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A New Testament Study - Philippians 2:12-18

We continue here our study in Paul's Epistle to the Philippians.

Our Work, God's Work

12Therefore, 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, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.

Having just given, in verses 6 through 11, a vivid example of humility and obedience, the example of Christ, Paul again specifically exhorts the Philippians to obedience: "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." He ties this exhortation directly to the preceding example by beginning: "Therefore..." The example of Christ should have a great effect upon our behavior. His example is the model upon which our lives should be molded. Therefore, it is very important that we study the Gospels in detail, so that we thoroughly know how Christ lived.

Paul first commends the Philippians for their previous behavior, saying, "as you have always obeyed." But then Paul warns them that things will now be different, since Paul will not be around them to encourage and exhort them. They will not have Paul to lean on much longer. In our growth as Christians, there comes a time when we do not need to depend upon our human mentors for an example of obedience, but we must come to a place where we can look to Christ alone as our example, and be able to listen to the Spirit of God speaking to our hearts for exhortation. Certainly, our level of obedience should not depend upon the presence or absence of any mere human. We are not to be play-acting obedience for the audience of men. Our obedience to God should spring from a sincere desire to be holy, not from the desire to receive the accolades of men. And so, Paul instructs the Philippians: "...now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling."

Many people have difficulty with the fact that Paul says "work out your salvation." However, this difficulty disappears when we realize, in context, which "salvation" Paul is referring to here. Paul is certainly not speaking of the salvation for which Christ died--that is, the salvation that saves us from judgment for our sin and gives us eternal life--for Paul says elsewhere: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith" (Eph. 2:8). Now, if we "have been saved", then there is no reason to "continue to work out" that salvation. No, Paul is not, here in Philippians, speaking of the same salvation that he was in Ephesians.

Paul here in Philippians is speaking of salvation from the power of sin as we live in this world. We are not entirely saved from the sin of this world. The sin of this world still has a great effect on our lives. We can all testify how we continually struggle against the power of sin. Our life on earth is lived "in a world of abounding temptation, of perpetual turmoil, of overflowing iniquity, of unrest therefore, of anxiety, yes, of risk."[Footnote #2] It is salvation from this that we must "continue to work out." The previous obedience of the Philippians that Paul mentions at the beginning of verse 12 was a "working out" of this salvation, and so Paul then exhorts them to "continue" working out this salvation.

To "work out" this salvation means to strive for full sanctification, to strive for supreme holiness and obedience, to strive to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, so as to follow the example of Christ that Paul just gave. To do so, indeed, requires "work". We cannot be idle, for "religion is a living and trade. It must be maintained with continuance in labour, and working in a constant course of goodness all the days of our life."[Footnote #3] Moreover, the working out of our salvation from sin in this world should be done with "fear and trembling." We should "fear" the consequences of sin, and "tremble" when we think of the harm that comes to us by our sin.

The overriding reason for us to "continue to work out [our] salvation" is that "it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to His good purpose." So, in our battle against sin, we are not on our own. God is "working in" us, as we "work out" our salvation; we "work out" what God "works in". Paul here is expanding upon something that he said previously, in the key verse Philippians 1:6, that is, that "He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Our "working out" of our salvation consists primarily of yielding to God's "working in" us. And what is God "working in" us?: "To will and to act according to His good purpose." God is giving us the desire ("to will") to battle against our sin, as well as the ability ("to act") to be victorious over our sin.

God's "work in" our lives can be subtle. Often, we do not realize that God has been working until we look back at how we used to be. We can detect God's giving us the "will" to battle our sin by considering how our attitude has changed toward sin. We used to look forward to practicing our sin, now (though we still stumble) we despise our sin. This is God's "work in" us. What a privilege that the Creator of the universe would expend energy for us, would personally "work in" our lives!

And He does continually work in our lives, especially through our conscience. In fact, He is at work right now. "He may be working in you to confess to that fellow-Christian that you were unkind in your speech or act. Work it out. He may be working in you to give up that line of business about which you have been doubtful lately. Give it up. He may be working in you to be sweeter in your home, and gentler in your speech. Begin. He may be working in you to alter your relations with some with whom you have dealings that are not as they should be. Alter them."[Footnote #4]

And so, we "work out", God "works in". We work, God works. "Man is, in different senses, entirely active and entirely passive: God producing all, and we acting all. It is not that God does some, and we the rest. God does all, and we do all. Thus the same things are represented as from God and from us. God makes a new heart, and we are commanded to make us a new heart; not merely because we must use the means in order to the effect, but the effect itself is our act and our duty."[Footnote #5]

Finally, the intent of God's work in our lives is to fulfill His purpose, for He works in us "according to His good purpose." Fulfilling God's "good purpose" should be the primary goal of our lives. Everything--absolutely everything--that we do in life should take into consideration the fulfillment of God's purpose, the furthering of His will. The extent to which we work towards God's purpose is the extent to which our life is ultimately meaningful. We can garner riches, rise to power, achieve fame, and yet hopelessly fail in life, if we have not fulfilled God's "good purpose".

