's relationships.
  2. The class will connect the track metaphor to Christ's death and resurrection.


  1. Bibles for every student.
  2. If devotional period is desired, you may need songbooks and to designate people for singing, praying, and scripture reading.


Keep your eyes on the goal ehead and do no allow what has already transpired to distract you. 

Lesson Plan for Conducting the Class

Devotional Period (5 minutes)

  1. Read Philippians 3:12-16
  2. Sing up to two songs. (The following are suggested tunes.)
    1. I'm Pressing On
    2. When the Roll is Called up Yonder
    3. There's a Stirring
  3. Prayer (some appropriate subjects for prayer are listed below)
    1. For strength to run the race
    2. For courage to do what is needed to maintain relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ so that we may maintain a relationship with God in heaven
    3. For maturity in the Spirit that will allow "Christ to live in me.”

Introduction (10 minutes)

  1. Call the roll or have someone check it. (It is very important to know who is present so someone can check on those who are absent.) Introduce and welcome visitors, take prayer requests, and make any necessary announcements.
  2. Review the previous lesson.
    1. In 3:1-11 Paul returns to the strained relationships of the Christians in Philippi. In these verses, though, rather than offering a positive example, he offers his old self as a negative one. Q: Before knowing Christ, what was Paul focused on? A: Himself, even though living within a very "religious” context. Q: Can this still happen today? A: Yes. It certainly happens in Christianity, but perhaps is more visible today in the actions of religious extremists in the Middle East.
    2. Q: How did Paul view his relationship with God, his righteousness according to the Law? A: Perfect. He had done, was doing, and planned to do everything "right.” Q: How was Paul's relationship with God in reality? A: Horrible. Even when doing everything "right,” he was found to be an enemy of God. He persecuted the church. On the road to Damascus he became painfully aware of his own inability to make himself truly right before God. He became solely dependent upon the cross of Christ and the power of the resurrected Jesus.
    3. Q: At that point in his life, what was his glorious, religious past worth to him? A: Nothing. It became rubbish. Q: What became the sole thing of value for Paul? A: Knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.
    4. Have the class complete the lyrics of the song: "Joy follows (suffering), and life follows (death).” Have the class discuss the truth of these words based on Paul's own experience.

Learning Experiences (20 minutes)

  1. In Philippians 3:12-16 Paul moves toward the practical implications mentioned in 3:10 by employing a metaphor from sports. Paul, as a tent maker, certainly would have been familiar with athletic contests, as the major athletic games in the Roman world created a considerable demand for tents. Still, in the ancient world, even as today, sports were held in high esteem and the basic ideals and strategies would have been well known.
  2. Paul begins by restating what was said in verse 11. For Paul, salvation is a process. Christ certainly laid hold of him, but until Paul has been resurrected himself, he eagerly pursues spiritual perfection. It is not yet his, but it is his goal (verse 12). To vividly portray how he chases after this maturity (and how others should too), Paul turns to the long distance foot race.
    1. Q: What is the aim of every contestant in a race? A: It is to finish or win. What matters is getting to the finish line.
    2. Q: What might hinder a runner's progress? A: There will be a number of answers, most of which will be pertinent. Perhaps there will be someone familiar with track events in the class who can elaborate on some of them. In the end, the teacher will want to categorize the answers into two different areas: 1) what others do to the runner and 2) what the runner does to him or herself. For example, other contestants can cheat by tripping or cutting off a runner. At the same time, a runner can be an obstacle to himself or herself if running without proper training, without stretching sufficiently, or getting a slow start off the blocks.
    3. Q: If a racer allows any negative results from the earlier part of the race (such as getting tripped or having a slow start) affect how s/he runs the last part of the race, what will happen? A: If the runner finishes the race, s/he will lose. Typically, though, the runner will just give up, viewing the race as hopeless. Q: How can a runner who has been slowed by his or her own mistakes or the acts of another end up winning the race? A: He or she must forget the past and strive all the harder to reach the finish line.
    4. Q: Just from the information we have in this letter, can we say that others have tried to get Paul out of the race? A: Yes. Even Christians have tried to impede Paul's progress (1:15 and 17). Paul also writes from prison, a result of Jewish opposition (as we discover in the Book of Acts). Q: Can we say that Paul was hindered in the race by things he had done to himself? A: Yes. He persecuted the church.
    5. Q: What might Paul have done if he had focused on the violent (Jewish) or mean-spirited (Christian) opposition to his work? A: Perhaps he might have abandoned Christianity, as so many in Asia did when persecution arose. Q: What might Paul have done if he had focused on his own persecution of God's people? A: Perhaps he would have felt that God "could not forgive him for such a sin” and despaired of salvation. (It is not just sin that so easily entangles us, but also self-pity and self-doubt.)
    6. Have the class discuss the practical value of this advice to look forward rather than backward, to forget what is behind and press on toward the goal. Q: How might this advice apply to relationships? A: (It would be best to leave this question open ended. Certainly a number of insightful applications will be drawn by class members. Allow time for thought and conversation. You might need to offer additional leading questions. "What happens to relationships when one or more of the people involved continually dwell on others' past mistakes? What could happen if common future goals were focused on instead?”)
  3. In the area of physical fitness, it is common to say, "No pain, no gain.” Q: How might this slogan reflect what Paul is saying here? If the gain is reconciliation with God and his people, what is the pain? A: Paul has continually brought our attention to the cross in this letter. It should be remembered that verses 12-16 presuppose verses 10-11. Paul seeks to know the power of Christ's resurrection (the goal). To do this, he must deny himself, forget his past, and be conformed to the sufferings of Christ (the means). No pain, no gain. Joy follows suffering and life follows death. (See Philippians 2:5-11 once again.)
    1. Q: According to 3:14, of what importance is this ultimately? What does Paul consider to be the reward for finishing? A: The upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. It is our salvation! A salvation that must be worked out together and which sometimes requires fear and trembling.
    2. According to Paul, those who are mature will "think” this way. (Again, this "thinking” refers back to Phil. 2:5-11.) If some in Philippi do not quite have a handle on the challenge of the cross as it applies to daily life (including relationships and pride in personal achievement), God will eventually reveal the mind of spiritual maturity to them. Paul urges all, however, both spiritually young and mature alike, to not falter on the track but to "keep in step” (the literal meaning of the Greek) with what has already been attained.

