Philippians 3: 13-14
Genesis 13: 1, 8-18
Hebrews: 12: 1-2
The expression that I have in mind to speak of, dear brethren, is in chapter 3 of Philippians; in verse 13 it speaks of “stretching out”: “stretching out to the things before, I pursue, looking towards the goal, for the prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus”. I would like to encourage us to stretch out. I need encouragement; we all need encouragement: the apostle Paul liked to build up the saints. We see that in these epistles, in the way that he speaks to them. It is available for all of us; we are not too old, and we are not too young, to stretch out to the things that God sets before us, and that is the great thing here in this verse in Philippians: it is the things that God is setting before us. It is not the things that we might set before ourselves; it is what God sets before us, if we could stretch out for them. Stretching out! There have been the Olympic Games and no doubt people have stretched themselves, they have done their personal best, probably come away only with something to say they were there. A few have come away with medals; this is different, but the idea is the same, that you are stretching yourself. If you want to compete in the games, as Paul speaks about them, (2 Tim 2: 5) you have to involve yourself; there is training, there is patience, and there is perseverance; these things are required.
Of course, in divine things nothing depends on any physical, or even mental, prowess that you might have. These are heart matters and God would appeal to your heart and mine that we might stretch out; stretch out for the things that He would set before us. Paul says, “I pursue, looking towards the goal”. There is the prize in mind, but it is not exactly that you have your eye on the prize; you have your eye on the goal. What a prize indeed it is, “the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus”. It relates to the purpose of God for you, divine calling; these are great things, and God has in mind that you would stretch out for them. This is available for all of us, the same as we touched on in the reading; burden bearing is available for us all, young and old. I have on my heart particularly the desire to encourage the young ones in stretching out, but you will understand when I say that really we all need it. It is not that we are picking on anyone that is young, we all need it, we all need the word because there is so much that the devil would seek to bring in to divert.
In Genesis, we have Abraham and his coming up out of Egypt. Abraham had moved in faith. God had spoken to him, and he moved in faith from the land where he lived, his nativity, where he was brought up. He moved so far - you can read about the steps of faith of our father Abraham. He moved so far, and then his father died and he moved further on, and Lot is with him, and he comes down into the land. Then he moves a bit further, and finds there is a famine, and he keeps going. Instead of staying there where God is setting him, he goes on down to Egypt, and we are a bit like that, I think. There is a famine in the land, and it is testing, and we go on a bit further because it seems a little easier in Egypt. But there are legacies from Abraham going down into Egypt, and they are not good ones: he brings up Hagar as Sarah’s maid servant, which brings in problems later; and Lot gets a taste for Egypt.
This is a very sobering thing, because we all have influence and Abraham was an influence on Lot in going down into Egypt; and that was not so good. Where we read, it comes out, as these things do - they have a habit of coming out, and it is good to be humble about them. Abraham gets the benefit of the exercise because he is moving in faith, but Lot does not. We read, “forgetting the things behind ... I pursue”. Lot did not forget the things that were behind, and it meant he lost almost everything. He came away with his life, and two daughters, and that was it; that was all Lot was left with, that was the culmination of this. But what it says of them was that Abraham was rich in cattle, and Lot also, he had flocks, herds, tents and so on. There was contention between them, and Abraham says, “let there be no contention between me and thee”. Abraham takes the position of faith, and he says, ’If you choose to the left, I will go to the right; and if you choose to the right, well, I will go to the left’. He leaves it, not in the hands of Lot exactly, but in the hands of God. Then Lot lifts up his eyes, and what he saw, no doubt, was wonderful - it was the plain of the Jordan. If you look at it now it is maybe not so choice as it would have been in the days we are reading of, when it speaks about the thoroughly-watered plain. He sees all of that, and it looks good, and he thinks: ’I will have that, I will choose that’. It says, “Lot chose for himself”.
