Philippians | 1:1-18 | 1:19-30 | 2:1-11 | 2:12-30 | 3:1-11 | 3:12-21 | 4:1-9 | 4:10-23 | PDF |

This small group Bible study of Philippians 3:12-21 contains outlines, commentary cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications.  Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.

Philippians 3:12-21 Bible Study Commentary With Questions – Press On Toward the Goal


I. Pressing on toward the goal (12-16)
II. Watch out for the enemies of Christ who set their minds on earthly things (17-19)
III. Our citizenship is in heaven (20-21)

I. Pressing on toward the goal (12-16)

Discussion Questions

  • Paul says I press on to make “it my own.” What does “it” refer to?
  • What is Paul pressing on to lay hold of?
  • Can we become perfect in this world? If it’s not possible, then why was Paul aiming for it?
  • He mentions “pressing on” or “reaching forward” three times in these verses. What does this mean?
  • What is involved in pressing on to become sanctified?
  • What kind of actions might someone take who is pressing on for holiness?
  • How can you press on for this in your own life?
  • What changes can you make?
  • Why is it important to forget what is behind?
  • How could not forgetting the past hinder future service to God?
  • What are the similarities between what Paul is talking about here and an athlete?
  • What is the prize Paul can get if he achieves his goal?
  • What prize/reward are you striving for?
  • What does it take for an athlete to win at the world-class level like in the Olympics? What is one way you can make more effort to strive for the goal?


2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 – But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

Proverbs 24:16 – For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.

1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:7 – But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

Hebrews 8:12 – For I will forgive their wickedness  and will remember their sins no more.

Psalms 102:12 – But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations.

Hebrews 12:2 – And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

1 Corinthians 9:24- – Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Verse by Verse Commentary

1. Summary – Below is a summary of this passage.

A. Paul realizes he hasn’t achieved sanctification yet. He, like all believers, is on the way.

B. God chose Paul for the purpose of sanctifying him. This is why God chose all of us.

C. Although we may never achieve perfection in this world, it should still be our goal. Aim high. Miss high.

D. This is an athletic illustration. As athletes, we are to press on for the finish line.

E. We are not to be complacent believers. We are to push forward onward and upward.

2. Paul has not yet obtained perfection – Paul realized that he hadn’t yet reached the goal. He wasn’t yet holy. He wasn’t yet perfect. Although this seems obvious, it is important for each of us to come to the same realization.

It is very easy to become complacent, especially for those of us who have been saved for a long time. We get into a groove of living the Christian life by habit. Going to church, reading the Bible, and even praying may become second nature. When we do all of these things we start to think we have arrived, that we are a good Christian.

But a key to living a holy life is to realize that you haven’t arrived yet. There is always room for growth in every single area of our lives. If we pridefully think that we are “pretty good,” or get into the habit of comparing ourselves with others, then we will not grow. And from this passage, we see that every believer needs to continually push forward to grow to be more like Christ each day.

Application: We need to humble ourselves. And the first step is to admit to God and ourselves that we haven’t arrived. Instead of comparing ourselves to others and thinking about how spiritual we are, we need to have a passion for holiness. In what area of your Christian life have you become complacent? How can you renew your energy in that area to grow this week?

3. Forget successes –

Philippians 3:13 Bible Verse

There are two aspects to this verse. The first is to forget. Forgetting the past. Paul’s point is not that we cannot learn from the past. He is not saying “wake up with amnesia each day.” He is saying that we should not live in the past.

It could be that you did very well yesterday in your Christian walk. Perhaps you woke up early, spent one hour in prayer and Bible reading, were patient and kind all day toward your family, serving them with a humble heart, resisted temptation, immediately forgave those who offended you, sang praise songs all day, shared the gospel with five people, and gave your spouse a surprise dinner of their favorite food. Then in the evening you memorized ten verses, prayed for another hour, and finally went to sleep. Does that sound like your day yesterday?

Even if it does, today is a new day. You cannot wake up today and say “yesterday I did well so today I will relax.” Maybe last year you completed a read the Bible in a year plan. It’s not last year anymore. Maybe last month you completed your application each week in your Bible study group. It is not last month anymore. Maybe last week you had a good time of prayer with the Lord each day. It is not last week anymore. Today starts a new week. Forget what is behind. Do not rest on your laurels.

Application: Is there a success in your past that is hindering you from moving forward? Perhaps something that gives you great pride? Beware that Satan will use this to attack you, building up your ego or tempting you to be lazy because you did so well in the past. Take it to God, confess your pride, and ask Him to show you what new goal He would have you work toward.

4. Forget failures – But maybe when you think of your past, you don’t think of successes. Maybe failures come to mind. Maybe yesterday was a bad day. Maybe you got up late and said, “I will read the Bible at night before I sleep” so skipped it in the morning. Maybe you had a short temper with your kids and with your spouse. Maybe you complained about the trials you are facing. Maybe you fell into temptation. You argued with your spouse. And when you went to bed you were so tired you skipped Bible reading and prayer again and said, “tomorrow.”

