May 2, 2016
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Building on an encouragement for humility that he’s just expressed to them (2:1-11), Paul addresses his brothers and sisters in Philippi as “beloved.” He loves these people and now he presses them on toward obedience, especially since he’s now kept from being with them.
Paul tells them to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” At first blush, this might look like he’s telling them to get their salvation sorted out on their own, and to do it in a posture of fear. But that’s not what he’s saying. We know that they’ve already been saved by Jesus Christ through grace and not works (2 Timothy 1:8-10), so Paul’s not saying they need to save themselves at all. Although it’ll be completely revealed when Jesus returns, we know that their salvation is already secure because it was fully accomplished on the cross. The Philippians, therefore, should “work out” the reality of what Jesus has already done in the Gospel. Paul’s saying: Jesus has rescued you, so now live out of that profound truth.
Why then does he add “fear and trembling”? Should we be scared of our salvation? Not at all.
It’s because of what comes next: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure.” This fact should be staggering to us. The God of the universe, who created and upholds everything that exists, is working inside of you right now. His saving work on the cross wasn’t just a historic event that just carries potential for your obedience, but rather, it purchased your very desire and the ability to obey—and this is all God’s work in your heart.
A wild thought, isn’t it? That God works to give us the will to work. This shouldn’t arouse dread or distress over whether we’ll be saved, but rather fear and trembling that such a great and majestic God would have his hands so continually on our lives, and not only that, but he’s doing it for his joy. He enjoys working in us this obedience. That’s simply astounding.
"Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain."
With a firm foundation for their obedience in view, Paul continues to press deeper. He tells the Philippians to obey without grumbling or disputing. Why is this? He says: So that they’re blameless and innocent children of God. The point is that complaining and arguing isn’t what people who call God their Father do. If you’re in God’s family, you obey joyfully and not begrudgingly, because you’ve seen his reckless love and you know that his ways are better.
This fact sets the Philippians apart and it sets us apart as well. People who joyfully obey Jesus will always look starkly different than a world full of contradictory and crooked moral systems. Obedience without grumbling and disputing is obedience from joy and the world has no grid or framework for such a thing. In fact, these children of God look so different, that Paul refers to them as lights (phōstēres)—literally “luminaries.” The phrase translates as “lights in the cosmos,” he’s comparing them to brilliant and shining stars.
In other words, the joyful obedience of the children of God is so remarkably distinct from every other kind of life in the world that it’s like the brilliance of stars against the pitch black of space. That’s incredible and almost impossible to imagine, especially when we consider how weak and compromised we often feel. This is why we need to continually embrace the truth of verse 13. Ultimately, the source of our obedience is God himself (Ephesians 2:10).
Paul continues the depiction of shining brightly in this world by tying it to the act of “holding fast to the word of life” until their Savior returns. What is the “word of life”? It’s the Gospel (Acts 5:20), the beautiful truth that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has paid for the sin of those who believe. Notice that he doesn’t say to hold on to obedience here, he says hold on to the Gospel. Paul understands that true obedience doesn’t arise from robotically following rules, but rather from knowing Jesus Christ and the reckless love he showed on the cross.
"Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me."
Paul sums up this part of the letter by saying that even if he dies while imprisoned, he will be glad and rejoice knowing the Philippians are anchored in the Gospel and holding onto the reckless love of Jesus Christ. This kind of joy can’t be silenced or killed. It’s invincible.
Authentic obedience is not the result of us finally getting a handle on our sin problem or discovering the hidden solution to our brokenness. Real and lasting obedience comes from knowing and enjoying Jesus Christ and the love he displayed on the cross (2 Corinthians 3:18). When we encounter the Gospel and find faith arising in our hearts, we see that God is already actively and powerfully working out his own will in our lives. He’s making us alive.
This doesn’t mean we switch on autopilot and ignore doing what’s right and obedient. It means that we press in to knowing Jesus and as we do this we let our affections for him soar to such a height that we’re not just trying to cut sin out of our lives, but we’re so enamored by the joy found in Jesus that we refuse to trifle with the diminished and fleeting joy of sin.
Here are some questions to help you dig a little deeper, both personally and in group: