Passage – Philippians 2:12-18
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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 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, 16 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. 17 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. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
With this passage, the book of Philippians continues its topical swing between (a) the character of leaders and (b) responding to hardship. Throughout Philippians, as Paul finishes a thought on one subject it pushes him back to the other. In the first part of Chapter 2 Paul held up the humble character of Jesus as the standard for Christian leadership. Now, based on reflecting on Jesus’ character, Paul returns to instructing the Philippians on how to respond to the persecution they were facing.
An Intentional Exaggeration (v. 12)
Paul begins by saying something he knows is not technically true. He says, “As you have always obeyed,” knowing full-well they haven’t. There is no way Paul pastored this church for any period of time and wasn’t aware of sin. This is an example of why we can’t read the Bible like a legal document unless that is how a book was written. For example, the book of Romans is written like an extended legal argument, so it is right to interpret Romans that way. But Philippians, as we’ve said, is the most personal letter Paul wrote in the New Testament. It should be interpreted as such.
In this statement, Paul is encouraging; he is not appraising. If a friend tells you, “Your house looks like a million bucks,” that is not an indication you should put it on the market at that price. But, if a home appraiser says the same thing, it means something different. However, if your friend is also an appraiser, you should ask them which role they are speaking from at that moment. In this passage, Paul is speaking in friend-mode.
What should we glean from this observation? It is fine to use exaggeration in our encouragement of one another. If a husband says to his wife or a parent says to their child, “I love you more than anything in the world,” they do not have to worry about being a violation of Luke 14:26 where Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This passage shows us that overstatement for the purpose of encouragement is biblically permissible practice.
There are some Christians who feel so compelled to be so theologically precise in their words that they become relationally cumbersome. Paul, someone who valued theological precision enough to write a book like Romans, did not feel this compulsion. When he was making a theological argument, he was precise. When he was encouraging a friend, he was warm and free.
A Theological Contradiction (v. 12-13)
Paul follows up his exaggerative encouragement with a near heretical statement. He instructs these believers to, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” This seems to be in stark contrast to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast,” which Paul also wrote.
What’s going on here? In Ephesians, Paul was in attorney mode, writing another theological treatise. The church as Ephesus was an exceptionally talented church where pride would be a common temptation. You might think of it this way: the Ephesians were Paul’s high achieving friends from grad school and the Philippians were Paul’s friends that were more loyal than brilliant. Paul spoke to each church in the tone, with the precision, and to the needs their situation required.
So, what was Paul’s point? Paul was acknowledging that suffering and hardship are times that reveal the genuineness, or lack thereof, of our faith. To use a sports metaphor, Paul is speaking like the coach in the final two minutes of fourth quarter saying, “This is the moment you’ve been working for all season,” which is not a precise statement. Didn’t the players work hard to be better during the first three quarters of the game too? Yes, but the coach is drawing attention to something pivotal about this moment and summoning as much motivation as possible. That is what Paul is doing here.
Look at what Paul said next, “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It is easy to write this off as a poetic praise to God’s faithfulness. But it’s more than that. Paul is saying, “It’s okay if you’re scared and conflicted about facing persecution.” Paul has been honest about his internal conflicts in this letter. Paul is saying, “If you’re not sure you have the will to face persecution well, ask God for that too. God gives the desire to what is right and the ability to do it. Ask him for whichever you need.” This verse is a version of the father of an ailing child praying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” in Mark 9:24.
In light of this, “Work out your salvation,” is comparable to a math teacher saying, “Work out an algebra problem.” The student isn’t supplying what is required; the teacher has already given the necessary instruction. The teacher, representing God, isn’t saying, “You can’t ask any more questions.” The statement is merely conveying, “Now is the time to show the difference being in this class has made,” or, “Now, during persecution and suffering, is the time to show the difference being a Christian makes in your life.”
A Significant Contrast (v. 14-15)
Paul segues from internal unrest we feel during suffering to the interpersonal fallout that occurs when we go through suffering. What does Paul address? Grumbling. The same thing that Jesus’ half-brother, James, addressed to the Christians he led when they faced persecution (James 4:1-2). When we face hard times, it is common for our attitudes to sour and for us to bicker with one another.
Paul’s appeal for resolving this tendency was not practical; instead, it was motivational. Paul didn’t give “how to” instruction but drew attention to the “why.” Paul is drawing a contrast; those motivating by personal ambition divide during hard times, but those who are motivated by honoring God remain unified.
Paul’s point is that faithfulness in hard times is not just God-honoring, it is also evangelistic. The genuineness of our faith stands in contrast to the convenience with which non-believers hold their belief during hard times. When we don’t, the world rightly say, “See, Christians aren’t really that different from us.”
The effectiveness of what Paul is saying was proven in Chapter 1. When Paul went to prison, he didn’t sulk about the unfairness of his trial. He started a prison ministry. His hope in prison stood out in comparison to his fellow inmates. They wanted what he had. Even some of the prison guards were so intrigued by Paul’s demeaner that it created the curiosity that resulted in them coming to faith (Philippians 1:12-14).
A Collectivist Motivation (v. 16-18)
Paul returns to the theme of putting a collective motivation ahead of an individualistic motivation. He isn’t saying self-interest is bad. He is saying it should not be forefront for Christians. Paul expresses how he is motivated by the impact his actions have on his friends in Philippi and wants them to be motivated by how their actions impact him. In these verses Paul’s logic is, “If I am faithful, that will encourage you. If you’re faithful, you’ll encourage me. Let’s use our influence with one another to compel us to be more like Christ.”Paul isn’t saying self-interest is bad. He is saying it should not be forefront for Christians. Click To Tweet
Paul is speaking of the church like a team. By way of parallel, he is saying, “If I slack off in practice, you won’t have to work as hard. But if I give my all, it will draw maximum effort from you. Our effort and attitude are contagious.” Whether you’ve played on a sports team or engaged in a group project, you know this dynamic is true. The number of time Paul repeats this theme indicates it is central to understanding what it means to be part of God’s family. We “spur one another on to love and good works” by our example (Hebrews 10:24).
This should cause you to ask the questions, “Who influences me this way? Who do I influence this way?” Make a list. Assess the culture in this group of people. Talk about it openly. Start with the premise that culture is created by what you’re willing to accept. Paul identifies for the Philippians what they need to be unwilling to accept – grumbling and division. Ask the people in your group of Christian influence what the prevalent temptations are for you. Use your love for one another as motivation to compel you to be unwilling to accept those compromises.
- What are the times and places in your life when you are in friend mode? What are the times and places in your life when you are in technical mode?
- What is an example of a time when you were not aware of the mode a situation called for and it resulted in a bad outcome?
- In your own words, describe how Paul talking one way to the Philippians and a different way to the Romans and Ephesians was actually honoring to each relationship.
- What is a situation where you currently need to pray that God would give you the will to obey, not just the strength, because your motivation is waning?
- What are the hardships you are facing right now? What are the common temptations for that kind of hardship?
- With what group of unbelieving friends would remaining faithful in that hardship reveal that there was something real or genuine about your faith?
- Who are the fellow believers that would be encouraged and challenged by your faithfulness in that hardship? How are you being intentional about cultivating the positive influence from you to them and them to you?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.