For God Is at Work in You (Phil 2:12-18)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached in March 2022*

Sermon Audio: For God Is at Work in You (Phil 2:12-18)

What does God expect of us? What does He ask us to do? Does He want us to care for the poor? Does He want us to combat error and false teaching? Does He want us to become peaceful and free from anxiety? Does He want us to sell everything we have and go to another country to preach the gospel? Does He want us to raise a family, work a job, and be faithful in a local church?

Where do we look for an answer to question like that? We are here gathered at church today, so we know that the correct answer to that question lies somewhere in the Bible. But when we think about what serves as our functional authority for the day-to-day of our life, our authority might not be the Bible, but would be our intuition, what seems right. What does God want me to do? Well, I will look around, evaluate the problems I see, and then take stock of what interests me, what resources I have. 

So what happens is I will give myself over to what seems reasonable to me; I’ll only write checks that I think my abilities can cash.

But is this the way God has summoned us to live? The story of the Bible is, in so many ways, a story of God summoning people to do what is far beyond their ability. God’s people are slaves to Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth, for 430 years and God says, “You’re going to be free.” There is a murderous army chasing them down and a sea blocking their path and God says, “You’re going to walk through the water.” Peter sees Jesus standing on the water and Jesus says, “Peter, you’re going to walk out here with me.” 

Friends, God does not need your tee-ball stand of low expectations to hit a homerun. You may look at God’s commands and say, I cannot see how I could possibly do that. But God isn’t despairing at your limitations—He is calling you to something more because He has more to give. 

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. – Phil 2:12-18

Quick overview of the passage

–       Therefore…the connection with 2:5-11

–       Paul’s confidence in the Philippians obedience and summons to future obedience

–       He summons them to three things

o   They are to work out their salvation with fear and trembling for God is at work in them

o   Do all things without grumbling or complaining by holding fast to the word of life

o   Paul wants them to rejoice with him at God’s work in their life

Augustine, the 4th century church father, wrote his classic work Confessions, a spiritual autobiography of sorts, where he wrote, “On your exceedingly great mercy rests all my hope. Give what you command, and then command whatever you will.” This is our hope as we walk through this passage, whatever God commands, God can will to make happen.

A Heart of Joy (vs 17-18)

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” Phil 2:17-18)

A “drink offering” is when a priest would take a pitcher of wine and pour it out upon the ground or upon another offering as a libation (cf. Num 28:7). Here Paul considers a hypothetical scenario: even if my life is emptied out as a sacrifice for your faith, I am glad. What does this mean? Remember, Paul is writing this from a jail cell, but he is fairly confident that he will be released (see Phil 1:19), but even if he doesn’t, even if his life is expended in the service of the Church, he is glad. What is he glad about? He is glad of their faith. Even if it ends in his life being cut short, Paul is content, satisfied, and happy. So full and happy that it spills over and he summons the Philippians: You should be happy about this too!

Paul is a man who has his eye on the ball. He is the one who earlier taught us that ‘to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ If you don’t know what life is for, it does not matter how much comfort and entertainment and money you have, you will be miserable. You can use a violin as a tennis racket or to paddle a canoe, but you will never experience the highest joy of a violin until you sit down and play it, until you use it the way it was designed. Our generation is the wealthiest, healthiest, most entertained, most educated, and most comfortable generation that has ever walked the planet. Children today would put emperors and monarchs of the past to shame with the kind of resources they have at their disposal. And yet, we are miserable, bored, and anxious. Why? Because we have lost sight of what matters.

Our lives are made for God, we are made in His image which means we exist to make Him known, to glorify Him, and there stands before us a world that does not know Him. We have an immense mission that lay in front of us with an eternal reward. So great is this hope that we can suffer the loss of every earthly joy, we can lose our very life, and yet be abounding with joy.

What do you live your life for?

Parents, what do you “pour your life out for” in regards to your children? What would your children describe as the bullseye of your hopes for them? Would it be their sports? Their college prospects and future career? Or maybe just their tacit obedience so that they don’t bother you? Our hope as parents is that one day our children would be able to say, “More than any career or life choice, my faith is what makes my parents happier than anything.”

We can only do this if we ourselves find our highest joy in Him. O God, command what you will, and will what you command.

A Heart of Gratitude (vs 14-16)

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” Phil 2:14

This is an interesting application of what Paul said earlier. He tells the Philippians to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”, and then the first thing that comes to his mind is: don’t complain. That may seem like a rather mundane application when Paul could have done something a little more dramatic or holistic. But consider what he says in verse 15: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,” (Phil 2:15). So, if we do all things without grumbling or arguing we will be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish, who will shine as stars among a dark, crooked generation. 

The reference to shining like stars comes from the book of Daniel where we are told that at the resurrection we will be clothed with stars and will shine in brightness (Dan 12:3). All because we don’t complain?

Verse 15 actually appears to be almost a direct citation, or inversion, rather, of Deuteronomy 32:5, “They have dealt corruptly with [God]; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.” Philippians 2:15 states, “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” So, in Deuteronomy, it is unbelieving Israel who are the crooked and twisted generation, but in Philippians it is their lack of grumbling that makes them precisely what Israel wasn’t. 

