The Commitment To Excellence

Title: The Commitment To Excellence

Bible Book: Philippians 3 : 13-14

Author: J. Gerald Harris

Subject: Excellence; Commitment; Love for Christ; Dedication



I enjoy reading biographies about great people in order to satisfy my curiosity about what made them great and in hopes of discovering their secret of an excellent life. In recent years I have read the biographies of C.T. Studd, Charles Hadden Spurgeon, W. A. Criswell and George Mueller. These are men of God who have achieved a level of success and excellence in their lives and ministry. In one of Warren Wiersbe's books, he recalls a time in his boyhood when he was sitting in a grade school assembly program listening to an aged doctor who promised to tell the secret of his long, healthy life. Wiersbe writes that this doctor had been the physician to one of the Presidents of the United States, and he was extremely interested to find his secret to a life of success and excellence. He said, "All of us sat there with great expectation, hoping to learn the secret of a long life. At the climax  of his address, the doctor told us, 'drink eight glasses of water a day!'"

That brought to mind a conversation that I had with Miss Bertha Smith on one occasion. Bertha Smith was a missionary to China and endured great persecution during the days before the Second World War. She was a great woman of God and a great woman of prayer. I was thankful for the opportunity to talk with her, to pick her brain and to find out the secret to her success and excellence and power in the Christian life. She lived and ministered into her 99th year. I asked her, "Miss Bertha, what is the secret to your long life and powerful ministry? "She responded by saying, "I pray three hours a day, walk three miles a day and never eat anything that tastes good."

In Philippians 3 the apostle Paul is giving us his spiritual biography. In our text we meet Paul "the athlete" with his spiritual enthusiasm, pressing toward the finish line in the Christian race. In our text Paul is describing a race. Bible students are not agreed as to the exact sport Paul is describing, whether a foot race or a chariot race. We have a fairly clear understanding of the track and field events in the modern Olympic games today.

But the Greek chariot used in the Olympic games and other events was really only a small platform with a wheel on each side. The driver had very little to hold onto as he raced around the course. He had to lean forward and strain every nerve and muscle to maintain balance and control the horses. The verb "reaching forth" in verse 13 literally means, "stretching as in a race."

It is important to note that Paul is not telling us how to be saved. If he were, it would be a picture of salvation by works or self-effort, and this would contradict what he wrote in the first eleven verses of the chapter. But, as the people of God, we have the responsibility of "running the race" and achieving the goals God has set for us. Each believer is on the track. Each has a special lane in which to run, and each has a goal to achieve. If we reach the goal the way God has planned, then we receive a reward. If we fail, we lose the reward, but we do not lose our salvation.

Now, I have divided our text into four parts. The first part, or the first point, is:

I. The Importance of Finding The Ring

When we went to Orlando two months ago, we went to a place called the Medieval Times. It was a restaurant built in the shape of an arena. In the middle of the arena was a dirt floor that must have been about 70 or80 feet wide and 120 or 140 feet long. And while we ate our meal, there were men dressed up in medieval costumes participating in jousting contests and demonstrating their expertise as equestrians. In one of the events, the rider of the horse would extend his lance in an effort to hook a brass ring suspended eight or ten feet in the air. I mean, the rider would be going full speed and extend his lance that would be ten or twelve feet long in an effort to put the end of it through a ring that would be not much bigger than a donut. You could see the amount of concentration that was required in order for a rider to hook the ring with his lance. The rider would steady his arm and set his jaw and focus his eyes in an effort to snatch the ring from midair.

In verse 13 of our text, the apostle Paul is talking about the importance of finding the ring. He is talking about the importance of concentration. He says, "...this one thing I do...." "One thing" is a phrase that is important to the Christian life. When Jesus was speaking to the self-righteous rich young ruler, He said, "One thing thou lackest" (Mark 10:21).

When he cautioned Martha about criticizing her sister Mary, Jesus said, "one thing is needful" (Luke 10:42).

In John 9 the man who had received his sight by the power of Jesus Christ said," one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see. "To the church at Corinth Paul said, "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2). He had a single purpose in his life. He pursued one goal.

