Typically, people come to God out of a desire to get what God alone can give. We need and we want God’s love or forgiveness or restoration or strength or peace or eternal life or all of those things. God graciously gives these things to us because God is abounding in love. But that is not the end-all of faith. If faith is merely what we get from God, then God is no more than a vending machine, and faith is no more than a coin we insert. Faith that is so one-side as to be only taking without giving back is a lifeless faith.
James writes about such an approach to God, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).
The apostle Paul puts it this way, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
This verse is often misunderstood, so we need to be clear about what Paul writes here and what he does not write here. Paul did not write, “Work for your salvation” as though salvation is something we do not yet have and must work hard to attain. Instead, Paul writes, “Work out your own salvation.” Here’s the difference: When you go to the gym, you do not go there to work for muscles (to attain muscles) that do not yet exist in your body; you go to the gym to work out muscles that are within you. You go there to put your muscles to work to make them stronger. The truth is that if you didn’t have any muscles, or if your muscles were not properly attached, you could not “work out.” The reason you can “work out” is that you have muscles to work with.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. We cannot work out our salvation if we do not yet have it. But if we do have it (if we have received it as a gift from God, received through faith), then we should not waste it but put it to use.
Indeed, Paul tells us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” “Fear” in the Bible has far more to do with reverence and respect than with fright. The point of this verse is not to tell us that we ought to be afraid of losing our salvation. The point of this verse is that we should treat with reverence and respect the incredible, priceless gift of salvation that we have been given.”
When my wife and I traveled to Turkey a number of years ago, we needed some local currency, so Debbie went to the ATM machine at the airport to withdraw some money from our bank account. The ATM instructions were in Turkish rather than English, but we believed Debbie could figure it out anyway. When she came back to me, she had 50 million lira in her hand. Immediately, I panicked! I thought, Here we are in a foreign country, and my wife has sent us into financial ruin. We don’t have anything close to 50 million lira in our bank account. We are going to have huge overdraft charges!
As it turned out, the lira was so depressed at the time that Debbie had actually withdrawn only $40 from our bank account. But here’s the point: In my panic, I overestimated the value of 50 million lira. When I held that money in my hands, I thought I was holding a fortune, so I clutched it with fear and trembling, afraid that I would have to protect it with my life. People, however, tend to greatly underestimate the value of salvation. Unlike 50 million lira, salvation is the real treasure. It cost God coming into our world as one of us. Wow! That’s priceless. It cost Jesus taking upon himself all of our sin and laying down his life for us. Wow! That’s priceless. It provides us with forgiveness of all our sins. Wow! That’s priceless. It involves the filling of our soul with the very Spirit of God. Wow! That’s priceless. It includes a future home for us in heaven where we will live forever in the joy and goodness of God’s presence. Wow! That’s priceless.
What are we to do with a treasure so incredibly valuable? We should hold it dearly with deep respect and reverence. We should work it out with fear and trembling.
To blossom in life, a person needs encouragement, support, love, forgiveness, and grace. God designed us in such a way that we need these things to thrive. Without them, we die.
Since God designed us with such needs, it is safe to assume that God also has a plan to fulfill this need. God’s plan to accomplish this is the support and encouragement and forgiveness and love of one another.
In their book How People Grow, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write, “It is a medical fact…that from infancy to old age, health depends on the amount of social connection people have. Infants and older people die from a lack of relationship, and those in the middle suffer and fail to recover from illness…. Virtually every emotional and psychological problem, from addictions to depression, has alienation or emotional isolation at its core or close to it. Recovery from these problems always involves helping people to get more connected to each other at deeper and healthier levels than they are.” (p. 122)
For this reason, when Paul writes to believers in Philippi, he stresses the importance of the work God does through one another. In Philippians 2:1-4, he writes, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.”
But we are frail spirits who struggle often with issues of self-worth, depression, inadequacy, hurt feelings, resentments, prejudices, and bad attitudes. How could we ever be the means God would use to bring encouragement, support, love, forgiveness and grace to others?