Deuteronomy is referring to the wilderness generation here who doubted and disbelieved God, despite seeing miracle after miracle of God’s salvation and provision for them. And what was that generation marked by? Grumbling and complaining! It only took three days after the parting of the Red Sea before we read, “And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Ex 15:24). It happens again just a few verses later when the people grow hungry (Ex 16:2-3),  and again when the people once more need water (Ex 17:3), and again when they doubt Moses’ leadership (Num 11:1).

Grumbling and complaining is a motif that shapes the entire story of the people of Israel coming out of the Exodus. It eventually leads to a fever-pitch after the people send spies into Canaan, “And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Num 14:2-4). Moses and Joshua try to intervene and remind people that they can trust God to deliver on His promises, and what do the people do? “Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the LORD appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel,” (Num 14:10). 

A grumbling and demanding heart is fundamentally a sick heart. Like a child on Christmas morning throwing a temper tantrum because he didn’t get as many presents as he was hoping for, Israel has become somehow blind to everything that God has done for them—to the point that they are saying We wish we were dead! Why did you ruin our life, God! Let’s go back to our slavery. CS Lewis perceptively picks up on the danger of a grumbling mood:

“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine,” – CS Lewis, Mere Christianity. 

Friend, do you see the danger of a grumbling, complaining spirit in you? Do you sense its danger? If you want a sense of how deep rooted this problem is, here is an eye-opening test: spend the next week trying to never complain. Or, to look at it from another perspective: are you easily pleased?

The opposite of grumbling and disputing, of course, is gratitude and contentment. When we moved into our home a few years ago we noticed that a weed started to grow all over our freshly laid sod. We asked around and found out that this weed was called barnyard grass and, if you didn’t stay on top of it, it would eventually spread and cover the whole yard. Unfortunately, there was no chemical that would kill it without also killing the rest of our grass. So they told us we needed to do two things: one, we needed to go out and try to pluck up as much of it by hand as we could, but also, and more importantly, we needed to work on fertilizing and watering our grass really well because if your grass grows in really well, the roots of the grass will be so thick that there won’t be any room for barnyard grass or other weeds, they’ll be choked out.

A heart of gratitude chokes out a grumbling spirit. A grumbling spirit is a heart that nurses grievances, that gathers together frustrations and huddles around them the way a cold man does the embers of a fire. That isn’t the way they used to do things…I hate it when he does that…Kids these days! But a grateful heart is a heart that is well-watered by the abundance of God’s grace and goodness. And the verse actually shows us this—how do we avoid grumbling? “holding fast to the word of life,” (Phil 2:16). 

What is the “word of life”? It is God’s Word in general. Paul elsewhere tells us that we should let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col 3:16), so that if you crack a Christian open, Bible should just spill out.

But it is more specifically the gospel itself, that is the Word which brings life. Hold fast, with two hands, onto the gospel and watch your petty complaining shrivel and die. What does the gospel tell us? We are condemned sinners worthy of death who have been pardoned by the King at great cost to Himself. The entitled snob who thinks the world is owed him will find much to complain about. But the criminal on death-row who has been set free? All of life around him will explode with joy and gratitude.

A Heart at Work (vs 12-13)

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” – Phil 2:12

How do we live like this? How do we live so totally for God that we would say, “You know what, even if it kills me, I am overjoyed in seeing others come to faith”? How do we hold onto the gospel so that we don’t become eaten up by a grumbling spirit? We “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling.

Let’s clear up a few misconceptions:

–       “Work out” doesn’t mean “earn” or “achieve,” it means “do.” Our salvation is entirely a gift that Jesus Christ has earned on our behalf, but it has implications that come with it. If you are in a coma, completely paralyzed and bed-ridden, and a brilliant doctor is able to heal you and restore you, what do you do? You get out of bed. Jesus has saved us, but He has saved not only saved us from our sins but has saved us for living a new life! The Bible is so emphatic on this that if you someone claims to have faith, but their life is devoid of any good works, then James says that faith is actually dead, not real.

–       What about the “Fear and trembling” statement? This doesn’t mean “fear of punishment”, as in if you don’t work hard enough God is going to fry you. This means acknowledging the grandeur and goodness and holiness of the God who is at work in you, who has saved you. Every time God appears to a human being in the Bible, the respond with fear and trembling. Not because God is bad, but because He is so good. Consider the passage we read earlier: 

“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” – Jer 32:40-41

The fear of God being instilled in our hearts is accompanied with God’s everlasting commitment to us, His unflagging plan to do good to us with “all his heart and soul.”

Now, consider what verse 13 means, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” Phil 2:13

“For”—the grounds of our work, of living out the Christian life, is that simultaneously God is at work! You understand now why Paul told us we work with “fear and trembling”—God Almighty is there at work.

God is at work in our “will and work” with the aim of pleasing Him.

“There are, in any action, two principal departments ― the inclination, and the power to carry it into effect. Both of these he ascribes wholly to God; what more remains to us as a ground of glorying?” – Calvin

Consider three passages that reflect this truth:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Eph 2:10

For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. – Col 1:29

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. – 1 Cor 15:10

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. – John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 148-49.

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