In Psalm 27:4 David, the songwriter of Israel, said, "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after! "Our difficulty is that we want to do many things. We approach the Christian life like many approach athletics. They can do it all fairly well, but they can't do any of them really well. If we're going to do something excellent, if we're going to excel, we have to concentrate on it. We must determine to wholeheartedly pursue Christ likeness, being like Jesus.

Have you ever noticed how these Olympic athletes concentrate in order to win the prize? I was watching some of the diving competition on television several weeks ago. I was particularly interested in the platform diving competition. They were doing forward dives and reverse dives and inward dives and twisting dives, and dives from an arm-standing position. I was particularly interested in the concentration employed by each diver as he stood atop the platform. It is obvious that tremendous concentration is required. The same thing is true of almost any sport.

Have you ever noticed the concentration of the gymnasts? Amy Chow is one of the American gymnasts who will be competing here in Atlanta. Amy has mastered the power of concentration. She is 18 years of age and a high school graduate. She wants to study medicine in college and become a pediatrician. She is not only a gymnast, but she is an excellent diver. She managed a 4.0 grade point average in high school. She also plays classical piano. But as a gymnast, she trains before and after school at a pace approximating 40 hours a week. But in order to achieve excellence in these areas, she has determined not to date. She has chosen not to get a driver's license. She has suspended her social life in order to focus on those things, which she deems to be priorities in her life.

The believer must devote himself to "running the Christian race." No athlete succeeds by doing everything. He succeeds by specializing. There are those few athletes who seem proficient in many sports, but they are the exception. The winners are those who concentrate, who keep their eyes on the goal and let nothing distract them.

James, in his epistle, says, "a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." Concentration, therefore, is the secret of power. If a river is allowed to overflow its banks, the area around it   becomes a swamp. But if that river is dammed and controlled, it becomes a source of power. And so life becomes a matter of values and priorities; living for that which matters most.

II. The Importance of Forgetting The Rest

If you understand the importance of finding the ring, you will also understand the importance of forgetting the rest. In our text Paul speaks of "forgetting those things that are behind." Now, this does not mean that he never thought of his old life and what he had been saved from. But it meant that he did not dwell on the defeats or victories of past days. He was alert to the fact that every day has to be lived in the strength of that day, made available through the Lord of each day.

Some of you know the story of Mary Decker-Slaney. She is a distance runner. And during the 80s she compiled 36 American records and 17 world records. In 1982 alone she was the fastest woman at every distance between the 800 meters and the 10,000 meters. She was also the first woman to run 880 yards in less than two minutes. And her American record in the 1500 me terrace still stands.

She won the 1982 Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete of the year. But Olympic medals have always eluded Mary Decker-Slaney. She won the right to participate in the 1976 games but was sidelined by painful stress fractures in her legs. She was at her peak in 1980, but President Carter decided that the Americans should boycott the games that year because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So she began to prepare for1984.

Many of you will remember the fateful 3000-meter race in Los Angeles in 1984. As the race neared its end, she was tripped by South African Zola Buddand fell flat onto the track in obvious pain. She kept running, grimly determined to outlast her injuries and outrace her opponents. But injuries kept her from being a featured performer in either 1988 or the 1992 summer games. But Mary Decker-Slaney has forgotten about the pain, the failure, the injuries that have kept her from performing well in the  past Olympic games and she has qualified, at 38 years of age, to be a participant in the games here in Atlanta. Like the apostle Paul, she has been able to "forget those things which are behind."

Too often we linger in the past, in memories of the good old days. For eight years I had the privilege of being a trustee at Criswell College out in Dallas, Texas. This is a college that was started by Dr. W.A. Criswell at First Baptist Church. During the course of those eight years I had the opportunity to get to know Dr. Criswell. And on one occasion I sat with him at lunch and had the opportunity to ask him many questions about his life and ministry. And one of the questions that I asked him was this. "Dr. Criswell, what has been one of the most difficult things about your ministry here at First Baptist Dallas?" And Dr. Criswell looked at me with a sparkle in his eye and said, "The most difficult thing has been the issue of following the legendary pastor, Dr. George W. Truett." Now, Dr. Criswell had been there 45 years when he made that statement. There were people at First Baptist Church Dallas still living in the past. And the stories of the past were exciting, but not terribly relevant. There was an obvious need to live in the "now" and forget about the "then," because it almost appeared that the glories of the "good old days" were being accepted as valid substitutes for what should have been the glory of the "today." Some people want to hang on to the traditions of the past. And some people are rendered totally impotent in the present because they hang on to their gross failures and sins of the past. But in our text we see the importance of finding the ring, and the importance of forgetting the rest.

