Pressing On Toward the Goal & Taking Scripture Out of Context

Running in Fall. Runner woman jogging in autumn forest. Beautiful young fit fitness sport model jogging with slight motion blur. Mixed race Caucasian / Asian girl.

From Philippians 3:2-12 (NRSV):

Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.*

As youth workers, it is tempting to build lessons on Scriptural soundbites like “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed,” or “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you…” without digging in to the context of the verses. Let’s face it: some Bible verses make better t-shirt designs than others. Today’s lectionary daily reading includes Philippians 3:2-12. Verse 12 is the often paraphrased “….I press on toward the goal that is Christ Jesus.” This verse, along with Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” seem to be designed to put on the back of your extreme sports cross training Christian exercise gear. When I was a 16-year-old running on the high school track team, I know I would turn to these verses for motivation to keep going around the track. This level of biblical knowledge worked for me as a young person, but I missed some of the main points of passages by not discussing the context.

The problem is that taking a verse out of its context can do more harm than good. In today’s reading, Paul is addressing his problem of overemphasizing how well he followed the religious laws such as circumcision, while neglecting the most important thing, faith in Christ. The importance of faith over works is lost when we take verse 12 out of context. “Pressing on toward the goal” was not intended to mean an athletic finish line; the goal is to become a suffering servant like Jesus. We are called to become less like rule-focused Pharisees and more like love-focused Jesus Christ.

To think about:

What verses do you cling on to for support or motivation? Do the verses mean the same thing if you read them in the midst of the full story?

A prayer for today:

Lord, forgive me for taking your Word and molding it to what I want it to mean. Teach me through the Holy Spirit to understand Scripture more fully so that I can understand more deeply what it means to follow Jesus. Amen.

 

*Scripture quotation from Daily Readings on www.biblegateway.com

About Erin Sloan Jackson

Rev. Erin Sloan Jackson is a lifelong United Methodist, happily married to Dennis, and mom to four incredible kids. Erin is passionate about pastoral self-care, creating art, and coaching youth ministers. She is a certified youth minister, serves in young adult ministry, and will be commissioned as a Deacon this June.