Are You Going for the Goal?

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

If you were watching the college football bowl games of the 2012-13 season, you probably saw where the former coach of Notre Dame University, Lou Holz, was the spokesman for an ad campaign called "Catholics Come Home".  In the ad, the coach makes an affable plea for Catholics who have been away for a while, to come back to church.


I heard the ad a few times, and there was one short sentence that caught my attention.  Here's the entire transcribed text of the ad:

For victory in life we've got to keep focused on the goal.  And the goal is heaven. The key to winning is choosing to do God's will, and love others with all you've got.  Sacrifice, discipline, and prayer are essential.  We gain strength through God's word.  We receive grace from the sacraments.  And when we fumble due to sin -- and it's gonna happen -- confession puts us back on the field.  So if you haven't been going to mass lately, get back in the game.  We're saving your seat on the starting bench this Sunday.  Welcome home.

The words that grabbed me were these: And the goal is heaven.  Is there anything about this statement that seems strange to you?  Perhaps you are thinking: "This sounds right to me; shouldn't everyone want to end up in heaven?"  Well, of course, everyone should want to end up in heaven, but the Bible teaches that heaven is a gift you receive not a goal you run toward.1 

If heaven is the goal, then it must be earned.  The only way to reach a goal is to concentrate your efforts and energies toward attaining it.  You have to run in order to end up at the goal.  You have to do something to get there.  The Bible says that eternal life in heaven with God can only be obtained by believing, not by performing works of righteousness.

Now this is not intended to be an anti-Catholic diatribe.  Rather, I want to examine the scriptures with you to consider if this is indeed what the scriptures say.  And if it isn't the teaching of God's Word, what does the Bible indicate is the goal that we should be working toward?

The scripture verse above is taken from a context where the apostle Paul declares that anything in his past life that might be considered enough to put him on the winning team, he is willingly laying aside, so that he can passionately pursue a new goal.  

What is this goal, that to him, makes everything in his past worth less than nothing?  Is the goal the same as the prize?  Or do you receive the prize when you reach the goal?  We need to consider these questions carefully, for there is much misinformation on this subject. 

The context that we are examining is actually Philippians 3:2-16.  So let's look into these verses for a fuller understanding of the goal that the apostle Paul was working toward.

Here is the answer we will discover: the goal is Jesus!  

Just look at what Paul says:

- Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

- I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

- I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in him.

- Not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ.

- That I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death.

Clearly the focal point of his life was Jesus Christ.  Look at some of his other statements:

- For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

- We preach Christ crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:23)

- I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)

- May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Galatians 6:14)

- Christ’s love compels us. (2 Corinthians 5:14)

- In Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting. (Romans 15:17)

- I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me. (Romans 15:18)

- Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ. (1 Corinthians 4:1)

- Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

- Most gladly I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

- If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

- I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

- Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20)

It is no exaggeration to say that the apostle Paul was fixated upon Jesus Christ.  Jesus is who he thought about, talked about, identified with, worked for, and looked forward to seeing.  Jesus Christ was his life!  There was nothing more valuable to him than Jesus.  There is nothing he would not do -- or do without -- for Jesus.  

Knowing him, walking with him, talking to him, making him known to as many as he could -- these things consumed his days.  And when he thought about the prospect of seeing Jesus face-to-face, he was so eager to have it happen, that only the need of others to hear and know about Jesus kept him going each day.

Jesus was clearly the goal of the apostle's life.  Paul said: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."2  How does this differ from the statement in the ad campaign referenced above: "Heaven is the goal"?  Let's examine the differences.

Heaven is the goal

In this approach to living and dying, the object is to cross the goal line.  If you do what is necessary to win the race, you get to go to heaven.  And what is necessary to win?  The ad says:

The key to winning is choosing to do God's will, and love others with all you've got.  Sacrifice, discipline, and prayer are essential.  We gain strength through God's word.  We receive grace from the sacraments.  And when we fumble due to sin -- and it's gonna happen -- confession puts us back on the field.

This much is painfully obvious: there is here no objective standard for winning.  There is no basis for assurance.  The goal of life is to get to heaven, and in order to have any chance of making it, a person must consistently practice as many spiritual disciplines as possible.  