It is a great danger, dear brethren, choosing for ourselves. It is very easy to do; we can very easily succumb to it. I am not pretending to speak as clear of all these things. We might tend to choose for ourselves, and it looks very good. Lot chose the best from his view point and it reminded him of Egypt: “as the garden of Jehovah, like the land of Egypt, as one goes to Zoar”. You may say, ’This is wonderful, this is good, and I am making this good choice for myself and for my future’, and so on. “He chose for himself”, and before the paragraph is ended you can see the direction he is going, can you not? It is not heading in a very good way, it says he “went towards the east”, and “dwelt in the cities of the plain”. He would have had to go down. If you think about the vantage point that they were at, they could see the Jordan; it must have been a good vantage point. He could see that it was well-watered, it was green, there was life there, and he headed for that; but then it says, “Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and pitched tents as far as Sodom”. We know what that means; the note shows that Sodom means ’burning’ and Gomorrah means ’submersion’. They show God’s judgment on the principles that come out there. They are prevalent in the world, something that we are to be preserved from; I will not mention or name the thing, but it is something that is prevalent: even in the newspapers these corrupt features of Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned. And Lot found himself surrounded by these features, as many do.
But then Jehovah says to Abraham, “Lift up now thine eyes”. Lot had lifted up his eyes, but he had not brought Jehovah in. Abraham lifts up his eyes, Jehovah tells him to, and He says, “look from the place where thou art, northward and southward and eastward and westward”. God was going to give to him all that he could see. What blessings God conveys to Abraham, the father of the faithful, wonderful blessings! In the day to come, when the Lord shall reign, those blessings will come to those who are direct descendants of Abraham. So he looks; now he is looking towards the goal that God is setting before him: that is the great thing. Lot chose for himself: Abraham let God choose for him, and he looks up and he sees towards these four points of the compass, and wherever he looked God was saying, ’There is blessing for you if you are going to move in faith, if you are going to stretch out for what I would set before you; you are going to get it, it is going to be for you’. And then Jehovah says, “Arise, walk through the land” - he had to walk through the land, the length and breadth of it. These dimensions, these points of the compass, help us to see the immensity of what God has in mind for us. When it comes to knowing the love of the Christ (Eph 3: 18), it mentions four dimensions, does it not? There is the length and breadth, and depth and height. This is what Abraham was touching on, what God was setting before him that he might stretch out to, and then it says he moved his tents - you might say he moved house. His was a nomadic existence. These people lived in tents, everything was there, their whole life was in these tents. So he took down his tents, and he moved his tents, and he came and dwelt in this place that has been spoken of as a place of stability, “the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron”. The fruitfulness of these oaks of Mamre! Mamre speaks of a place where there is communion, where there is company, in Hebron, and this is what God has in mind. “And he built there an altar to Jehovah”; he is moving in this direction, he is stretching out to the things that God has set before him.
How blessed the things are that God sets before us; they are worth stretching out for. The world might not set much store on them, even Lot did not, though we know he was a righteous man and he “tormented his righteous soul”, 2 Pet 2: 8. Even Lot did not stretch out for them; so it seems to me that it requires more than just believing on Jesus, more than just having Jesus as your Saviour. How essential that is! The gospel is preached that you might come into the knowledge of that, Jesus as your Saviour. John says that in his gospel, “these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in his name”, John 20: 31. But then if you are set on that ground, if you have life in His name, you love Jesus, are you going to stretch out for the things that God sets before you?
In Hebrews the writer speaks about the race, “run with endurance the race”. You are not going to do very well in a race if you are looking behind, or if your eye is not focussed on what is before you. And what does the writer say we should be looking on? He says, “looking stedfastly on Jesus”. If your eye is on the goal then that is who you will be looking at, and He will be the motivation in your soul to stretch out for these things. It is not that you are doing it because it is the right thing to do, or because somebody told you to do it, or even just because you want to do it, but it is because Jesus is set before you, that “prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus”. It is a wonderful thing, a wonderful prize, there could be no better, to have part in your calling in the purpose of God, to have part with Christ in glory. And so he says “having so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight, and sin which so easily entangles us”.
