“Few things are harder to put up with,” wrote Mark Twain, “than the annoyance of a good example.” Perhaps the thing most annoying about a good example is its inability to accomplish the same achievements in our own lives. Admiration for a great person can inspire us, but it cannot enable us. Unless the person can enter into our own lives and share his skills, we cannot attain to his heights of accomplishment. It takes more than an example on the outside; it takes power on the inside.
In our previous study of Philippians, Paul has just presented Jesus Christ as our Great Example in the exercise of the submissive mind. We read it and agree with it, but how do we go about practicing it? How could any mortal man ever hope to achieve what Jesus Christ achieved? It seems almost presumptuous to even try! Here we are, trying to develop humility, and we are exercising pride by daring to imitate the Lord Jesus Christ!
The problem is really not that difficult. Paul is not asking us to reach for the stars, but is setting before us the divine pattern for the submissive mind and the divine power to accomplish what God has commanded. “It is God who is at work in you” (2:13). It is not by imitation, but by incarnation—“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is not a series of ups and downs. Rather, it is a process of “ins and outs.” God works in us, and we work out. We cultivate the submissive mind by responding to the divine provisions God makes available to us.
There Is a Purpose to Achieve (2:12–16)
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for ‘His’ good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
“Work out your salvation” (2:12) does not suggest “work for your salvation.” To begin with, Paul is writing to people who are already “saints” (Phil. 1:1), which means they have trusted Christ and have been set apart for Him. The verb “work out” carries the meaning of “work to full completion,” such as working out a problem. In Paul’s day, it was also used for working a mine, that is, to get out of the mine all the valuable goods possible; or working a field to get the greatest harvest possible. The purpose God wants us to achieve is Christ-likeness, “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). There are problems in life, but God will help us to “work them out.” Our lives have tremendous potential, like a mine or a field, and He wants to help us fulfill that potential.
Cindy did not seem very happy when she arrived home from college to spend the holiday with her family. Her parents noticed her unusual behavior, but were wise enough to wait until she was ready to share her problem with them. It happened after dinner.
“Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you and I’m afraid it’s going to hurt you.”
“Just tell us what’s on your heart,” her father said, “and we’ll understand. We want to pray with you about it—whatever it is.”
“Well, you know that all during high school, I talked about becoming a nurse, mainly because Mom is a nurse and I guess you expected me to follow in her footsteps. But I can’t go on. The Lord doesn’t want me to be a nurse!”
Her mother smiled and took Cindy’s hand. “Your father and I want God’s will for your life. If you do anything else, we’ll all be unhappy!”
Cindy had done the courageous thing; she had faced God’s will and decided she wanted to work out her own salvation—her own Christian life—and not what somebody else wanted her to do. One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is the knowledge that God has a plan for our lives (Eph. 2:10) and will help us to work it out for His glory. Our God is a God of infinite variety! No two flowers are the same and no two snowflakes are the same; why should two Christians be the same? All of us must be like Christ, but we must also be ourselves.
The phrase “work out your salvation” probably has reference particularly to the special problems in the church at Philippi, but the statement also applies to the individual Christian. We are not to be “cheap imitations” of other people, especially “great Christians.” We are to follow only what we see of Christ in their lives. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Every “great saint” has feet of clay and ultimately may disappoint you, but Jesus Christ can never fail you.
In 2:14–15, Paul contrasts the life of the believer with the lives of those who live in the world. Unsaved people complain and find fault, but Christians rejoice. Society around us is “crooked and perverse,” but the Christian stands straight because he measures his life by God’s Word, the perfect standard. The world is dark, but Christians shine as bright lights. The world has nothing to offer, but the Christian holds out the Word of life, the message of salvation through faith in Christ. As we allow God to achieve His purpose in our lives, we become better witnesses in a world that desperately needs Christ. Apply these characteristics to Jesus and you will see He lived a perfect life in an imperfect world.
It is important to note His purpose is achieved “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (2:15). Paul does not admonish us to retreat from the world and go into a spiritual isolation ward. It is only as we are confronted with the needs and problems of real life that we can begin to become more like Christ. The Pharisees were so isolated and insulated from reality they developed an artificial kind of self-righteousness that was totally unlike the righteousness God wanted them to have. Consequently, the Pharisees forced a religion of fear and bondage on the people (Matt. 23), and they crucified Christ because He dared to oppose that kind of religion. It is not by leaving the world, but by ministering to it that we see God’s purpose fulfilled in our lives.
There Is a Power to Receive (2:13)
For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for ‘His’ good pleasure.
The principle Paul lays down is this: God must work in us before He can work through us. This principle is seen at work throughout the Bible in the lives of men like Moses, David, the Apostles, and others. God had a special purpose for each man to fulfill, and each man was unique and not an imitation of somebody else. For example, it took God forty years to bring Moses to the place where He could use him to lead the people of Israel. As Moses tended sheep during those forty years, God was working in him so that one day He might work through him. This is a very important truth: God is more interested in the workman than in the work. If the workman is what he ought to be the work will be what it ought to be.
Too many Christians obey God only because of pressure on the outside and not power on the inside. Paul warned the Philippians it was not his presence with them, but their desire to obey God and please Him that was the important thing (Phil. 1:27; 2:12). They could not build their lives on Paul because he might not be with them very long. It is sad to see the way some ministries in the church weaken or fall apart because of a change in leadership. We have a tendency to please men and to obey God only when others are watching. But when you surrender to the power of God within you, then obedience becomes a delight and not a battle.
