LETTER TO THE PHILIPPIANS
Process Your Salvation
In chapter one verse 27, Paul issued a general appeal for the Philippians to live lives as citizens worthy of the gospel of God, of the kingdom of God. Although this is a general appeal which can be widely applied, Paul applies it in a specific way which relates to the situation in Philippi itself. The church is undergoing persecution and may be on the verge of experiencing some fractures in its unity. For Paul this is critical because disunity in the church undermines our claim that Jesus is truly Lord not only over the church but also over all the universe. (If we can't convince people He is Lord over the church, we'll never be able to convince them that He is Lord over the universe.)
In order to promote unity within the fellowship, Paul urges the Philippians to walk humbly towards one another (2:1-4). He supports this by bringing their attention to the example of Jesus Christ. It is so easy to get swept away by the grandeur of these 7 verses (5-11) since they cover the entire sweep of divine history, from the preexistence of Christ to His final exaltation as Lord over the created universe. Paul's point though is this: if the Lord of the universe humbled Himself to the uttermost degree, we too should humble ourselves in our relations with other people. Why? First, because unity is worth it. Second, because we too shall share in His exaltation if we humble ourselves. Finally, because it shows that our persecutors are ultimately going to fail miserably.
Do All Things Without Grumbling or Disputing (2:12-18)
Paul has swept us up into the realm of pure rapture--all the created universe will one day bow and acknowledge Jesus as the divine Lord of the universe. He now brings us back to the matter at hand--the stress threatening the unity of the church. The main command in this passage is "work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Now this raises an eyebrow because Paul the great articulator of the doctrine of grace here is commanding us to "work" with regards to our salvation. Is there a discrepancy? No. Paul is not urging us to perform works of law in order to gain favor with God. Rather, he is urging us to process our salvation. In other words, he wants us to see how our salvation applies to the different areas of our lives. When the Holy Spirit came to live within us, He did not come to sit as a lump of coal. Rather, He came to live in us and to affect the different areas of our lives. Paul here is urging the Philippians to seek the Lord in order to determine how their salvation should affect the various areas of their lives, in this particular case, the area of unity and the stress brought on by persecution.
With almost uncanny foresight, Paul realizes what his present and future readers might think the moment they read the command "work out your salvation!" He immediately corrects any misconception we might have by adding "for it is God who is at work within you." Whereas it is true that God does give you and me the freedom to choose Him or to reject Him on a daily basis, it is also true that beyond that choice we play no other role in experiencing the Christian life. You and I simply cannot produce in our own strength and power the Christian life. It is nothing less than the life of God Himself. Any good life lived apart from the power of God is nothing more than a moral life. The Christian life is lived only in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
God consistently wants to bring us to this point in our lives. Many times you and I experience frustration in one or more areas of our lives: our spouses, our children, our places of employment, school, recreation, community affairs, etc. God allows us to develop within us a sense of failure not so that we will beat ourselves down but so that we will turn to Him to provide us with the life which only He can produce. I love the scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Christ (Aslan the Lion) says to Lucy and Susan: "We have a long journey to go on. You must ride on Me." Life is long. At times it is wonderful; at other times it is mundane. At other times it is even painful. For the Christian to make it spiritually, he must "ride on" Jesus.
The specific way that the Philippians are to "work out their salvation" is by doing all things without grumbling or disputing. The persecution besetting the church is naturally placing an abnormal amount of stress upon the individual believers. Since they can't attack their persecutors and since most people never turn stress inwards, they have to attack safe targets--each other. They are grumbling and disputing among themselves in order to relieve the pressure valves in their lives. Maybe the ministers are coming under attack. Maybe some important lay leaders within the church have made a few miscalculations regarding church finances. Whatever the excuse, the Philippians are being tempted to criticize each other.
Although we are not experiencing persecution from the government, people today are highly stressed. The economy is not as "good" as it was during the bubble of the late 90's. Our culture is increasingly hostile towards Christian values. Christians can't agree on the relationship of the U.S. to Israel. The Democratic Party is not liberal enough for some Democrats, while the Republican Party is not conservative enough for some Republicans. Since I'm not going to attack myself and since I can't change Hollywood, I am going to use you as a way to let off steam. You're safe, and so you're gonna get it. That is so unhealthy. Not only does it undermine our claim that Jesus is Lord, it also destroys the relationships which really benefit me the most.