Whether you failed yesterday or there was some other failure in your past, you might have woken up today feeling guilty. You may be reliving this past failure. It may be chaining you and holding you back from the future God wants for you. You should learn from it and grow from it. But today is a new day. 2020 is not 2019. You have new opportunities to serve God. His grace is more than enough to cover and wash away all of your past sins and failures. Forget what is behind and push forward.

Application: Is there a failure in your life that you are reliving? A mistake that is holding you back from what God has for you today? Take it to God. confess that sin once and for all. Move forward. Press on.

5. Straining forward / pressing on toward the goal – The second aspect of verse 13 (which is continued in verse 14) is to strain forward to what lies ahead. There will be a time to rest. But it is not now.

Hebrews 4:9-11 Bible Verse

So we are not to rest now. We need to zealously push forward.

Push forward to what? We press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call.

What is the prize?

What are we straining for?

I believe the answer is coming into Jesus’ presence in heaven. The most glorious moment I look forward to is when Jesus welcomes me into His arms in heaven and says, “well done, good and faithful servant.” Are you looking forward to that? In a word, our prize is “Jesus.” We get to have a relationship with Him. He has done everything for us. Therefore we press on living each new day by his grace and to the best of our ability to please Him, knowing that one day we will see Him face to face.

We are in a race. This is not a race against the clock or against actual competitors where only one person wins. Every believer can win this race by claiming the resources God has given to us. We can all win the prize.

How do you feel after finishing a job well (ie. Finally completing a tough exam, fixing something that was broken, achieving a goal, deep cleaning your house, etc.)? It feels good. It is satisfying to do a job and do it well. This is similar to the feeling we have when we please the Lord and follow Him faithfully.

There is no higher calling than to please God, obeying Him each day, telling others about Him, glorifying Him in words and actions, and fulfilling His calling on our lives.

Application: Straining forward or pressing on conveys the idea of exerting oneself, expending a lot of energy to achieve the goal. What area of your life do you need to expend more energy to pursue God? What is one way you can do this?

There is a lot of athletic imagery here. Athletes have to train hard in order to be able to win. It is difficult. It takes hard work and dedication. The lazy never become winners. When that finish line draws near a good athlete is trained not to let up, but to strain forward for that finish line, using every ounce of energy left for one final push to cross that line. And that is how Christians are to pursue sanctification.

Remember – God is a God of new things. A new life, a new beginning, a new covenant, new hearts, and a new way of doing things. Because he is a God of new things there is always hope and a future. There is joy and peace. However, for the new things to begin the old has to go away.

6. Let those who are mature think this way (15) – Every mature believer should have the same mindset as Paul describes here. This earth is not the place for followers of Jesus to rest or become complacent. The Christian life is not lazy. God wants us to be like an athlete, working hard to push forward to the goal.

In other words, the first battle is in the mind. If you lose the battle there, then your actions will follow quickly behind. Athletes that continually say, “I am tired. I need to rest.” will never win anything. Neither will a believer who is complacent.

II. Watch out for the enemies of Christ who set their minds on earthly things (17-19)

Discussion Questions

  • Why would Paul set himself up as their example? Was this prideful?
  • Isn’t Christ our only example?
  • Why is it beneficial to observe others who follow this pattern?
  • What is one person who has modeled one aspect of the Christian life to you? How did that impact you?
  • What is one thing you can model to other younger believers?
  • Who are the enemies of the cross of Christ?
  • Are all enemies of the cross Satanists?
  • Where do we encounter enemies of God?
  • What does it mean that their god is their appetite?


1 Corinthians 11:1 – Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

1 Timothy 6:12 – Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

James 4:4 – You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.

1 John 2:15 – Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.

Verse by Verse Commentary

1. Join in imitating me – Paul sets himself up as an example to the Philippians. It was not done out of pride. It is clear in these verses that Paul longed for the Philippians’ growth in Christ. He wasn’t making himself an example to boast or to solicit praise. Instead, he was doing it to give the Philippians a tangible, flesh and blood, model to follow. This would help them in their spiritual walk.

Learning by example is one of the most powerful models of learning and is often far more effective than lecturing. I have taught my children many things, many of these by example. Here are a few:

  • I taught them how to tie their shows by having them watch and imitate my movements.
  • I taught them how to swim by modeling the strokes over and over.
  • I taught my boys how to do push-ups by showing them good form.
  • I have taught them how to make paper airplanes by showing them and having them practice.
  • One day I will teach them how to tie ties or drive cars, also by modeling.

Few people would say modeling these things for my children is prideful. In like manner, Paul was not prideful when he modeled aspects of spiritual life to his spiritual children.

Before we go and do likewise we should evaluate our hearts and make sure we are humble and truly focused on the well-being of others. Certainly, pride can creep in as it did with the Pharisees.

And yet mature believers should model many aspects of following Christ for young believers. Here are some examples:

  • Model how to have a quiet time.
  • Model how to share the gospel.
  • Model how to lead an inductive Bible study.
  • Model how to repent after sinning.
  • Model how to show hospitality.