III. The Importance of Following the Rules

It is not enough to run hard and win the race. The runner must also obey the rules. In the Greek games, judges were very strict about this. Any infringement of the rules disqualified the athlete. He did not lose his citizenship, although he disgraced it. But he did lose his privilege to participate and win a prize. In verses 15 and 16, which we did not include in our text, Paul emphasizes the importance of the Christian remembering the "spiritual rules" laid down in the Word.

One of the greatest athletes ever to come out of the United States was Jim Thorpe. At the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm he won the pentathlon and the decathlon and was undoubtedly the hero of the games. But the next year officials found that Thorpe had played semi-professional baseball, and therefore had forfeited his amateur standing. This meant that he had to return his gold medals and his trophy and that his Olympic achievements were erased from the records. It was high price to pay for breaking the rules. And, of course, in 1988 we watched as Canada's Ben Johnson finished  ahead of Carl Lewis in the 100-meter race. But later Johnson was disqualified for illegal drug use, and the gold medal was taken from him and given to Carl Lewis - a high price for breaking the rules.

This is what Paul has in mind in I Corinthians 9, "any man who enters an athletic contest practices rigid self-control in training." If the athlete breaks training he is disqualified. In II Timothy 2:5 the Bible says, "no contestant in the games is crowned unless he competes according to the rules." The issue is not what he thinks or what the spectators think, but what the judges say.

One day each Christian will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The Greek word for "judgment seat" is "bema," the very same word used to describe the place where the Olympic judges gave out the prizes. If we have disciplined ourselves to obey the rules, we shall receive a prize. Bible history is filled with people who began the race with great success but failed during the course of the race because they disregarded God's rules. They did not lose their salvation, but they did lose their reward. It happened to Lot. It happened to Samson. It happened to Saul. It happened to Ananias and Sapphira, and it can happen to us. So we have seen the importance of finding the ring; the importance of forgetting the rest; the importance of following the rules. And now I want us to  consider:

IV. The Importance of Finishing The Race

The apostle Paul says, "I am forgetting those things that lie behind and looking forward to what lies ahead." This term "looking forward" or "reaching forth" pictures the end of a race where two runners are coming to the finish line neck and neck. We can see them strain with every ounce of muscle they have, with every ounce of energy they stretch toward the goal. That is the word Paul uses here. But, you know, as I was thinking about this I came to the realization that not everyone can win, but everyone can finish. And the important thing is to finish well. When the apostle Paul came down to the end of his life, he said, "For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness...."

I was reading about a young man by the name of Al Mead who is a Paralympic athlete. He is a devout Christian and a worship leader in his church. But he lost one of his legs when he was nine years of age. But he decided to keep going, not quit, not give up, and continue to play sports. Once in a  football game his prosthesis, his leg, fell off. But he kept hopping to the end zone. He was determined to finish. The word "quit" was not in his vocabulary. He is a world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400meters, and a US record holder in the high jump and long jump. He is not a quitter; he is a finisher.

Paul believed his greatest privilege in life was to reach the goal God had set for him. He wanted to be partners with God, to be involved perfectly in the will of God. He pursued that goal with every ounce of energy, with every moment of discipline and with every bit of intelligence.

The greatest temptation that will come our way in our Christian experience will be to worry about a thousand and one different things. But we only have one thing to be concerned about in order to achieve excellence in the Christian life - are we like Jesus? Have we kept our eyes on Him?

Whatever takes our eyes off Him is drawing us away from God's purpose in our lives, for it is His purpose to make us like Him.

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