So, in this paradigm, the goal is getting into heaven, and those who faithfully practice certain spiritual disciplines have the best chance of winning.

Now,  it's possible that you're thinking: "What's wrong with saying, 'Heaven is the goal'?"  Very simply, heaven cannot be a gift and a goal.  If heaven is the destination of every person that believes in Jesus Christ as Savior and God, how do they get there?  Do they work toward getting there through their own efforts, or do they arrive there entirely because God grants free entrance based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ upon the cross?

Jesus Christ is the goal

Before we can consider what it means for the goal to be Jesus rather than the goal being heaven, we need to discuss how one first enters the race.

It must to be noted that one needs to enter the race before he or she can run for the goal.  Anyone may enter the race by simply believing in Jesus Christ as God and Savior.  You enter the race -- and are assured of a place in heaven -- by simple faith.  It is merely a matter of recognizing and depending on these truths: 1) Jesus is the only true God; and 2) Jesus is the promised Redeemer of mankind.3 

When you humbly seek God, admitting your own inadequacies, he graciously opens your mind to understand the truth about who he is and what he has done for you.  When you are given this supernatural understanding, placing your dependence upon Jesus is the only reasonable thing to do.  Jesus unequivocally taught that only through faith in him could a person come into God's presence.

So, when a person believes in Jesus as his Lord and Savior, that one is given a reservation in heaven, as well as forgiveness of every sin, past, present, and future.  In addition, every believer in Jesus is placed within the church of Jesus Christ, and the Spirit of Christ takes up residence within that person.  This same indwelling Holy Spirit opens up a new level of communication with God, and grants a new power for living righteously before God.  

All of these are freely given to the one who believes that Jesus is God and Savior.  These are not goals we are working toward; they are gifts that God gives to the one who humbly places his or her dependence upon the God of truth and in the truth of God.  I will say it again: a goal is something you yourself must work to achieve or earn; a gift is something that you simply receive from the giver.  

There is no work that can or must be done to receive the gift of eternal life and a place in heaven.  A person must simply come to a point where he acknowledges that he is incapable of living life or facing death; the Bible calls that point humility or brokenness.  Admitting one's own inadequacies could never be construed as a work; it's simply a recognition of weakness.

It is only when a person in this way humbles himself that God gives him the necessary spiritual insight upon which he may believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  The proud simply are not given such insight.  And why is this?  They think they already know the answers and have the abilities to live life and face death.  They are not seeking answers or searching for abilities; they are convinced that they already possess them.

The apostle Paul said that this message of salvation through faith in the crucified and risen Savior was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.4  It was a stumbling block to the Jews because they thought that salvation would come through a mighty Messiah, not a suffering servant. It was foolishness to the Gentiles because they thought that salvation would come through exertion of personal strength, not through admission of personal weakness.  This is why Paul says that, in the church, there are "...not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble."5 

Running the race to win a prize

So, humble faith in Jesus gets you in the race and gives you the confident assurance of eternal life with God in heaven.  What then, is the point of running the race?  If you're already going to heaven, why be concerned about reaching a goal or winning a prize?  This is a question that many Christians ask.  If I know I'm going to heaven, what could be better than being in heaven?  What do I need to yet work to achieve or earn?

Well, the Bible makes it clear that God didn't send his Son Jesus to die just so those who believe could spend eternity playing harps in heaven!  The scriptures have a great deal to say about rewards that will be distributed by Christ, which will certainly make a difference in one's experience and enjoyment of the 1,000 year millennial reign of Christ on earth.  And there are also several indications that those rewards will have an impact on each person's participation and pleasure throughout eternity as well.6 

Now when some people hear this, they take offense at such a concept.  They speak disdainfully of a heaven where there are the "haves" and the "have nots".  And yet Jesus himself spoke of how some will be honored as "great" in the kingdom of God, while others would be regarded as "least" in the kingdom of God.  He even taught about what a person could to do become great in the kingdom of God.7 

On the other hand, scripture teaches that when some Christians stand before Christ to be judged for the way they lived their lives on earth, they will be filled with shame.8  In another place we are taught that Christians who live their lives without focusing on the goal will certainly be saved, yet they will be like those who escape from a house fire, with only their clothes on their backs.9 

So, God did not save us just so we could have eternal life in heaven with him, but rather that we could become like Jesus and reign with him.  Now we're getting to the important stuff!  Let's talk a little bit about the prize, then we'll finally get around to talking about the goal.  For a professional football player, the goal is winning the Superbowl; the prize is the money and the ring.  For a Christian, the goal is Jesus Christ; prize is reigning with Christ. 