This is where Paul’s letter to the Philippians gets most exciting. In Philippians 2:5 Paul tells us, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” or “that is yours in Christ Jesus.” The way that you and I can be encouragement and support and love and forgiveness and grace to one another is through the presence of Christ in us.
Here is the important dynamic: We are not naturally composed of the same love, humbleness, tenderness and compassion that flows freely from Jesus. Therefore it does no good for us just to try harder to be loving, humble, tender and compassionate. It is no good for us simply to try harder to be the kind of people we are not.
On the other hand, love, humility, tenderness and compassion are natural to Christ (as Paul describes beautifully in Philippians 2:6-11). When Christ comes into our souls, he brings with him these qualities that flow freely within him and which are now ours “in Christ Jesus.”
That’s why the message of Scripture is never “Try harder!” Trying harder leaves us pushing vainly against our natural struggles with self-worth, depression, inadequacy, hurt feelings, resentments, prejudices, and bad attitudes, and we end up with increasing amounts of guilt and regret and stress over not doing better. Instead, the call of Scripture is for us to abide in Christ, so that we can get more and more of his nature to become more and more of our nature. The more that we admit to our own shortcomings and seek for Christ’s qualities to grow in us. The more that Christ establishes his love in us, the more we can provide others with the encouragement, support, love, forgiveness, and grace which we all need to flourish.
Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend share, “When I went to graduate school and studied theology, I discovered that this is the doctrine of the church. This doctrine holds that the church, with its indwelling Spirit, is the real physical presence of Christ on earth today. It is true that where two or more are gathered together, he is present (Matthew 18:20). It is true that he is inside each believer. It is true that the Body is the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16). In the Old Testament, God lived in the temple and in the Holy of Holies. Today he lives in temples of human flesh. He lives in us, and wherever we are he is. What an incredible reality!” (How People Grow, p. 121)
When the apostle Paul was on trial in Acts 23, accused of being unfaithful to his nation and to his faith, Paul declared to the Jewish high council, “Up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” The word which the New Revised Standard Version renders simply as “lived,” is actually a more technical term. The Greek word pepoliteumai literally means “to conduct oneself as a citizen.” Paul was swearing to them that he had not been a traitor in any way toward his nation or his faith but had conducted himself faithfully as a good citizen of Israel.
In Philippians 1:27, Paul uses the same word in a challenge to the Christians in Philippi, but here his call to them (and to us) is not to conduct themselves as good citizens of Philippi or of Rome (or even of the United States), but to live as good citizens of Christ’s kingdom: “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (or, most literally, “Only conduct yourselves as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ”).
What does it mean for us to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom?
Paul points to two specific matters in Philippians 1:27-30:
1: A citizen of Christ’s kingdom strives toward unity with fellow believers. Paul tells the Philippian believers that he wants to know that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”
Christian unity has proven to be quite elusive throughout the history of the Christian church. Nevertheless, unity was at the heart of Jesus’ last prayer with and for his disciples before the crucifixion. In John 17:11, Jesus prayed to the Father that his disciples “may be one, as we are one.” In John 17:20-21, he expanded the breadth of his prayer: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
In her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Hailey Barton stresses, “For Christian people, unity is not just one good priority among many. It seemed to be all Jesus wanted as everything else fell away and he faced his death. For those of us who are leaders in Christ’s kingdom, there is nothing more important than seeking this unity with all our heart. Even when we fall short of achieving it, we believe that all things have already been reconciled through Christ and we do whatever is ours to do to be a peace with all people” (p. 186).
While becoming the first person in history to reach the top of Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary was accompanied by his trusted Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay. On their descent, Sir Edmund lost his footing and slipped down the mountain side, but Tenzing held the line taut and kept them both from falling to their deaths by digging his axe into the ice. When questioned about it later, Tenzing refused any special credit for saving Sir Edmund’s life. He considered it a routine part of the job. He explained simply, “Mountain climbers always help each other.”
