Text: Philippians 2:5-18
Last week the Apostle Paul took us to heaven, and I’m not quite ready to leave it. You see, this whole section of Philippians is tied together by that magnificent description of Jesus Christ’s person and work. There is a lesson for us in this. Christian morality is always first doxology. We cannot hope to obey God in Christ until we first see God in Christ and worship Him. And what we find, when we do this, is that our obedience, the obedience we offer to Christ in response, turns out to be not really ours at all. No, as we will see, Christians are only able to be shining stars amidst a crooked generation because “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” And so today let us find God in us by finding Him in Christ.
The Mind of Christ Leads to Obedience
The mind of Christ which we are to have in us is the thing which leads us into obedience. Paul writes, “therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (vs. 12). The use of the word “therefore,” as we mentioned last week, connects this back to the preceding passage. We cannot hope to “obey” until we first have the mind which was in Christ Jesus. And that mind was ultimate humility, esteeming others better than ourselves as our witness to the cross. What’s also interesting about this verse, an often misunderstood verse, is that the obedience which Paul is asking for is the same thing as his instruction to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” These are not two commands, but the same command.
And so what does it mean to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling? It does not mean that we are personally saved by works or that God helps those who help themselves. This is still the Apostle Paul writing, after all. No, the “your” in this sentence is once again plural. “Work out y’all’s salvation.” The idea is that the life of salvation which the church already enjoys must be “worked out.” The fact that Paul puts it this way teaches us some very important things about salvation. The first is that our salvation is inescapably social. While it is true that we will be judged individually—and thus we will get into heaven one by one, so to speak—the way that this occurs in real history, in our experienced lives, is almost always in the community of believers, the church. Secondly, the salvation which we receive is also something we do. We are saved, but we could also say that we are being saved together. Salvation, you must remember, is not just justification, but also sanctification and glorification. God is making us into a glorious bride. And so the life of the church is, in this sense, the life of salvation. This means, thirdly, that our shared salvation is something that develops and improves over time. Our working out our salvation together is the outworking of our salvation in Christ.
This is the obedience that Paul wants to see, and it is a serious thing. We are to do it with a certain spirit or tone, with “fear and trembling.” Now, this doesn’t mean that our church services have to be dark, dour, and depressing. But, we do need to do justice to the text here. Paul does use words which ordinarily mean “fear” and “awe.” You might use the word reverence, but you have to keep in mind that it connotes seriousness and care. Church shouldn’t be treated in a frivolous manner. This should also work to keep our tempers cool when we do run into disagreement. We need to approach church conflict very carefully, with fear and trembling, because it is a mode of the life of salvation.
Our Obedience is God’s Obedience Working in Us
Now, having given us this command to work out our own salvation, Paul quickly adds a word of explanation, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (vs. 13). This explains how we can do the work. It is all of grace. We aren’t really the ones doing it, so to speak, but rather God is doing it in and through us.
And this is also an explanation for why we should conduct ourselves so carefully in church. You see it isn’t only “us” in whom God is at work, but it is also each and every other member of the church. God is at work in y’all. God is at work in me. God is at work in Mr. Johnson. God is at work in Mrs. O’Rourke. God is at work in us. And so we must be humble and see God at work in our midst.
This realization that God is the one allowing us to obey, and that God is the one at work in our friends and neighbors, ought to drive us to another point of action. We must pray! We should ask God to work in us. We should ask God to help us to see Him at work in those around us. And we should ask Him for the grace to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And you cannot do that if you are not first praying. Talk to God. Go to Him in prayer, in personal communion, and just spend time meditating on Him and His word. You will find that prayer is hard work, but just like all hard work, it will become easier and more understandable as you do it. Each of us knows exactly where to start as we set out on this life of salvation. We must start with prayer.
Joy Defeats Division
Paul then moves to the way in which the Christian church ought to behave by telling us what not to be like. “Do all things without complaining and disputing” (vs. 14). He contrasts the “children of God” against the crooked and perverse generation, and he says that we ought to stand out as different from them. I think it helps to notice the basic difference: the contrast between the two groups is between joy and gladness on the one hand and complaining and disputing on the other. The children of God are joyful and glad. The crooked and perverse people are complaining and initiating disputes.
These verses hold a significant connotation to readers familiar with the Old Testament. The word Paul uses for complain is also translated as “grumble,” and it is an important word. In the Greek it is giggusmos. Giggusmos is an oenomatopoeia, which means that is supposed to imitate the sound it makes. We have these words in English: moo, baa, cock-a-doodle doo. They are meant to sound like the sound they are describing. So, giggusmos is supposed to sound like a grumble or a murmur. Try it and see. Giggusmos, giggusmos, giggusmos. When you have a room full of giggusmos, you’ve got a problem!
