Because of the highly personal tone of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, both the Apostle’s personality and the nature of his relationship to the church come into prominence. Since these do not always correspond to the sorts of questions we tend to bring to the Biblical text, we may treat these features as interesting, but not necessarily central. But, if we believe in the inspiration of Scripture—that the Holy Spirit superintended the Biblical writers in such a way that what they wrote conveys what God wanted us to know—we have to form some opinion of the Apostle Paul and the Philippian congregation. Though they are unique people situated in a particular moment in history, we still have to ask whether there is anything in their story that might function as a paradigm for the church down through the ages.
For example, when I introduced this series on Philippians in January, I cited Heinz Cassirer’s observation that the church often overlooks what appear to be “objectionable” aspects of St. Paul’s personality, including a tendency to “to adopt an attitude toward others which bears every appearance of sheer browbeating.” Today’s text, for example, might provide such an example.
At the end of this extended exhortation to obedience in verse 17, he again mentions the real possibility of his death. “Even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and service of your faith...” This “pouring out” is a reference to dying—giving up his life. In 2 Timothy 4:6-7 he says the same thing and makes his meaning very clear.
“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
So also, here, in 2:17, Paul contemplates the possibility that his imprisonment may end in death, making it clear that it is for them. Now he is not complaining. In fact he says that if death is the outcome, he rejoices. But, one cannot help miss his reminder that his trials are for their sake, giving weight to the exhortation which runs from 2:12-16.
So we might ask the question whether the example of St. Paul would justify some general practice of Christians reminding other Christians that they are in some way in their debt. Or, is this a subtle form of “browbeating” to be avoided? Perhaps the more important “paradigm” question concerns the possibility that Christians can develop such strong bonds of love that they can speak freely, without fear of being misunderstood, in matters of life and death. As we will note shortly, Paul mentions the possibility of his death for the Philippians in connection with his longing to be able boast on the day Christ that he did not “toil or labor in vain.” So, whether or not this sounds like “browbeating,” we should also take to heart the truth that how we live can impact the way others—particularly church leaders—will experience “the day of Christ.”
If St. Paul’s openness with the Philippians is in some way a paradigm for church leaders, does his relationship to the Philippian congregation also point to something enduring about church life? In Philippians 2:12, Paul reminds this beloved church of how they have always obeyed him. Jac Müller writes that Paul has in view his instructions and admonitions to them in the past. Now he will admonish them, going forward, to “work out their salvation.” Thus, while the relationship between the Philippians and Paul is one of deep mutual love in Christ, it is also one of obedient submission to instruction and guidance. At this point, in our own cultural setting, we may feel uncomfortable. We push back against authority structures, particularly when there is so much coming to light about the egregious and ungodly abuse of power in the church today. Many wonder if a better paradigm is needed.
I recall that in one of my earliest transition pastorates, a lady dropped into my office to introduce herself as a member of the congregation. It was memorable for its brevity and unapologetic straightforwardness. After stating her name, she explained that she believed that a little religion went a long way and, for that reason, I should not expect to see her at church, except, perhaps, for Christmas or Easter. So, I was not to assume from her absence that anything was amiss or that she was in need of pastoral attention. Instead, if she ever had need of a pastoral call, she would let me know. At that point she wished me well and took her leave.
That, of course, represents a dramatically different paradigm of church life than one of members in submission in the Lord to church leaders. There are times when I imagine that this lady’s paradigm is the prevailing one among North American Christians, though many would “filter” their words a little more carefully than she did. Most of the time, though, it is evident that Christians have a sense of responsibility to their leaders. There is now, however, much greater suspicion of and resistance to “authoritarian” approaches to leadership.
It is not insignificant that Paul includes the overseers and deacons in his salutation to the Philippians. As he brings what may prove to be his final instructions to the church, he wants them to pay particular attention. Likewise, he reminds the congregation that there are leaders positioned to guide the life of the body. Perhaps the point to be taken to heart is that obedient submission is only an appropriate paradigm when there is a corresponding pattern of loving, sacrificial, servant-leadership.
Today’s text brings us the well-known admonition to “work out your own salvation.” The little word “own” is significant. It points to the fact that what this will look like will in some way be unique to this particular church. Paul has spoken to them at length about his circumstances and how he is responding—fighting the good fight. He has given (and will continue to give) them an example of what it means for him to work out his own salvation as a prisoner of the Lord. Now, in his absence, they need to work out what faithfulness looks like in their own situation.
It goes without saying that Paul is not teaching that they have to work to earn their salvation. Instead, he means that they are to live out the implications of their salvation. It means essentially the same as his earlier charge to “live a life worthy of the Gospel.” (1:27) Both there and here in 2:12, the uncertainty of Paul being “present” or “absent” points to the fundamental nature of the exhortation. Either way, this is essential!
The experience of the children of Israel helps us appreciate what it means to work our salvation. They were saved from Egypt when the Angel of the Lord visited the Egyptians and set them free. But, leaving Egypt wasn’t all that salvation entailed. They were no longer slaves, but their freedom set other things in motion. They had to cross the Red Sea, the wilderness of Sinai, the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. There was testing to endure in the wilderness. There were hostile tribes to deal with on the way and there were giants to face in the Promised Land. They had to “work out their salvation.” And, the Lord gave them leaders like Moses, and Joshua and David to bring them into the full possession of their salvation.
