I’d like us to jump right into the Word of God. Hopefully simply the fact that we’re reading words that God wrote through a man is enough to make you eager for this part of our gathering. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: the message part of our gathering is not when worship stops, and now we get into the Bible. Really, if anything, this is the crescendo of our worship. Why? We’re learning to obey! The heart of how we are to worship God and lift up his name is not merely expressing that to him with our words, but with our obedience. So, now we turn to learning about who God is, who we are, and how we can obey him and submit our lives to him more and more.
Today we are skipping one section of the book of Philippians in order to save it for next week. Basically, the central passage in the Bible on the incarnation is Philippians 2:5-11. And so, because it seems appropriate to ponder the incarnation (God becoming a man) at Christmas, because of that, we’re saving that text for next week, on Christmas Eve in the morning.
Today, we’ll be in Philippians 2:12-18. And before Duane Dodrill, one of our deacons, comes and reads this text, I want to read this previous text, which we’ll be looking at next week. Verses 5-11 are the beginning of the gospel, perhaps the greatest truth in the history of the world, and then, verses 12-18, which we’re looking at in detail today, answer the question, “So what?” What does the grand truth of who Jesus is mean for us? What’s the AIM of this gospel truth? So I’m going to read 5-11, then Duane will read today’s text, verses 12-18. Again, Philippians 2, starting in verse 5:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12 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.
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. 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.
Our AIM: To Shine Like Stars in a Dark World
Thank you, Duane. There is a central aim communicated in this passage. After hearing of such grand truths, namely that Jesus emptied himself and took the form a servant (in other words, he became a man), and then God gave him the name above every name and exalted him, what then does that mean for us? The central aim of these truths is expressed best, I think, in verse 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.”
That, right there, is our primary aim in this life as Christians! That’s it! That we be holy and blameless, as children of God, because we’ve been adopted into God’s family, and in reflecting that adoption, and in pursuing holiness and purity, guess what? We’ll shine like stars! This is where I feel the somewhat cliché saying, “in the world but not of it,” comes in very nicely. It says it right there, doesn’t it? “Children of God in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” We are in the world, but we are NOT to be of it. How are we not of the world? Well, we’re not like the world. We’re set apart, holy. We have a completely different aim in life, and therefore we look very different. Or at least we’re supposed to look different.
I’ve mentioned before that I think the biggest problem within Western Christianity, this is just my speculation, is that we look too much like the world. It’s like we’ve tried to mimick the world to try and relate to the world, when in fact all we’ve done is give the world less of a reason to consider Christianity! If the Christian life is so similar to any other life, why become a Christian? That’s a problem.
Paul says we’re to be “blameless and innocent,” or “blameless and pure.” Then he says, “children of God without blemish!” That means “without fault!” Our great aim as Christians now, according to Scripture, is to be holy! That’s blatant here! Five words that basically sum up what it is to be holy, just in this verse. But it’s also everywhere in Scripture! We see it in Leviticus 20:26, “You must be holy because I, the LORD, and holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own.” He’s set us apart as his own people; that’s what the word “holy” means, he’s set us apart “from all other people.” We are distinct! And because we are distinct, we shine like stars in the midst of this crooked and twisted generation. This command to be holy isn’t just an Old Testament command; it is reiterated in the New—one example is 1 Peter 1:16—“For it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’”
So here’s the question I think we should ask: Where is the pursuit of holiness, the pursuit of Godliness, on your personal list of priorities? Is this really part of your life? Are you truly pursuing to be more and more Godly? Are you aiming to be blameless and pure, without fault, sinless?! You see, as a Gospel-centered church, which we absolutely are (I hope), it can be easy to dismiss commands like this we see in the Scriptures (Be holy because I am holy) as really just making the point that we can’t be holy.
When we see, “Be holy, because I am holy,” it’s easy to jump to thinking, “That’s there to help us realize that we can’t be holy, and so we look to Christ who was holy!” And, in a sense, that’s always true of these types of commands. They do point to our inadequacy and remind us of our salvation in Christ, who was more than adequate. He is our Substitute, the lamb without blemish that took on our sins, yes?
