“I press on toward the goal…”

Paul’s admonition to the brethren at Philippi is often used in sermons.

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

Most often we hear speakers compare what Paul said to the effort put forth by individuals running in a race. This is certainly not inappropriate. However, many years back I ran across a statement by E. M. Blaiklock that changed my thinking. Blaiklock was a noted classicist. This particular comment comes from Cities of the New Testament.

One mark of the Roman colony is perhaps to be detected in the letter which Paul wrote, over ten years later, to the Macedonian church which he had come to love. It is a hidden metaphor from the chariot race. Exhorting his Philippians to effort and single-minded endurance, Paul writes: ‘This one thing I do-forgetting the things behind, and stretching out to those before, I make for the mark, the prize of the upward calling’.

Commentators generally have not marked the fact that Paul appears to have in mind, not the athletic contests of the Greeks, from which he commonly drew illustration, but the chariot racing of Rome. He was writing to a Roman colony. He was writing also from Rome itself, and never was there such rivalry of racing colours, and circus fever than at that time. The common talk of the soldiers of the soldiers was of the chariot racing, and Paul would gain a vivid impression of this most perilous of sports.

Such a race as that which forms the substance of Paul’s figure is described well in Ben HUR. The charioteer stood on a tiny platform over sturdy wheels and axle. His knees were pressed against the curved rail, and his thighs flexed. He bent forward at the waist, stretching out hands and head over the horses’ backs. This is surely what he means by ‘stretching out to the things before’. The reins were wound round the body, and braced on the reins the body formed a taut spring. It can easily be seen how completely the charioteer was at the mercy of his team’s sure feet and his own fine driving skill. Euripides, in his Hippolytus, tells how the hero fell and was killed in such conditions. Ovid describes the same disaster in Book XV of his Metamorphoses. In his intense preoccupation the driver dare not cast a glance at ‘the things behind’. The roaring crowd, crying praise or blame, the racing of his rivals, all else had perforce to be forgotten. One object only could fill the driver’s eye, the point to which he drove at the end of each lap.

Here is a photo that might help to illustrate what Blaiklock said. It was made at the RACE show (Romy Army and Chariot Experience) at Jerash, Jordan.