Jesus modeled many things for the disciples. He showed them how to thank God before eating. He showed them the importance of quiet time alone with God in prayer. He showed them how to rebuke the proud, show compassion to the sinner, and respond to hate with love. It was Jesus’ model on the cross that led Stephen to likewise say, “forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Scripture is the final authority. But it is immensely helpful for us to see people model how to live out Scripture in their daily lives. And it is helpful for us to see imperfect sinners do this because we too are imperfect.

2. For many walk as enemies of the gospel of Christ – This is given as a reason why it is important for believers to follow the right model. Jesus warned us that many will come as wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. It is not only their teachings that will mislead people but their lifestyle.

Paul is very concerned that such people will mislead the Philippians. Thus he asks them to follow his example and not theirs.

One example we can see of this in the world today is prosperity gospel preachers. They give a model of smooth speech, flashy lights, tailored clothes, private airplanes, greed, and living the life of luxury on the back of donations. Some might be swayed by their examples, thinking that there is much profit in following God.

And that is why true preachers and teachers of the Bible need to give a better example, an example of humility, service, and self-sacrifice.

3. Their end is destruction – It may look like they are profiting for a while. Everything is going smoothly. But it will not last.

In Psalm 73 Asaph is confused about the seeming prosperity of the wicked. He struggles with why their life is so smooth. And his crisis of doubt almost leads him to fall away from God. But he comes into the temple and takes his concerns to God. In Psalm 73:17 he realizes the answer.

Psalms 73:17 – Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.

The answer Asaph received was simple. In verse 17 he says, “then I perceived their end.” He goes on to say “you set them in slippery places. You cast them down to destruction. They are destroyed in a moment… utterly swept away by sudden terrors! Like a dream when one awakens.”

Eventually, sooner or later, the wicked will receive justice for the wrongs they have done. They will not take their riches with them after death. One day each person will face God as the judge and have to give an account for everything he has done. The security that their riches seem to provide is short-lived and no real security at all.

While their lives seem to be smooth and easy, destruction comes upon them in a moment. Asaph’s description reminds us of Jesus’ parable about the rich fool, who did not know that he was about to die and all of the things so carefully stored up would avail him nothing. Money is but for a moment. A life built on things of this world is on a slippery slope. Only a life built on the rock of Christ is safe and sound.

4. Their god is their belly – This likely refers to their sensual desires and fleshly appetites. These enemies of Christ worship their own desires and pleasures. Just as a hungry person is motivated to fill his stomach, so they are motivated to satisfy their carnal longings.

In contrast, believers are to hunger for righteousness.

Matthew 5:6 Bible Verse

III. Our citizenship is in heaven (20-21)

Discussion Questions

  • What is an example of an earthly thing that you sometimes set your mind on?
  • What does it mean to you that our citizenship is in heaven?
  • Knowing this, how should we act while we are on earth?
  • If you were to leave your country and move abroad what might you miss?
  • Do you think about heaven?
  • Do you long for anything there?
  • What is one way you can be heavenly-minded this week?


Colossians 3:2 – Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Romans 12:1-2 – Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Verse by Verse Commentary

1. Our citizenship is in heaven – When in an international environment one of the first things mentioned when introducing oneself is the country you are from. Paul reminds us that our core identity is as believers. Identifying ourselves as followers of Christ should be second nature. Do your friends and co-workers all know you are a believer? They should.

But this principle has several more implications.

Firstly, we are all foreigners in this world, aliens even! I imagine an alien would be shocked at many things people do on earth, and so should we. As foreigners in this world, we are ambassadors for Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:20 – We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

An ambassador is most importantly a representative of his home country. He represents its culture and values. Beyond this, he seeks to bridge the gap between the two countries.

As ambassadors for Christ, we seek to bring people into peace with Him. We seek to reconcile the world to God by encouraging “immigration” from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of heaven, made possible by the cross. We also represent Christ. He is the light of the world. And we too are lights reflecting His love and holiness to the lost. As foreigners in this world, we should engage in its sinful practices. Instead, we must be in the world, but not of the world.

And as sojourners in this world, we must not get attached to it. We know that the things we see in this world are temporary. But the things of God are eternal.

Secondly, a citizen of a country has certain privileges. As citizens of God’s kingdom, he extends to us many privileges that non-citizens do not enjoy.

When I visit American consulates in other countries I often see very long lines of non-citizens waiting to get access, but citizens can jump the queue and go straight in. It is a privilege that as an American citizen, I get special treatment.

Spiritually this is true for believers. Here are some of the special privileges God extends to citizens of His kingdom:

  • Forgiveness of sins
  • Adoption as sons and daughters
  • Promise of answered prayer
  • Eternal life
  • Promise of providence (Romans 8:28)

Application: How can you better represent Christ as His ambassador? In recent years there is increasing arguments and division online. How can you shine the light of Christ on social media such as Facebook? What is one way you can be in the world, but not of the world?

Philippians Bible Study Guide – You can get our complete Philippians Bible study as a downloadable E-book or a paperback version from Amazon.

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