Proper Attitude in Service

14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16as you hold out the word of life--in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. 17But 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. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Now Paul addresses the attitude we should have as we go about fulfilling God's purpose: we are to be light to the world. Much of our ability to be light depends upon our attitude. So Paul says: "Do everything without complaining or arguing." Note Paul says: "...everything..."; there are no exceptions (especially when doing God's work). "Complaining" is a horrible testimony to the world. It causes the world to say, "If God is so good, why is His `child' complaining so much?" It is better to quit serving God, than to serve God while "complaining".

"Complaining" and "arguing" come from selfishness and lack of humility. We complain because we (vainly) think that we deserve better treatment, or a better position, or more recognition, or more compensation. Do you think that you are doing God a "favor" by serving Him? Do you think He needs you and your service? Note this: God does not need our service; rather, it is a great privilege that we would be called to serve the Creator of the universe, the Most High God.

"Complaining" and "arguing" are clearly contrary to the example of Christ that Paul portrayed in verses 6 through 11. Christ never "complained" in His service to His Father; rather, "He humbled Himself and became obedient to death" (vs. 7). "Complaining" and "arguing" are also inconsistent with the realization that "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose." To realize that God is in charge of our service will cause us to be content in our service.

Now, we cannot be sanctified if we have a "complaining" attitude; therefore, to refrain from "complaining" and "arguing" is necessary "so that [we] may become blameless and pure." To be "blameless" is to be without fault in our outward, visible behavior; to be "pure" is to be without fault within our hearts. The world is concerned with our "blamelessness"; God is concerned with our "purity". The Lord Himself told Samuel: "The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart" (I Sam. 16:7).

To be "blameless" and "pure" is to be "children of God." God's children, like natural children, take on the traits of their parents. God is pure and righteous, so His children should be pure and righteous, all the more so in order that we might "shine like stars in the universe" in the midst of a "crooked and depraved generation." God chooses to make Himself known in the world through His children, and so it is important that each of us is a light that "shines like stars in the universe." Christ of course told us: "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:14-16).

Now, "stars in the universe" shine consistently, even when we do not see them. On gloomy days, the stars are shining (hidden though they may be by the clouds). On the brightest days, the stars are still shining (though they are drowned out by the light of the sun). Similarly, consistency in being a light that shines is necessary in the service of God.

Our attitude, our (hopefully) lack of "complaining" and "arguing", is to a great extent our light that shines. Through our attitude, we must show the "crooked and depraved generation" character traits that they lack, such as joy, peace, and contentedness. Such an attitude makes more appealing "the word of life" that we are to "hold out" as we shine.

Indeed, we are not to "shine" just for "shining" sake, but we are to "hold out the word of life" as we shine. Our shining is worthless unless we also further the Gospel of Christ through it. Likewise, our "holding out the word of life" is rendered useless unless we support it by "shining like stars in the universe." "All the world cannot persuade a man contrary to that they see."[Footnote #6]

Paul takes pride in the work of his disciples, and so, one reason that he would have them "shine like stars in the universe" is so that he "may boast on the day of Christ that [he] did not run or labor for nothing." Interestingly, our humility in service of God here on earth will lead to our boasting in heaven! Paul does not fear his situation as he sits imprisoned, waiting (possibly) to be executed; rather, he fears that he may have "run...for nothing", that he was not productive in his service for God. May we have the same fear, and may this fear lead us into greater service for God.

Examine your life. Are you "running for nothing", laboring for that which will perish? "Men labour, sweat, take pains and travail, spare no cost; and all this to go to hell, to heap up wrath against the day of wrath. The devil has more servants in his barren and fruitless service than God gets with all his promises and good things that he liberally gives."[Footnote #7]

Again, Paul's did not view his success as being tied to his physical well-being, so he tells the Philippians: "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." The Philippians financially supported Paul's ministry, and now he is in prison. Paul did not want them to be discouraged by this. As long as it is God's will that he "be poured out like a drink offering", there is reason to "rejoice". And so, Paul tells them that they "too should be glad and rejoice" with him, even if he dies a martyr as a result of their financial support. The measure of a ministry's success is not its material growth or expansion, but whether its work is fulfilling God's purpose. For this reason, we should go to the prayer closet, not to the balance sheet, when deciding which ministries to support.

Now Lord, may we look to You for guidance as we serve You. May our one goal in life be to fulfill Your purpose for us. Sanctify us, purify us, and give us boldness to shine forth Your light in this dark world. We praise You for all that You have done in our lives. In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.

(We will continue our study of Philippians in the next issue.)


2. Charles J. Vaughan, Epistle to the Philippians, pg. 112.

3. Richard Sibbes, The Christian Work, from The Works of Richard Sibbes, Vol. V, pg. 8.

4. F. B. Meyer, Devotional Commentary on Philippians, pg. 110.

5. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown, A Commentary, Vol. III; pg. 430.

6. Sibbes, op. cit., pg. 29.

7. Sibbes, op. cit., pg. 11.

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