By Bob Wilkin, originally published in the 1987 edition of “Grace in Focus”.
Recently I happened upon two theses on Philippians 3:11. They took completely different views of it–one concluded Paul was uncertain that he would be rewarded in heaven and the other that Paul was uncertain that he would be in heaven. Let’s examine this important passage.
The phrase whose meaning is in question is this: “If, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
First, it is clear that whatever Paul meant by the “resurrection from the dead” he was unsure that he would attain it. The Greek words, ei pos, translated “if, by any means,” cannot reasonably be construed in any other way except as conveying a sense of uncertainty (cf. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker’s, Greek-English Lexicon of the N.T., p.220).
Second, the term translated “resurrection” is not the normal Greek term for resurrection, anastasis. The word Paul used here is exanastasis. Some have suggested that a more literal rendering of this term is “the out-resurrection.” I agree with this view.
Third, Paul knew without doubt that he was regenerated and would be resurrected someday. Romans 8:38-39 and 1 Corinthians 15 are convincing in this regard.
Therefore, fourth, whatever Paul hoped to gain was something other than the normal resurrection of all believers from the dead.
Fifth, the context shows that Paul considered this out-resurrection conditional for believers. Faithfulness is required to attain it. To gain it one must live Christ’s resurrection life experientially (3:10), must willingly share in His sufferings by accepting persecution and pain for his sake (3:10), and must conform himself to Jesus’ death by laying down his life for others (3:10; cf. 1 John 3:16-18). Clearly more than faith in Christ is involved. We must “press on” daily in our Christian experience if we hope to attain this prize (3:14).
Sixth, this out-resurrection is a prize, not a free gift of grace (3:14). The word used here is an interesting one. It is brabeion. It is only used twice in the New Testament, here and in 1 Corinthians 9:24. In the latter passage Paul writes: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but [only] one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.” Commentators are widely in agreement that that passage refers to eternal rewards which believers can obtain for faithfulness in this life. It is very likely, therefore, that the only other use of the term also occurs in a rewards context. A comparison of the two passages proves that this is a valid hypothesis. Both concern a prize which Paul suggest that believers should hope to obtain, one which can be won through faithfulness in this life. (See also Matt 6:19-21.)
Seventh, Paul strongly and repeatedly asserted that regeneration is not a result of our faithfulness, good deeds, or strivings (Rom. 3:23-26; 4:5; Gal. 2:16; 3:6-14; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
The meaning of this passage should be clear. It deals with discipleship, not regeneration. It pertains to believers, not unbelievers. It concerns rewards (not kingdom entrance) which a believer can obtain through striving to produce good works. The out-resurrection is a special reward which only faithful believers will receive. While the exact nature of that reward is unclear here, it can generally be understood as a sort of abundance of life. All believers will be resurrected and have joy forever. Faithful believers only will obtain this out-resurrection and have abundance of joy forever. Hebrews 11:35 is instructive here. It speaks of believers who “were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.” All believers will be resurrected, but there is a better one for those who endure. Obviously this out-resurrection is something which is capable of many degrees depending on the measure of one’s faithfulness. Thus the degree to which we are faithful to use our talents, treasures, gifts, abilities, resources, and opportunities in life to please Him is the degree to which we will obtain this out-resurrection abundance of life.
We should strive to attain this prize of the out-resurrection. Like Paul, we won’t know until the end of our lives whether we will attain it (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8). Like him that goal should motivate us daily to please the Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 5:9-10). Was it not our glorious soon-to-be-returning Lord who said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21)? Rather than causing us to doubt our salvation, Philippians 3:11 should cause us to rejoice in it and to strive to realize all the fruit thereof which God intends.