Book Review: Pettit and Mangum, Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy

Pettit, Paul and R.Todd Mangum. Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2014. 137 pp. Pb; $14.99. Link to Kregel.

This is a short guide to maintaining a spiritual life in Seminary. There is nothing here on research skills, how to write seminary level papers or tips on memorizing Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. Pettit and Mangum’s focus is entirely on helping a new seminary student not only maintain spiritual fervor while studying at the graduate level, but also grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

BalancedFirst, Pettit and Mangum discuss Christian Maturity as a balance between the head and the heart. Here the authors draw a contrast between higher education and spiritual life. They use Psalm 26:2 as a model, “Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” I think they overplay the meaning of heart (לֵב, lev) as “emotions” in contrast to the head (כִּלְיָה, kilyah) as “motives or understanding, the mind” (31). The nouns appear in in parallel lines of poetry and were not intended to refer to distinct elements of human life. The noun כִּלְיָה refers to the inner parts of a sacrificial animal (Exod 29:13) probably the kidneys (Job 16:13, Lam 3:13). The word refers to deep, inner emotions (Ps 73:21). The noun לֵב refers to virtually the same thing, including emotions and inclinations, even determination and courage. While I agree there is a need for balancing the “heart and the head,” to appeal to these particular Hebrew words seems to go beyond the evidence. I think their point is good, although the way they make the argument is flawed. (Ironically, the fact I make this point might well indicate I am an arrogant seminary graduate who needs to balance my heart and head better!)

The second chapter contrasts learning about God with living for God. The authors make the excellent point that good doctrine and training does not make a good leader. Having an M.Div does not automatically qualify someone for a pastorate. Seminary can breed a kind of arrogance which seriously hinders the effectiveness of a young pastor. I appreciate Pettit and Mangum’s honesty in describing seminaries as “ideological entities.” Most seminaries exist to serve a denomination and it is possible someone can come out of a seminary with the idea they are the ones with all the answers. Most people “in the pew” are not particularly interested in the things Seminary professors get excited about. (How many sermons to you hear on the New Perspective on Paul or the current state of the Documentary Hypothesis?) The training is important, but so too is real world experience serving people where they are at.

Third, Pettit and Mangum develop their “head and the heart” and argue for the practice of spiritual discipline for the Seminarian. They list some 22 spiritual disciplines as well as 14 academic disciplines that are essential if a person is to succeed in Seminary. Most of these are obvious (prayer, devotions, meditation, fasting, worship, etc.), although I was happy to see practices like retreat and secrecy listed as spiritual disciplines. So too the academic disciplines are somewhat obvious (attend class, do good research, respect your teachers), but there were a few items on the list I thought were excellent suggestions most people do not consider. For example, eating right and exercising is a good academic discipline. Most students do not see a connection between classroom performance and their diet, but professors who are cursed with after-lunch lectures know how a fast-food lunch affects the brain of the learner! I was happy to see “citation” as an academic discipline, since plagiarism is a major problem in graduate school, even in seminaries. Citing a source properly is not only honest, it will save the student work later when they develop their work further. (Nothing is more embarrassing than discovering something you thought you “wrote” was actually something you learned and failed to cite properly!)

The fourth chapter warns the potential seminarian of “spiritual frostbite.” Here they have in mind the old joke (usually told by old pastors): “When I was in cemetery, oh, I mean seminary….” It is very easy for one’s spiritual life to wither and die while intensely studying Scripture in seminary! Pettit and Mangum suggest the seminary study clarify their motives (why are they in school in the first place) and work hard at spiritual disciplines. They warn against the sort of critical spirit common among graduate students, looking down on teachers they consider beneath them. While they do not give any real examples of this, think of how Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll is vilified among the “intellectual elite” (including myself). It is very easy for someone who does not like the New Perspective to mock N. T. Wright (he lived in a castle, bah!)

One of the best antidotes for arrogance and pride is humble service. Chapter five therefore focuses on service as a part of graduate studies. Most seminaries have strong service components as part of their programs, so it is possible a seminarian thinks of themselves as “serving the church.” But there is something healthy about serving in ways that humble – an M.Div student teaching the JrHigh AWANA group might be just the thing to keep one’s pride in check. (I did this in seminary, and it was indeed humbling!) While a person might be qualified to preach to thousands on Sunday morning, maybe it is necessary to serve by being a camp counselor, or playing games with the youth group.