BUT! These commands we see in the New Testament were given to believers! In other words, they are not merely there to point us to our need for a Savior (they already knew their Savior), but also to point us to our new AIM as believers! WE are to be holy! That’s the AIM of our salvation! Our sin goes on Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to us. And now, as saints (which is very much what we are in God’s eyes), we’re to aim to match that in our actual hearts and lives. We’re to become who we already are in Christ.
This is the gospel. It’s not that we have the gospel first, and then it’s not all about the gospel—it’s now also about pursuing holiness. No, the Gospel all of this. The gospel is what releases us to be able to pursue Godliness. Kevin Deyoung calls it “Spirit-powered, Gospel-driven, Faith-fueled effort.” We are to pursue Godliness, even aggressively, but it is only our freedom in Christ that empowers us to do just that. He freed us from the penalty of sin, but also the power of sin. A great little book I’d encourage you to consider reading is, The Hole in Our Holiness, by Kevin Deyoung. The subtitle is “Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness.” It’s an excellent read, and not a long one. Again, The Hole in Our Holiness, by Kevin Deyoung.
He talks all about how holiness in many mainstream churches, and even in many truly Gospel-centered churches, has been marginalized. Or even put into this category of legalism. Pursuing holiness, trying to live more like Christ, trying to eradicate sin and put on righteousness, “Oh that’s legalism.” That’s all rules. Christianity’s about a relationship. Well, yes, but every relationship has rules that protect that relationship, right? These rules even help to define the relationship! Rules don’t stifle our relationship with the Lord. If anything, they bring parameters that help define it! Without any parameters, there is no relationship!
So, our AIM, in light of Jesus becoming a man, taking the form of a servant to die on the cross on our behalf and rise again from the dead. In light of that, and in light of now being children of God because of that, our AIM is to be holy, become who we truly are in Christ. Be pure and blameless, without fault, shining like stars in this world because of how much we stick out as a holy people. Now, the question is, how, specifically, do we do that? Paul gives four specific ways to do this:
- Take obedience seriously (12-13).
Verses 12-13: These two verses are commonly misunderstood. Many will point to verse 12 as proving that it’s not just God’s grace that saves us. Instead, we do work for our salvation. We work together with God for our salvation. It’s called synergism.
Verse 12 says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Obviously at first take that may be a difficult verse. “Work out your own salvation.” Doesn’t that mean that I work to bring about my salvation? The simple answer to that question is no. Why? It’s actually pretty obvious when you simply continue reading. Verse 13- “For it is GOD who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It says it right there, that both our will (our desire) and our work (our actual actions) are a result of God working in us! That’s a pretty remarkable statement! Both our desire and our actual doing for God is a result of God working in us! He is the source of our desire to follow him. He is even the source for our obedience to Him.
So if we know that from verse 13, then what is Paul trying to convey at the end of verse 12? Because it’s an imperative, a command! “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” It seems the best way to understand this is to say that Paul is telling them to work AT their salvation. With fear and trembling, work AT your salvation. Work it out! The word for “work” there can often mean “accomplish,” even “bring about,” but in this context it seems best to understand this as “carrying out” the results of your salvation. In other words, you don’t work to bring about your salvation; that’s God’s job. BUT, we do work to carry it out or see it come to bear more and more on our lives. Does that make sense?
Honestly, I think the New Living Translation interprets this well for us: “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.” That really captures what Paul is saying here. One commentator puts it this way: “He means ‘salvation’ in terms of progressively coming to experience all of the aspects and blessings of salvation.” We’re to work at our salvation. We’re to work hard at seeing the full results of salvation in our lives. What does that mean? It means we’re working to be in full obedience to God. Paul already brought up the Philippians’ obedience, and now he’s saying, work at this obedience. Work hard, knowing it is ultimately God who is at work in you.
And this isn’t just some task that is among a whole tasks in our daily lives. We have take the kids to school, go to work, go by the post office, work at my salvation, pick up fish sticks at the grocery store…This isn’t one task among many others. This is THE task, and we’re take it seriously! That’s why it says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” We’re to be sobered by how serious of an effort we’re to put into becoming fully obedient to God. This is a big deal. This isn’t just fun and games. We take obedience seriously! And as we do it, of course, we never forget that God is ultimately the one doing it in us. Both our desire and our actual obedience, God is working in us. The 2nd specific way to shine like stars:
- Stop grumbling and squabbling (14).
