Things Behind and Things Before

No other man could ever say, like Paul, "Be followers together of me" (Phil. 3:17), for he was in every way the pattern man of the heavenly calling. True, he was an apostle, but it was not as such that he so wrote of himself by the Spirit of God. It is one of the special features of this epistle that he does not introduce himself as an apostle, but as a servant of Jesus Christ, and it is his experience as one who had walked and served in the light and power of the heavenly calling which is largely presented in this epistle. Hence the experience here presented, the sentiments that animated him, the aim and object before him, are all as tests and guides for us who profess to have entered upon the path of discipleship connected with the heavenly calling.

It is therefore deeply important that we, who profess the same faith and to have the same goal before us that Paul had, should so test the manner and character of our lives. For indeed there is no other faith, no other goal; all else are but departures from the truth, and a surrender, more or less grievous, of the true nature and power of Christianity - a turning aside or turning back to the "things which are behind" (verse 13), as Paul speaks, and so the lustre and brightness of the "things which are before" lose their attraction for the heart.

But let us consider these things a little more closely, with the true desire to ascertain their bearing with respect to the tenor of our lives day by day. For while we should ever hold fast the blessed truth of being "in Christ" as to our place and acceptance before God, if so be we have truly believed on Christ risen from the dead, and so have His Spirit (for if we are in Christ it must be that He is in us as life by the Spirit dwelling in us), yet there is the responsible life down here in which the power of the life in Christ which we have by the Spirit may be displayed, and the reality of that which we profess tested. It is in this latter way, as called to pass through and overcome all the adverse circumstances and hindrances surrounding the path of the true disciple here, but with Christ in glory revealed to the soul as a present object, and likeness to Him in that glory as the goal and prize set before us, that Philippians views us.

When this is seen it is not difficult to apprehend the application of the expression, "The things behind and those before." For we are (if truly in the spirit and power of the heavenly calling) as those who have turned our backs on the world, and all that is in it and of it, and are being drawn on, and are pressing on, to the full realization of what is infinitely more blessed and glorious than the best and brightest things here. Hence we may say that "the things behind" consist of all that ministers to a man's greatness, honour, or even religious reputation and position after the flesh; in short, all that makes him of any account in the eyes of the world, or in his own eyes. Are these indeed the things behind with us? And if so, what, then, are those things that are before? They are things which "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man … which God hath prepared for them that love Him," revealed now by the Spirit to faith, and the light and reality of them known in the soul, but all to be fully reached and realized soon, when He who is the Centre and Sun of all that vast scene of blessedness and joy eternal (even He who once sat on Sychar's well, and ate and drank with publicans and sinners, and wept in sympathy with Mary, and agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, and suffered and died on the cross) - the same Jesus - will come as Saviour (to save us out of the world), and "change our bodies of humiliation, and fashion them like to His body of glory"; or if perchance we fall asleep before He so comes, to realize the blessedness of being with Him where He now is, "which is far better" than abiding here where He is not.

It was this blessed goal, and nothing else besides, which was before this pattern disciple, whose words by the Spirit should be heard in each of our souls: "Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample." Alas! even in that day he had to add that many walked in a way the very opposite, to their shame (if they only had eyes to see and a heart to feel it) and to his grief. True, in minding earthly things it might not be that which the religious world would disapprove of, nor the moral sense of the natural man condemn. But viewed in the light of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ (whose blessed name they professed), the minding earthly things was as incongruous with the heavenly calling as it was shameful for those professing Him as their Saviour and Lord, who ended His life here on a cross, and opened up a new and glorious life, and a new world suited to that life in resurrection.

Again I would say we do well to bring all this to bear upon ourselves, and to be exercised as to its application to our ways, for our lot is cast in the closing days of the same marvellous dispensation which began in Paul's day, and the true character and power and blessedness of which were exemplified in him, as well as unfolded by his ministry.

