Father we thank you for your word and we pray for each one of us now as we listen to it, that you will protect it from being stolen from the evil one and that you will prevent anything chocking it. Father, help us to respond rightly we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen
Some of you know this already, but the words you’re hearing tonight are from man who recently discovered he hasn’t got long left to live.
I’m not talking about me – I’m talking about a man called Paul who wrote the letter we’re studying together these summer evenings. He’s writing from prison where he is locked up because he won’t and he can’t stop speaking about Jesus and how his death and resurrection mean we no longer have to face the punishment our sins deserve. Like all of us, Paul has no idea how long he has left to live, but unlike us he faces the very real and present danger of execution for his faith.
In some ways, for most of us it can be hard to fully relate to the intensity of a man on death row. But I hope and pray that as his words break into our lives this Sunday evening and as you listen to him you will allow this audience with a dying man to open your eyes to the very real reality that you might just be wasting your life.
If you don’t yet believe in God, or Jesus and are confident that death is the end – you need to hear the warning that death is not the end and that how you respond to Jesus now is ultimately what will decide how you spend the rest of eternity.
Most of us here tonight do trust in Jesus. We too need to be reminded that we have a mission here on earth: to live for Christ and the gospel. We also have a sobering warning. We are in danger of getting sidetracked and spending the little time we have left on this earth thinking about, planning for and doing things that may seen important now, but will ultimately count for nothing. We also need to be reminded that we will one day stand before Jesus and though safe as his rescued children we will have to explain what we did with our lives. Lives that no longer belong to us but now are His.
Turn back with me please to page 1179 in the Bible and to the words from Philippians 2:12-18 that were read for us just now by Gina Hogg.
I want you to think about a situation – it’s not real, but it will help me to explain what I think this part of the Bible is teaching us.
As you will know from the news, over 11 million people in East Africa are in serious risk tonight due to conflict and some areas being affected by the worst drought in 60 years. More the 2 million of those affected are under 5 - as a father of 2 young children, I can only begin to feel the horror of your child starving to death in your arms.
Imagine you find yourself in a team of people whose job it is to take emergency supplies such as food, water and medical help to those in need.
Almost as soon as you set off, the group begin to fall out. There is a major argument about who should be in charge of the aid programme – they all want to put down being in charge of such a well known rescue operation on their CV. The team driver is offended by something the team cook said and won’t drive the aid lorries until the cook says sorry. Two of the team fall out about what music to play. Two others have a massive row, but won’t talk about it to one another and pretend nothing is wrong. Except they gossip to everyone else about it behind their back and so split the team in two. It would have made a brilliant episode of “The Apprentice” and by the time that’s sorted out, it is too late to set off, so the journey is put off till tomorrow.
You finally set off, and very soon you’re stopped at gun-point by rebels who are set to impose a ban on aid. They threaten you and promise to shoot you if you go on. Half the group grumble that this isn’t in their job description and want to turn back. The other half think we should give the food to the rebels to try and get rid of them!
The result of all that is that the team never arrives and the aid never reaches those it was supposed to help.
If that were a true story, it would be shocking! Just imagine the headlines in the newspaper: ‘Children die as aid workers squabble over music’. Those people would be held to account for the dreadful way they have handled what has been entrusted into their care, and rightly so.
That story has many obvious similarities to the way Paul viewed the church he was writing to.
Paul was totally single minded: the whole purpose of his life was to speak to as many people as he could about Jesus. That wasn’t a hobby or a game for him. It was a life or death issue because he believed the truth that unless people heard about and came to trust in Jesus they would face an eternity in hell. Paul calls this talking about Jesus and calling them to trust in him, “holding out the word of life” in verse 16.
In fact for Paul the only criteria for judging if his life had any value at all was whether or not he was still living for Christ and for the gospel.
He writes to the church in Philippi and he sees them as a team who were on a mission to take the good news about Jesus to a needy and dying world. God was powerfully at work in the Philippians and as a result they were a much better team than the one I have just made up!
They had thrown themselves wholeheartedly and sacrificially into the same task as Paul – because they, like him, had been given the job by God. They were partners in the business of speaking about Jesus. Remember back at the beginning of the book in 1:4-5
4…In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now...
What did it mean to be a partner in the gospel? The book is full of examples. Let me pull out three:
• In 1:19 we saw that meant praying to God for Paul and others involved with him and for the task.