It is really interesting, to the say the least, that the application that Paul gives just before getting into the main AIM of our salvation in verse 15, is verse 14: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish…” Other words for grumbling or disputing are…murmuring, complaining, arguing. Do EVERYTHING without complaining. What a command! I have a feeling some of us likely need to hear this today.
But, before we get more into what this looks like, I have a question: Why does Paul choose this specific application? I mean, he could choose basically anything to explain what it means to be without blemish, or holy. So why does he choose this particular sin to harp on, complaining and grumbling? Well, most of it is probably because the Philippians were struggling with this. There were factions and fights going on within the church. We’ve seen that already, and we’ll see more of that in the coming weeks. BUT, there’s another reason I think Paul decided to bring up this specific sin, over all other examples he could have used:
How common is a person who never complains or grumbles? Ponder that for a moment. I mean, maybe there are people who don’t complain out loud too often. Maybe that’s you. But, from what I understand about grumbling, this probably includes the stuff that’s not out loud. You can complain to yourself, and that’s still complaining! So Paul here is referring to tension between people, like arguing and fighting over things that aren’t worth fighting over, and also referring to an inner entitlement: “Ugh, things should be this way, not that way. Ugh, he is so annoying. Ugh, she is so immature. Ugh, why did that car have to park there.”
A few weeks ago I was driving through my neighborhood coming to the church, and I clipped a minivan on the side of the road. My mirror hit their mirror and broke it. I don’t really have a reason to have hit it other than just misjudging how much room I had. But think about the different ways I could respond to this moment. “Ugh, why’d they have to park on the side of the road.” Unfortunately, that was my first thought. I was complaining, blaming someone else. Which made no sense. People park on the side of the road, in case you didn’t know. That’s pretty common. Or, “Ugh, why’d there have to be two cars on both sides of the road right there.” Or, “Ugh, if Lauryn would let drive the Prius more often, this probably wouldn’t have happened. My truck’s too big. The mirror is too strong.” Isn’t it funny what we murmur and grumble about. As if I prefer to drive a Prius over my truck. “Ugh, why did he have to be walking his dog right then and there and see me hit this mirror. So embarrassing.” It was a man I knew, too, lives a few houses down.
Instead of grumbling and murmuring about things most of which we have no control over, why not ask the question, “Lord, how can this make me more holy?” “Lord, I am to value the life of every person in the world, because they’re made in your image. Part of that might mean driving a bit more carefully, because driving can be dangerous.” All complaining and grumbling does is distract us from our primary AIM: which is pursuing holiness as children of God, shining like stars.
The person who genuinely does not complain or grumble is very rare, and this is at least part of why Paul chooses this particular application. An employee that never complains or grumbles about the boss they don’t like, shines like a star because that is pretty rare. A wife or husband that never complains about their spouse, sticks out like a sore thumb, unfortunately, because that seems to be rare. And, listen, not complaining or grumbling doesn’t mean we ignore problems. People have faults, right? Of course! This isn’t about ignoring those faults at all! In fact, in a second we’ll see that one of our primary goals within the body is to help each other with our faults, especially sinful faults.
But what this means is that instead of having this default feeling of entitlement in our relationships with other people (I deserve a more loving wife, I deserve more money for my job, I deserve to be treated better); Instead of this attitude, we have the attitude of overly grateful people who have been saved by the grace of God. I’m not saying don’t address your issue at work; I’m saying address it directly with your boss or stop complaining. I’m not saying don’t address someone who’s mistreating you; I’m saying address it directly with them or stop complaining. No matter how we’re being treated by the people around us, none of that should define our attitudes more than the truth that we’ve been made children of God by the grace of God. “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be blameless, innocent, without fault, children of God who shine like stars in the darkness.” The 3rd specific way that Paul gives for us to shine like stars:
- Hold fast to the Gospel (16).
