Brothers, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind…
Trees have their winter as well as their summer foliage. Every one is familiar with the buds which tip the extremities of every branch in spring. On the outside they are covered with dry, glossy scales, which are true leaves of the lowest type. They are formed in spring, and grow during the whole summer, though very slowly, owing to the diversion of the sap from them to the foliage, behind which they are hid. As the season advances, the sap gradually ceases to flow to the summer leaves, which therefore ultimately fade and fall from the tree; and the last movements of it, at the end of autumn, are directed towards the buds, in order to prepare them for taking at the proper time the place of the generation of leaves that has just perished. But in spring, the buds, stimulated by the unwonted sunshine, begin to open at their sharp extremities. And as the young green leaves within expand in the genial atmosphere, the services of the bud scales, or covering leaves, are no longer needed, and by and by they roll away, and fall one by one from the tree, strewing the ground beneath till it looks like a threshing floor. Thus every tree has a double leaf fall every year. The winter leaves, which are designed for the protection of the bud during winter, are pushed off by the growth of the summer leaves from the bud in spring; and the summer leaves, which are designed for the nourishment and growth of the tree in summer, wither and fall off in autumn. Cold is fatal to the summer leaves; warmth is fatal to the winter leaves. Inactivity renders useless the summer leaves; and growth supersedes the winter leaves.
I. THE APOSTLE'S LIFE AFFORDS MANY STRIKING ILLUSTRATIONS OF THIS.
1. In his unconverted state, there were many things on which he prided himself — the scenes and associations of his youth, the eager sympathies of his opening intellect, and his ardent affection for the polity and religion of his fathers. But all these natural qualifications of the man belonged to the winter or unregenerate state of his soul; were winter leaves that hid and confined the germ of spiritual life.
2. But although worthless as grounds of justification, they had their own value in training and fitting him for his work. Like the bud scales, they afforded protection and nourishment. All that he had acquired, he laid on the altar.
3. And when the great crisis of his life came — the spring time of his conversion, a light exceeding the brightness of the noonday sun shone upon him; and in this warm genial atmosphere of grace, the germ of spiritual life unfolded itself within, and burst its wrappings. Old forms ceased to have any hold upon his affections and homage. He died to his former self and all its experiences, and lived a new life in Jesus. The winter leaves having served their purpose, now dropped off, and the summer leaves of grace — the blossoms of holiness, the fruits of righteousness — had full liberty to grow and develop themselves.
4. But we must not suppose that the dropping was without effort or pain. It sometimes needs a severe gust of wind to shake off the scales that still linger around the bud. And it was with a sore wrench that St. Paul tore himself away from all his former cherished associations.
5. But even in his converted state there were many things which Paul required to forget. The branch of a tree puts forth bud after bud in its gradual growth anal enlargement. These summer leaves, having added a cubit to the stature of the branch, pass away; and the added growth in its turn puts forth a new bud covered with its scales or winter leaves, which drop off the following spring, and allow the imprisoned summer leaves once more to unfold themselves in the sunny air. And so was it with St. Paul. His spiritual life from the beginning to the end was a series of fresh beginnings. Not once merely at conversion, but often in his converted state, had he to form and to drop the winter leaves in the process of spiritual growth. There were many things by which his spiritual life was nourished and guarded — which had to be blotted out if he would go on to perfection. And so he reached forth unto those things which were before.
II. ARE NOT THE LESSONS OF SUCH A LIFE VERY BROAD AND INTELLIGIBLE.
1. Forgetfulness of what is behind is an essential element in the progress of every believer. In our conversion we must separate ourselves from the associations of our unregenerate state, and count those things that were gain to us, loss, so that we may be found in Christ. These winter leaves must fall off, when the vernal season of grace has come, and we who were dead in trespasses and sins are made alive unto God.
2. But not at this initiatory stage merely is there to be a discarding of the things that are behind. At every subsequent stage of our growth there must be the same process. By a course of prosperity our souls are made to unfold in gratitude to God and beneficence to men. In a season of sorrow we are made more heavenly reminded. But these means are not to be cherished as if they were the end. We are to keep them in the background, and prize the character they have formed for the glory of God, and not for self-complacency. These winter leaves that cherished and nourished our growth in grace must drop off from time to time, with each new attainment that we "may rise on stepping stones of our dead selves to nobler things."
