This morning we are carrying on with our series of studies in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi. Our subject is 'obedience' and the headings I want to use as we think about this subject are first, Its Wider Context; secondly, Its Nature; thirdly, Obedience at Philippi, and, fourthly, Its Purpose and Result.
Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison, probably in Rome. And the Church at Philippi was hugely significant. It was the first church established on European soil, and so began the conversion of Europe. Philippi was a wealthy city, but many of the Christians would have been poor. It was a Roman colony populated by returning soldiers, but a wealthy city with a lot of ex-Roman soldiers is likely to be a pretty corrupt and immoral place. Unsurprisingly, Paul describes the Philippian Christians as living among "a crooked and twisted generation". How relevant, therefore, this letter is for Christians today in the West, living in a similar pagan environment! So will you, therefore, now open your Bible at Philippians 2.12-18, our portion for this morning. You will see from the first words of verse 12 that this passage is all about Christian obedience:
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now [obey], not only as in my presence but much more in my absence."
Well, so much by way of introduction. But what is Christian obedience? To answer, first we need to consider Christian obedience from the point of view of Its Wider Context.
This is what the immediately preceding verses in Philippians 2 are about. Those verses are about the obedience of Christ. Look at verse 8 where it says of Christ:
"being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."
So the Philippians have been given the example of Christ's obedience to follow, but then Paul goes on in verses 9-11 like this:
"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
This is the wider context for our passage; and it is amazing. It is talking about the Ascension of Jesus – and how important that is and why we need to celebrate it. For, the Ascension is not just about Jesus going away until he comes again at the end of history. Rather it is about you, if you truly trust in Christ, being connected with Christ the Son and so being directly with God the Father. Paul says in Colossians 3.1:
"If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God … For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."
And Paul tells the Ephesians that God the Father raised Jesus…
"…from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named … and put all things under his feet." (Ephesians 1.20-22)
But he then later tells the Ephesians that God…
"… because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 2.4-6)
So if you trust in Christ, you, amazingly, are by faith and by the working of the Holy Spirit, with Christ who is now exalted over all and with God at the throne of the universe! Of course, none of this is visible, but spiritually it is the reality, and that is the utterly staggering wider context for Paul as he writes to the Philippians about Christian obedience.
But what, secondly, is The Nature of this obedience?
Look at verses 12-13 where Paul says:
"…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
So this obedience relates to our salvation. But how? To understand how the Bible says salvation works, you need to realize it has three tenses – past, present and future – for salvation sums up the total work of God in Christ by his Spirit for men and women. Let me explain. It may be apocryphal, but the story is told of the former late 19th century bishop of Durham, Bishop Westcott, a great New Testament scholar, and a young Salvation Army girl. They were travelling in the same railway compartment, when trains were divided up into many small compartments. The Salvationist being suspicious of bishops plucked up her courage and asked him if he was saved. Westcott was actually reading his Greek New Testament at the time, so he replied quoting the Greek, "Do you mean sôtheis, sôzomenos, or sôthêsomenos?" What the Salvation Army girl made of that is not told, but the bishop's reply well summarizes the way Paul uses the term salvation in three tenses – so, 'Have I been saved? Am I being saved?' and, 'Will I be saved?' That passage I quoted from Ephesians 2 says:
"By grace you have been saved [in the past]"
However, Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1.18:
"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved [in the present] it is the power of God."
And to the Romans he writes, in Romans 5.9:
"Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved [in the future] by him from the wrath of God."
So when Paul is saying here in Philippians 2.12…
"work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,"
…he is not referring to past salvation, how we first became a Christian by trusting in Christ, or future salvation when we will be fully transformed into Christ's likeness. Rather he is referring to present salvation, when we have already started on the Christian journey and are truly following Christ. But now we have to "work out" our salvation. He doesn't say, 'work for your salvation', so you can be right with God who will now forgive your sins. No! He means, because you are already forgiven, "work out your salvation". It relates to Ephesians 2.8 where Paul said: "by grace you have been saved through faith," and then goes on to say in verse 10:
"For we are his [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
That is the "salvation" you now have to "work out" – doing those good works that God has already prepared for you. And that is simple Godly living or what the theologians call 'sanctification'. You see, the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, is not just about 'justification' – how through Christ, by his death bearing your punishment, you get right with God. That is just the beginning. The Gospel also is vitally about 'sanctification' and how you then start, progressively to overcome your sinful thoughts and habits and start thinking and working for God and for others. Yes, in this life, there are still failures that you regularly need to confess, as we do in church. However, there should be progress, little by little, as you seek to grow in goodness and righteousness. It is this part of "salvation" that Paul is talking about here. That also is different to 'glorification' – the final state in heaven when Christ returns, and as John says in his first letter (1 John 3.2):
"when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is."
Until then you have (Philippians 3.12) "to work out your own salvation" and do those "good works" God has prepared for you and for the whole of your life. That includes your inner life, your family life, your church life, your social life, your work life, and, yes, your public life as a citizen. As a Christian heading for heaven, you can't wash your hands of public life. At least you must pray about it regularly and be as well informed as possible. And, for all of us, what we do needs to be done with fear and trembling. For even from a confident position of acceptance by God, we all will, one day, have to give an account to Christ for how we have worked out our salvation in this life. But also that fear and trembling should be in terms of sheer awe. For, Philippians 2.13 says:
"…it is God [almighty God, the creator of the universe] who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
Do you believe that? If you believe that Christ is ascended and you are connected by faith with him there at that throne of the universe and with God, it is all of a piece that God is working "in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." And that "good pleasure" means it is for your good and the good of all – your family, the church, your work and wider society. How foolish, then, not to work with God by resisting his work in you!