But more than making a funny sound, this word was the word used of Israel in the wilderness. They grumbled against Moses. It was not long after he delivered them from Egyptian slavery before they began to complain and stir up trouble. “You have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:3), they said. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numb. 11:5). This connection between Philippians and the wilderness wandering is made even stronger when Paul goes on to use the expression “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (vs. 15). This is a quote from Deuteronomy 32:
They have corrupted themselves; they are not His children, because of their blemish: a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus deal with the Lord, o foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father, who bought you? Has He not made you and established you? (Deut. 32:5-6)
That comes from the Song of Moses, and do you know who he is talking about in those verses? He isn’t complaining about the Egyptians or other Gentiles. He is talking about the Israelites! “Is he not your Father, who bought you?” And so we learn from this that the people of God are not immune from being perverse and crooked. They are often the chief culprits, and they show this by their grumbling and complaining. Why are these two sins singled out here? It is because the grumbling and disputing which befalls them is a result of ingratitude and forgetting the joy of salvation. This is what Paul is warning against. You’ve been taken out of Egypt. Why are you unhappy? God has delivered you through the Red Sea. He has raised you from the dead in Christ. What’s the problem?! Ah, but you say, “I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I know that I am saved and have security in Christ, but now I have to put up with all these people, Lord! There’s the pastor, who is always making the wrong decisions, and then there are all the other annoying and difficult people you put in my way God. And you won’t believe what kind of music they are making me sing.” And while you don’t say this next part out loud, your soul is actually muttering under its breath, “I’m not so sure that this is any better than Egypt.”
Whenever you get to this place in your life, I want you to stop. Just take a break. Think about what you are saying, where you have come from, what you have, and where you are going. We aren’t supposed to be like this. No, instead we are to be stars shining in the world, showing them our salvation.
That expression, “shining as stars comes” is also a reference to the Old Testament. It comes from Dan. 12:2-3 which says:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.
At the time this was originally written it was a future prediction about the “last days.” It referenced the resurrection, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” But now Paul is saying that we Christians ought to be those stars. That means that this prophecy has been fulfilled in Christ and now in the Church. He has raised us from the dead and so we ought to live like resurrected people. We let our lights shine now, in this world, amidst the crooked and perverse generation, and this means that we ought not to be like OT Israel, divided amongst ourselves and grumbling against our directions and calling. Instead, we have a positive thing to do: rejoice! So rejoice!
Friends, joyful thanksgiving is the most godly thing you can ever do. It ought to be your constant posture and spiritual-emotional state. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t serious when you need to be serious, reverent and full of awe. But it does mean that you are never ungrateful. And this has to be true all of the time, especially in the difficult times.
Look how Paul rejoices in the ministry, even as he is being poured out as a sacrifice: “Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (vs. 17). And then he immediately says, “For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me” (vs. 19). Don’t underestimate the power of that. We should rejoice in Paul’s sufferings. How can we do that?
Well, this command to rejoice is actually just an extension of the more basic command that we should always rejoice in the face of suffering in Christ. This is something that we are told throughout the New Testament:
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3)
In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials. (1 Peter 1:6)
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you, and cast out your names as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy! For indeed your reward is great in heaven, for in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
So, are you a grumbler or a rejoicer? You’ve heard how God wants His children to be. You’ve heard Paul’s command. Are you being obedient?
Do you see someone who is unmovable and content amidst all things. That man is at rest in Christ. Do you see a man who is always anxious, jumpy, on edge, and ready to start a fight? That man is not at rest. He has not found peace for his soul. He is not standing out as a contrast to the world, but instead looks just like the world, even if he is in the church.
And so what do you do, how do you start? Well, how about trying right now. Give thanks for the good things God has done in your life. For your family, for you job, for your friends, for this country and the good gifts all around you. Count your blessings. Literally. Think about them, and lay them out. Taste and see that the Lord is good!
But what if you can’t think of anything? What if you don’t really believe the Lord is good? What if it hasn’t felt that way in your life in a long time?
If that is the case for you, then let me bring you back to Jesus. He who was in the form of God did not consider his equality with God a thing to be clutched and seized onto, but instead poured Himself out in humility, all the way to death on the cross at Calvary, for you. His death saved you. Your sins are forgiven. God is not angry with you. God has adopted you, made you His child, in Christ. He loves you and desires your good. God is blessing you, saving you, working in you—do you believe that?
God can satisfy your soul. Do you believe that? Jesus can give you fulfillment. Do you believe that? Then rejoice.