Last, Pettit and Mangum discuss the need for the seminarian to work hard at preserving relationships with family and friends. When I first picked up this book, I expected it to have a major section on preserving one’s marriage while pursuing a seminary degree. Many seminaries see this as a major issue and have programs to help the spouse of a potential pastor cope with their support role (usually far more than “how to be a good pastor’s wife” is needed!) There is less in this chapter on marriage than I expected, however. Pettit and Mangum encourage the seminarian to develop quality friendships in order to balance education and social needs, for accountability and personal encouragement.

Conclusion. This is a very positive book that encourages someone entering seminary to consciously dedicate themselves to spiritual growth during their years of preparation for ministry. I think there is room for an additional chapter that is “less positive,” perhaps some warnings away from behaviors which can deaden spiritual life. I expected to see something about managing one’s time and avoiding things like excessive video gaming. I have known far too many students with a great deal of potential who failed courses due to video game addiction. Inappropriate use of the Internet seems to be another obvious problem missing here. Despite it being an obvious problem, it seems young men especially need to be warned about internet porn (although this is mentioned on page 38, the topic is not developed beyond a few lines). Since the book is about personal spiritual development, there is nothing in the book about managing finances during grad school. Most married seminary students know the struggle of working full-time in order to pay for classes, books, and living expenses. Being a married couple studying for ministry puts enormous strain on a marriage and finances is usually one of the major flash-points in a marriage.

This is still useful book, the kind of book a church might give to a person heading off to a Bible College or Seminary to prepare for ministry.

 

Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

Philippians 4:4–7 – Do Not Be Anxious

While the following commands from Paul seem unrelated to the theme of unity, Frank Thielman argues they ought to be read in the context of persecution (Philippians, NIVAC, 217-9). While this is not an Empire-wide systematic persecution of believers, we have already seen several times in the letter than the church at Philippi was a small community of believers who are in many ways “different” from the Roman culture around them. The existence of a group of people who “have the mind of Christ” is enough to be suspicious, and suspicion easily gives way to gossip, wild accusations and pressure to conform. This sort of social pressure can be difficult to accept and a source of great fear for the church. Paul’s series of short exhortations in these verses are therefore designed to give comfort and encouragement to endure.

Alfred E. NewmanFirst, Paul encourages the church to set aside worry by rejoicing in their circumstances. If the context is social pressure on Christians in Philippi, then there may be some despair in the congregation. Paul repeats his call for joy regardless of circumstances here, recalling his words in chapter 1. Paul is in prison and may be executed for his faith, yet he rejoices in his circumstances.  He is modeling the kind of attitude he desires from the congregation.

This is not some sort of masochistic pleasure in suffering, but rather the sort of happiness that comes from understanding the circumstances properly. For example, someone who competes in athletics “suffers” greatly when they train. They consider the work they are doing well worth the pain because of the ultimate goal (winning the prize). The same is true for pursuing a college degree or training necessary to advance at a job. It is hard work, and might fairly be called suffering, but as painful as it is, from the perspective of the goal, it is a cause for rejoicing. Paul models this by counting his past achievements as a loss and “forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead” (3:12-14).

Second, Paul says the believer is to be “reasonable” (ESV) or “be gentle” (NIV 2011), or perhaps a “forbearing spirit” (BDAG). The Greek word (ἐπιεικής) does have the sense of kindness or courteousness. But it has the sense of kindness in a context where retaliation is expected. This fits well with the possibility of harassment and persecution as well. The believer responds to pressure to conform to the world in ways the world does not expect; instead of revenge and retaliation, we are to be reasonable, gentle, and forgiving.

Third, worry is not necessary because the “Lord is at hand. The phrase, “the Lord is at hand” may go with “be reasonable,” although it is probably better to see it as the reason we should not be anxious. This is not escapist, as if Paul is saying, do not worry about things since God is going to destroy it all soon anyway! The soon return of the Lord is a motivation for unity because the return will vindicate the righteous (rewarding them) while punishing the oppressors. Again, this is not some sort of defeatist, “hunker down and take it” attitude; Paul is once again pointing to the goal and understanding his present suffering in the light of future vindication at the return of the Lord.

Last, instead of worry, we are to bring requests to God in prayer.  Based on this verse, worry is sometimes considered a sin. But “worry” here is refers to anxiety or apprehension concerning present circumstances (suffering for the faith?) rather than faithlessness or a careless attitude toward life. Some worry is a “healthy concern.” If my car makes a funny noise it is a cause for concern; I might worry about some change in my health; I might be worried about how my children behave, or about my family’s health, etc. But if I begin to worry about your children, perhaps I have gone beyond healthy concern.

How much worry is unhealthy? Since Paul says we ought to bring requests to God in prayer rather than worry about them, perhaps the analogy of a “burden” is good here. Some things you can physically carry better than others, some people are stronger, better at carrying things, etc. Sometimes you need a little help carrying something heavy or awkward. Unhealthy worry may vary from person to person, but sharing the concern with others, first with the Lord is the best way to “share the load.”

Rather than be excessively concerned, Paul tells us to commit these things to the Lord in prayer in order to share the burden with the one who is able to carry it for you. If Paul has in mind pressure to conform to the Roman world faced by the church, but the application to contemporary Christianity life is clear. We are to let God carry our burdens rather than bear them alone.

Philippians 4:1–3 – Standing Firm in Unity

In this final encouragement toward unity, Paul addresses the leadership of the church at Philippi. He began the letter by addressing the elders and deacons (1:1), now he calls for the leadership of the church to demonstrate the mind of Christ by standing firm in unity.

“Stand firm” is a common phrase in Paul’s letters. It refers to being firmly convinced of a belief. In 1:27 he used the same word to encourage the believers to stand firm “in one spirit,” so they are able to withstand any oppression they might face as a result of their faith in Jesus. Similarly, in 2 Thess 2:15 he encourages his readers to stand firm and hold on to the traditions they have been given; In Gal 5:1 the readers are to stand firm in the freedom they have in Christ and not go back under the yoke of the Law.

UnityOne of the major themes of this letter has been the unity of the church. Paul wants the church to “live in harmony” (cf. Rom15:5) by thinking the same thing in the Lord.”  Paul has used a similar phrase in 3:15 for the kind of intellectually unity necessary in the church, but also in 2:2, the church must be of “one mind” if it is going to have unity (2 Clem 17:3 uses the same phrase, possibly alluding to this text).

There may be some doctrinal unity in mind here, since this is the conclusion of a section describing the teaching of someone who opposes Paul. The church needs to think correctly about who Jesus is and what he did on the cross, for example. In the context, they need to properly understand the function of the Jewish Law in the current era.

But Paul calls for unity more often in practical matters and ethical choices. The church not only has to share the same doctrine, but also practice. In a church like Galatia, doctrine was a serious problem, but in Corinth behavior seems to be a bigger issue. As he has said throughout the letter, the church has to be of “one mind,” and they should have the “mind of Christ.”

This is the real problem with unity. There are some doctrinal and ethical matters I cannot set aside in the interest of unity. Every denomination and church has some doctrinal formulation that is considered foundational as well as behaviors considered unacceptable. How do we balance important distinctions and maintain unity in the Body of Christ?

Book Review: Sean Freyne, The Jesus Movement

Freyne, Sean. The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 495 pp. Pb; $35.00.  Link to Eerdmans

Sean Freyne was the Emeritus Professor of Theology in Trinity College (Dublin) until his death in August of 2013. This book is a conclusion to his other studies on Galilee in the Second Temple Period. His other contributions to the topic include Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988); Galilee and Gospel:  Collected Essays (WUNT 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) and Jesus, a Jewish Galilean (London: T&T Clark, 2004).

