Whenever I have been in the city on a particularly messy day, like a melting day in March, and I come home after dark, there is a problem. As long as I am in the city and the street lights are bright, there is no problem. But as soon as I leave the city and it is dark all around, I suddenly realize that the headlights on my van are not working very well. They are dirty and therefore don’t illuminate where I am going very well at all.
As Christians, we are called to be the “light of the world” as Jesus says in Matthew, but if our lives are dirty, covered with disobedience or the mess of the world, how can we shine as lights?
Have you ever been plunged into darkness because of a power failure? You stumble about in the dark, carefully trying not to walk into a door or trip on something you left on the floor, until you find the flashlight. You turn it on expecting light to illumine your path, but find that the battery is almost dead and the flashlight does not help you. As Christians, we need God’s help in order to shine as lights.
A few weeks ago, we noticed that Philippians 1:27-2:18 is a unit in which the primary theme is the proclamation of the gospel. The content of this section has three ideas that support this primary theme. One is that we should not be afraid if, as we shine as lights, we are being opposed. Suffering for our faith is a normal part of the Christian life and we should expect it and allow God to help us in it. The second idea is that if we are going to shine brightly, we need to be one in the body of Christ. Unity is essential for a clear signal to be sent into the world. The third idea, introduced in 1:27 is, as The Message says, “live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ.” This morning, we want to examine this third idea as it is presented in Philippians 2:12-28. Let us read these verses.
As he addresses the readers, he addresses them as “my dear friends.” He is not berating them, but out of a pastoral heart, he is appealing to them to live in a worthy manner.
The word “therefore,” which begins this section, makes a connection with what has just preceded. A few weeks ago, we examined the example of Christ who was selfless and humble as He gave himself for our salvation. The call to obedience is anchored in the obedience of Jesus Christ.
In verse 12, there is a call to obedience. This call is repeated twice. First of all he says “as you have always obeyed” and then repeats the same idea when he says, “work out your salvation.” These are the same idea, but we need to be careful that we understand what is meant by this idea.
There has been some confusion about the meaning of the phrase, “work out your salvation.” What we need to be very clear about is that it does not say, “work for your salvation.” Salvation is not something that we receive by the work that we do. Our sins are forgiven and we are saved from eternal death as a gift from God, which is given to us when we believe. Faith is not a work, it is a way of stopping work and trusting that God has accomplished our salvation. Salvation becomes ours as we believe that God has given it to us.
Rather, it says, “work out your salvation” which means that when we have become believers, we ought to continue to learn what it means to live as a Christian. Gordon Fee has two important things to say about this. First of all, he says, “it is an ethical text, dealing with ‘how saved people live out their salvation’…” In other words, living the Christian life is a path of discovering what it means to live for God. The idea of “work out” suggests that it is a process of learning, a process of growing in a relationship with God. The question we must never stop asking is, “How can I live a life which glorifies God?” The other thing Fee says is, “for Paul faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to Christ, not in the sense of following the rules, but of coming totally under His lordship, of being devoted completely to him.” What that means is that “working out our salvation” does not mean making a list of rules we should follow as Christians. That leads us back into bondage and back into legalism. Instead, it means absolute surrender to Jesus Christ as the one who rules in our life. It is a relationship guided by the Spirit of God. It is, not a commitment, but rather a surrender to Christ.
As we read on, we discover that striving to live in a way which fits with our calling as Christians is to be done “with fear and trembling.” What does that mean? What is it that we could be afraid of? If I think of living the Christian life as God wants me to, there are several things I fear. I fear the world around me which can have a negative influence on me. If I am appropriately afraid of the influence of the world, I will be very careful not to let it influence me. I also fear the evil I am capable of. I know my own heart and that I can easily fall into sin. If I have an appropriate fear of my own tendencies, I will build a relationship with God and I will build safeguards into my life which help me not to stumble and fall. I also fear God because I know that He is the Lord and ultimately the judge. I do not think that this fear should terrorize us because we know the grace of God, but it should lead us to live our whole life with a proper respect for God and lead us to live in awe of Him.
