Pressing On When the Pressure’s On

Philippians 3:12-4:1

June 12, 2005 | Brian Bill

John Ortberg recounts a true story from a Tacoma, Washington newspaper about a basset hound named Tattoo.  Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut the dog’s leash in the car door and took off for a drive, he had no choice.  Noticing what was going on, a police officer finally pulled the driver over.  The officer commented: “The basset hound was picking up his feet and putting them down as fast as he could.”  Amazingly, this short-legged canine reached a speed of 25 miles per hour, rolling over several times in the process.  Ortberg notes, “Too many of us end up living like Tattoo, our days marked by picking them up and putting them down as fast as we can” (, 7-11-02).

Do you feel like you’ve been “tattooed”?   That poor dog probably had a number of things going through his head:

  • Someone or something is holding my leash and I can’t break free.
  • Life feels out of control.
  • I’m just one small dog.
  • The car is too big and too strong to stop on my own.
  • I need to run or I’ll be run over.
  • I feel like I don’t have a choice.
  • Surviving, not thriving is my only goal right now.

Last week we were reminded that we are declared righteous not because of religious activities, but as a result of a relationship with the Redeemer.  Paul made it very clear that the seven items on his spiritual resume, though pretty impressive, were really rubbish compared with knowing Christ:

  1. Ritual
  2. Relationship
  3. Respectability
  4. Race
  5. Religion
  6. Reputation
  7. Righteousness

As we look at the second half of Philippians 3, we will see that Paul balances these seven items with seven essentials for running and winning the Christian race.  Several times in Scripture the Christian life is referred to as a race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 12:1).  These basic principles will help us get into spiritual shape so we can run the race set before us.  I’ve adapted Warren Wiersbe’s outline for this passage, and have added a few points to it.

1. Dissatisfaction (3:12a). 

The first essential to a solid spiritual life may surprise you.  In order to run the race and keep moving forward, we must be dissatisfied with where we are right now.  Paul had some incredible experiences – he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was caught up into the third heaven and heard “inexpressible things” (2 Corinthians 12:4), he wrote a number of letters, preached incredible sermons, and yet, after walking with Christ for about 25 years, he was not satisfied with the status of his spiritual life.  Look at the first part of verse12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect…”

Paul had just stated in verses 10-11 that he wanted to know Christ experientially, practice the power of His resurrection, share in His sufferings, and eventually be raised to new life after he dies.  That’s his resolve, though in reality he has a long way to go.  He has not “obtained,” which means that he has not fully appropriated or applied God’s promises to his person.  And he certainly knows that he is far from “perfect” as he states in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst.”

Many years ago a promising Greek artist named Timanthes worked under the instruction of a well-known tutor.  After working for several years, the young painter created an exquisite portrait.  He was so thrilled with what he had painted that he sat day after day gazing at his work.  One morning, however, he was horrified to discover that his teacher had deliberately defaced his painting.  Angry and in tears, Timanthes asked why his mentor had destroyed his treasured possession.  The wise man replied, “I did it for your own good because that painting was retarding your progress.  It was an excellent piece of work but it wasn’t perfect.  Start again and see if you can do better.”  The student took his advice and produced a masterpiece regarded by some as one of the finest paintings of antiquity.

If you think you’ve arrived, think again because the room for improvement is the largest room in the world

Friend, if you want to really grow, the first step is to admit how far you still have to go.  I’ve been a Christian for 25 years and I wish I was a lot further along than I am.  We could say it this way: If you think you’ve arrived, think again because the room for improvement is the largest room in the world.  Will you admit what God and everyone around you already knows?  You’re not perfect.  Don’t be self-satisfied like the believers in the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:17: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’   But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”  Some of us have stopped growing because frankly we think we’ve arrived, or at least that we’re doing better than others.  The truth of the matter is that we are pitiful, not perfect.  Use this sense of dissatisfaction to spur you on to the next step.  By the way, some believers struggle with prayer for the simple fact that they are too satisfied with their spiritual life.  Dissatisfaction can lead to more intercession.

2. Devotion (3:12b). 

The tendency for some of us is to just give up when we realize how far we have tripped up.  Paul didn’t do that.  His dissatisfaction led him to become more devoted: “But I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  To “press on” means to “pursue as a hunter.”  It’s actually the same word that is used in verse 6 when Paul says that he zealously “persecuted” the church.  Used also of a sprinter in the Greek games, it has the idea of moving quickly and energetically toward an objective, straining every spiritual muscle in order to win the prize.  