The wonder of it is that God is in you working not only to help you once you have got going, but he also helps you 'to will' to get going in the first place! Yes, this is a mystery. How can there be human free agency, when God is working sovereignly 'in you' at the same time? Well, God said through the prophet Isaiah:
"As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways" (Isaiah 55.9)
And Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13.12:
"Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [when Christ returns and 'the perfect comes' we will see] face to face."
So you will understand one day. That brings us, thirdly, to Obedience at Philippi and verse 14, which says:
"Do all things without grumbling or disputing."
Paul didn't say to these Philippians as a major problem for obedience, 'sort yourself out in terms of sexual and marital morality', as he did to the Corinthians. Nor did he say to them, 'sort yourselves out in terms of fundamental doctrine and your understanding of justification by faith', as he did to the Galatians. No! He says, 'sort yourselves out because there are too many grumblers and disputers in Philippi'. We know that there were relationship problems at Philippi. We know there was a major problem between two women who worked together with Paul but couldn't work with each other, as you learn from chapter 4. And you can sense quite a bit of negativity in the church, which was a good church in many ways, not least in terms of giving. But Paul has too often to say, 'cheer up', 'don't be gloomy' or words (in the original) to that effect. In chapter 4 he has to say (verse 4), "rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice," having given that same instruction in the previous chapter. So here he is blunt and says:
"Do all things [not some, but all things] without grumbling or disputing."
A well-known Christian was talking about this verse. He said it hit him hard. For in terms of working out his salvation, he had learnt how to say no to lust – to sexual temptation. He had learnt how to be ruthless over that area of his life. But grumbling wasn't on his agenda at all, and he saw this was serious. Grumbling is so subtle. For grumblers can be half-right. The trouble is the other half, where they are all wrong. Grumblers can destroy and demoralize organizations and human relationships and their relationship with God. Grumbling against God in Old Testament times incurred the gravest of penalties. Certainly grumbling can occur in churches as at Philippi. This famous Christian's point was that such churches may be biblical and rightly heavy on what are known as sex and life issue sins. But are they equally heavy on grumbling? Is this something that, in biblical terms, "they put to death"? That Christian was honest enough to say that in his own case it wasn't. How we all at this church and at St Joseph's need to heed this warning.
Certainly in this first year of going multi-site there will be teething problems. There are already problems that have to be dealt with, but not grumbled about. One of those at the moment is financial. Then in the wider Anglican Communion, there are huge problems some of us are having to be involved with and not least regarding Church issues in South Sudan. These put our problems into proportion. And there will be individuals here this morning who are facing serious personal problems. Perhaps you are one such individual. But if you are trusting Christ, do not grumble. Rather know that Almighty God is working with you, as you face your problems, "both to will and to work for his good pleasure", which will be for your good.
That brings us fourthly and finally to what is The Purpose and Result of such obedience? The answer regarding the purpose is there in verses 15-16a. In Paul's words it is so …
"… 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, holding fast to the word of life."
The purpose is evangelistic. I've been at Jesmond for a long time and this church is characterized by genuinely nice Christian people. Of course, none of us is perfect, but compared with the wider world, there is little nastiness and bad feeling. Yes, there should be healthy discussion and genuine questioning but no bad feeling. So I am convinced there is more light that is shining in our churches and in all faithful churches than in the wider world. Therefore, how we should get out into the wider world as much as possible and shine. The original word for "lights" may relate to Genesis 1 and the creation of the sun, the moon and the stars.
Even if Christians are not like the sun, but just like the moon and the stars, relatively speaking, they give considerable light. You realize that if you are out of the city and in rural Northumberland. If the sky is totally overclouded at night, you see virtually nothing. But with the moon and the stars shining on a clear night, the light is remarkable. That is, at least, what we are meant to be like in this world.
So a church goal as well as a personal goal should be for us all to shine as lights in the world, "holding fast to the word of life". It is important that God's word in Christ himself and in his Apostolic word, the Bible, is held tightly. On the one hand, you are not to be separated from the Word of life, as some are. On the other hand, you are to hold it tightly, like an ancient torch, and not let it slip as you hold it up to light the way. All that is so relevant for our suggested mission this coming Autumn. What then is the result – or a result mentioned here - of Christian obedience? The answer is encouragement all round. Look at verses 16b-18. Paul wants the result to be that …
"in the day of Christ [the day of judgment] I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. 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. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me."
Time forbids going into that in detail, but the gist is clear. And with this I must conclude. At the final judgment Paul doesn't want to appear before Christ having worked in vain because his churches, and the one at Philippi in particular, are spiritually at sixes and sevens. Yes, he may be martyred, as he eventually was for Christ, but he wanted to rejoice because the Christians' faith at Philippi had resulted in good works. So he would die but being able to say to the whole Church at Philippi, before going to be with the Lord, that you are obediently working out …
"…your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
And he would be glad and rejoice with them, and they with him.