Text: Philippians 2:12-18
Today is our last week in this series I’ve called “Full Alignment.” But no worries if you missed any of it; I’m going to recap! Today’s text starts out with “so then” which means Paul is circling back around to make a final point based on everything that has come before. The key verse to all of verses 1-18 is verse 5: “Have this attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” That’s what “Full Alignment” refers to – the attitude of Jesus. It’s not our usual use of attitude, like an emotional state. It’s attitude like in a boat or plane, where you line up your course along a number of axes. And Paul basically lays out these axes as behaviors and says, “be like this because this is what Jesus was like.” So that’s the overview of the first 18 verses: be like Jesus; this is what Jesus was like; and then in today’s text he’s going to repeat the first part… “so then, be like Jesus.”
Some of those attitudes or behaviors are the following, which you’ll find listed out in all the verses that led up to verse 12, where we start today: encouraging, consoling, affectionate, compassionate, loving, united, purposeful, humble, self-sacrificing, and obedient. If you want to dive into any of those, the previous week’s sermons are posted on our website and are in hard copy form out in the welcome area!
So today, starting in verse 12, Paul returns to the charge to be like Jesus. We’ll look at that in some detail and then at the several results of living life in alignment with Jesus.
WHAT: Work Out Your Salvation (v.12)
To dive into a little detail on the return to “be like Jesus” I want to focus on the phrase “work out your salvation” in verse 12. First, why do I say this is a return to “be like Jesus?” It’s because of the “so then” and the initial command to continue in obedience. Paul has already made a long list of behaviors and individual forms of obedience in the first “be like Jesus” section and then in the middle section on what Jesus was like (chief among those traits, obedience!). But then comes this phrase that has generated a lot of misunderstanding: work out your salvation. Don’t we teach that our salvation is not by work, but by faith? (yes) What does this mean exactly?
There are a number of context clues to help us understand. For one, it is not “work at your salvation” or “work for your salvation” but “work out.” The salvation part is a given; it’s already accomplished here. If you “work out” something that is already accomplished, then you are figuring it out, or figuring out the implications. You are basically after the answer to: ok, I’m saved, now what? And then there is the rest of the phrase: “with fear and trembling.” Does this mean we are saved, but scared? No… both those are words more akin to ‘awe’ and ‘reverence’ than to hiding scared from a burglar in the clothes closet. In fact, if you consider the whole point of the larger passage, the whole thing is answering the “ok, I’m saved, now what” question. And the answer is to follow close to Jesus, to set our course after him, to live in full alignment. If we are following our Savior, who was also just identified in the previous verses as the one God has exalted back to the highest place, to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess, then yes, there should be some awe and reverence woven into our following of him. We aren’t just hanging out with our cool buddy, Jesus; we are following the Holy One who did not cling to Godhood, but humbled himself to live among us, suffer and die for us, and be raised and exalted as God and King. So living in full alignment equals “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s intentional discipleship, focused following of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
HOW: God is At Work In You (v.13)
That may sound intimidating, but look at what comes next. This also, by the way, further explains the nature of our work to salvation: “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (v.13) This is one of those both-and things… we are taught to act, to obey, to work, to follow Jesus’ example; but at the very same time God says, “I will help you; I am at work in you.” This is how God works! God does not say, “I will take over your mind and body or program you to do good.” God does not say, “You’re on your own; figure out how to be and do good and let me know when you are righteous.” Through Jesus, God comes to us and says, “Come; believe in me; trust and follow me; and I will make my home in you.” And God’s living in us and with us becomes a holy partnership reflective of the very relationship within the Trinity. God’s will for us IS that we will “have this attitude that is in Christ”… that we will follow Jesus and set the course of our lives on him.