• Later in chapter 2 we will hear about what it means for one member of the church – Ephaphroditus – who had been willing to go and join Paul overseas and be what Paul calls in v25 as a ‘fellow-worker and fellow-soldier’. He had been willing to give even his life in the cause of the gospel– more on him next week!
• In chapter 4 we will see that being partners meant giving cash to the costs of the business.
The section of his letter that we are looking at tonight is part of a longer section that goes from 1:27 to the end of chapter 2. In these verses, Paul is encouraging them and us to keep living for Christ and the gospel. As he says in 1:27, to ‘conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’,. He wants to warn them and us of the dangers of becoming just like that useless aid team. I have two main points, and they are:
1. WORK OUT YOUR SALVATION WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING (V12-13)
2. DO EVERYTHING WITHOUT COMPLAINING OR ARGUING (v14-16)
POINT 1: WORK OUT YOUR SALVATION WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING (V12-13)
Look at verses 12-13:
12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed— not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence— continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Paul is writing to tell them to keep going in the growth curve they’re on. Looking back, he comments that ‘they have always obeyed’ – he is remembering how focussed on knowing and living for Jesus they were when he lived with them. He has also seen that not only did they keep going but have also grown more and more since he left them – see how he describes their obedience: that it is, ‘now much more in my absence’.
We then come to the first imperative or command of this section. He says:
Therefore continue to …work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
Notice this says work out your salvation and not work for our salvation. Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who preach religion rather than Christ miss that rather obvious point, but get that wrong and you miss the point entirely! Paul is not teaching salvation by works. There is nothing we can do on our own that would earn us forgiveness or justify us before God.
What is he doing, however, is clearly urging them to work and making it clear that they do have a part to play in their continued growth as Christians. Being a Christian is not the spectator’s sport many of us think it is. The Christian life is one of action, commitment, and sacrifice. It is state of struggle, of suffering, it is a spiritual battle. Our salvation is not a passive thing. It is something that is to be worked out. It is something that we must work at.
Paul wants them to keep going and he wants them to keep growing, but this isn’t the kind of speech a football manager might give a tiring team at a half time talk, or an army general barking orders to his soldiers who are losing momentum. No – see how he calls them his “dear friends”. This is a loving pastor who is pleading with his spiritual children not to waste their lives by refusing to cooperate with what God is already doing in their lives.
And he wants them to work at it with fear and trembling – it is a reminder that like that aid team they will one day have to give an account to the creator and judge of the universe for they have handled the gospel message that has been entrusted into their care.
Pauls’ own example of how he keeps an eternal perspective is inspiring, but Paul is neither the motive nor the power that we need. Good examples are helpful but we also need the power to follow them. Which is why it’s important to see that this paragraph begins with the word “therefore”. This first command comes directly after his explanation of how Jesus has been obedient to his Fathers great rescue mission – an obedience that led Jesus to death – as it said it verse 8.
We are all just like those living in lands destroyed by famine in that we are all in desperate need. But the Bible doesn’t describe us as innocent victims. The description used in verse 15 is a ‘crooked and depraved generation’. Every one of us has decided to challenge God’s rightful place as Lord, as king of the universe he created and ignored how he has rightly drawn the line between what is right and what is wrong. Instead we pretend that we are the king of the universe with the ability to decide what is right and what is wrong. We aim to do what we want to do and by doing this we bring on ourselves the punishment from God that such a rebellion deserves: death and hell. We were trapped and addicted by this way of thinking and in spite of it destroying our life we are unable to do anything to rescue ourselves from the mess we were in.
Chapter 2:5-11 describes how God himself, who we at the time hated, acted in Jesus to rescue us by his death in our place on the cross. God became a man and v8:
being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross
And Paul is saying to us... ‘follow the example of JESUS – as he was obedient even to death to his Father’s great rescue mission, so we too should be obedient to that same great rescue mission – even if it leads to our death. And for some of us it might. Jesus is to be our great example.
And verse 13 helpfully then keeps our focus on God – who not only shows us how we are to love, but he also gives us the Holy Spirit to do that work in us. The business success formula “If it is to be, it is up to me” is totally the wrong approach here! No – see v 13 is the total opposite!
It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’.
This is good news! God doesn’t leave us to work on our own. He works with us and in us! The biggest problem can be that I so often do not want to change. But God can even make us willing to change.
