Last week the key idea we considered was humility. As we noted, the perfect example of humility is Jesus Christ. This week our key idea is sanctification, which simply means growing in holiness. When we first come to faith in Christ, we are infants in the ways of God, but God wants, and expects, us to continue to grow spiritually.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Our first question must be, what is the “therefore” there for? In the previous six verses (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul made it clear that Christ submitted to the Father and carried out His plan perfectly. His sacrificial obedience was consummated on the cross. (verse 8)
Having linked the humility demonstrated by Christ in leaving the glory and perfection of heaven to come to earth as a man, and then offering His own life so that men might be reconciled with God, Paul now focuses on how the Philippian believers should respond.
Ever the encourager, Paul begins with a compliment about how the Philippian believers have obeyed his instructions willingly and without hesitation. He says, in effect, “Don’t stop. Keep it up. You’re doing good.” Paul tempers his challenge with love, calling them “my dear friends.”
Earlier in this letter, Paul had told these saints that what God had begun in each of them, He would be faithful to complete (Philippians 1:6). Now he says that since God is at work in each of you, continue to do your part as you “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
The Greek verb rendered “work out” means to continually work to bring something to fulfillment or completion. God is completing what He started, and He is doing this from the inside out. Our part is to work with the Holy Spirit by walking with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), being careful not to put out the Spirit’s fire (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
When Paul says, “work out your salvation,” it is important that we distinguish between “work out” and “work for.” Paul is not advocating, or in any way suggesting, that salvation requires works. He clearly teaches against that in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:8-9). Rather, he is instructing the saints that they should work out what God has already given them. It is the believer’s responsibility to actively pursue obedience in the process of sanctification; growing in God’s grace as a result accepting Christ by faith.
Paul not only encourages the brothers and sisters in Christ to work out, but to do so with fear and trembling. This fear and trembling is not the same as being afraid, but is, instead, pursuing God with a righteous awe and respect for who He is.
Because we live in God’s grace, we can approach God’s throne anytime, day or night, with complete trust. We need not dress up, comb our hair, or put on make-up. We can approach just as we are. But our liberty does not remove our need to come to God with respect and reverence. Jesus taught this when He said, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). It is this working of God in us, combined with our obedience, that satisfies and pleases God.
14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.
Evidently, Paul had been told that there was some dissent and discord among the Philippian believers, evidenced by their complaining. The Greek word for “complaining” is gongysmos (gong-goos-mos) and means to express one’s discontent in a low tone. Some translations use the English word grumbling or muttering, which has the similar idea of secret displeasure, usually whispered (see, for example, John 7:12). This hesitancy to speak our complaints out loud speaks to our rebellious nature.
I’m reminded of a cartoon showing a young boy who has been disciplined by his mother and ordered to stand in the corner. His mother asks if he is standing in the corner like she ordered. The caption shows what the boy is muttering to himself in a bubble above his head, “I’m standing on the outside, but I’m sitting on the inside.” The cartoon accurately depicts that seed of rebellion that continues to live in each of us, even when we have accepted Christ. Paul warns the Philippian saints that they must resist this half-hearted human nature.
Note that Paul uses the word “do,” which is a present tense verb, suggesting that this needs to be done continually. Even as Christians, we can slip into an attitude of grumbling or complaining at a moment’s notice. Again, it is that seed of rebellion that we retain as long as we live in this world. Paul warns us against giving in to this temptation.
By resisting the lure of complaining, the process of sanctification can proceed. When Paul says, “that you may become,” he strongly infers the idea of a work that is ongoing and not yet completed. If they (and we) will resist the temptation to murmur and complain, they will become blameless and pure; that is, acceptable to a righteous God. Let me repeat, this is not us working to make things right with God, but yielding to the Spirit and cooperating with Him.
The Philippians lived in a crooked and depraved generation, and the world has not improved much, if any, in the past two thousand years. The Greek word translated “crooked” here is the word from which the English scoliosis (curvature of the spine) comes. It describes a variation of the standard; exactly what Paul is warning against. We may judge something that is crooked as only slightly bent, much the same way we might casually dismiss a lesser sin, but Paul says, “Be careful, what is mildly crooked today will likely become full-blown depraved tomorrow.”
The darker the world becomes the greater our light shines. Jesus cautioned us against hiding our light (Matthew 5:15). As the world grows ever darker, our lights grow in density. Light a match in the middle of the day and you will probably not notice any difference, but light that same match in a dark cave and it will seem intense.
Paul likens our light to bright stars on an otherwise dark night. The more we eliminate man-made light pollution, the brighter the stars appear in the night sky. If you want to see this prominently displayed, travel to Kitt Peak near Tucson some clear night and it will take your breath away. You will swear there are twice as many stars in the sky. The greater darkness reveals a greater light.
Paul then makes it personal. Paraphrased, it sounds something like this; “When you shine brightly in the dark and depraved world, you make me look good, and I know that the time I invested in you was worth it. So much so, that I’m going to brag to Jesus that I didn’t waste my time instructing you. ‘See Jesus, they were worth the effort!’” And I can just hear Jesus’ response, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
Paul then moves from thoughts of the future joy of seeing Christ back to his current situation. The words, “I am being” speak in present tense, describing his condition; held against his will in a Roman jail cell, having committed no crime. But Paul does not complain. Instead, he reminds the Philippians that service often requires sacrifice. He compares his life with a drink offering.
In the Old Testament, the drink offering often accompanied other sacrifices and offerings. The offerer poured wine on the burning animal on the altar, and the wine was vaporized. The steam symbolized the rising of the offering for God’s acceptance (Exodus 29:38-41). Paul viewed his entire life as a drink offering. The Philippian believers, at least those who were not grumbling and complaining, were living sacrificially. Paul is pouring his life out on top of their sacrificial service.
Paul ends this section of Scripture with a reciprocal wish: I’m rejoicing with all of you, please rejoice with me as well.
Again and again in the letter to the Philippians we are reminded that we should rejoice regardless of our circumstances. Paul demonstrates this principle again and again. Rejoicing is a choice, and it’s one of the best choices we can make and renew every day.
May each of us say with the psalmist, “This is the day the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24)