Gospel witness - Philippians 2:12-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A young police officer was taking his final exam at Hendon Police College in North London, when he came to this question. It read: 'You are on patrol in London when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street. On investigation, you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van lying nearby. Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants, a man and a woman, are injured. You recognise the woman as the wife of your Chief Inspector, who is at present away on a conference in the USA. A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realise that he is a man who is wanted for a series of violent armed robberies. Just at that moment, a man runs from a nearby house shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent. Another man is crying for help, having been thrown into an adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim. Bearing in mind the provisions of the Mental Health Act, describe in a few words what actions you would take.' The young officer thought for a moment, picked up his pen, and wrote these words: 'I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.'"
If you've been with us over the last few weeks you'll know that one of the themes of Paul's letter to the church in Philippi is the need to live distinctive Christian lives in the world around us. And one of the verses which sums up Paul's argument is found in 1 v 27: "Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." Now Paul had much to be thankful to God concerning this young church. They were pressing on in the faith, and they had been faithful gospel partners with Paul. They had supported him financially and by prayer while he was in prison, and they'd taken big risks to associate themselves with the apostle. And as a result Paul is thankful to God for their progress. It's a letter full of joy. And yet there are also things that the Philippians need to work on, particularly in their relationships with others. We saw that last week as Paul urged them in 2 v 4 to look not only to their one interests, but also the interests of others. And the attitude they are to have to one another is the attitude of Jesus. That is total self sacrificial servant heartedness. Jesus gave up everything for us to bring us back to God, even the most humiliating death of all, death on a cross. And it's that same selfless, servant attitude that is to characterise the Philippian church, and ours.
But at this point we might be tempted to say to Paul. "Hang on a minute Paul. This is just too hard. I cannot meet these heights of holiness. Its just too difficult. I mean, for a start, having a servant attitude to those around me is going too far. Have you seen what those other students are like?" And we might also baulk at the cost of following Christ. "Living a life worthy of the gospel of Christ is going to cost me, we say. You don't know what it's like in that office on Monday morning." Often like that police man we'd love to slip off the uniform spiritually speaking. and mingle with the crowd.
But in this passage from Philippians 2, Paul will not let us do that. Because he immediately rams home the application of what he's just said by showing us what it will mean to have a Christ-like attitude as we conduct ourselves as Christians in the world and in the church. In the light of the amazing truths of what Jesus has done for you, he says, therefore, dear friends, he says in verse 12, this is how I want you to respond. And the question Paul lays before us this evening is very simple. Will we be distinctive in our Christian lives, living lives worthy of the gospel of Christ, which is the godly thing to do. Or will we take off our uniforms and mingle with the crowd, which is the easy option. Well Paul gives us three commands this evening:
1) Work Out (Vv 12-13)
2) Shine Out (Vv 14-16)
3) Sold Out (Vv 17-18)
1) Work Out (Vv 12-13)
So first the apostle Paul tells us that we are to work out. Verse 12: "Therefore, 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." Paul is telling us that we are to "continue to work out our salvation". Now it is vitally important to see first what Paul is not saying in these verses, before we turn to see what he is saying. Notice that Paul does not say "work for your salvation" or "work towards your salvation." In all of Paul's writings, indeed in the rest of the Bible, we find that it is impossible for us to earn our salvation. We cannot work for our salvation. The trouble is that this runs against the very grain of human nature. We love to think we are good enough for God. That simply by bettering ourselves, we can swing it with him so we get into heaven. It's the lie that human beings are essentially good, and that by a little bit of tinkering, we'll be the people we're meant to be.
