St Barnabas, 21st November 2010
Readings – Philippians 2:12-30; Luke 23:33-43
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
14 Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life – in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.
We’re going to do something of a word study this morning, at least on the first few verses of our reading … it’s one of the dilemmas of sermon preparation, deciding just how much detail you need to go into to present the essence of a passage, in a way that’s easy to hear and follow and then apply. Sometimes an overview is all that’s needed, but in the epistles, and perhaps Philippians in particular, almost every word has significance … so this morning I thought we’d take the time to look in some detail at just a few verses of our reading, before putting them into the context of the passage as a whole. So let’s start reading …
Therefore – do you know, that’s probably the most important word in the passage! Whenever you’re reading the bible, but especially the NT letters, and see the word ‘therefore‘ – stop reading! Stop and think, because therefore always points back to something the writer is about to explain or expand. It’s as if he’s saying, ‘don’t go beyond this point until you’ve understood what you’ve just read’ … so …
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Look back for a moment at the preceding verses … I’ve highlighted a problem … as you read back, there’s another therefore! So we need to go a bit further back …
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
I think that will do for now. So, briefly, our life together as Christians is to be shaped by the character and attitude of of Jesus. Jesus, the son of God, who humbled himself to die on the cross to meet our need of forgiveness, willingly giving up his life out of love.
Therefore (vs 9), God exalted him … so that (vs 10) every knee should bow and every tongue confess … that means worship and serve him. Everyone.
Therefore … writes Paul (vs 12) … as you have always obeyed … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
That’s a verse that needs a bit of detailed explanation in any sermon. Because Paul is not saying that your salvation needs any extra work to be valid or complete or finalised in any way. Being a Christian is having a relationship with Jesus. And like any relationship, once the relationship has begun, you need to work at it. You are no more married after 40 years of marriage than you were after a week … but it will have changed your life! As time went by, you will have had your ups and downs, had times when you were closer than at others, but along the way you will have learned each others’ likes and dislikes, worked out how to cheer each other up (or equally, being human, how to deliberately annoy each other) … you will have chosen the colour of the carpet together, you’ll have read each others’ books and listened to their music, you might even find each others’ socks in your chest of drawers! Your lives will be interdependent, mingled, meshed together. As times go by you become more and more influenced and shaped by each other – for good or bad. And that’s the bit that’s hard work … deciding to go on loving through the tough times. Not giving up on the relationship when it becomes hard work or costly.
So it is with Jesus … it’s not so much ‘work out your salvation’ as ‘work at your salvation’ … which is why he mentions obedience in this verse, too.
Therefore, as you have always obeyed … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling …
Obedience needs to become a habit … we need to be vigilant about our relationship with Jesus, not to let it slip or drift. So part of our spiritual discipline is to be alert … to notice a change of attitude in our lives, before it becomes a change of behaviour … if prayer or bible reading is becoming a chore that we’re tempted to ignore when we’re tired, or if going to church to worship and fellowship has become a burden rather than a joy … what can we do to change things? It might be as simple as finding a different set of bible reading notes to refresh our quiet times or it might need to be a bit more drastic such as letting something else go so that we have time to spare for God. But Paul here isn’t focussed on the negative … as you have always obeyed … he is encouraging the Philippian believers, telling them that their efforts have been noticed, praising them … I’m convinced that when Paul’s letter was first read out to the church, there were at least a few who knew they didn’t deserve his praise, a few blushes among the congregation … but it would have spurred them on. And encouragement is something we’ve talked about before, how important it is to the life of the church family, and how easy …
But what is this about ‘fear and trembling’? One of the unique aspects of the Christian faith is that we don’t need to be afraid of not being good enough, Jesus’ death on the cross is all we need for salvation … so again, that can’t be quite what this means. Think back, then, to our illustration of marriage, and the early days … when love is still the air that we breath … and our greatest fear is to fail our partner, to displease them in some way. That might be a feat of memory for some of us! But that’s the kind of fear Paul refers to here, a reverent fear, a concern to please God, our primary motivation for all that we do. But also, and because of that, a desire to live in harmony and unity with our fellow believers. We’ll come back to that in verse 14. In the meanwhile, can you see how this ‘fear and trembling’ is all about our desire for God … we’re back again at needing to be alert to anything that diminishes his place in our lives.
