James Nisbet Commentary - Philippians 3:13 - 3:13

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James Nisbet Commentary - Philippians 3:13 - 3:13

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:


‘One thing I do.’


The words ‘I do’ are not found in the original, they are scarcely needed. The Apostle wishes to lay stress not so much on doing as being. One thing absorbed him, possessed his life, controlled all his energies.

I. The ideal the Apostle set before him.—He had an ideal. ‘I press,’ he said, ‘toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ His ideal may be summed up in one sentence—‘That I may win Christ.’

II. How he pursued it.—It is only too possible to have high ideals and yet to fail practically in pursuing them. The Apostle was no idealist in the sense of dreaming away his life. Let us notice the spirit in which he pursued his object.

(a) Its first feature is simplicity.

(b) Its second, sincerity. No man was ever subjected to severer tests of sincerity than St. Paul. In the earlier part of the chapter we have a striking account of the difficulties through which he passed. Between him and his goal were barriers: (1) ceremonial; (2) ecclesiastical; (3) social.

(c) Its third, humility.

Rev. E. W. Moore.


‘There is a story told of a visitor who, going to the studio of a well-known artist and sculptor, found him in tears, and on inquiring the cause, he pointed to the bust which he had just completed, and said, “There, that represents my ideal; I can do nothing better than that, and I weep, for I know my career as an artist is ended.” He felt he could make no further progress, for he had realised his ideal. To have realised our ideal is to come to a standstill. “Satisfaction is the grave of progress.” ’



Here was the secret of St. Paul’s success: the possession of a fixed, definite object in life, which he followed up with all his heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. Here, too, lies the secret of every true man’s success.

I. What is the one thing with each of you?—What is the object to which you give most thought, most care, most labour? Is it to do the will of God? Ah! is it not true that ‘the world is too much with us,’ and that our work, or our money, or our pleasure occupy the first place, whilst God, on Whom all depends, is put second? Let our constant prayer be, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’

II. When we have discovered what the will of God is, let our one endeavour be to do it with all our heart and soul. We have all a work to do for God, and a given time in which to do it. Never mind the great things, strive to do the small things well, if God has given you small things to do. God has a place for the cedar, and also one for the daisy; for the elephant, and the ant; He has a place and a work, you may be quite sure, for you.

III. In all you do try to look up to God and heaven.—I have read of a man who as he walked with his eyes cast down to the ground found a piece of gold. Ever afterwards he walked with downcast eyes, hoping to discover more treasure. But he found none, and because he thus looked down he lost sight altogether of the blue heaven above. Let us remember where our true treasure is, and look up.


‘What made Chrysostom a preacher able to sway men’s hearts so mightily that they called him the golden-mouth? It was because he knew the power which was in him, and because he set one object before him, and worked for it. What made Michael Angelo a master among artists, able to rise from obscurity, and make the walls of the Sistine Chapel glow with living pictures till men gazed awe-struck, whilst his teacher confessed that he must become the pupil? It was because he felt the power within him, and worked with chisel and brush for success. It was not chance which made Napoleon a conqueror, or Shakespeare the first of poets. What made Newton the great astronomer he was? Because “the stars,” as he said, “were always in his heart,” he was always thinking of them.’


‘Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before.’


What had the Apostle in mind when he spoke of forgetting the things which are behind? If you read the chapter you will be at no loss to understand his meaning. He is describing his own circumstances as one who had wonderfully changed his place. To a man so loyal and affectionate as his writings prove St. Paul to have been, the breach with old comrades must have been extremely painful. The newly formed Christian Churches were for the most part composed of simple and ignorant folk with whom the Apostle, a gentleman and a scholar, would have little natural sympathy. He must have found himself dreadfully alone in his new fellowship. He told his followers that he resolutely refused to let his mind dwell on the past, that he bent his mind rather on the grand object of discipleship.

Let us apply the example of the great Apostle to our own case.

I. In regard to religious thought.—We are bound as Christians to believe that all our lives are subject to a process of education. The Holy Spirit is pre-eminently a teacher, and every true Christian has within himself the illuminating Presence of the Spirit of God. Mere stationariness cannot be proper in any Christian. We are to advance in a knowledge of truth, to pass from the elements of religion, to lay hold of the hopes set before us. Of all obstacles to human progress there is hardly any more formidable than conservatism. Forgetting the things which are behind is the true principle of education. Every addition to our knowledge alters the proportions in which we must see truth. Elasticity of mind is really the secret of receptivity.

II. In regard to religious behaviour.—‘Forgetting the things which are behind’ is the best rule for every one who has had to come to the Christian discipleship by way of violent conversion. All converts from other religions find a spiritual danger in reminiscence, so strong and so subtle is the authority wielded over the mind by whatever has been about us in the early years of life, and carries the freight of tender and moving memories. Not less is it the case of those with whom Christianity has involved a great change of habit. The case of the converted drunkard comes to mind. It is especially the case that forgetfulness of the past is important, whenever the old, discarded sin was one that entered very intimately and constantly into the life.