If looking out for each other and helping each other is natural in the realm of climbing, how much more should it be for citizens of Christ’s kingdom!
2: A citizen of Christ’s kingdom seeks to stand firm without being spooked. Paul tells the Philippians that he wants to know that they are “standing firm…and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”
The word translated here as “intimidated” (pturomenoi) was used in ancient Greek to describe such things as a horse being spooked by a snake. Paul is reminding us that, as Christians, we belong to the One who conquered even death, so we do not need to be spooked by anything this world throws at us.
Ernest Hemmingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.” Ambrose Redmoon suggested, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” The call to us to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is a call to us to exhibit grace under pressure while making the decision that faithfulness to Christ is more important than our fears.
As the apostle Paul languished in a prison cell in Rome, not knowing if he would be set free or executed, he wrote to believers in Philippi, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.”
That statement spurs a couple of questions:
1: What did happen to Paul so that he is in a prison cell writing a letter to the Philippians?
About four years earlier, around the year 57, Paul traveled to Jerusalem with representatives from various churches from what we now consider Greece and Turkey. They brought with them a monetary contribution to help the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem, people saw Paul spending much time in the temple, for he was participating in a seven-day Jewish purification custom. They also saw him spending time with certain non-Jewish persons he had brought to Jerusalem. People put those two items together—sightings of Paul in the temple and sightings of Paul with Gentiles—and they jumped to the conclusion that Paul brought non-Jewish persons into the temple. On the basis of that assumption—or false accusation—a crowd became stirred up. They seized Paul, dragged him from the temple, with his life in grave danger. Roman soldiers broke up the riot and rescued Paul. For his safekeeping, Paul was locked in the barracks as a prisoner for the night. While he was in the barracks, information was leaked that a plot was being hatched to capture Paul and to kill him. To avert the plot, Paul was quickly sent away from Jerusalem. Protected by Roman soldiers, under the cover of darkness, Paul was brought to the port of Caesarea. In Caesarea, Paul was put on trial before the Roman governor Felix. Though the false accusations against Paul could not be substantiated, Felix kept Paul imprisoned, hoping that Paul, or the Christian churches, would offer a bribe for his release. Two years later, Felix was replaced by Festus who kept Paul in prison in an attempt to score political points with the Jewish leaders. When Festus made plans to transfer Paul back to Jerusalem, where Paul faced both the threat of a corrupt trial and a new death plot, he appealed his case to Caesar instead. Because of this appeal to Caesar, Paul was sent as a prisoner to Rome. For two more years, Paul waited in prison for his opportunity to present his case to Caesar. However, Caesar did not want to touch such a political hot potato, so Paul was left in prison without ever receiving his right as a Roman citizen to present his case to Caesar.
What “has happened” to Paul is that he remained stuck in prison because of false assumptions, false accusations, political maneuverings, corruption, and injustice.
Paul has strong grounds to lodge a nasty complaint in this letter, to give vent to bitterness over all that has befallen him. But Paul does something different. He writes, “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” This prompts another question:
2: What if we are here for a higher purpose than to be happy for a few years on planet earth? What if we are here to help others find the love of Christ for the sake of eternity?
If Paul’s focus is only upon himself—his satisfaction level in life—he has reason to fill this letter with complaints. But if Paul’s focus is on the opportunity to help others find the love of Christ, he has reason to rejoice.
As a person who has not had to endure many injustices in my life, I want to be careful with my words. Jeremiah 22:3 declares, “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.” Micah 6:8 states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Believers need to confront injustices in society. But in his personal circumstances, Paul keeps his heart focused on that which is more valuable to him than personal satisfaction: The highest purpose of his life (and of every life) is to help people to find the love of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul goes on to say later in this letter (in Philippians 1:21), “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (for with death we get even more of Christ).