Another aspect of “working out your salvation” is given in the words of Paul when he says, “not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence.” Paul had been with this church and when he was, they had grasped the gospel and had begun to follow Christ faithfully. But Paul was now not with them and he is encouraging them to follow Christ faithfully as they had previously even though he is not there to encourage them. As we follow Christ, it must also be something we do even when other Christians are not keeping an eye on us. If we are only faithful Christians when other Christians are watching, or when we know that we have to be an example, then we have not really caught the life and power of our relationship with Christ. Paul’s comment encourages a life of faith lived with integrity at all times. They are to do it not for him, “when I am present” but for God, “even when I am absent.” A leader is important as a prompter, but we must grow beyond dependence on a leader or anyone else and learn to depend on God alone.
So using the imagery of light which I mentioned at the beginning, we have responsibility to keep the lens clean, because as the next section tells us, the battery will never become weak.
What an encouragement this next verse is to us as we are to walk in faithfulness, especially when we know our weakness and the fear of the Lord.
The verse has power as it says, “it is God who works” The one who is helping us and working in us is God. Although we need to make an effort and learn and grow, God is at work. Although the Word of God is our guide and helps us understand God’s truth, God Himself is at work. Although the fellowship of believers is a great encouragement and a wonderful help to keep us accountable, God, our creator and redeemer is at work.
God is the one who empowers our obedience. He gives us what we need to help us obey. The text points to two ways in which this happens. First of all, God gives us the will to do what is right. If God did not do this, we would not think about our actions very much. If God did not do this, we would not listen to our conscience. One of the most powerful things that happens when we become Christians is that God gives us a new heart. It is that new heart that is turned towards God that is the first evidence that God is at work in us “to will.” Furthermore, whenever our conscience bothers us, God is also at work in us. When we sense the prompting of the Spirit, after we have sinned, we have evidence that God is in us “to will.”
But God also supplies power “to act.” Whenever we have the ability to do the things that are right, it is God who has given us this power. But, I can hear the objections – “that is a nice Scripture, but it doesn’t work for me.” That is the voice of discouragement. It may be the voice of disobedience. It may be the temptation of Satan to bring you down. The very fact that we have a bad conscience is God at work. The fact that we feel bad about sin is God at work. The desire to change that behaviour is God at work. Another encouragement that God is at work comes when we take a long term view of things. Often as we look at a week or a month or a year, we may not see much change, but if we look over a longer period, 10 or 20 years, we will see a difference. Whenever we become discouraged about persistent sins, we need to yield them to God once again because God is at work in us. Whenever we feel distant from God, we should trust Him anyway because He is at work in us.
He does this, as the text says, “according to his good purpose.” God is at work in us first of all because it pleases Him to make us into new creatures. This is not a selfish act, but an act of blessing, because whatever pleases God, is always to our benefit because God is good.
The call to obedience is a fairly general call, however, Paul does get specific in verse 14a when he says, “do everything without complaining or arguing.”
The words, “complaining and arguing” have a strong OT flavour to them. In the Old Testament when Israel was traveling from Egypt to the promised land, they repeatedly complained, or grumbled or murmured against God. They did not like the way He was leading them. In Exodus 16:12, when they ran out of food, it says, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites.” This imagery is behind this verse in Philippians. Paul mentions it again in I Corinthians 10:9,10 when he reminds them, “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.” Testing the Lord and grumbling about the way God is handling things will not help us live in obedience. It is a sign of unbelief and we need to learn, even through our struggles to put our faith in the Lord.
The other word is arguing and reminds us of another picture from the same period of Israelite history. In Exodus 17:2 it says, “So they quarreled with Moses…” Disunity, which we have already talked about, arguing with leaders as the Israelites did and quarrels in the church as Paul speaks of later in Philippians 4:2 when he pleads with Euodia and Syntyche to get along are not the way to grow in faith. As people who are working out our salvation, we are encouraged by this text to find a way to have one heart with each other rather than arguing with each other and building disunity.
So in these verses, God’s Word calls us to obedience and particularly in the matters of trusting God and having unity in the body of Christ.