In this passage Paul goes on to list several items which he hopes will motivate the Philippians to work out their salvation by doing all things without grumbling or disputing. First, he reminds them that they have had a lifestyle of obeying Paul's injunctions, not just when he was present but also when he was absent. He is asking them here to continue doing what they have always done--obey him. (Paul can ask them to obey him since he is an apostle.) Second, he reminds them that this is not simply between the Philippians and Paul. God is also involved in this matter. In fact He has a lot at stake in this--the mission of His Son. We need to take very seriously our actions within the church because when it is all said and done, we are not ultimately answerable to one another but to the Lord Himself.
Paul also tries to motivate them by calling them to live lives blameless and innocent. By doing this they will truly be children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom they may appear as lights in the world. Again the focus here is not on the impact this unity will have upon the church but ultimately upon the pagan world itself. For the sake of a lost and dying generation, Paul appeals to the Philippians to be united.
Notice that Paul calls them to be "lights" to the lost world. Paul most likely is referring to the image of the saints Daniel is drawing in Dan. 12:3. There he says that when Jesus comes, His saints will appear as lights in the firmament. We know that this shall be true of us because we have seen the resurrected Jesus appearing just in this manner (Rev. 1:12-20). Just as He was raised from the dead to a glorious new existence, so we too shall rise from the dead to this kind of existence. Paul's point is that although this is a future event awaiting us, even now we should appear as lights in the world. The same Spirit who will transform our bodies into glorious bodies now lives in us to transform us internally so that we can be lights to the lost world. Just like Jesus Himself said: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). By humbling ourselves to one another and creating unity within the church, we shall appear as lights to a dark world.
Before going any further, notice the OT references to the people of God which Paul applies to the Philippians: "grumbling and disputing" (a negative reference to the people of Israel in the wilderness), Daniel's reference to "lights," "blameless and innocent" (again negative references to the OT Jews), "children of God" (OT reference to the Israelites), "crooked and perverse generation" (negative reference to the Jews), and the reference to sacrifices in v.17. All these tap into Paul's claim that the Gentile Christians now are as much a part of the people of God as the Jewish Christians are. They stand on equal footing with the Jewish Christians.
Paul's last motivation is based upon himself. He asks them to live this kind of life for his sake: "holding fast the word of life so that in the day of Christ I may have cause to glory." By "holding fast the word of life," Paul means that they are to obey God's Word. Some NT scholars ask, "But which Word? The Bible as a whole or just the gospel which leads people to life?" This is really a bogus question. Christians who are holding to God's Word are experiencing the life of God. As a general rule, life always produces more life. You don't see 60-year-old people having babies (unless you're Larry King) because their bodies are already in the dying process. It's the 20 and 30-year olds who are having babies. Why? Because they are full of life and vigor. In the same way the person who is full of Christ's life is going to reproduce that life in other people. It is a natural process of being alive spiritually.
How is their creating unity going to benefit him? He prays that they respond positively so that on Judgment Day he will be able to point to them as proof that he did not run in vain or toil in vain. He wants to be able to point to them as proof that his life and ministry counted for something. Whereas there is a real element of truth in the fact that I am only responsible to God for what I do and not for other people's responses, there is also an element of truth in the claim that I am to a degree responsible for other people's responses. We live in the age of the Spirit, the age of harvesting souls. Jesus claims that the fields are white unto harvest. If I am not bringing in an abundant harvest, it may be that I am not harvesting or that I am not following the Lord as I attempt to harvest. Only the believer and God know for sure which of these is true; however, a general rule of thumb is that if people are faithful to the Lord, they will receive a spiritual harvest in the lives of others.
Now that Paul has injected himself into the picture, he goes on to explain in more detail his role in their lives: "For I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith." Paul is tapping into the theme he introduced with the example of Jesus--the theme of sacrifice. Not only did Jesus sacrifice Himself, not only are the Philippians making a sacrifice by sending Paul this gift, he also is offering himself as a sacrifice for their sakes. In what way? By holding firmly to the gospel. If he had just injected the principle of circumcision into his theology, the Jews would not have persecuted him. Of course, he would have destroyed the gospel; however, he would not have been persecuted. For the sake of their salvation, he remained true to the gospel.
Too often Christians misunderstand the role of sacrifice in their lives. They have been misled to think that they don't have to sacrifice since Jesus paid the ultimate sacrifice. While Jesus did pay the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, the Bible also speaks of other sacrifices which it expects us to make, especially the sacrifice of the whole burnt offering. Paul commands us: "I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God which is your spiritual service of worship" (Rom. 12:1). Paul calls for each believer to yield every area and facet of his life to Jesus.