My sister called me on Thursday night and asked me a couple questions.  Her first question was this: “Can a person be too spiritual?”  My answer was this: “No, because we can all become more devoted than we are.”  Hosea 6:3 captures this: “Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him.”  Paul not only chased after Christ, he also wanted to catch Him, if you will.  He wanted to “take hold,” which means to “take eagerly” or possess.  Jesus had taken hold of him, slamming him to the ground in Acts 9, and now he wanted to make sure that he was holding on to Christ.  One of Charles Spurgeon’s mottos was this: “I hold and am held.”  The Lord had seized Paul and now Paul was determined to serve His Savior for the rest of his life.  Are you giving maximum effort in your spiritual life, or are you a Christian on cruise control?  Turn your dissatisfaction into devotion.

3. Direction (3:13). 

In the spiritual life, direction makes all the difference.  In verse 13, Paul again states that he still falls short in fully appropriating all that is his.  He has not fully “taken hold” but he is determined to go in the right direction: “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.”  Paul had a single-minded focus like David who prayed in Psalm 86:11: “Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”

Friend, what “one thing” do you do?  Too many of us are too involved in too many things.  This phrase, “one thing” is used several times in Scripture to help us see that we must be focused in our faith:

Psalm 27:4One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” 

Mark 10:21“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.’” 

Luke 10:42“But only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  

John 9:25One thing I do know.  I was blind but now I see!”

John MacArthur reports what his grandfather said to him on many occasions: “Just do one thing right in your life and you’ll be way ahead of most people.”   Paul knew that if he was going to move forward he had to be unleashed from his past.  There are at least two areas that I think Paul had in mind when it comes to forgetting what is “behind.”  

  • The garbage of good stuff.  We spent plenty of time on this last week, but Paul is saying that he is going to forget even the good things on his religious resume because none of this will get him any closer to God anyway.
  • The garbage of guilty stuff.  Paul had plenty of reasons to feel guilty.  After all, he had slaughtered saints and persecuted Christians.  Some of you are so tied to the troubles of your past that you’re not moving anywhere in the present

To “forget” in the Bible means “to no longer be influenced by or affected by.”  It’s when we don’t allow the past to control our present.  While we can’t wipe stuff out of our memory banks, we can break the power of the past by allowing the Lord to unleash us from its influence.  Let me demonstrate with these two bags of garbage that are tied to my neck.  The white one represents good garbage and the black bag is the guilty garbage.  Both of these bags are filled with garbage that needs to be forgotten.  We need to allow the Lord to unleash us from the past (throw the two bags in the garbage can).

Let’s be careful about looking back, remembering what happened to Lot’s wife in Genesis 19:26: “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.”  As a sprinter straining toward the finish line, don’t look behind you.  The picture here is of an athlete stretching out his neck, mobilizing every muscle, giving all that he has to win the race.  You can’t run forward by looking backward.  One pastor used a creative title for his sermon on this passage that says it all, “Yesterday ended last night.”  If you want to move forward, you have to let go of what’s behind because your past can be a prison.

Look not back on yesterday

So full of failure and regret;

Look ahead and seek God’s way –

All sins confessed you must forget.

Do you see where you’re going or are you tripped up by the trash of your past?

In a Daily Bread devotional called “Seeing or Remembering,” there’s a story about a man who was slowly losing his memory.  The doctor told him that surgery might reverse this condition and restore his memory but a nerve might be severed in the process, causing total blindness.  The surgeon asked the patient: “What would you rather have, your sight or your memory?”  The man pondered the question for a few minutes and then replied, “My sight, because I would rather see where I’m going than remember where I’ve been.”  Do you see where you’re going or are you tripped up by the trash of your past?

4. Determination (3:14). 

Paul not only turns his dissatisfaction into devotion and is headed in the right direction; he also demonstrates determination in verse 14: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” To “press on” has the idea of intensely pursuing the prize, of bearing down in order to win.  There are two extremes that we need to avoid when it comes to determination.  This is best demonstrated by thinking of boats and water.

  • A raft just sits in the water and doesn’t do anything.  Some believers are saved but they’re just sitting, waiting for God to do something.  Are you drifting?
  • A rowboat depends totally on the strength of the person doing the rowing.  Some believers think that everything’s up to them.
  • A sailboat is the right picture, for God moves us as His Spirit fills our sails, and yet we have a responsibility to steer and stay in balance.  A good sailor must be determined in order to cruise across the water.

David Livingstone, a pioneer missionary to Africa, returned to Great Britain and was asked, “What do you want to do now?”  I love his response: “I am ready to go anywhere provided it be forward.”  We must put the past out of our minds and never forget the future.  We are called heavenward.  Focusing on the future will have a purifying affect on the present as taught in 1 John 3:2-3: “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.”  As we look up and look ahead, we’ll be less prone to be paralyzed by our past.  We must live in light of eternity, expecting either the Rapture or our departure at death to the shores of heaven.

