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Philippians 2:12-18: Commands with a Sure Hope Print E-mail
Sunday, 20 July 2008

Have you ever thought to yourself: ‘How will I ever be able to keep the commands of God?’  Often, we read the Bible and meditate on something that God has called us to do and before even closing the book we have already been discouraged about how hard it will be to obey.  Or how many times have you been convicted by a sermon only to find that conviction quickly snuffed out by feelings of inadequacy and weakness?  People often tell me as they are leaving on Sunday mornings that the sermon was convicting.  Unfortunately, their confession seems to be accompanied with despair and doubt.  On the one hand, all of this makes perfect sense because the commands of the Lord are difficult, even impossible if left to ourselves.  Christ did not come to set the bar low, but to raise it high (just think of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7).  Even last week, as we considered the humility of Christ and are call to have the same mindset, it is so easy to be overwhelmed by such a thought.  Yet, is that all there is to the Christian life?  Are the commands of God meant to be so terribly discouraging in light of Christ and the cross?  I don’t think so.  There is more going on than what we often realize.

This morning I have two goals for us as we look at Philippians 2:12-18.  First, I want us to identify and obey the commands that Paul gives us here in light of the high Christology that we considered last week.  Second, I want us to answer this question of how can we have hope to ever obey such commands (or any other commands of God).  So then, let’s begin by looking at the general and specific commands in this text.

First, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (v. 12)

I call this a general command because it seems to  go along with all that Paul has been saying since 1:27, where he told us to let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.   These commands involve the ‘living out’ of our salvation by grace through faith in Christ.  In other words, Paul is not calling for the Philippians (or anybody else) to save themselves because they are already Christians.  Rather, he is calling them to live out that salvation through their attitudes and conduct toward one another. 

And make no mistake about it, such living out of our faith is critical to Paul and the other New Testament writers.  Otherwise, as James teaches us, our faith will prove itself to be useless and dead.  True, saving faith is faith that works itself out through obedience to the commands of Christ.  Look at how Paul states it in verse 12.  Paul knows our temptation to simply try and be ‘Christian’ in front of certain people at certain times.  Thus, he tells the Philippians to be obedient at all times, whether he is present or not.  Just as Christ was obedient even to the point of death on a cross, so we are to be obedient in all things.

Such commands serve as a clear correction for the ‘cheap grace’ or ‘Christianity Lite’ which is so often taught and practiced in our Churches.  A call to simply ‘come down front, accept Christ, and live however you want to’ is not consistent with Paul’s call to live lives that are worthy of the gospel and to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  We have seemingly lost the fear and trembling aspect of our salvation and sanctification.  We call people to trust in Christ and be saved, while keeping the outworking of such faith in the small print.  Again, we are not suggesting, for Paul is not suggesting, that we are to save ourselves through works or sanctify ourselves through works.  Rather, the New Testament writers teach us that saving, sanctifying faith is evidenced, or lived out, through good deeds.  We must teach and practice this in our Churches.  Otherwise we will miss the clear command (imperative) that Paul gives us here for continued obedience. 

After we look at the other more specific commands in these verses, we will come back to verse 13 to consider how we will ever be able to obey.  So, what are the specific commands?

Second, do all things without grumbling or questioning (v. 14-16).

Paul gives us this clear command in verse 14.  Look at that with me.  It is amazing how open Paul leaves this command.  In other words, he does not give us a list of qualifying statements that we could use to justify our tendency to grumble and complain.  It would be easier if he said things like: ‘If people treat you unfairly, well then you can complain,’ or, ‘When you don’t get what you think you deserve you can grumble in your heart as long as you don’t say it out loud.’  Yet, Paul does not give us an out.  We are not to grumble in our actions or our attitudes.  We are not to question (in the sense of rebellious doubt) the commands and call of God.  We are to joyfully obey.  I mean think about it, grumbling in our obedience is like when parents have to force their kids to apologize to each other.  They may say it, but they don’t mean it.  If we bitterly obey, if we grumble in our heart, then we are not truly obeying.  We are not rejoicing in the Lord always (see 4:4).

Yet, why is this so important?  I mean as long as we obey, as long as we don’t sleep around, or get drunk, or as long as we give, or treat others as better than ourselves, what does it matter if we grumble a little.  After all, these can be hard commands, so what’s the big deal with grumbling?  Look at verses 15-16.  Paul gives us two reasons why this command is important.  First, our witness to a watching world is at stake.  The language here that Paul uses is similar to the language used to describe the people of Israel in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 32, especially verse 5).  They grumbled and complained and were not faithful children of God without blemish.  Rather, they became a crooked and twisted generation.  In contrast, Paul wants the Philippians to avoid their error and be a faithful witness in the world.  He wants them to live as the lights that they are in Christ, providing light for a dark world.  He could be referring to the idea of using stars to navigate by. 