3. But not the means of growth and formative processes of the Christian character only, must be left behind and forgotten; the very ends, the growths themselves, must also be superseded. In a certain sense each attainment must be the bud covering of a succeeding attainment, and fall away when it is matured. There must be a double leaf fall from the soul as well as from the tree. The summer leaves that are cherished must drop off as well as the winter leaves that cherished them. And so the beautiful blossoms of grace must be left behind. To rest satisfied with attainment is to check development. It is amazing how soon when we cease to forget the things that are behind, and remain stationary we degenerate. When means become ends, they encase us with a hard covering impervious to the tender influences of heaven.
III. ST. PAUL EXHORTED THE HEBREW CHRISTIANS TO LEAVE THE PRINCIPLES OF THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST, AND TO GO ON TO PERFECTION. And such an exhortation is still greatly needed.
1. Very many believers stop short at the very initial processes of grace, and imagine that these are the final ends — that nothing more can be desired or attained. It is as if the life of the tree always remained in the bud, instead of casting off its wrappings and expanding into summer foliage and fruit. Conversion is indeed all essential, for while the heart is unchanged there can be neither life nor growth; but it is merely the commencement of a course. Conversion, justification, and peace are the first principles of the doctrine of Christ. They are not, indeed, to be dropped as mere bud scales, as mere means to an end — for they are the basis upon which all the subsequent efforts of the spiritual life are to be made. But just as in the unfolding buds of the lilac and horse chestnut tree, the covering leaves of winter, pass through intermediate changes — in the one into the blades of the leaf, and in the other into the leaf stalks — so the principles of the doctrine of Christ are to be carried on in the growth, and their substance is to be used up and modified, as it were, in the expansion of the soul. In this sense the things that are behind are to be forgotten.
2. It is vain to tell the believer to forget the things that are behind, to discard the preparatory means by which he advances in piety by a mere temporary effort of will. He cannot do so. It is only by growing that he can get rid of the things no longer essential; and what he cannot remove, except by a violent destructive wrench, will fall off easily, and of its own accord, when superseded and rendered effete by growth.
3. To this development we should be further stimulated by the consideration that the bud whose growth is arrested becomes transformed into a thorn. If our winter leaves — the experiences that contribute to form our character, and which are appropriate to the various stages of our growth — be allowed to remain unchanged and unforgotten, and to choke up our spiritual life so as to arrest its advancement, they will be changed into thorns. The peace that we trust in will vanish in sorrow. The attainment with which we are satisfied becomes a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet us lest we be exalted above measure. It is no unusual thing to see a branch of a tree whose vital activity is so enfeebled that its growth is arrested. Its terminal bud loses the power of throwing off its winter leaves, because no summer leaves form in its interior. The bud then dies, and the branch withers and becomes fit for the burning. And so it is, alas! no unusual thing to see branches in Christ whose spiritual life is so weak that their growth is at a standstill. They lose the power of forgetting the things that are behind, because they are not reaching forth unto those things which are before. They are therefore in danger of perishing. There is a sense, indeed, in which we cannot forget the things that are behind, strive as we may. The winter leaves or bud scales of a tree leave behind them when they drop off a peculiar mark or scar on the bark, just as the summer leaves do when they fall. On every branch a series of these scars, in the shape of rings closely set together, may be seen, indicating the points where each growing shoot entered on the stage of rest. And so every experience through which we pass, every act we perform, goes into the very substance of our being, and we can never be after it what we were before it. But though these things cannot in this sense be forgotten, they should not be allowed to hang around us to impede our efforts at improvement, any more than the development of the tree is impeded by its scars. We must remember the failures and sins of the past in order to magnify the mercy that forgave.Conclusion:
1. Taking a comprehensive view of the universe, we find that everything has a special object to perform, and when that object is accomplished, the agency perishes. The material system of nature will some day be dissolved. Life on earth is not an end, but a means — a state of discipline and preparation for something higher and nobler beyond, and is therefore transitory in its duration. So, too, the means of grace are the scaffolding by the aid of which the spiritual life is built up, and will be removed as a deformity when the building is completed. Everything that is purely subordinate and distinctive in religion — that is extraneous to the spiritual nature, however necessary to educate it — will vanish as the winter leaves of time from the expanding bud of everlasting life. "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three."
2. It is through loss that all gain in this world is made. But in heaven a different law of development will prevail. In the trees of warm climates the buds have no winter leaves or protective scales, being simply formed of the ordinary leaves rolled up; consequently they expand in growth without losing anything. And so it will be in the eternal summer above. There will be a constant unfolding of the fulness of immortal life from glory to glory; but there will be no loss of the processes and experiences through which the unfolding will take place. The means and the end will be one and the same. There will be a constant reaching forth unto those things which are before, but there will be no forgetting the things that are behind.
(H. Macmillan, LL. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,