Rev. Canon Henson.


‘Real success in any art or business is built up out of many small successes, and not a few great failures. How often must the young painter despair and hope again, and find to-day’s triumph wiped out by to-morrow’s discouragement, before his hand answers to his eye, and he can fix upon canvas the face or the scene that provokes his imitation. How many a clay figure must the young sculptor model before he succeeds in shaping something even half as beautiful as the idea that haunts his imagination. How many times an inventor fails before he succeeds in making his machine do the work he wants it to do. So it is in the work of life. There must be failure before there can be real success, and the failures must be left behind and forgotten.’



The worst foe of a Christian is Giant Despair.

I. Despair is certain failure.—Cease, then, to look back, fix your eyes instead on the goal before you, and in God’s mercy you will win your race. It may be that none of us here are hampered with fleshly sin. Circumstances—a good home, good friends, wise counsellors—may have combined to save us from that; but they may not have saved us from the deadly sin of selfishness. What would St. Paul say in such a case? Would he not give the same counsel? ‘O soul,’ he would say, ‘that God made, if through the deafness of long habit any voice from heaven can still penetrate, hear the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. Reflect on what Christianity means. Remember God’s promise, a kingdom of heaven on earth, humanity redeemed from the curse. Recognise the goal of life and make for it. Forget old habits; forget yourself; begin at once to help somebody somehow; lest you come to share that saddest of all lamentations, the cry of the spirits of the selfish, “We have wrought no salvation in the earth.” ’

II. The true watchword.—‘Forget what is behind; press forward to what lies before’; let that be our watchword. And let no young man think that the Christian life is a difficult, complicated business. It is a narrow road indeed in which our feet are set, but it is a plain one: ‘wayfaring men, yea, fools, need not err therein.’ It is not great skill or great knowledge that is required in us, only great sincerity; it is but doing one thing all day and every day, stretching forward and upward, trying by God’s help to be good; trying to be better; trying to resist our temptations: to begin and finish all our work as under God’s eye, to help our brother; to leave the world better than we found it.

Rev. Canon Beeching.


‘We admire far more than any action of momentary daring the patience with which Sir Isaac Newton, when his dog had destroyed important papers, set himself to work the calculations afresh; the patience with which Carlyle set himself to the still harder task of rewriting his history of the French Revolution, when the first part had been burnt through the carelessness of the friend to whom he had lent it. These men had the courage to put aside idle regrets and stretch forward to what lay in front.’



How often the past diminishes hope! Its remembrance paralyses our efforts. ‘What is the good of trying to be better?’ ‘You had better enjoy yourself while you can, and leave holiness and heaven to those to whom they are less unsuitable.’ Turn your back upon it. The power of the Precious Blood still avails for you. ‘Now work while it is day; the night cometh when no man can work.’

I. The great need in our life is definiteness.—We are vague, and many a life gets frittered away in a miserable sort of compromise between the service of God and the love of the world. Are we standing still? A man measures, year after year, the increase of his income. A man takes account of his mental growth. Why should we not be equally keen about our spiritual growth? Are we losing ground? What were our habits a year ago about prayer, about Bible reading, about Holy Communion: what are they now?

II. Satisfaction for the distressed.—What would the feeling of any great and wise man who was standing and looking on at life be, as he looked upon men missing the helps and chances they need, missing them by ever so little? He sees how hearts come and go in this world, always touching on and always missing the great truths of a personal immortality. He sees single souls go through life distressed, burdened, perplexed, while close beside them was the comforting faith they wanted—the river of the water of life which they were crying out for. You are not alone here though you think you are. Your Father is here though you cannot see Him. His unseen Presence haunts you and disquiets you. The only peace for you is to know and own His Presence, to rise up and go to Him, to make your whole thought and life revolve and centre round the fact that he is here to quiet your disturbance, to give you rest, and calm, and peace.

III. From strength to strength.—As St. Paul says, the remedy is ‘to reach forth to those things that are before.’ We are to look forward to the future, the things that are before; the ground has yet to be won, the thoughts have yet to be conquered, the steeper paths yet to be climbed. Above all, are we to look forward to the true end of life, the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. But only in Christ Jesus. The foundation must be laid there, in the life-blood of the cross of Jesus, in the power of His Resurrection.

Rev. Canon F. E. Gardiner.


‘When St. Paul bids us in the text to forget the things which are behind, he cannot mean that the Past is not to live in us, he must mean that we are not to live in the Past. Our course is “onward, onward into Light”—we must not turn our face to look back into the darkness. Let the dead Past bury its dead. God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living.’