Verse 16: “shining as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” “Holding fast” means “firmly” holding on to the word of life. It means both believing the word of life, the gospel, and following the word of life. Yet again we come back to the obedience, Godliness being inextricably linked to the Gospel. You cannot separate them! Christianity is about believing in and following Jesus Christ. Jesus said it himself in John 14:15- “If you love me, keep my commandments.” To love Jesus means that we obey him. We hold fast to our salvation which is in Christ alone, 100% his life, death, and resurrection. His life and work is what saves us; He is our Substitute. And as new Creations, we also hold fast also to obedience! To pursuing Godliness!
To quote Kevin Deyoung in the book I mentioned earlier: “Christ justifies no one whom he does not also sanctify.” Later in the book, he also writes: “It sounds really spiritual to say God is interested in a relationship, not in rules. But it’s not biblical. From top to bottom the Bible is full of commands. They aren’t meant to stifle a relationship with God, but to protect it, seal it, and define it.” We see this throughout the New Testament. Ephesians 1 is another example: “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Yes, that blamelessness and righteousness is imputed to us because of Christ, but this is also our pursuit in life! To be holy, as children of God.
Martin Luther put it well when he wrote of how we are “simultaneously sinner and saint.” By trusting in Christ alone, we are made saints, truly. And yet, we are still sinners, now aiming to become who we already are in Christ. How do we do that? We hold firmly to the word of life, the gospel. In it, we find our purpose, our joy, our pursuit, and our freedom and power to obey. The 4th specific way that Paul gives for us to shine like stars:
- Rejoice in one another’s holiness (17-18).
Paul, at the end of our text here, shows an incredibly strong concern for the holiness of these believers at Philippi. He concludes his encouragement for them to aim for holiness by specifically mentioning his own work with them. In the 2nd half of verse 16 and following, he says, do these things, “so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith (the drink offering was just a kind of sacrifice, so he’s saying even if he sacrifices his life), I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
What specifically, would bring Paul joy? What did he clearly desire more than anything for these Philippian Christians? He wanted them to pursue holiness. He rejoiced in their holiness. Let me ask us a question right now. What do we desire most for the people in this room? Or maybe, first of all, do you desire anything for the other people in this room? You see, I think we can learn a really neat thing from Paul here, about what biblical community looks like. I know we all want community; in fact, maybe that’s a big factor in determining a church for you. Where can I find community? I want to challenge us in how we think about real community.
Listen, community in the body of Christ should be way more than just having friends that happen also to be Christians. That’s not true biblical community. It’s great! I’m not saying that’s not good and needed, to have friends that just so happen to be Christians as well. But again, that’s not biblical community. True biblical community is that which has as its highest concern the holiness of the Body of Christ. We were made to reflect the new lives we have in Christ, and we desperately need each other to do just that!
This is why we so greatly value intergenerational fellowship in the church, so 2-year-old Christians can spend time with 50-year-old Christians, not just to be friends and feel sentimental about it and laugh about cultural differences, but so that we can see what the life of Christ looks like in a man or a woman whose been walking with Him for 30, 40, 50 years! I mean, if you’re here merely to experience a program, or make friends merely so that you have Christian friends, you might just be missing the purpose of the Body of Christ. How are you pursuing holiness, and how are you helping the people around you pursue holiness?
For Paul, their holiness, their primary AIM being that of becoming who they are in Christ, for Paul, as long as that was happening, he was ok even if was to lose his life! He cared more for their holiness than for his own life. What do you desire most for the other people in this room? Do you desire anything for the people in this room, other than maybe that they’re just ok, fine, even happy? Do you want anything more for them?
We were made to shine like stars. We are saints because of Christ. And now our primary AIM is to become who we are in Christ, to become saints! No, none of us will reach that perfectly in this life, but are you aiming there? Are you taking obedience seriously, killing sin and putting on righteousness? Are you holding firmly to the word of life? The word that has freed us from the penalty and power of sin? If not, jumpstart this again today. As God to work in you a desire to radically obey him, as a child of God. In so doing, we’ll stick out like crazy. We’ll shine like stars in the darkness.