Question: "What is the upward call of God (Philippians 3:14)?"
Answer: In Philippians 3:12–16, the apostle Paul compares the Christian life to a disciplined athlete running a race. Although he has not reached the finish line yet, Paul explains, “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 3:13–14, ESV).
Paul is laser-focused on one goal, one prize—the upward call of God. This call is the heavenward journey of an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. It pulls us ever closer toward Christian maturity as we “are being transformed into his [Christ’s] image with ever-increasing glory” by the Holy Spirit’s power (2 Corinthians 3:18). Paul describes the upward call of God to the Romans like this: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29). Eventually, we will reach our goal and win the prize when we meet Jesus in eternity, for we “shall bear the image of the heavenly man” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
Paul discusses the need for spiritual discipline in the upward call of God. Again, he relates it to the strict training of an Olympian runner: “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27, NLT).
Both discipline and unwavering determination are required for the upward call of God: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. 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” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
We keep our eyes on Jesus because intimate knowledge of Him is our goal. He is the groundbreaking pioneer of the upward call of God. He blazed the trail for us through His life, ministry, and journey to the cross. Jesus showed us how to live for God, exemplifying perfect obedience to the Father (John 4:34; 5:30; Luke 22:42). His example inspires us on our ascending path toward heaven. He is the author and perfector of our faith. The Lord who began His good work in us “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
A primary function of the New Testament church is to aid believers in the upward call of God: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:11–16). Together, through participation in the body of Christ, we are better equipped to follow the upward call of God.
The writer of Hebrews encourages Christians to dig deep into the study of God’s Word (Hebrews 5:12–14). As we immerse ourselves in Scripture, we graduate from milk to solid spiritual food. We progress “beyond the elementary teachings about Christ” and move “forward to maturity” in the upward call of God (Hebrews 6:1).
The goal and the prize of the upward call of God are one in the same—complete, profound, experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. While the Christian life embodies this process, its fulfillment is still to come. In the meantime, we press on, developing our gifts in the church and growing in our relationship with Jesus until we fully experience the reality of knowing Christ at His future unveiling (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2).