It wasn’t always controversial to suggest that the presence of police officers reduces crime. Numerous studies confirm this truth. After the death of George Floyd, when “Defund the police” became the primary goal of the Black Lives Matter platform, I was shocked how readily several friends of mine were to defend the concept. It was depressing to see major cities, with high rates of crime, reducing the budget of their law enforcement.
The result of this insanity—as everyone should have anticipated—was an increase in violent crime. The US experienced its largest increase in homicide rates in history last year.
What does this have to do with Philippians? Even Paul acknowledges the tendency for people to obey when authorities are present. He urges his readers, for the second time (Phil 1:27; 2:12), to practice obedience in his absence even more than they did when he was present. Why? Because disobedience increases without accountability. He will explain that the Christian should always obey, but he qualifies this in several ways.
Paul will show by necessary implication that, obedience offered with eager self-dependency or grumbling reluctance results in a shame-filled and joyless isolation. His encouraging exhortation can be summarized in this way: Those who overcome their pride and reluctance to obey God will rejoice in community.
Pray & Read Philippians 2:12-18
I. The Source of Christian Obedience (12-13)
Paul exhorts them to obey whether he is present or absent recognizing that God is the source of their strength.
Paul is not accusing the Philippians of disobedience. He has repeatedly rejoiced in the fruit of God’s work in them. Rather than rebuke, he spurs them on to further good deeds. Obedience especially counts when no one is there to enforce it. In that case, the work of God’s Spirit is all the more evident.
It is the believer’s responsibility to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (12). Paul is not talking about working for our salvation. He is not suggesting that we are saved by works, but that our sanctification requires work.
What does fear and trembling have to do with obedience? Those uncomfortable with this language attempt to read it in an almost unrecognizable fashion. They interpret v.13 as if it essentially cancels out v.12. It is unhelpful to immediately reinterpret “fear and trembling” as “reverence and awe”. There is a logical correlation, but it requires explanation.
“Fear and trembling” is the correct translation, and it means exactly what it sounds like. Its meaning does not change when applied to believers. It’s the same word used by the psalmist who encourages the kings of the earth to…
Psalm 2:11–12 ESV
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
This acknowledges a deep sense of respect for the Lord’s authority to discipline his children. The opposite would be to work out your salvation with unwavering confidence. Fear reveals a dependence upon God. Trembling causes us to reach out for something to stabilize us.
As a loving Father, God has the authority to discipline, but he delights in obedience. As a true child, we seek to please him rather than provoke him.
There is a correlation between Paul’s call for humility earlier in the chapter and his call for fear and trembling here. Both commend a submissive spirit before a perfectly holy and sovereign Lord. That is not to suggest that we prepare our hearts for worship with dreadful panic. This is not a fear that drives us away from God, but closer to him.
The Letter to the Philippians D. Work out Your Salvation (2:12–18)
Fear and trembling united with trust and love in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father inspire us to work out our salvation.
Paul is not calling for a weak spirit, but a sincere sense of our utter dependence upon God.
An excellent summary of these two verses is found in the WCF 16.3: “[The believer’s] ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And, that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.”
Scripture exhorts you to make progress in your salvation! Don’t let up in your effort to grow. Employ all of your energies to obey, knowing that you are fully dependent upon God. He grants the desire and the ability to obey.
This is especially important to remember when you are feeling helpless and hopeless about your circumstances. When it appears nothing you say or do will alleviate your frustrations, keep at it. Allow your failures to encourage even more effort, but don’t lose sight of who empowers that effort!
The promise that God is at work in you is what motivates you to strive all the more. In a similar way, Peter begins with the divine power that “has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness…For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…” (2 Pt 1:3-6).
The same Heavenly Father who loved us, has promised to love us forever (John 3:16)! The same Christ who redeemed us will sustain us until he returns! The same Spirit who justified us will also sanctify and glorify us!
In light of these promises, we ought to diligently stir up the grace of God that is in us.
› Next, Paul transitions from the source of Christian obedience to…
II. The Goal of Christian Obedience (14-16)
Their obedience should be offered without complaint so that they might be blameless among a perverted generation.
Moses condemned the unbelieving Israelites who dealt corruptly with God. “They are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (Deut 32:5).
Paul’s allusion to the grumbling Israelites points to obedience as the fruit of God’s children. He connects the covenant community in the Old Testament with the Church of the New Testament. The Church becomes the recipients of God’s covenant promises. Those who place their faith in Christ are the true Israel of God (Gal 6:16). As he will acknowledge in the next chapter…
Philippians 3:3 ESV
For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
Christians shine their light in a world darkened by sin when they hold fast to the word of life. Their steadfast faith shines a light upon a perverse generation. That will inevitably expose lies and condemn sin. It will also, occasionally, result in the conversion and transformation of sinners.