Perhaps you are thinking: "I'm really not interested in reigning; I'll be happy just to be there!"  But this was by no means the attitude of the apostle Paul: he was eagerly looking forward to, and working toward, the honor and privilege that would be his.  Consider these words of his--

Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

There are two things to take special notice of in this statement by the apostle Paul: 1) this glory/honor has eternal significance; and 2) this glory/honor is beyond all comparison.  As you weigh everything in your life for its significance, what Christ will give to you on that judgment day should have eternal weight.  The honor that you could receive from your Savior for the way you are living today will be eternal!  

Do you really think that Jesus wants to give you something that, after receiving it, you would say, "It's really not that big of a deal to me"?  Is Christ a loser?  Does he give things people do not want...or that they think are "no big deal"?  Is he "out of touch" with what people really want?

Perhaps you don't have a healthy concept of what that glory/honor is that your Savior is looking forward to bestow upon those who earn it.  Here's what many Christians think--

When we get to heaven, Jesus will give certain crowns (literal pieces of metal with jewels) to those who have earned them -- people like Billy Graham, mother Theresa, and the apostle Paul.  All of the rest of us will look on and applaud them for the extraordinary lives of service they lived.  They will then take their crowns off and cast them in a big pile of metal at the feet of Jesus.  And then we will all be equal in heaven for all of eternity. 

Here is what I believe is a more likely scenario--

The crowns are not literal metal and jewels, but rather figurative expressions for the privilege of ruling with Christ.  The twenty-four elders who cast their crowns at the feet of Jesus are not Christians, but rather they are angels (and fallen angels?) who are giving up their authority to rule, so that Jesus can redistribute that dominion to his saints who have earned that privilege.

Here is where the prize and the goal come together.  We've already said: "For a Christian, the goal is Jesus Christ; the prize is reigning with Christ."  The goal is knowing, loving, and becoming like Jesus Christ.  The prize is being closer to Jesus as he reigns in his kingdom, and beyond.  

Some have told me: "I'm not interested in getting any reward from Jesus; I just want to love him, serve him, and please him, with all that I think, say, and do."  Well, what if the prize is being closer to the one that you've been trying to love and please all your life?  This is exactly what the apostles of Jesus wanted: to sit on his right and left when he rules in his kingdom.  And how did Jesus respond when his followers made this request of him?

To sit on my right or on my left, this is not mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mark 10:40)

Somebody will sit on Jesus' left and another person will have the seat of honor and responsibility on his right.  Others will be given differing positions of honor and authority in the cabinet and worldwide government of Christ Jesus.  These people will report to Jesus, receive his counsel, and be part of the inner circle of the most righteous government the world has ever known.  But the privilege of reigning with Christ comes at great cost -- suffering for righteousness' sake.10 

In addition to the honor of reigning with Christ, faithful Christians will be rewarded by other means.  Those who have been faithful and generous with material wealth, will receive heavenly riches.11  If you've been faithful with what God has entrusted to you on earth, he will reward you with something of your own in heaven.12  Those who have helped others to know and become like Jesus will be blessed with a joy that is in proportion to the lives that they touched.13 

Some rewards are promised, but not specified.  Those who have given of themselves in service to others will also not go without their reward.14  Faithful leaders and teachers, though being judged by a higher standard, will be granted rewards commensurate with the adversity they endured and the example they set.15  And all who heartily do the work for which God has equipped them, they will be rewarded as well.16

And there is good reason to anticipate that these rewards will not just be for the 1,000-year reign of Christ, but that they are indeed eternal.  Consider these texts:

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)

Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable [crown]. (1 Corinthians 9:25)

Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (2 Peter 1:10-11)

And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:5)

If the promised rewards are eternal, this makes them all the more important to work toward attaining.  Clearly the apostle Paul was focused upon and working for the prize:

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

And, likewise, he was very conscious of the possibility of losing the prize as well:

I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)

But the prize is not the goal

For those who feel a little squeamish about working hard to receive a prize that will be awarded by Christ, let's remind ourselves again that Jesus Christ is the goal.  What does this mean?  Simply this: Jesus is the focal point of our lives.  Knowing him, being like him, hearing his voice, understanding his truth, becoming like him in thought, word, and act, and longing to see his face and be in his presence -- this is making Jesus the goal of your life.

Ask people who have fallen in love, what is the goal of their lives: to be with the person they love!   There is nothing else in their lives.  They think about that person, dream about that person, and talk incessantly with that person.  They draw pictures, write letters and emails, send tweets and texts, to and about the one they love.  They want to know everything they can about the one they love, and to spend all their time with that person.  They love to hear and to tell stories about that person.  Their life is totally wrapped up in the life of the person they love.

We have expressions for this kind of love.  We call it being lovesick, or simply, being in love.  The Bible has an expression for this kind of love for Jesus.  It's called first love.  

The church in Ephesus had this kind of love for Jesus when they first believed in him as their Savior.  They were so in love with Jesus that they burned up their pagan religious books whose combined value was worth a huge amount of money.17  People thought they were crazy!  But they weren't crazy, they were just so in love with Jesus that demonstrating their commitment to him was way more important to them than getting money for the books they burned. 

How different these people were than that rich, young ruler who came to Jesus, asking him how he could inherit eternal life.18  What about you-- do you love this world's pleasures, possessions, and prominence more than Jesus?19  Are you willing to give up anything and everything -- to pay any price -- to follow Jesus?

Sadly, the Christians in Ephesus allowed their love for Christ to grow cold.  They lost their first love.  Perhaps you're thinking: it happens to everyone; it's just normal.  Well, it doesn't happen to everyone, and it should never be considered as normal.  Jesus didn't think it was normal.  Here's what he said to that same church in Ephesus:

I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place — unless you repent. (Revelation 2:4-5)

It was when Paul was languishing in a Cesarean prison that he wrote these words: For me to live is Christ.  And when he was imprisoned in Rome he penned these words: In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing.20  He just wanted to be with Jesus, to know Jesus, and to talk about Jesus.  Jesus was his life!

So, what's the goal of your life?  What are you living for?  Is it Jesus Christ?  Why not begin to make him the focal point of every day you've got left?  That way, when you stand before him to hear his judgment of your life, you will hear him say: Well done, I've got a place of honor for you, serving with me in my kingdom.  There's absolutely nothing better to live for than this.  Go for it!

1 By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

2 Philippians 1:21

3 These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

4 1 Corinthians 1:23

5 1 Corinthians 1:26

6 Click here if you would like to hear more about getting ready to meet Jesus and being prepared for his judgment of your life and what that will mean for you in the future.

7 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4)

8 Now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from him in shame at his coming. (1 John 2:28)

9 See Paul's allegorical explanation of the judgment of Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

10 2 Timothy 2:12

11 Matthew 6:20

12 Luke 16:10-12

13 1 Thessalonians 2:19

14 Matthew 10:42

15 1 Peter 5:1-4

16 Colossians 3:23-25

17 Acts 19:18-19  This text says that the total value of the burned books was "50,000 pieces of silver".  At today's minimum wage scale, that would be equivalent to about three and a half million dollars.  Now that's being in love with Jesus!

18 Matthew 19:16-26  This man was not asking Jesus how to enter God's kingdom; he wanted to know how to inherit, or possess, a position in the coming kingdom the Messiah would establish.  Unfortunately he was not willing to pay the price required to go for the goal and win the prize.

19 1 John 2:15-16

20 2 Timothy 4:8  This scripture says that our Savior is going to award a position of leadership and honor in his kingdom to everyone who is eagerly looking forward to, and who is daily living for that moment, when they see Jesus face to face.

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