As we draw to the close of another year, we may well apply our hearts to these things, and enquire what has been the chiefly governing and animating principle or aim with us during the past year or more, and what is really before our hearts as to what men speak of as the future, that is, the rest of our lives here; for the children of this world have (or think they have) a future here. In vain, however, they seek to peer into it, and with keen gaze to pierce through that impenetrable veil that shrouds the future here. What is behind them they know, and can look back upon readily enough; but such a retrospect rarely gives comfort or satisfaction. Regrets, disappointments, or what is perhaps still more saddening, the remembrance of joys and pleasures past and ended, generally fill up the past for those who are of this world. But so it should not be with the disciples of Jesus. And whether for such this is to be the case or not depends on how they have regarded the future; that is, whether "the things before" were earthly joys, schemes, prospects, hopes, plans, etc., like the world (and which are ever becoming year by year the things behind), or whether they were what he had before him who counted all that was gain to him loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord, and whose motto (if one may so speak) was "To me to live - Christ," as embracing all that was before him down here.

Now, I grant there is a sense in which it is right and well to look back, and I will notice this presently. This, however, is not the looking back indicated in Phil. 3, which tells of a heart that turns back with unjudged cravings and longings after those things which are opposed to our holy and heavenly calling. Many sad and sorrowful examples of this character of turning back are furnished in the Word. Israel turned back in heart to Egypt, and craved for the flesh-pots thereof. Not so was it with Moses, who esteemed "the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt," and chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season." His eyes and heart were set upon "those things that are before, for he had respect unto the recompense."

Another solemn example of not forgetting the things behind is referred to by the blessed Lord Himself, and given by Him as a warning to all who profess His name and to have part in His kingdom, when He said, "Remember Lot's wife." (Luke 17:32.) Yes, the Lord Himself more than once when here on earth emphasized the danger of looking or turning back, and the loss to those whose hearts still turned to things here, even declaring that "no man putting his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God."

I will, not, however, dwell further on this serious and dangerous character of looking back or not forgetting the things behind, when the heart and desires are allowed to go out after earthly things; for as we have already remarked, all in and of the world are the things behind to those who profess to have accepted the death of Christ as the basis of all their hopes and blessings, as well as of their deliverance from the judgment of this world, and indeed the whole course of it.

But some, through grace, are not thus turning back nor thinking with regret of the things behind, neither are the things before them the hopes of aggrandizement or prosperity, or pleasure and rest here; but their desire and aim at least are to be found in the spirit and line of this faithful servant, whose course is the bright pattern for all who follow after until the Lord shall come.

There is, however, as I have said, a way in which we may, I think, profitably look back on the past, even as God's earthly people were exhorted and, indeed, commanded to do in their day: "Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness. … Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years. Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee." (Deut. 8:2, 4, 5.)

'We are also exhorted to remember that we were in times past Gentiles in the flesh, without God, without Christ, and without hope; that thus our hearts might ever be kept in the sense of that rich mercy and great love so freely bestowed upon us. (Eph. 2.) Paul never forgot his past history as a sinner and the grace that saved him. How blessed, too, was the retrospect of his life of service and discipleship when, at the end of his career, he exclaims, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4:7.) This is the blessed counterpart to the sentiments expressed long before, when he said to the elders of Ephesus, "Neither count I my life dear unto myself, that I may finish my course with joy" (Acts 20:24); even as it is in bright contrast with one who had been his fellow-servant, and of whom he had to write, "Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world." (2 Timothy 4:10.) Yes, there is deep joy connected with faithfulness to our calling and to our Lord here, even as there is deep sorrow and bitterness in turning back, either in heart or ways, or in seeking our own things and "not the things which are Jesus Christ's."

Philippians is the epistle where joy is prominent, for it is the experience of one who was going on in the ways and current of the Spirit of God, and the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace. And what present joy he had in the anticipation (bright and clear before his heart because undimmed by the attraction of things here) of that blessed realization of future glory and incorruptibility with Christ!

May our only looking back, then, be such as Paul's, and as remembering the goodness and mercy that have followed us up to the present and will follow us to the end.

If there be any other sense in which any may do well to look back and recall the past, it will be where there has been, in a measure, declension of soul through the attraction of things here, so that Christ has lost the place He once held in the affections of the heart; and He would then say to us, as to the beloved church at Ephesus, "Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent," thus bringing us to judge ourselves, in order that the heart may be recalled "to joy in all the brightness and peace" His love imparts.

S. M. A.