The perseverance of believers in Philippi will confirm, on the day of Christ, that Paul’s ministry among them was not in vain.
Paul’s instruction seems to imply that some of the Philippian believers were grumbling over some of the challenges they were facing amid a corrupt people. Like the wandering Israelites, they might have blamed their spiritual oversight for leading them into a hostile environment. Paul wants them to understand that the reluctance they express in their obedience dims their contrast with a wicked culture. Put more simply, complaints stain obedience.
What’s the alternative. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing…holding fast to the word of life.” Instead of complaining about your calling or circumstances, ground yourselves in gratitude for the life-sustaining word of the gospel.
This instruction is easy to receive when life is going as you please. The encouragement provided by the gospel confirms that everyone is blessed by the light of your countenance. But, it is precisely “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” that our steadfast and grateful obedience is threatened.
Colossians 1:21–22 ESV
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,
Will the truth of this gospel sustain you when the world hates you for holding fast? Is Christ’s declaration that you have been justified, reconciled, and accepted in Him (Rom 3:21-24, Eph 1:6) enough to uphold you when progressive leaders call you bigots and neanderthals for daring to question their twisted worldview?
“Holding fast to the word of life” implies that you will face discouraging opposition. Your faith will come under attack both inside and outside the church. Will you grumble and complain about it? Will you lack the fortitude to endure the mockery?
You need to hear that it is in the midst of those trials that the light of Christ shines most brightly through your faithfulness. You need to know that God is rejoicing over you even as the secular world is mocking you.
This is exactly what we find happening to the covenant community as they suffer the reproach of the nations. God promises to deal with their oppressors even converting their shame to praise.
Zephaniah 3:17 ESV
The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
Hold fast to this word of life and let your obedience be without complaint!
› After considering the source and goal of Christian obedience, Paul concludes with…
III. The Result of Christian Obedience (17-18)
The Greek verb translated “poured out as a drink offering” is in the present tense. This seems to refer to Paul’s current suffering rather than his expectation of a future execution. He does use the same imagery in his final letter to Timothy.
2 Timothy 4:6 ESV
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.
Therefore, some have concluded that Paul is referring to the possibility of his execution. The drink offering is the second stage of a larger sacrificial offering that would involve animal bloodshed (Num 28:7).
But Paul does not only use sacrificial imagery to speak of death.
Even if Paul is exhausting his ministry for the sake of the Philippians he rejoices with them and exhorts them to do the same.
Paul shows that Christian joy is connected to sacrificial service. He is following in the steps of Christ (2:5-11). And the reward for his humility is rejoicing with those he is being poured out for.
Despite Paul’s suffering, he knows that God is the one sustaining him. Even though he is in chains, he rejoices with them because he knows that his leadership labor compliments their sacrificial obedience. He does not wallow in self-pity or grumble about the injustices he has routinely endured.
Could you imagine if Paul were writing to the Church in America today? Paul doesn’t have enough bitter animosity toward his oppressors to fit in with Woke Christianity. He is far too content in his circumstances to incite a riot over his mistreatment. He doesn’t segment out his audience based upon the number of intersections of their oppression. He doesn’t target those who shared the ethnicity of the dominant culture and condemn their complicity for the injustices that he suffered. He doesn’t challenge “Dear White Christians” to empathize with his plight.
In an age where silence is perceived as complicity, the letters of the Apostle Paul would certainly be up for cancellation. However, had he written like a number of popular authors today, he would have stoked the flames of a shame-filled, bitter, and divided religion. Christianity would have self-destructed under the leadership of woke apostles.
What did Paul do instead? It’s remarkably simple. He rejoiced and he invited all Philippian believers to rejoice with him—without distinction! That is the hope we find in the gospel. It’s the only hope that is worth persevering to achieve.
You can rejoice with diverse brothers and sisters because despite your cultural differences, you are united in Christ.
It is the blood of Christ that has brought all of us near. He has granted all of us “access in one Spirit to the Father.” We are no longer strangers but fellow members of the household of God. In Christ we are being “built up together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:13-22).
Because of what Christ has done to redeem us and reconcile us to himself, we can rejoice together in unity. Even if we are suffering under persecution, we are able to rejoice together.
Even though Paul was separated from the Philippians because of his chains, he was united to them in the work of the gospel. And the result was exceeding joy for everyone!