Now this is not cause for wailing, moaning, and groaning on the part of the Christian. Paul says: "I rejoice and share my joy with you all." Why does Paul rejoice? First, because his sacrifice demonstrates that he is a follower of Jesus the Great Sacrifice. Second, because sacrifice always leads to glory. After Moses erected in the wilderness the tabernacle for worship and after Solomon dedicated his temple by sacrificing over 200,000 animals, the Shekinah glory of God overshadowed the 2 structures. In the same way, the Christian who submits to sacrifice experiences the presence and the glory of God in a way he will never experience them if he does not undergo sacrifice. Sacrifice leads to the presence and glory of God, the cross being the prime example. Sacrifice is grounds for joy.
Personal Issues Involving Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30)
At this point many NT scholars leave the subject of humility in 1:27-2:18 and claim that Paul in this section is simply addressing some personal issues. While he is addressing personal issues in this section, he nevertheless addresses them in such a way that they relate to the main topic at hand, humility versus self-centeredness.
The main point in this section is the sending of Timothy to the Philippians. The Philippians are naturally interested in Paul's welfare and in the outcome of his trial. Whenever Paul learns of the outcome of his impending trial, he will send Timothy with news.
Paul could have shared this thought in just 1 or 2 verses. He uses this occasion though as an opportunity to highlight the characteristics in Timothy's life which Paul wants the Philippians to imitate. First, Timothy is of the same kindred spirit of Paul. Paul defines that spirit as being genuinely interested in the interests of others and not being primarily interested in his own welfare. This according to Paul is not simply being interested in the interests of others; it is also being interested in the interests of Christ. Christ is so identified with His people that whenever a Christian concerns himself about another Christian, he in effect is concerning himself about Christ (see Christ's own statement regarding this in Matt. 25:35-40).
Not only did Timothy display humility by being interested in their welfare, he also served with Paul the way a child serves his father. It always delights me to think of the way Nathan has tried to imitate me. In 1992 when I was running about 2 1/2 miles a day, I took Nathan with me to the track. (He was only 3 at the time.) I told him to wait for me until I got finished running. When I finished the last lap, I saw that he was no longer at the finish line. I thought he might have started running around the track. I couldn't see him though on the track. I went to the car supposing he had gone there. When he was not there, I started getting nervous. The sun was setting and I was afraid I would not be able to find him after the sun had gone down. I was also afraid somebody had come up while I was running and had snatched him. I was beginning to panic.
Then I looked up towards the end of the track, towards the sunset, and there in the dusk I saw Nathan coming round the last bend of the track. He was running as fast as his little legs could carry him. He had just run a quarter of a mile. When I ran up to grab him in my arms, he was smiling and giggling with delight because he had successfully imitated his dad. It was one of the most precious memories I have of Nathan's childhood. Paul is challenging us to have this same kind of attitude towards each other, especially towards spiritual leaders, not just the Billy Grahams with whom we really don't have a relationship with, but with the BF's, with the Chuck's, etc. Affection should really flow towards the ministers and other spiritual leaders from the church, and vice versa. The ministers should live lives and conduct their ministries worthy of such affection. That is the path to true unity.
The next personal issue concerns Epaphroditus. The Philippian church had charged Epaphroditus with the task of carrying the funds to Paul from Philippi and to minister to Paul while he was there. Apparently along the way to Rome, Epaphroditus had taken ill. It would have been easy for him to have turned around and returned to Philippi and let somebody else carry out the mission. Epaphroditus was intent on fulfilling this mission, even at the risk of dying himself. Word concerning his illness has reached the Philippian congregation who are naturally fearful for Epaphroditus' welfare. Although Epaphroditus' stay will be cut short, Paul is going to send him back to the Philippian congregation.
Once more Paul could have said this in just a few verses. Instead, Paul takes this occasion as an opportunity to urge the Philippians to imitate the positive qualities in Epaphroditus that he has been talking about. First, Paul says that he is sending Epaphroditus to them because Epaphroditus is concerned about the Philippians. They are naturally upset about the news of his near-death experience. Epaphroditus knows that they will be comforted about him only when they see him for themselves. Second, Paul says that he is sending Epaphroditus to them because he Paul is concerned about the Philippians. He knows that when they see Epaphroditus they will rejoice and he will be less concerned about them. (Notice that Paul and Epaphroditus are concerned about everybody but themselves. Although we are to tend to our own needs, we are to be others-oriented.)
Paul concludes this section with commending Epaphroditus to the Philippians: "Therefore, receive him in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard" (2:29). Paul commends Epaphroditus to them because he is the exact type of person Paul wants the Philippians to imitate. In spite of great external pressures (sickness unto death), Epaphroditus' main concern was not himself but the Philippian congregation. In spite of their external pressures (from persecution), the Philippians are to be concerned for others, thereby creating unity within the church and removing obstacles in the eyes of the world which prevent people from coming to Christ.