Why is it so important for us to be obedient to God, to be “working out our salvation?” Paul moves toward answering that question when he says in verse 14, “so that.”
He explains by reminding us about where we live. The word “in” appears twice in these verses and introduces the idea that we live in a context. We do not live in heaven, otherwise we wouldn’t have to be thinking about these things, we would already be complete. On the other hand, we do not belong to this earth. If we did, we would not have to think about living like God’s people. We would live just like everyone else. We are people who are in between. We are God’s people, who nevertheless live on earth. The implications of that are powerful!
The world around us is described as “a crooked and depraved generation.” We are sometimes surprised at the evil in the world? But why should we be surprised? The world is acting like it naturally is.
We are called to live in obedience to God as a striking contrast to the world around us. Instead of being crooked and depraved like the world, we are to be “blameless and pure children of God.”
As blameless people, we need to live in such a way that no one can point a finger at us. Do we live with integrity so that no one can accuse us of shady dealing in business? Do we live with compassion so that no one can accuse us of gossip or judging? Do we live with honour so that when we leave a place people say, “it was nice to have you here.” Do we live with honesty so that we will never fear the flashing of police lights?
As pure people, we are to be unmixed. The word pure is used in the Greek language to refer to metals that do not have an alloy or to wine that is not mixed with something else. When people look at our life, do they see people whose first love is the Lord Jesus Christ or do they see people who love Jesus, but also have a strong dose of self love?
So “working out our salvation” is important so that it is evident to all the world around us that we have indeed been changed by God.
The second image which explains the importance of obedience is that we “shine like stars in the universe.” Once again the idea is that there is a world out there looking at us and watching how we live.
The world is in darkness and in that great darkness, there are little points of light which show that darkness is not inevitable. We are those little stars shining in that dark world to demonstrate the light that God has come to bring into the world. I spoke with someone recently who described how the countryside became bright when electricity came to the farms. Before that, a few candles and lanterns shed a little bit of light to finish chores or find the way back to the house, but the general countryside was dark. When electric lights came in, suddenly every farm was illuminated with yard lights and the general outlook of things was much brighter. We are to be such a bright light source to the world of darkness to show them the light of God as we hold forth His word by our lives and by what we say.
Of course, you know what happened to Jesus who is also described as a light. John 1 says that the people loved darkness rather than light. So when we shine as lights, we will also encounter people who love the darkness rather than the light. If we shine as lights in the world, people will see the dirt of their lives and many of them would rather hide the dirt in the darkness than have it revealed. That is why Christians will always encounter persecution. We need to know that and live with it, but it should never cause us to stop being obedient and working out our salvation so that we can shine as lights as we “hold out the word of life.” God’s truth is communicated through our lives and through our words and that is how the world will see the light of God’s truth.
Have you ever read the results of a foot race? Sometimes the words “disqualified” are seen beside a runners name. He may have finished the race and had a great time, but somewhere on the course he did something which was illegal and all his effort, all his hard work, even his good time is worthless because he was disqualified.
Paul appeals to them using a very personal word. He says in essence, “If you are faithful and obedient, then my whole life will have been worthwhile. If you throw it all away, then all the work I have done will be worth nothing.” He is not trying to make himself look good by this, but is demonstrating the tremendous love he has for them.
As Paul appeals to them in this way, he has the end in view. His reference to the “day of Christ” indicates that he is talking about the day that is yet to come when Jesus will come back. There is a sense in which all of our struggle, our working out our salvation, our effort at faithfulness, our desire to shine as lights has a view towards the end. There is a day coming and we are striving towards that day, we are looking forward to that day. Then we will know that all the difficulty and struggle will have been worthwhile.
We live in what Gordon Fee calls a “severely twisted world.” How are we going to live in it? Not with grumbling or arguing, but with behaviour that is different than the world. We will live with the recognition that we are here as God’s representatives, as a light, as a contrast to that world. May we have courage to work out our salvation so that the world will see God. May we make it our life priority to obey with a view to what is yet to come.