In the ancient world, sailors and others used the stars to know where they were going.  Paul is telling the Philippians to be lights that will point others to Christ.  Thus, one of the reasons why we should serve the Lord without grumbling is so that we can show the world what a treasure Christ is, encouraging them to forsake all to follow Him.  Second, Paul’s boasting in them on the final Day is at stake.  Paul does not want to waste his time.  He does not want to run in vain or labor in vain.  Their joyful obedience to the Lord will serve as fruit in Paul’s life.  As we obey with joy and without grumbling, the faithful leaders who have invested in us and taught us the Word will be able to rejoice as well.  I understand this as your pastor.  So much of my life is connected to the spiritual health of the members of Trinity Baptist Church.  I want you to not grumble or complain so that you can hold forth the word of life faithfully to a watching world.  Thus, may we do all things without grumbling or questioning.

Third, be glad and rejoice with others (v. 17-18).

Paul talks more about his connection with their obedience in verses 17-18.  Look at those verses with me.  It is hard to understand what he is saying in verse 17 without considering the Old Testament sacrificial system.  When they offered sacrifices, the main sacrifice would be the lamb or the ram or the grain.  Yet, along with this ‘main sacrifice’ they would also offer a ‘drink offering’ of wine or oil that was to be poured over the other offering.  This drink offering served to complete the main offering.  Thus, Paul is saying that the main offering is the sacrificial offering of your faith.  The Philippians faith and obedience and willingness to suffer for Christ is the main offering to Paul.  He is willing to add to their offering his own sacrifice as a ‘drink offering.’  Paul is here modeling the humility that he commended in 2:1-11.  He sees his own suffering as secondary to the sacrifice of the Philippians. 

Of course, he does not end there.  He goes on to tell them that he rejoices at such a thought.  He rejoices that they are willing to sacrifice for the Lord as part of their expression of their faith in Christ and he rejoices that his sacrifice will serve as ‘drink offering’ to complete theirs.  Finally, he closes with the command: you also should be glad and rejoice with me.  It is not to easy to rejoice in our suffering and our sacrifice, but Paul commands that we do.  Why?  Because it evidences the work that God is doing in our lives.  It is this point that leads us back to our other question, namely how will we ever be able to keep these commands?

Our sure hope for keeping these (and other) commands: God is working in us (v. 13).

In order to answer, look at verse 13 again.  After commanding us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, Paul tells us that it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  We work because God is working.  How does Paul describe God’s working in us?  First, He works in us to will.  In other words, it is God who even gives us the desire to work.  If you are sitting here thinking: I don’t really want to consider others greater than myself or stop grumbling or rejoice with others, then take hope in the fact that God can and will change your desires.  As you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, He will give you the desire to obey and to work for His good pleasure.  Second, He works in us to work.  Our desire is given by Him and any ability that we have to work is given by Him.  He supplies the desire and the strength for us to work for His good pleasure.  O’Brien states: “The God who mightily raised his Son from the dead now by his indwelling Spirit effectively works in the Philippians to supply both the determination to obey his own gracious purpose and the power to carry it out.” 1 

You may be thinking to yourself: ‘Alright William, so which is it?  Do we work or does God work?’  My only response can be ‘yes.’  Paul commands us to work, but he assures us that the only way that we could ever work is because God is working in us.  We cannot use God’s work (or His sovereignty) as an excuse for us to do not work.  Likewise, we cannot pat ourselves on the back or be arrogant in any way concerning our obedience.  Our work is simply a fleshing out of what God has done, is doing, and will do in us.  Instead of stumbling over this or trying to figure out exactly where God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility intersect, why not just be encouraged?  After all, I believe that is Paul’s purpose here.  He wants to give us hope in our obedience.  He does not want us to hear the commands of God and hang our head in despair.  Rather, he wants us to hear such commands and to place all our hope in the One who is working in us.  Christ did not die so that we could be crushed under His commands.  No, He died to purchase our pardon and to secure our sanctification.  He obeyed so that we might now obey in hope.  In light of such glorious truth, may we indeed work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  Amen.

1 Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1991), p. 287

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 30 July 2008 )

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