Apparently there’s a tombstone at the foot of one of those majestic mountains in the Alps to honor the memory of a man who fell to his death while attempting to climb to the top. Underneath the individual’s name the epitaph reads, “He died climbing.”  That’s what should be said of each of us.  We’re to pursue the prize with dogged determination, so that when we die, we’re already on the way up.

5. Discipline (3:15-16).

In order to keep moving forward, we must exhibit discipline.  Look at verses 15-16: “All of us 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.  Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”  Paul is really telling us to take a “chill pill” when it comes to trying to control other people.  We must remember that our response is our responsibility.  He challenges us to view our Christian lives the way he has laid them out but if we think differently, God will make it clear.  Leave it in his hands.  Some of us need to heed these words because we’ve taken on too much responsibility for the response of others.  

Pastor Dale Burke, who has the dubious distinction of following Chuck Swindoll as pastor of the Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, spoke at the recent Pastor’s Conference I attended.  He made the point that while God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent, we are “omni-nothing.”  We control very little but often think we can control a lot.  We must take our focus off of what others are thinking and doing and “live up to what we have already attained.” This means that we are to keep on living by staying in the race, running in our lane as we move forward.

6. Discipleship (3:17-19). 

In order to stay in the race, we must deepen our discipleship.  We do that in two ways.  First, verse 19 says that we are to follow the good examples of others: “Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.”  That doesn’t mean Paul is perfect but it does mean that he is on the right path.  In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul declares, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” The word “pattern” is from a mold into which clay or wax was pressed.  It’s healthy for us to have people to look up to, people who can mentor us as they model Christ.  To “take note” means to “fix your gaze on, to observe, or pay attention to.”  

I’ve mentioned this before but it’s so helpful that I want to share it again.  When it comes to spending our time wisely and growing in our walk with Christ, it’s very important that we surround ourselves with people who can impact our lives, and to also be in relationships with others we are mentoring.  In his book called, “Restoring Your Spiritual Passion,” Gordon MacDonald describes five types of people that we come in contact with (pages 73-91):

  • VRPs Very Resourceful People Ignite Our Passion
  • VIPs Very Important People Share Our Passion
  • VTPs Very Trainable People Catch Our Passion
  • VNPs Very Nice People Enjoy Our Passion
  • VDPs Very Draining People Sap Our Passion 

In order to have balance in our lives, we need to make sure we’re not overloaded with one or two of these types of people.  I would add that we need friends who are resourceful and important because they sharpen us.  The trainable, and to a lesser extent, the nice and the draining, are people whom we can sharpen.  In other words, we should have friends who rub off on us in a good way and we should be rubbing off on others, without letting them rub us the wrong way!

And so, the first way to grow in discipleship is to follow the good examples of other people.  The second way is to reject the bad examples and don’t follow them.  Notice verses 18-19: “For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.  Their mind is on earthly things.” I’m struck by how tender Paul is even towards those he refers to as enemies.  When he considers their destiny which is destruction, when he states that their appetites control everything they do and how they take pride in shameful things, he breaks down and cries.  This word means “to wail aloud.”   

Paul has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart” in Romans 9:2 about the lostness of Israel and in Acts 20:32, he warns the church and then he weeps.  And here he sobs for sinners.  We would do well to be broken up, not just about the things that non-Christians do and say, but about their eternal destiny.  When Jesus looked out over the unbelief that had taken up residence in Jerusalem, Luke 19:41 says that “he wept over it.”  When’s the last time you cried over the condition of someone?

Notice that Paul says “many” live as enemies of the cross.  They’re everywhere.  It’s always been that way.  True believers are always in the minority as Jesus stated in Matthew 7:13: “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” This should cause us to cry because the reason they live the way they live is quite simple: “Their mind is on earthly things.”  We need to have discernment in order to grow in our discipleship because these “enemies” may even be in church circles, writing Christian books, speaking at Christian conferences, and sitting next to you on Sunday mornings.

7. Delight (3:20-4:1). 

Paul doesn’t want to end on a bummer so he brings it all together by focusing on our delight in verses 20-21 and 4:1: “But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.  Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” Our perspective will determine our priorities.  As we live in the future tense, we will have freedom from the past and find delight in the present.  These closing verses establish several truths to delight in that will change our perspective so that we can “stand firm in the Lord.”

  • Our home is in heaven.  We are citizens of another place.
  • Jesus is coming again.  We need to eagerly wait for Him.
  • Everything will be made right.  All things will be brought under His order.
  • We will be transformed.  The best is yet to come.
  • Believers should give us joy.  We need to love and long for others.

If we want to press on when the pressure’s on, and get in spiritual shape, we must implement these essentials:

  1. Dissatisfaction
  2. Devotion
  3. Direction
  4. Determination
  5. Discipline
  6. Discipleship
  7. Delight

What’s dragging you down today?  What is it that you are leashed to?  It’s time to let it go so you can really grow.  Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?