It is interesting to me – and so very human and realistic – that at this point Paul does add one more set of behaviors or characteristics to the long list with which he started the chapter. After the return to “so then, be like Jesus; work it out; and God is at work” he says, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” (v.14) I can well imagine just at this point of setting a high bar for obedience and Christ-like behavior that folks might grumble a little bit. The even larger context of the whole letter to the Philippians is some grumbling and fighting among believers. So he’s not going to leave that unaddressed. Obedience is not only in the many areas he’s already named, but specifically in the one this community is struggling with.
But overall, the message is so encouraging and the challenge so possible. It’s not like God is set up as a grumpy coach or teacher for whom your performance will never measure up. Rather, like the best coach or teacher, they are the one most cheering and working for your success. God is at work in you! And from there Paul goes on to list two results of the life of setting and re-setting our course after that of Jesus Christ.
SO THAT: Results
The words “so that” appear twice in verses 15-16. These signal two results (or desired results) from the obedience Paul has been writing about. The first result is lengthy:
…so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…
In a nutshell, a life of obedience, setting and re-setting our course on Christ will result in being a witness for Christ, a light shining in a dark world. I was talking to someone about this passage earlier this week and they asked if witnessing was one of the acts of obedience along with the others mentioned in this chapter. I responded that witnessing and evangelism are an activity in which we can engage, but that’s not what is envisioned here. This is not one more act of obedience along with compassion, service, and love; rather, those acts are themselves the witness. When you love like Jesus loved, when you serve like Jesus served, when you show Christ-like compassion, you SHINE in a world that needs that kind of light and hope and goodness. It’s the result of setting and re-setting your course on Christ: you shine!
Secondly, and I think Paul would put this a distant second – it certainly gets less words – Paul writes that the obedience to Christ of those reading his letter in Philippi would give him “reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.” (v.16) Paul is in jail, having given many years of his life to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. What an honest and human thing to admit that one of the reasons he wants to see fruitful followers of Jesus is to know that he had made a difference in the Kingdom of God. He would, in keeping with his own teaching, admit that God is the one who does the ultimate work of changing human hearts, but particularly as a pastor, I can relate to his wanting to have made a difference for God’s glory.
EPILOGUE: Practical Application
Finally, I want to offer verses 17-18 as a kind of personal epilogue to the first 16 verses. As I’ve mentioned, Paul is in prison as he writes this letter. He describes that experience as “being poured out as a drink offering.” In other words, it is in service to God like an offering, but it feels like he is giving up his life (and eventually he does). He is not seeking pity for that condition, though; rather he rejoices that he is able to serve God. Without bragging, he is trying to live out the very things he has been writing in this chapter. Jesus didn’t cling to all the benefits of heaven, but humbled himself to serve humanity in love. Paul is, himself, trying to have that same attitude. And it leads him to rejoice at his precarious earthly situation and to share his joy with those to whom he is writing. He ends these verses by saying that he urges his readers to also rejoice at their own sufferings – if they are for the sake of Christ – and to share their joy back with him. It’s a great final word to this series and just the opposite of the “grumbling or disputing” in verse 14. Rather, this life of setting and re-setting our course on Christ should bring joy to us and to those with whom we come in contact.
As you think about living in “full alignment” with Jesus, setting and perhaps needing to re-set your course in order to follow him, is there a risk of experiencing “being poured out as an offering?” Yes, I think there is a good chance. There is often (always?) a cost to discipleship, to following Jesus. We have to give up things to gain Christ. We have to say ‘no’ to things and to people in order to say ‘yes’ to Jesus. We have to not choose some paths in order to walk after Christ. But Paul’s teaching and experience – and I would agree – is that if we are following Jesus a life of offering ourselves to God and others is one of joy. Joy is a complex thing, not a quickly passing happiness like dessert, but a rich and fulfilling thing like a complex and nutritious meal. With Paul, with scripture, I challenge and invite you to consider what Jesus was like and to set your course again and again on him. That is not drudgery or deadening, but life-giving and joyful. And you will shine in a world that needs some Good News. Amen!