The final book of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia series is titled The Last Battle. In a way, it mirrors the apocalyptic vision of Revelations, or more properly, The Revelation of Jesus Christ. There is a scene in The Last Battle when the children enter what could be understood as heaven. It was Narnia, but it was more than Narnia. The old Narnia seemed old and faded by comparison. One character called it a “Shadowland.” Another character describes the new Narnia as a kind of reverse onion, every layer you remove the amount to explore increases. While the new Narnia is heaven-like, I also wonder if it doesn’t remind us something about living in God’s kingdom while here on this earth. That, as much as we learn and grow in Christ there is always more. I borrowed another memorable line from Lewis’s tale for the title of this article. Upon entering the new Narnia Jewel, the Unicorn says, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!” Further up! Further in! I think that Lewis echoed a bit of Paul, specifically the passage we are going to look at in this lesson.
Paul wrote, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you. But we must hold on to the progress we have already made. Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.” (Philippians 3:12–17, NLT) In the previous verses, Paul laid out his view of righteousness, how it is received and what that means for us as believers. That thought continues in today’s passage. Paul recognizes that even though he may appear to be this spiritual mountain of faith he too is in the process of being shaped and molded. If the writer of much of the New Testament can say, ““I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection.” What does that mean for you and me?
One of our family adventures, that’s what we called our vacations with the kids, was to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Part of our adventure there was hiking up the half-mile to the top of Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Park and the highest point in the state of Tenessee. When I say that we hiked up, well that is a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps it would be best to say that we slowly took one step at a time up the steep grade at about the speed of an overburdened turtle. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, walking with Jesus is like walking up Clingman’s Dome. It’s hard, but we press on. We may have to stop and catch our breath now and again. Maybe our foot slips and we lose a bit of progress. But no matter what we press on, always going further up and further in, into our new life in Jesus. And just when we think we’ve reached a pinnacle the onion peels back to reveal another layer and even more to explore.
The Next Chapter
Paul gives us some important instructions for navigating this idea of pressing into Jesus. Paul wrote, “but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race…” There are times when we just need to let the past go, to consider that a chapter of our life has closed and realize that a new chapter with new adventures has begun. It’s not easy, sometimes it requires more than a thought to put the past behind us. Sometimes we need to draw a bloodline. What I mean by drawing a bloodline is that all the pains have been forgiven, all the sins have been confessed, the hurt may not be fully healed, but the past now belongs to Jesus. It is under His blood. When we are tempted to look back, the bloodline reminds us that that chapter is now closed. To go back and reopen those old failures and those scarred over wounds would prevent us from pressing further up and further in. You can’t move forward when you’re looking back.
We Must Hold On
Paul’s encouragement to hold on to our progress tells us something important. We are not just randomly going through experiences on this journey with Jesus. He is instead leading us further up and further in. Each step builds upon another. Each new discovery is reliant on holding on to what we learned three steps back, seventy-five steps back, or several hundred steps back. The expectation, however, is more than just remembering. Holding on to our progress also has the idea of doing what we have learned. Our journey with Jesus is not built upon knowledge but upon the application of that knowledge. What did Jesus say? “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” (Matthew 7:24–27, NLT) While we must forget some things that are in the past, there are other things that we carry with us. Concepts and practices that we can build on. Here’s the part that blows my mind, every time I think I have a concept like grace or forgiveness all figured out Jesus peels back the onion and reveals even more ways to live out those truths.
Paul ends this particular passage with an invitation, “pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example.” For us, Paul’s pattern is incomplete. We only have glimpses into his life and how he applied the lessons he learned on his walk with Jesus. That’s not to say that his pattern is invisible, there is much that we can learn from Paul. Not only can we gather important truths but we can watch both his failings and successes in relationships. But, keeping this in context, the pattern that is most visible for us today is Paul’s pressing on despite circumstances to the contrary. Perhaps you’re not familiar with Paul’s story. Paul himself gave us a compressed version of the trials he had “pressed on” through. This passage deserves a bit of context. The Corinthians had been wooed by a group of men that called themselves “super-apostles,” (No, I don’t think they wore capes). Paul is saying, hold up a minute have these men endured anything close to what I endured spreading the Good News of Jesus. Paul wrote, “Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” (2 Corinthians 11:23–27, NLT) The important point for us is that Paul pressed on through all of these things. That is a pattern we can follow! No matter what life throws our way we can continue to press on, to go further up and further in, to hold on to the progress we have and continue to take one step after another on this road of serving Jesus.
Ok, catch your breath. I know the climb was difficult and quick. There are two major encouragements for us to consider from this vantage point. The first is to let go of the past. Sometimes we can just forget. But sometimes we need something more – we need to give it to someone. That’s what forgiveness and confession of sin are all about, we are giving our sins, our failures, and our hurts to Jesus. Often we can do this on our own, but sometimes it’s good to have a friend, a pastor, or a small team of prayer ministers help us with that. Sometimes it’s called hug therapy, sometimes counseling, and sometimes inner healing. Of the later, there are several examples, one of those is Victorious Ministry Through Christ. You can find them at vmtc.org. The second thing in Paul’s to-do list is pressing on in Christ despite the challenges of the moment. Oh, and if you think you have “arrived” or have it all figure out or are “perfect” even just a little bit then I delight in bursting your bubble because you haven’t, you don’t, and you aren’t. There’s always more to learn and do. The onion doesn’t get smaller with each layer but larger so press on in Christ. Let’s all go further up and further in!