I think this is a bit like when someone gets married. The wedding day is just the beginning! From that day on begins a lifelong process of working out their marriage in daily life and like any relationship it is not automatic. It needs working out. The question to ask is not ‘am I married?’, but am I ‘working out my marriage?’. There is a big difference!
So let me ask: are you working out your salvation with fear and trembling? Or are you coasting? Is there an area in your life that you’re currently refusing to be obedient in – maybe you are refusing to forgive someone who’s hurt you or maybe there is a sin you are refuse to turn away from or maybe it is the call to give up a life of comfort and ease for the sake of others hearing about Jesus?
Will you take some time to do an honest assessment of how you’re doing in this area? Rather than making that an individual thing can I encourage you to ask someone who knows you well and who loves you enough to be honest with you – ‘how am I doing?’ Maybe that’s something you can do even tonight after this service. We need to work together to help one another to apply this passage.
I have been thinking a lot recently about friendship and the role that plays in our continued growth and came across this helpful description in a book I’ve been reading:-
“None of us sees ourselves objectively. It often takes someone looking from the outside. Close friends who are part our lives over time can challenge us to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ even when we’ve lost perspective. A friend knows the song in my heart and sings it to me when my memory fails.”
Isn’t that a good description of what Paul is doing here for the Philippians? Will we dare to play the same role in one each other’s lives? Are we working out our salvation with fear and trembling?
Secondly: DO EVERYTHING WITHOUT COMPLAINING OR ARGUING (v14-16)
Paul was concerned that they might get distracted from the task of speaking about Jesus and living or him and so end up being ineffective in God’s service. That is what he was covering generally in verses 12-13
Now, in verses 14-16, he gets very specific about two key areas where that might happen – which by some amazing coincidence match the areas that distracted my imaginary aid team. Have at look at verses 14-16.
14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16as you hold out the word of life— in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.
Look again at verse 14. He says, “Do everything without complaining or arguing”
What is he referring to here? I think the context helps us to answer that. There is a flow of thought that goes from 1:27 to end of chapter 2. One of the questions is: is this complaining and arguing talking horizontally (about our relationships with one another) or vertically (in our relationships with God) or maybe even a bit of both?
Due to the context, I think he is talking about both.
First he says do not complain. I think that is a reference to our reaction to God when facing persecution. Look back to 1:27-30. Let me read these verses and as I do so look out for how this theme of persecution and our response is in there.
27Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved— and that by God. 29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
The word complaining is the same word as used in the Old Testament time when Israelites were in the desert having been rescued from slavery in Egypt and complained to God about their living conditions – is that what Paul had in mind? Hard to be certain. He certainly would have known about it and the parallels are quite interesting. When difficult things happen to us it’s easy to complain to God. By the way, complaining to God is different to expressing our pain. Complaining to God accuses him of evil.
With these Israelites in the desert, their memory had failed them. They have forgotten how much worse off they were when they were slaves in Egypt and so they complained and said ‘we were better off back there in Egypt when we were slaves.’ They weren’t! They had just forgotten and they are ungrateful for all the blessings God has given them.
The Philippians, like us, are in danger of doing exactly the same thing: living for Jesus and for the gospel brings a whole host of suffering and it’s so easy to grumble in the light of our suffering. We might feel “This isn’t in my job description! I never signed up for suffering!” Oh but actually it is and you did – Paul has reminded them of that in 1:29. We may avoid the suffering by holding back on speaking for Jesus or living for him. And we may complain when it happens. Like them our memory is in danger of failing – we forget that we are infinitely better off now compared to the grim reality of the punishment in hell that we faced before Jesus forgave us our sin. We are also ungrateful for all he has given us.
I’m aware that many of us are going through really tough times right now. Please don’t misunderstand me: it is ok to question God and to be honest with him about our emotions, no matter how raw, in these dark moments. That is not a sin. But complaining is when we accuse God of evil and that is a sin. At times we do that and when do we do we simply need to ask forgiveness each time it happens and trust his promise that ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” We can be honest with him about our struggles. We can do that without feeling we’ve ruined our relationship with him by what we’ve thought or said.
Again I want to emphasise that we have a shared responsibility to help each other to hold on to the confidence that he is wise and he is good and he will supply all our needs in such a way as it would be for our good and for God’s glory at those times. If you’re going through a tough time and you feel like you’re just clinging on with your fingertips look for those who know that song in your heart and can sing it to you when your memory fails.