We spoke about burdens in the reading, and we all carry burdens, but sometimes we carry burdens we ought not really to be carrying, caused by something we have done. Because of the things that we have set before us, something we might have chosen for ourselves, we might carry a burden. I am not intending to open that up, but you can imagine it, can you not? If you set yourself on something, worldly goods, something else, that becomes a weight. If you are running a race the last thing you want is something that is dragging you down and holding you back. Then, “sin which so easily entangles us”. How much we know that! We know that we do not have to be very far in the pathway to realise that we are still susceptible to sin; it entangles us, it is like a net round your feet. How can you run when these things are catching you and stumbling you? That is what the enemy would do; he would seek to stumble you and catch you and entangle you with sin. How we need to be so careful! The enemy is a very determined foe, and he does not really care about you; he wants to rob God, and he does not care how old you are, whether you are young or old; he wants to entangle you, and he will use all the many departments of the world to do so. Maybe some things catch us out when we are younger, and as you get older there are other things that catch you out. I am sure that continues; we need to be watchful, but it speaks about “laying aside”. The death of Christ has met all that; we are entitled to lay it aside, and then it says “to run with endurance the race”. It is not going to be easy. If it was easy to run the race, then what credit would it be? It requires endurance. Christianity is not a sprint; it is more like a marathon; it is the whole of your life. It stretches out before you, and are you going to run that, are you going to have your eye on “the leader and completer of faith”?
Jesus, the Model and Example, has set it all out. He says to the Father, “I have completed the work which thou gavest me that I should do it”, John 17: 4. He ran with endurance the race; what a blessed Saviour we have! And Mr Darby says this word “leader” is a difficult one to translate, but it is ’one who begins and sets a matter on’, Acts 3: 15, footnote. He sets the course, runs the race, wins the battle, establishes the city, and rules it: the Lord has done all of that. He is “the leader and completer of faith”. Who better? There is no better, in fact there is no one else to have your eye on as you run this race; “stretching out to the things before”. That is what God would set before you; he would set Jesus before you.
And then it speaks a little bit about Jesus, “who, in view of the joy lying before him, endured the cross”; “the joy lying before him” was like the prize. What was the prize for Jesus? We often think of the assembly, the bride of Christ as the prize and that is right, but I think it involves all that God had in mind. “In view of the joy lying before him”, involves the assembly: what an answer to His heart as a Man, but there is a whole system. There is going to be a universe that is entirely in accord with God and His thoughts, “wherein dwells righteousness”, 2 Pet 3: 13, established on the basis of the work of Christ. That will be established for eternity, and you, if you put your faith and trust in Jesus, will be part of it. You may say, ’What difference does it make then if putting my trust and faith in Jesus makes me part of that wonderful universe that will be set up for God?’. Dear friend, do not ask what difference it makes, but “run with endurance”. What God is looking for is character: persons with character like Jesus. That universe will be populated by persons, not by robots, not by slaves, but by persons who are brought in, who are part of this joy before God. I have the feeling the idea of stretching out and running with endurance is that you might be formed substantially after Christ, so that what arrives at that time when the Lord comes is substantial. When He calls each one of us home, the time of growth will have gone, the time of advancement and progress will be finished; what will be harvested, just like when they harvest the grain, is what is complete. If an ear has thirty grains, that is good, or sixty or a hundred. I think it is this which is affected by stretching out for the things before, and running with endurance, the increase in fruit to God. You may say that thirty-fold is good, thirty times: then how much better is a hundred fold! That is what God wants you to stretch out for. The Lord Jesus “endured the cross, having despised the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God”. We have the opportunity to stretch out, and to run with endurance, and the prize, the joy set before us, is “the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus”.
He is there, exalted above all others; is He not worthy of your time, of your life; is it not worth stretching out? I have this sense that is involves exercise, and you can stretch out when you are young, you can stretch out whatever age you are. God might set things before you. I do not know what He might set before you. He has set some things before me that I never expected, but He wants us to stretch out. There is a poem that says -
If the Saviour’s won your heart
And for heav’n you’ve made a start,
Keep your eye upon the chart,
And - go on!
(From A Selection of Poems,
compiled by G H S Price, page 225)
’Go on!’ he says at the end, ’Go on! there’s all eternity to rest in’. Well, that is a poem that encouraged me. Look it up - it is written by a Mr W Lawrence; and stretch out for the things that God sets before you, for your blessing and for fruit for God.
May it be so for the Lord’s Name’s sake.
8th December 2012