The power that works in us is the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16–17, 26; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 6:19–20). Our English word energy comes from the word translated “work” in 2:13. It is God’s divine energy at work in us and through us! The same Holy Spirit who empowered Christ when He was ministering on earth can empower us as well. But we must recognize the fact that the energy of the flesh (Rom. 7:5) and of the devil (Eph. 2:2; 2 Thes. 2:7) are also at work. Because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, God’s divine energy is available to us (Eph. 1:18–23). The power is here, but how do we use it? What “tools” does God use, by His Spirit, to work in our lives? There are three tools God uses to work in the lives of His children.
1. The first tool is the Word of God. “We constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the Word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thes. 2:13). God’s divine energy is released in our lives through His inspired Word. The same Word that spoke the universe into being can release divine power in our lives! But we have a responsibility to appreciate the Word and not treat it the way we treat the words of men. The Word of God is unique: it is inspired, authoritative, and infallible. If we do not appreciate the Word, then God’s power cannot energize our lives.
But we must also appropriate the Word—receive it. This means much more than listening to it, or even reading and studying it. To “receive” God’s Word means to welcome it and make it a part of our inner being. God’s truth is to the spiritual man what food is to the physical man.
Finally, we must apply the Word; it works only in those “who believe.” When we trust God’s Word and act on it, then God’s power is released in our lives. God’s Word has the power of accomplishment in it and faith releases that power: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37).
We see this truth operating in the life of Jesus. He commanded the crippled man to stretch out his hand, and the very command gave him the power to obey and be healed (Matt. 12:13). Jesus commanded Peter to walk to Him on water and the command enabled Peter to do so, as long as he exercised faith (Matt. 14:22–33). It is faith in God’s promises that releases God’s power. His commandments are His enablements. The Holy Spirit wrote down promises for us in the Word and He gives us the faith to lay hold of these promises. If we want God’s power working in us, we must spend time daily with the Word of God.
2. The second tool God uses to work in the lives of His children is prayer. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). The Holy Spirit is closely related to the practice of prayer in our lives (Rom. 8:26–27; Zech. 12:10). The Book of Acts makes it clear that prayer is a divinely ordained source of spiritual power (Acts 1:14; 4:23–31; 12:5, 12); the Word of God and prayer go together (Acts 6:4). Unless the Christian takes time for prayer, God cannot work in him and through him. In the Bible and in church history the people God used were people who prayed.
3. The third tool God uses is suffering. The Spirit of God works in a special way in the lives of those who suffer for the glory of Christ (1 Pet. 4:12–19). The “fiery trial” has a way of burning away the impurities and empowering the believer to serve Christ. Paul himself had experienced God’s power in the Philippian jail when he was beaten and thrust into the inner prison cell; for he was able to sing and praise God in spite of his suffering (Acts 16:19–33). His “fiery trial” also enabled him to forgive the jailer. It was not the earthquake that brought conviction to the man; the earthquake almost led him to suicide! It was Paul’s encouraging words: “Don’t do it! We’re all here!” This kind of love broke the man’s heart and he fell before Paul, asking how to be saved.
The Word of God, prayer, and suffering are the three “tools” God uses in our lives. Just as electricity must run through a conductor, so the Holy Spirit must work through the means God has provided. As the Christian reads the Word and prays, he becomes more like Christ; and the more he becomes like Christ the more the unsaved world opposes him. This daily “fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10) drive the believer back to the Word and prayer, so that all three “tools” work together to provide the spiritual power he needs to glorify Christ.
If we are to have the submissive mind and the joy that goes with it, we must recognize there is a purpose to achieve (God’s plan for our lives), a power to receive (the Holy Spirit), and a promise to believe.
There Is a Promise to Believe (2:16–18)
Holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.
What is the promise here? Joy comes from submission. The world’s philosophy is joy comes from aggression: fight everybody to get what you want, and then you will get it and be happy. But the example of Jesus is proof enough the world’s philosophy is wrong. He never used a sword or any other weapon; yet He won the greatest battle in history—the battle against sin, death, and hell. He defeated hatred by manifesting love; He overcame lies with truth. Because He surrendered He was victorious! You and I must dare to believe His promise: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14:11). “Blessed [happy] are the poor in spirit [humble], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
There is a twofold joy that comes to the person who possesses and practices the submissive mind: a joy hereafter (2:16) and a joy here and now (2:17–18). In the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6, 10), God is going to reward those who have been faithful to Him. “The joy of the Lord” is going to be a part of their reward (Matt. 25:21). The faithful Christian will discover his sufferings on earth have been transformed into glory in heaven! He will see that his work was not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). It was this same kind of promise of future joy that helped our Savior in His sufferings on the cross (Heb. 12:1–2).
We do not have to wait for the return of Christ to start experiencing the joy of the submissive mind. That joy is a present reality (2:17–18), and it comes through sacrifice and service. It is remarkable that in these two verses, Paul uses the words joy and rejoice—and repeats them! Most people would associate sorrow with suffering, but Paul sees suffering and sacrifice as doorways to a deeper joy in Christ.
In 2:17, Paul is comparing his experience of sacrifice to that of the priest pouring out the drink offering (Num. 15:1–10). It was possible that Paul’s trial would go against him and he would be executed, but this did not rob Paul of his joy. His death would be a willing sacrifice, a priestly ministry, on behalf of Christ and His church; and this would give him joy. “Sacrifice and service” are marks of the submissive mind (Phil. 2:7–8, 21–22, 30), and the submissive mind experiences joy even in the midst of suffering.
It takes faith to exercise the submissive mind. We must believe God’s promises are true and they are going to work in our lives just as they worked in Paul’s life. God works in us through the Word, prayer, and suffering; and we work out in daily living and service. God fulfills His purposes in us as we receive and believe His Word. Life is not a series of disappointing “ups and downs.” Rather, it is a sequence of delightful “ins and outs.” God works in—we work out! The example comes from Christ, the energy comes from the Holy Spirit, and the result is—JOY!