Application (10 minutes)

  1. Certainly every Christian wants to become "mature” spiritually. Paul offers one area in this passage by which we can measure our maturity. At the core, it is knowing Christ to the extent that he is imitated (note also 3:17).
  2. In practical application, this is allowing the mind of Christ to control our actions, or as Paul says elsewhere, having "Christ live in me” (Gal. 2:20). In terms of relationships, our words and actions must reflect a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.
  3. Bernard of Clairvaux categorized four different levels of love that may help us visualize what this means.
    1. "I love me for me” designates the lowest level of love. It is purely selfish. It does not even acknowledge the presence of others.
    2. A higher, but still deficient, form of love states "I love you for me.” The focus remains self-centered, but it recognizes relationships with others. Other people, though, are only to be used for my self interests. This is perhaps the most commonly practiced form of love.
    3. "I love you for you” is one of the better forms of love, and one which rarely gets practiced in the world today. It takes others into account and respects them for who they are. The relationship is defined in terms of separate individuals. The phrase "Love is a two-way street” exemplifies this level of love.
    4. The greatest and rarest form of love, that exhibited by Christ on the cross, states, "I love me for you.” Godly love does all it can for the other. The one who loves like Christ promises to be the best person s/he can be for the benefit of others. Any interest in myself comes from a concern for those around me.
  4. The track metaphor used by Paul can easily be interpreted as an individual event. Note, though, that Paul continues speaking to the church. The Christian race is a team event. We are running together (see 3:16). The following story may be an appropriate way to close the lesson in terms of reminding the class about our real priorities.

In the summer of 1968, the country of Tanzania sent John Stephen Akhwari to represent them in the Olympics as a marathon runner. Bud Greenspan happened to be at those Olympics looking for stories of interest. About Akhwari Greenspan states, "He finished an hour and a half after everybody else.” Most others that far behind had given up and dropped out of the race. The crowds gathered for the marathon had all but dispersed. Greenspan then relates, "I asked him afterward, ‘Why'd you do this, with no chance of winning?' He looked at me as if I was crazy and said, ‘Mr. Greenspan, I don't think you understand - my country did not send me 9,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 9,000 miles to finish the race.'”

Akhwari understood why he was running. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God,” Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV).

Assignment (1 minute)

  1. Each class member should read 3:17-21.

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