Freyne Jesus MovementFreyne begins The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion with three chapters on the history and culture of Galilee in the first century. First, he challenges the common assumption that Galilee was a Gentile region in comparison to Judea. While the region was encircled by Gentile cities, a strong Judean presence was in Galilee with “a long-standing and deep attachment to the symbols of Jerusalem and its Temple” (48). From the Hasmonean period on there was a “steady growth” in the number of settlements with a distinctive Judean ethos (18). Evidence for this comes from the presence of miqva’oth throughout the region and a few traces of pre-70 C.E. synagogues (Khirbet Qana and Magdala, for example).

Second, Freyne examines the influence of Rome on Galilee and Judea. In order to accomplish this, Freyne examines the how the Roman world view was the developed by Herod and his sons. Freyne argues Herod “fully participated in the Roman exploitation of the idea of one world” (55). He demonstrates this with a brief overview of the building projects the Herodians initiated as well as the coinage issued during this period. The first revolt was an inevitable clash between the Hellenistic aristocracy and radical anti-Roman elements such as the “fourth philosophy” (59). For Freyne, the fall of Jerusalem functions catalyst for the writing of early Christian gospels. He makes reference to the apocalyptic claims of Mark 12:13-18 which seem to anticipate the events of 70 C.E.

The last introductory chapter surveys the economic and social conditions of Galilee in the mind first century. This is ground Freyne has covered elsewhere in more detail. He begins with the economy of the Hasmonean state, suggesting that Galilee experience some growth as Judeans moved into the region for economic reasons. While Herod is sometimes characterized as an oppressive ruler for the “ordinary people,” Freyne insists the Herodian period not necessarily characterized by oppression and extreme poverty. He cites several examples of Herod providing for the people in times of drought or famine (118). Even under Antipas, the ruler functioned as a Roman benefactor. Here Freyne is reacting to the work of Crossan and others who tend to overplay poverty as a factor for describing the culture of Galilee during the ministry of Jesus. He lists a number of items drawn from Mark’s gospel and Josephus indicating a more robust economy than usually granted. For example, In Mark 6:56, people could be expected to have money to provide food for themselves; in Mark 1:20 fishermen hired servants; in Mark 5:26 (cf., Life, 403) people who provided medical services expected to be paid (132).

Chapter 4 makes use this social and cultural background in order to read the presentation of Jesus as found in the Gospels. The Jesus Movement was one of several protest movements challenging the religious of the nation (183). This challenge comes from two perspectives often considered to be mutually exclusive in contemporary scholarship. First, Jesus is in many ways a wisdom teacher. Following Gerd Theissen, Freyne describes Jesus as “inaugurating a ‘values revolution,’ calling into question prevailing attitudes toward wealth and power,” either from Rome or the Temple aristocracy (162). To declare the poor “blessed,” for example, contradicted the usual Deuteronomic thinking that the Lord blesses the righteous with material wealth. With respect to apocalyptic, Freyne thinks the Jesus Movement came to identify themselves with the “wise” from Daniel 12, using Daniel and his companions as models of living a righteous life in the Gentile world (174).

Chapters 5-8 trace the Jesus movement beyond the early first century. He discusses the Hebrews and the Hellenists, Samaritan followers of Jesus, and the traditions associated with James the Just. He suggests that in Acts the relationship of James and the Hebraioi are “another story, running just below the surface and then springing to life occasionally and at key moments” (241). As I have often observed, there is far more variety in the early Christian movement than is usually recognized. Freyne sees diversity in Acts 6, the Hellenists (such as Stephen) and the Hebrews (the Twelve, perhaps James), but he points out the rift is not theological (206), although he goes on to indicate a major difference is the resurrection. Freyne follows Ben Meyer’s lead and suggests the Hebraioi are the link back to the earliest community of the Jesus Movement, consisting of the nucleus of Jesus’ Galilean followers (213). Hellenists were a link to a future Pauline / Gentile movement that went beyond Israel to a purified humanity.

James was a leader in the Hebraioi, but based in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. Freyne detects hints of the importance of James in a number of non-canonical texts expanding his role beyond the description in Acts. James appears two sometimes opposing traditions. Some traditions connect James to the Ebionites, the orthodox Jewish Christians, but James also appears in several Gnostic texts as well. Gospel of Thomas Logion 12 seems to pass leadership of the disciples to James the Just, preserving a title found elsewhere. Jerome knew a tradition that placed James at the Last Supper (De Vir. 2.3). The recently published Tchacos Codex includes a Greek translation of the Apocalypse of James which helps fill in gaps in the Nag Hammadi version of this Gnostic text. In this story, Jesus appears to James after the resurrection and instructs him on what is necessary for the soul to ascend (239). For Freyne, the late acceptance of the Letter of James into the canon of the New Testament is an indication of James’ increasing status in the early church.

