Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3.8-14.
The phrase that caught my eye in this morning’s reading comes right at its very end — “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” — but I have included all the verses that lead up to it because they go a long way to explaining what Paul means by that phrase and what he doesn’t mean by it.
In the KJV, the phrase is, of course, the more familiar “high calling of God in Christ Jesus” that Charles Wesley took up in his hymn “All praise to our redeeming Lord” …
He bids us build each other up;
and, gathered into one,
to our high calling’s glorious hope
we hand in hand go on.
But is a “high calling” the same as an “upward call”? Clearly not if we read “high” as meaning “eminent, lofty, very important and distinguished” as many people do. And, beyond question, that is not the sense here at all. The Greek word translated “high” is the simple adverb ano which means “up, upwards, above, on high”, so the idea of eminence does not come into it. But even knowing what ano means still leaves the meaning of Paul’s phrase ambiguous. Is he talking about a call from above or a call to go up?
The answer is actually both — once we understand the precise picture that Paul has in his mind. In this phrase, as in this whole section of his letter, he is drawing on the imagery of the Olympian games. The games, which included foot races such as the one Paul is here imagining himself to be competing in, were organised and presided over by officials called agonothetes; and at the end of each event, after a herald had announced the victor’s name and the country he was representing, it was the agonothetes who would call him from above to go up to them and receive a palm branch from their hands.
Once I get that picture, two things become clear. First, the “high” or “upward” call is not a call to “heaven”, as those words might lead me to imagine. In any case, Paul has already made it clear in this morning’s reading that it is his resurrection from the dead that he is looking forward to, not “going to heaven”. Second, the call is not itself the prize. The call is a call to receive the prize.
So what is the prize? It is Jesus himself. Paul says so at the beginning of this morning’s reading. He keeps running, keeps persevering, he says, to “gain Christ” or “win Christ” as the KJV puts it. So I can expand the phrase that has been occupying my mind this morning like this … “I press on toward the goal for the prize [that will be presented to me in consequence] of the upward call of God[, the prize that is to be found] in Christ Jesus.”
May God give me persevering grace to win that prize in the race that I am running too.