Therefore, as you have always obeyed … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
The next verse also opens with a significant little word … ‘for’ … meaning because … ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling (because) it is God who works in you … ‘
If we are in a relationship with Jesus, then God is at work in us … and it is our obedience that allows God’s work in us to create the transformation that we then work out into the rest of our lives, so that God’s work in us leaves no part of our lives unaffected by our relationship with God. So the question then is – are there any areas of your life that you are holding back? Is there a part of your life that is closed off to God? Because I can almost guarantee that that’s where God will focus his efforts!
‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’
The will and the act are two sides of a coin … you can’t have one without the other … and neither is sufficient by itself. Both are important … to want to do something isn’t enough and to do something unwillingly is ineffective. In other words, you can do the right thing for all the wrong reasons … but God knows your heart. And you can intend to do something for God, but if you don’t actually do it at all it’s of little value to you or the kingdom. How many times have I said I’ll pray harder or longer for something and then been distracted? So there is both an inward and an outward aspect to the life of obedience. And if we recognise that God is at work … then we’ll pay heed to his promptings, the inner voice if you like, that keeps us up to the mark, all with the aim of achieving ‘God’s good purpose’ . That inner reluctance or resistance can only be overcome as we trust God … as we rely on his ‘good purpose’ being better for us than our own inclinations and desires. So what is ‘God’s good purpose’?
for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. 14 Do everything without complaining or arguing …
His ‘good purpose’ is that we ‘do everything without complaining or arguing’ ! That really doesn’t feel like the most important thing in our walk of faith, does it? Surely it’s more important to witness, have great faith, do great things, be a missionary etc? Read on …
‘so that you may become blameless and pure’
Doing everything without complaining or arguing is the foundation and key to what follows – that you may be blameless and pure. Again, Paul is highlighting both the inward and outward aspects of the life of faith … the blameless life can only be lived by the pure in heart. And just as Jesus said, ‘By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:35) so here, Paul says we’ll be known by our lack of arguing and complaining as we live pure and blameless lives in the midst of a ‘crooked and depraved generation’ … and that, as a result, we’ll stand out like ‘stars in the universe’ . Think about the stars for a moment … they’re not all bright, many of them can only be seen on a really dark night, but for aeons they have been used for navigation by those who have looked for direction … and I think that’s the image Paul has in mind here … ‘in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life’.
Ultimately,‘God’s good purpose’ is that we offer the life we have in Christ to others … who will only realise what’s on offer as we live lives full of his life … that’s why this whole passage is focussed on the unity among us … because when we complain or argue we are focussed on ourselves, away from the need of others to enter into a relationship with God, away from obedience out of gratitude to God, away from worship and service of the name of Jesus to whom every knee should bow!
Back in Philippians 1:27 we read, Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, and the beginning of chapter 2 underlines the need for unity among believers in imitation of Christ. Today we have begun to understand the reason behind that need … but our unity, our fellowship together without complaining or arguing, does not mean that we have to agree about the details of our everyday life together. I hope it’s become clear that our priority should be to focus on Jesus as we work together towards a common goal – that of holding out the word of life to those around us. And when we do that, many of those things that threaten our unity fade into the background … those disagreements that result in complaining and arguing become unimportant. It’s all about focus.
My time has gone, and we’ve looked at only 4 verses of our passage … but I hope you can see why I wanted to look in such detail at the beginning of our passage today … so let’s pray … and use prayer to help us focus again on the life we have in Christ and in prayer, commit ourselves to maintaining our unity for the sake of the good news of Jesus. Amen.