In chapters 6-7 Freyne examines how Jesus was remembered, first among Galilean Christianity (Gospel of Thomas and Q) then in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which he suggests originated in Syria. He examines the Saying collections as early evidence for how the Galilean followers of Jesus understood their relationship with Judaism as well as the terms on which a Gentile might be admitted to the Messianic community (258). In the Sayings sources, Jesus is the “coming one” (Luke 3:7-9) who invites his listeners to participate in a banquet (GThomas 28, Prov 9:1-6). This is a combination of apocalyptic and wisdom at the earliest levels of the tradition. Freyne argues the sayings material is dismissive of Jewish practices and is not as dismissive of Gentiles as other contemporary examples of Second Temple Judaism, “the main focus is clearly on Israel” (265).

Freyne associates the Gospel of Mark with Syria (as opposed to Rome) argues the Gospel deals with the aftermath of the Jewish Revolt and loss of the Temple. The Gospel is “apocalyptically structured” (311), looking back at Jesus as a way to encourage Jesus-followers to cross the political and cultural boundaries necessary in a post-Jewish Christianity. Matthew, on the other hand, deals with a different set of circumstances. For Freyne, Matthew wrote fifteen to twenty years later, using Mark and Q to argue for an inclusive Israel that could “bring new things out of the old” (Matt 13:52).

Finally, Freyne follows these trajectories into the Second Century. He begins by examining the state of the Jesus movement in Rome in the second century, after the time of Domitian. The attitude of Rome was generally positive, despite occasional threats of persecution at the local level (323). Freyne wonders why Celsus went to such great lengths in the late second century to refute toe claims of Christianity. It is likely Celsus realized the threat Christianity posed to Roman order, especially as it moved from an obscure religion to “third nation” within Rome (325). Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians continued to separate during this period. Despite some attempts to maintain a connection to their Jewish roots, the growing orthodoxy rejected Judaism entirely. Ignatius wrote “it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and practice Judaism” (Ign. Magn. 10.2). But the early Christians also rejected attempts to bring Christianity in line with Greek philosophy, as Tertullian famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”? Christian orthodoxy finally took shape as a reaction to Christian heresies. As challenges arose, orthodox teaching attempted to clarify and separate from forms of Gnosticism and Marcionism.

Conclusion. This book is an excellent contribution to the study of the Gospels and the growth of early Christianity. Sean Freyne argues clearly for an influential Galilean Christianity that is responsible for preserving a collection of Jesus’ sayings (Q). He concludes Christianity was much closer to its Jewish roots than is normally thought. I would have liked a chapter on Luke/Acts, tracing the expansion of the Jesus movement to the Roman world (assuming Freyne accepted some sort of western provenance for the Gospel). Based on his comments throughout the book, he might have taken Acts more seriously as history than recent commentators have (especially Luke’s hints of deeper divisions between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Paul’s Gentile mission).

In addition, there is not much in the book on the Pauline mission to the Gentiles. Granted, this would greatly lengthen an already good-sized book, but the topic is not necessarily excluded by the sub-title of the book. Freyne argues well his point on how the Jesus movement spread form Galilee to Syria, but in his final chapter he leaps to the second century without any attention at all to Paul’s Gentile mission or the problems it caused for more conservative forms of Jewish Christianity.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to students of the Gospels and the early church.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Giveaway Winner! – Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers

Reading Scripture

Today is the day I pick a winner for these two excellent books. There were 57 people signed up (62 comments, but I allowed only one entry per person). I took each of your names, sorted randomly and then pasted them into Excel. Random.org gave me a number between 1-57, and the winner is…..

Alan Jones

Congrats to Alan, please contact me via email (plong42 at gmail .com) with your mailing address and I will pop these in the mail ASAP. Better luck next time for the rest of you, I will probably run another giveaway in a couple of weeks.

