“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
If the command to ‘have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus’ is one of the toughest commands in the Bible, then this ‘so then’, or ‘therefore’ as some of your versions read, has to be the most significant ‘therefore’ of the Bible.
As we come to it I think we would have to conclude once more that what we have before us is an admonition to do something on the one hand, and our knowledge on the other hand that we cannot.
I’ve said this before and I think it can apply here as well. Jesus loves telling people to do the impossible. Because at whatever point we slap our foreheads and say, ‘I can’t do that’, that is when He is able to step in and endow us with supernatural ability and show us once more that apart from Him we can do nothing.
I think maybe that’s why Paul chose this point to call them ‘my beloved’. Not that he was saying it with any degree of insincerity; I believe Paul loved them dearly, as he had already shown by expressing the joy he had at every remembrance of them and in prayer. But just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and this is a pretty weighty thing he is calling on them for.
That is, it is heavy until they, until we, remember from whence comes our help, which he is quick to follow with, and which we will see before we are done.
Ok; so Paul says, ‘therefore’ and then he reminds them to continue in obedience. Obedience to what? Well, obedience to the word of God. Obedience to the admonitions of the Apostle as he has brought God’s Word to them and said ‘now do this’.
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who humbled Himself, took on flesh, became a servant, delivered Himself up as an offering and a sacrifice for us all. Have that attitude in yourselves…
…and an exhortation to have that attitude presupposes life-action that will manifest that attitude.
Jesus didn’t go around saying “I am humble, I am a servant” and then live for His own comfort looking out for His own interests.
Therefore obedience to the call to be like Him means demonstrating Christ-likeness in the life.
It doesn’t mean wearing the right bracelet or the right t-shirts and attending the concerts and conventions and staying away from the ‘wrong’ places and being a ‘good Christian’.
It means wearing a cross – and I am not talking about the little silver one that hangs around the neck. It means servanthood toward the brethren. It means considering others as more important than oneself. It means letting God do the exalting at the proper time.
Just remember that in order for there to be a raising up there must first be a laying down.
Remember that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Jn 12:24
Therefore also God highly exalted Him. Even Jesus did not exalt Himself, but trusted the Father to do so at the proper time.
There’s a whole lot of talking in the church these days about power. Power for living. Pentecostal power. Power in the Holy Spirit. Successful living through claiming the promises and praying expectant prayers in the authority of the believer…
…Christian, the very first point of obedience called for and expected from the believer by the whole of the New Testament, is death.
You want to see Pentecostal power? You want to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit? “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Luke 9:23
Before I pass on from here let’s take notice of the way Paul presents this idea of obedience. Just as you have always obeyed in my presence, be even more diligent in my absence.
The wording is reminiscent of a father going on a long journey and encouraging his children before he goes. You’ve always been obedient children and you’ve been careful to listen to my advice; now it is very important that you apply even greater diligence to obeying and heeding my counsel while I am far away. This will be for your benefit in every way.
And there is a spiritual principle present here that we mustn’t miss. In the same way that it is important for the Philippians to continue in obedience in the absence of their spiritual leader, so must we be reminded that Jesus is at some point coming for each one of us. How beneficial it will be for each of us to have been diligent in obedience during the time when we were not aware of His immediate presence.
Now this next phrase of Paul’s is one that could and has resulted in many a dispute, when people have an unbalanced understanding of Bible doctrine.
It is always dangerous to exaggerate a point of doctrine and over-emphasize its teaching at the neglect of balancing doctrine. It is equally dangerous to take a line or a verse out of context and even out of the context of the rest of scripture and build a belief or a practice on it.
As we have already seen, there are some action words here in our text that clearly indicate the Christian life is not a static one; not a sedentary one. We are called to obey, now we are called to work. In fact, if you go past our text to verse 14 the first thing you read is “Do all things…” so there must be things we are to do.
Interestingly, what Paul is saying here is that they are to work out their salvation. Not only that, but they are to do so with ‘fear and trembling’.