That Paul has the experience of the children in mind is clear from his practical exhortation that they do all things without murmuring and arguing in 2:14-15. Murmuring and arguing was the standard response of the children of Israel to Moses when things were hard. Most significant is Paul’s citation of Deuteronomy 32:5 in 2:15: “...children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” But note how 32:5 reads: “Yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him, a perverse and crooked generation.” What a contrast! Paul is calling the Philippians to be true children of God, a faithful Israel.
It is not hard to imagine how Paul’s mind is working at this point. He contemplates the possibility that his life and ministry may be coming to an end. He wants to share something that will give lasting guidance to the church. As he reflects on Scripture it is not surprising that he should turn to some of the parting words of Moses as he comes to the end of his own life. Moses experienced bitter disappointment because of the unbelief and inconstancy of the Israelites who left Egypt. Paul clearly does not want that. He wants the Philippians to be just the opposite—to work out their own salvation to the very end. So he recasts Moses’ words to make it clear how to reach the goal.
Here also we have the first clear statement of Paul’s personal goal as an Apostle and a Christian. Listen to the reason that he gives for urging the Philippians to work out their salvation, to do all things without murmuring, to shine like stars in the world: “so that in the day of Christ I may boast that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” (2:16)
Put very simply, Paul did not want to waste his life. In that respect, Paul the Apostle is like most of the rest of humanity. It is a deep human aspiration that we not waste our lives, that our lives count for something. Particularly here in a university community we can appreciate this longing. Young people come to get an education and acquire skills that they can use to make a difference, to help make their lives count for something. Often, though, the initial zeal to devote our lives to a cause—to make a difference in the world—cools. People reach a point where they begin to focus on their own comfort and contentment. People reach a place where they look back and are content to say, “I’ve had a good life.” Whether their lives have mattered in some important way is a question that can recede into the hidden places of the heart. It can be hard to look at our lives and confidently say that they mattered. That they were not wasted. Apart from, “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain,” (1 Cor. 15:58) who could say so with deep confidence?
But here is a man toward the end of his life wrestling quite openly with his life counting. And, he has no hesitation to ask his Christian brothers and sisters to do their part to see that it does! Paul’s personality may have rubbed some people the wrong way. But, what Christian can dismiss a man whose great passion was not to waste his life? The message of the Spirit is loud and clear!
Today’s text closes the first section of Paul’s letter in which he exhorts the congregation to steadfastness in the faith. For the most part it restates what the Apostle has already said. This helps to make the meaning clear and fix it more in memory. I will conclude by calling your attention to three aspects of his exhortation in Chapters 1 & 2 that are given definitive focus in 2:12-18. Note especially how important the “day of Christ” figures in each.
As a motivational foundation for his exhortations, St. Paul reminds his readers of this wonderful, joyful, liberating truth: God is at work in you! We are not left to our own strength. We are not left alone. God is with us and he is working in and through us. In living the Christian life, we are brought into the closest possible fellowship with God. In Philippians 1:6, in his prayer of thanksgiving, Paul expressed his confidence that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” So, when he exhorts them to “work out your own salvation,” he reminds them again that God is at work in them, both to desire and to work for what is pleasing to God.
They are to do this with fear and trembling. That God should be at work in them is no small thing. It is no cause for pride or presumption. God can choose to be at work in the lives of the ungodly to accomplish his will and it only adds to their condemnation. For the Christian, it is truth that should bring strong confidence and lead to deeper holiness.
Second, Paul reminds them our “salvation” is lived out in the context of the world’s opposition. The call to “work out their own salvation” is followed by reminders that they live in the midst of a perverse and crooked race and that they shine in a dark world. The way of salvation is not the one chosen by everyone and there is much opposition. Earlier, in 1:28, he told them that their unity and steadfastness in the faith, “in no way intimidated by their opponents,” was evidence to the opposition “of their destruction, but of your salvation.” These are the two places in Philippians where Paul uses the word “salvation.” Salvation is experienced and lived out in the world in the face of opposition. But it can be lived confidently and without fear, because God is at work in us.
Finally, the exhortation aims at Christian character that will be fully displayed and vindicated in the day of Christ. In the exhortation to work out their own salvation Paul hints at two “tracks“—his and the Philippians. He is working out his track and they are working out theirs. The tracks, however, do converge and they converge in the character of the Philippian Christians. In 1:9-11 Paul prays that the Philippian believers, in the day of Christ, may be pure and blameless to the glory and praise of God. In 2:14-16 Paul urges them to be blameless and innocent, ultimately so that he “could boast in the day of Christ” that he did not run or labor in vain. The specific words are different in the two passages, but they are strong synonyms all the same. “Blameless” has to do with what others may observe about our conduct. “Innocent” or “pure” has to do with the inward disposition of the heart that turns away from evil.
What is most striking to me about Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians is his insistence that “in the day of Christ” we will all be in it together. Now that is a worthy Christian sentiment. There is a hymn chorus that starts, “When we all get to heaven...” But what Paul stresses is that how that day goes for any of us is bound up with our life together in the church. Philippian faithfulness would enable Paul to boast in the day of Christ that he did not waste his life.
Brothers and sisters don’t waste your lives. Keep your eyes on the day of Christ. Get to work on your salvation and don’t stop. God is at work in you. What could be more energizing and hope-giving than that!? Amen.