Secondly he says do not argue – that is simply quarrelling amongst themselves. In the beginning of chapter 2 in verses 3-4 he talks about how they behave with one another. We looked at that just last week.
Like my imaginary aid team, they were in danger of acting like contestants on The Apprentice – all looking out for number one even when they look like they’re in a team.
It’s not difficult to see how we can do the same. Conflict and arguments will happen – the only way to avoid them would be to become clones or to not get close to one another. Conflict is inevitable but that is not the issue. The issue is how we deal with that conflict. If we don’t deal with it well it can become divisive.
Where are we likely to argue? It is very easy to offend or hurt one another in a million little or large ways. We can disagree on something – maybe music or we don’t like a decision a leader has made or the way they are doing something, get offended when our opinion is not listened to when we have to make a decision on something as a church. We need to watch out for the danger of becoming undivided by arguing.
So why are these two things an issue? It is because they distract us from the task – just like they distracted my aid team from their task – we get so caught up complaining and arguing we never get round to what we are supposed to be doing. As it says in 1:27, “We need to stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel”.
The other problem is that it makes us no different to those around us. We no longer ‘shine like stars’ as it says it verse 15. Stars wouldn’t stand out of they were no different to those around them – which is why we cannot see stars in the daytime! You have to be different to stand out! We are to shine like stars and point to Christ by our lives.
Worst still, it makes us unappealing to those around us. They rightly accuse us of being hypocrites.
So we need to examine ourselves. We need to take seriously this challenge.
• Are we those who shine?
• Are we any different to those around us in those two areas?
• Do we act differently with Christians and with non-Christians?
• What do you need to put right with God and with one another?
Like with the Philippians there is lots to give thanks for us as a church. The Holiday Club has just finished and it is an immediate example of the hours, the sacrifices, the blood and the toil that goes into the cause of the gospel at JPC and for that I thank God. And we should do that. But we need to heed the warnings.
Other things may distract us. Maybe a problem with our theology that causes us not to see the need to tell other about Jesus. We’ll come to that in chapter 3. Maybe we’re busy – through looking after an ill parent, a newborn child, planning a wedding, the demands of work and study in your ‘spare time’. How can I fit this in? How can I keep telling other people about Jesus a priority in the changing seasons of life? If you’re beginning university, or work or retirement or marriage or a family or you’re going through another change of stage – how can you keep this a priority?
The main thing I want to say in answer to those questions from this passage is that mission is not something we do. It is not just one thing among an ever growing list of things that compete for our time and attention. Rather it is something that we are. Look at 15. It describes us as the ‘children of God’. That is our identity. We should be and we can be on mission even in the midst of being extremely busy.
Is our conduct worthy of Jesus and the gospel?
There was once an artist who wanted to paint with pictures what it meant to speak about Jesus to those who are not Christians. He began by painting a storm at sea. He had painted black clouds filling the sky with a flash of lighting coming down from the heavens. In the raging sea he had painted a boat that seemed to be being destroyed by the pounding sea. He also painted men, some struggling in the swirling waters, some clinging desperately on the sides of the sinking boat, all with looks of terror on their faces. The only hope appeared in the foreground of the painting, where a huge rock protruded out of the water. There, clutching desperately to the rock with both hands, was one lone seaman.
It was a very beautiful and moving painting. From looking at it one could see that the tempest was a symbol of the hopeless situation of mankind. And true to the gospel, that only hope of salvation was "the Rock of Ages" – Jesus - the only hope amidst the storm.
But as the artist looked at the painting he realised that something was wrong. In order to correct his error he discarded the painting and went to work on another. It was very similar to the first. It had the black clouds, the flashing lighting, the angry waters, the little boat being crushed by the pounding waves, the crew struggling vainly against the waters. In the foreground the seaman was still clutching the large rock for salvation. But the artist had made one change: the seaman was only holding on with one hand, and with the other he was reaching down to pull up a drowning friend.
That is how it should be with all Christians. We should be reaching out with the word of truth to a world that needs to hear about Jesus. We need to be as "shining stars" as we "holding out the word of life."
Father, thank you for Jesus and all that he has done for us, and all that he is doing in us. Father, help us to speak of him. Father, protect us from disunity, protect us from a grumbling and complaining heart and protect us from anything else that would cause us to not keep shining like stars and pointing people to you. We ask this for your name and for your glory. Amen