On the surface that seems to fly in the face of all the teaching the Bible has on God’s grace and the freedom that is ours in Christ, and Paul’s own declaration that we are saved by grace through faith and not as a result of good deeds or personal merit.
So we have to find balance, don’t we?
I found the JB Phillips New Testament to be a help in getting started here. It paraphrases this part of verse 12 this way:
“…work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility.”
The term ‘work out’ is from a word that indicates a continuing emphasis. He is telling them that since they have been saved by the power of God, their duty now is to cooperate with His Spirit in the sanctifying process.
We do not work to be saved, but being saved we are now to walk in obedience to the Spirit in us. And since the Spirit in us is the Spirit of Christ He leads us to Christ and both directs and empowers us to live like Christ.
Now here is how this works. The more diligent we are to be obedient to these commands, the more acutely aware we become of our sinfulness and our abject inability to carry them out in the strength of our own personal character.
This is what Paul was talking about in Romans 7 when he said,
“For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” Rom 7:15-18
Some teach that this is the pre-Christian Paul, and that he is talking about his condition before he was saved, not after. That cannot be the case. The person who is unregenerate and without the influence of the Holy Spirit in them does not have this conflict. They have no desire to live Godly and no strength to do so. They are entirely at the mercy of the power of sin and are incapable of recognizing its power over them.
As a believer, Paul is confessing that the tendency toward sin is still present in him even as a Spirit-filled believer, and if he is not diligent he will succumb to its siren call.
Fortunately, as he goes on to describe his dilemma he asks ‘who will deliver me from this body of death’ and is able to shout the joyful answer, ‘Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ my lord!”
While we are in these unglorifed bodies believers, the only hope we have of suppressing the sin nature is by the daily death to self that Jesus talked of, and going in the life and power that He supplies by His resurrection.
That is why our attitude toward the working out of our progressive sanctification must be with a sense of awe and responsibility.
Remember, we have noted that Paul was driven by an unquenchable joy in Christ, yet he speaks often of fear and trembling in regards to his approach to God’s Word and the walk of faith. There is a contrast here, but not a contradiction.
We can see it expressed by Solomon in Proverbs 28:13-14a
“He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion. How blessed is the man who fears always”.
Believer, the secret to a happy Christian life is in the balance of a diligent desire to obey God’s Word, recognition of our tendency toward unfaithfulness to that process which is called ‘sin’, which should cause us trepidation, and answering all inner doubts and fears concerning our final acceptance before God with the joyful assurance, ‘Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ my lord!”
WHAT’S WORKED IN
This brings us now to talk about the next verse in our text. Notice it begins with the word ‘for’.
Back to JB Phillips:
“…work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper sense of awe and responsibility. For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose”.
Hear the sort of play on words here? We’re going to see another instance of this before we end today but for now listen to it.
Work out what God has worked in.
Again, this is not a reference to initial salvation, but to the ongoing process of sanctification. It is a reference to the process God is continuing to work in you, of changing you, of transforming you…but not for your sake and for your good only, but for His purpose. It is so that God’s purposes can be accomplished through you and out of your life.
It is God who is in you, giving you the desire and the power to do His will. Remember back at the beginning when I said that the call to this kind of obedience is a weighty one until we are made aware of where our help comes from? Well this is it.
It is God working in you. It is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Notice the order of things here. First Paul admonishes them to obedience in cooperating with God in their own progressive salvation and assures them that it is God Himself in them who is empowering them to will and to work out His good pleasure; His purpose in and through them.
Only after this assurance does he go on to list behaviors that will mark them as who they are in Christ and also confirm to Paul’s own spirit that his work among them was fruitful.
Here is the short list, I’ll just read it and leave it for your meditation later, but I want to focus on one or two phrases near the end of the passage and then we’ll be done.
“Do all things” he says, “without grumbling or disputing”.
Why? Because this kind of mutual respect and cooperation will set you apart as those who are innocent children of God, in sharp contrast with the way things are done in a crooked and perverse world.
By their Godly behavior toward one another they will shine as lights in the darkness, and Christians, that is no less true of us in 21st century America.
