What Does Paul Mean, “Forgetting What is Behind?”


…I Press on…

…I Press on…

…Forgetting the past…

…I press on.

When the Apostle Paul talks about “forgetting what is behind” and “straining toward what is ahead”, in Philippians 3:13, 14,  what exactly is he talking about?

Is he really saying that we should just forget our past and put it all behind us?

It’s a question I’ve been asked by other women who want to know how to handle negative things from their past.

It’s common to see this verse applied as a way to deal with past sin, hurt, and disappointment.

But, is it a correct interpretation and application?

First, let’s take a look at what Dr. Bob Kellemen has to say on the subject…

“Some people mistakenly interpret Philippians 3:13 to mean that we should try to forget our past. The Greek word for “forget” does not mean not to remember, but not to focus my attention on.”  “More importantly”, he says, “the biblical context is whether Paul would focus his attention on his works of the flesh, attempts at self-righteousness, and putting confidence in the flesh, versus focusing on Christ’s righteousness and the power of Christ’s resurrection.”

If we are going to counsel well, we need to be careful not to read our own meanings and ideas into Scripture, but submit our thoughts to the meaning that is already in the text. Looking at a verse in context goes a long way in helping us do that.

Another good principle to remember is that Scripture interprets Scripture.

So, I thought I’d do a little exercise with us, here, today, and examine Philippians 3, verses 13 and 14 within the larger context of chapter 3 to see how it helps us more clearly understand what Paul is saying about “Forgetting what is behind”.

In Philippians 3:1-4, Paul writes:

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:

Something I’ve started employing, whenever I read my Bible, is to ask it questions.  It slows me down and forces me to become a more active reader.

In verse 4, Paul talks about having “confidence” and says that he has more reasons to put “confidence in the flesh” than anyone else. I find this quite interesting, and it leads me to ask a few questions: “What are you so confident about, Paul?” “What’s your line of reasoning?”  “Why do you have more reasons than anyone else?”

Can you think of some other questions you might want to ask?

As we ask questions, we begin to engage our minds more with the text as we naturally begin to search for the answers to our questions.

Thankfully, in this passage, we don’t have to look very far, because Paul gives us his answer right in the next verses (5,6):

circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

 Okay.  Now we have some answers.  But, as 21st century, non-Israelite women,  we may need a little help understanding why these things give Paul so much confidence.

To help us hear and understand the Scriptures the way the original audience did, sometimes we need to seek an outside source for more information.

For our exercise, I’m going to paraphrase some of what John Gill says in his Exposition of the Bible to help us better understand what Paul is so confident about.  He tells us that Paul-

  • had a mark in his flesh that proved he was a distinguished Jew, not a Gentile, and that it was done on the eighth day proved that it was most valid and authentic
  • was a natural Israelite, to whom various privileges belonged
  • was a genuine and legitimate son of Jacob, and a genuine Hebrew, since both of his parents were Hebrew
  • was from the strictest and most respected sect among the Jews, the Pharisees, brought up in the most strict way by his own father, who was also a Pharisee
  • was zealous in the traditions of his elders, and for the law of God, and for God, and persecuted the church more than any single individual
  • could not justly be found fault with by any, or be charged with any defect in his obedience, either to the moral or ceremonial law

Now, we are a little more equipped and ready to move on in our reading.

The very next word we encounter, in verse 7, is the word,  “But”.



It leads me to ask another question, “But.. what, Paul?”

Let’s look to the following verses (7-14) to see if they provide us with any answers.

Paul continues…

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

And, There it is. Do you see the answer to the question, “But…what?”

Take a moment, now, and see if you can put it into your own words.


Here’s what I came up with…

“Everything that I, Paul, had confidence in before this point in time, I now consider garbage!”

  • my pure heritage
  • my rigid adherence to the law
  • my zeal for the law
  • my self-righteousness
  • all of the things that I personally valued
  • all of my past achievements
  • all of my past blessings
  • anything that was of gain to me
  • EVERYTHING I thought was necessary for salvation, eternal life, good service, happiness, acceptance and approval of man, and favor from God


Here’s the next question:

What is the one thing, now, that Paul is going to do with all of that?

Yep, you got it.

First, he’s going to FORGET it.

Take some time, now, to put into your own words what he means by “forgetting what is behind”…


Here’s what I said:

For Paul to forget what is behind, it means that he is going to turn away from his trust and dependence upon everything that he had, prior to this moment, placed his confidence in. He is never going to look back at it for the purpose of boasting in or gaining satisfaction from it again.  He is not going to rest on his laurels, either.  He is not going be content focusing his attention even on the recent past, and his new-found blessings in Christ.


In addition to forgetting what is behind, Paul says that he is going to “strain towards what is ahead”.  What does this mean?

Does it mean that he’s going to move forward into a future that’s devoid of all things relating to his past?

To answer this question, we need to look to verse 14:

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Write down, in your own words, what you think he means by this.


For me, I said that Paul is going to…

…press on, now, towards a different kind of future -one that is in full pursuit of Jesus Christ, His righteousness, and the final prize that awaits him (and all believers) – eternal life.


So, now that we have a good idea about what Paul means in verses 13 and 14, we may find ourselves asking some more questions:  “What does this mean for me?”  “What does this mean for others?” In other words, we’re looking for applications.

Again, if we look a little further, the very next verse (15) provides the answer:

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

So, how should we apply Philippians 3:13,14?  We think about our past and future the way Paul thinks about his past and future.

I’ll let John Gill, once again, do the talking here:

 We “reckon all things but loss and dung, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ; to be willing to suffer the loss of all things, to win him, ( Philippians 3:8 ) ; to desire to be found in him, and in his righteousness, and not a man’s own, ( Philippians 3:9 ) ; to know more of him in his person, righteousness, sufferings, death, and resurrection from the dead, ( Philippians 3:10 ) ; and to attain to such a state, and yet to disclaim all perfection, and acknowledge their imperfection, ( Philippians 3:11Philippians 3:12 ) ; and to forget things behind, and reach to those before, ( Philippians 3:13 ) ; and press towards the mark, Christ, for the prize of eternal glory, ( Philippians 3:14 )”

And, if we think differently about how these verses should be interpreted and applied, well, God will make it clear to us.  “Such errors will be made manifest sooner or later”, says Mr. Gill, “the day will declare them, and such wood, hay, and stubble, will be burnt up by the fire, which will reveal every man’s work, ( 1 Corinthians 3:12 1 Corinthians 3:13 ) “.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this post and working your way through this passage with me.  It’s been a long one.  It was not my intention to get so theologically involved with it at first (and there certainly is so much more that could be done with it), but I am glad I embarked on the journey with you because I now have a much better understanding about what Paul meant about “forgetting what lies behind”, and I will be much more careful in how I apply Philippians 3:13, 14 to my own life, and the lives of other women who want to know how to apply it to their past.

So, what do you think?

  • Are verses 13 and 14 wise choices for helping someone deal with the past?
  • How might you, in the past, have read your own ideas into this text?
  • How can you explain the meaning of Paul’s words in verses 13 and 14 to a woman who believes that in order to get over past hurts she literally needs to forget about them?
  • How can you use this passage to instruct another woman about the proper things she needs to leave behind and press on towards?
  • How does this passage speak to your own life?
  • Who can you share the truths of this passage with?

Any other questions or comments?





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