The contest was for a copy of Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers Paperback (IVP 1998) and Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century-Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden (IVP 2002), edited by Kenneth Tanner  Christopher Hall. The Festscrhrift for Thomas Oden includes essays by Richard John Neuhaus, Alan Padgett, J. I. Packer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten, Stanley Grenz, Bradley Nassif, Thomas Howard. These were my own personal copies and were not provided by the publisher.

Book Giveaway – Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers

Reading ScriptureIt is August, so it is just about time to start thinking about “back to school.” In fact, I have just started teaching an OT Survey course in an August intensive format, so to celebrate a new school year, I am going to give away a couple of Church History books.

I have extra copies of Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers Paperback (IVP 1998) and Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century-Essays In Honor of Thomas C. Oden (IVP 2002), edited by Kenneth Tanner  Christopher Hall. The Festscrhrift for Thomas Oden includes essays by Richard John Neuhaus, Alan Padgett, J. I. Packer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Carl Braaten, Stanley Grenz, Bradley Nassif, Thomas Howard.

To have a chance at winning these books, leave a comment mentioning , or at least your name.  I suppose some other snarky comment will do as well.  I will announce the winner picked at random on August 21.

Philippians 3:12–17 – Pressing On

In order to reach the goal Paul does not look back at anything, but keeps his attention fixed on the goal God has placed before him.  Forgetting what lies behind. To “forget” (ἐπιλανθάνομαι) is fairly clear, although this word can mean “do not think about it” or “do not concern yourself with it.” When someone thanks you for a simple favor, the response is often “forget about it.” What we mean is, “don’t be concerned about it, whatever I did is not that big of a deal.”

The PastPaul may refer to his persecution of the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, since he likely had a great deal of guilt and remorse for his attacks on the earliest church. This is very preachable since most people have some guilt over the things they have done in the past. Pastors can use this as an opportunity to encourage people to forgive themselves as Christ forgave them and not dwell on the past.

In the context of Philippians, however, he may refer here to his heritage as a well-trained and highly respected Jewish leader, someone who could claim to be “blameless” with respect to righteousness according to the Law. He has just described his “boast” (vv 4-6) even though he now considers it a loss compared to what he has in Christ.

But there is another factor in “forgetting what lies behind.” Paul was called to be the “light to the Gentiles” by the risen Lord Jesus himself.  Jesus gave to Paul a unique commission and revelation and has directly guided him on a number of occasions. He has already planted many churches and is responsible for spreading the Gospel throughout Roman Empire, he has already written letters which will eventually become a major component of the canon of the New Testament. Paul could review his life in Christ and conclude he has made a spectacular contribution and served God better than anyone else in the first century. These “good things” have to be set aside as well, “forgetting what is behind” must include everything including these things that might be counted as bearing much fruit for God.

Finish LineSecond, Paul is “straining forward” to what lies ahead.  This word (ἐπεκτείνομαι) only appears here in the New Testament, although it is the compound form of the more common word (τείνω) for stretching something or pulling tight on something (like reins, a helmet strap, both from Homer).  Since this is a compound form, the meaning is probably intensified, stretching for something that is just out of your reach, so far that you pull a muscle in your shoulder.

There might be a hint of an athletic metaphor here, since a runner “strains forward” to cross the finish line first, often making a final push to win the race.  In 2012  U.S. Olympic trials, Allyson Felix and Jenebah Tarmoh “both crossed the finish line in 11.068 seconds.” Neither of the cameras shooting 3,000 frames per second clearly showed a winner. If either runner had been distracted just a little, or looked to the side a fraction of a second would be lost and the other runner would have clearly won the race.

This is the kind of focus Paul is talking about in Philippians. If one is straining for what is ahead of them, their focus is not on what is behind them, or even what is around them at the moment. They are completely focused on the goal, crossing the finish line and winning the prize. A runner cannot think about who is behind them or running alongside them, they can only focus on the future goal of finishing the race and winning the prize. For Paul, this means the terrible things he had done as well as his admirable service for the cause of Christ. This also means he cannot focus on his opponents who are also running the race (even if they are not completing as properly as Paul is).