If people outside the church do not see anything about the church that is different from the rest of society it is because they see us acting toward one another like the rest of society acts. Grumbling, disputing, backbiting, contesting, competing, disrespecting.
If there is only darkness in the church there is no reason for them to believe the church has anything about it to commend it for their consideration.
But Paul says by the power of God working in us to give us the desire and the enablement to accomplish His purpose, and as we work together in spiritual unity and mutual love, the church will indeed shine as lights in a darkened, crooked, perverse generation.
HOLD OUT THE WORD
Here’s the phrase I want to focus more closely on.
“…holding fast the word of life…”
This is one of the very few places I see the wording of the New American Standard Bible as unfortunate. Yes, you may mark your calendar; this is the day you heard me say that…
Other translations say “holding forth”. In fact, even in the NASB there is a footnote that gives the word ‘forth’ as an optional translation. The NIV says ‘as you hold out the word of life’.
Put another mark on your calendar; this may be the only time you will ever hear me agree with the NIV over the God-authorized NASB.
But here is why. The language guys tell me that the word employed by Paul here is a secular Greek word used in reference to offering wine to a guest.
Now first of all, I encourage you to take a moment and let this passage conjure a word picture in your mind.
This is what the church is to be to a perverse and darkened world. Envision a man or a woman or a group of people, if you will, standing in a dark and dismal place where people look lost and frightened and confused and uncertain, and these men and women in this group are radiating a brilliant light that is not of them but is coming from them – through them – and they are holding out a cup of cool water, each one to someone out there in the darkness.
Now envision those cups of waters morphing into something different, and they become Bibles. Then the scene changes slightly again and what you are actually seeing is those people faithfully proclaiming the truth of God’s Word, bringing light to dispel the darkness and calling people to receive the life that is in their words.
That’s what Paul is saying they and we must be.
But here is that second play on words I referred to earlier.
Remember, he used a word that to their minds would have said, “Hold out the word of life to people as you would a glass of fine wine to an honored guest in your home.” An offering, if you will.
Then in verse 17 he says, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith…”
Do you see it?
If you are faithfully holding out the word of life to a dark world, I will know that my work among you has not been in vain and I will rejoice even if I myself am being poured out as a drink offering to the Lord.
Paul used this same language later to Timothy, when his departure was imminent.
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.”
But even here in Philippians, where the final outcome of his present imprisonment is not certain, he is considering the possibility that he may not be freed again, but the knowledge of that cannot diminish his joy.
Even if I am about to be poured out like a libation offering to the Lord, yet I rejoice and invite you to share in my joy as you continue in sacrificial service to one another and in holding out the word of life.
Folks, the torch has been passed down to every generation of believers from the first until now. Nothing has changed.
The whole world is lost in the darkness of sin, says the songwriter.
Like sunshine at noonday His glory shone in.
The light of the world is Jesus!
It is for us to be the reflection of His glorious light, and to remain faithful to hold out the true word of life until He comes.
The thing is, I can’t just tell you to do that and send you out with a lunch. The Apostle could not.
Their faithful service and ours, the demonstration of light and life in and through their lives and ours can only be the outcome of the working in us of God’s wonderful sanctifying process, giving us the Spirit of Christ and thereby the desire to desire and the workings to work His good pleasure.
Our Example walked the way before us; the way of obedience and humility and sacrifice. And as a result God also highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him a name that is above every name – and at that name whether here on earth or under the earth or in heaven itself, at some point, every knee will bow down before Him and every tongue will confess His lordship over all, and through it the Father will be glorified.
For this reason we who are called by that glorious name are constrained to walk in the same obedience of faith, the same humility of spirit, willing to sacrifice all for the doing of His good pleasure. Adding our diligence to His inner working power is the only way that we will know the fulfillment of the best part of this passage before us today; that we would be His light, offering truth in a false world.
What does this life have to offer, Christians, that could come anywhere near being as fulfilling and joy inspiring as that?
I think, nothing, as is evidenced by the joy of an imprisoned Apostle that still shines like a beacon through two millennia to a foundering church and a world in waiting.