If you take a moment to look at the shelves of the bookshops in the self help section, you'll come across hundreds of books claiming to be the key to a successful and fulfilled life. When I typed in "self help" on the Amazon books website, I was given 16, 227 titles! It's big business. And there are all sorts of exciting titles such as "Finding your Own North Star: How to Claim the Life you were Meant to Live", or "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", or my favourite, "Iron John: A Book for Men". It makes it's way into the realm of religions too. Just this week I was speaking to a friend of mine from China who was trying to explain to me what Confucianism was all about. And what he explained was that Confucianism is essentially about self effort. It is in the end making ourselves better people. But the Bible's diagnosis of human beings is that we are not in the end good people. In fact we are fundamentally flawed. No matter how much self effort we try and do, we will never become the people we want to be, and we will never reach the perfect standards God sets for us to get to heaven. No, the only way you and I will be saved, the only way you and I can get to heaven, is if God himself takes the initiative. Which is precisely what he has done through his Son Jesus Christ. That's what Paul has just been arguing in verses 5-11. Jesus died in our place on the cross to bring us to God. He came down to our level to lift us out of the spiritual mess we had made for ourselves. So Christianity is not another self help religion to make us into better people. It is a rescue from spiritual death and blindness, leading to a relationship with the God who made us. And that is what life is about. It is a gift of God which we do not deserve.
So if it's not about working for our salvation, then what is "working out our salvation" all about? Well it's about working out the salvation that we have received as a free gift from the Lord Jesus Christ. It's about putting into practice the salvation which we have already been given, a salvation we could never earn for ourselves. So becoming a Christian is not about "letting go and letting God" as the old phrase goes. It's not about just sitting back, putting your feet up and letting God take control. Rather it's about actively living life God's way in fear and trembling, that is with a deep awe and healthy respect for the God who has made us and saved us. It is about living the new forgiven life we have been graciously given by Christ.
And the NT is very clear that being a Christian is often hard work. Just think about the imagery the NT uses for the Christian life. Lying on a beach getting a tan? Lying in bed for hours on end? No, it talks of Christians being soldiers, athletes, and farmers, all of which require dedication, discipline and hard work. By way of illustration, just imagine for one moment, that Sven Goran Erickson, the England coach, sends his chief scout, Tord Grip to come down and watch us play football on Friday night on the Astroturf next to Tescos. He's heard that there is a fine, strapping talent of a man playing there whose amazing gifts are being wasted on dark wet nights in Hull. So he has a word with me after the game as says: "Nathan, we've been looking for a dynamic left sided midfielder for some time now, and we think you're the man. Come down to Bisham Abbey next week and train with us." So how will I respond to that gift of selection? Well I'd put in the hard work. I'd turn up for training on time, I'd work hard at my fitness, I'd practice my ball skills at home. I'd work out my selection by doing what I am meant to do. Footballers play football. Builders build buildings. Christians act Christianly. They work out their salvation.
But at this point we might be forgiven for saying to Paul: So then Paul, is it all about my effort? I mean I know that God gives me my free gift of salvation, but does he then leave it up to me? After all, quite frankly, I'm not sure I can keep it up for that long? Well notice what Paul goes on to say in verse 13: "Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." In other words the very reason you and I continue to press on in working out our salvation, living the Christian life is because of what God is doing in us. We could not do what Paul asks us to do in verse 12 without verse 13. Despite the fact that God has saved us and given us this gift of salvation, it does not mean that we are now able to things without him. We cannot. No he is the one who is working in us to enable us to work out our salvation. And notice that it is about our actions and our wills. So without God's work in us by his Holy Spirit we would not even want to go his way. No, he gives us the will, the desire to go his way, and he enables us to do what he says. God is sovereignly at work in us by his Holy Spirit to enable us at the level of our wills and actions to work out our salvation. And because God empowers us to do it, then that in itself is an incentive for us to do it. And it's all for his good pleasure and purpose!
By way of illustration, I remember one of the first times I taught my little cousin to play cricket. He was only about three at the time, so the bat was bigger than him. There was no way he could even lift the bat, but he has the basic hand to eye co-ordination to swing at the right moment. So I would go behind him and put my hands on the bat with his hands and swing the bat for him in the direction he wanted to go. So as the ball came, he would direct and I would lift the bat. I was giving him the strength to play the game. Now, it's by no means a perfect illustration, but it shows that where he was working out his skills at cricket, I was empowering him to do it. And to a far greater extent, the very fact that God is at work in us in our wills and actions to live for him, is an incentive to us to work out our salvation. Both our action and God's strength are vital for the growth of the Christian. Paul says it's about our responsibility to work out and it's about God's sovereign work by his Spirit. Both are true and necessary if the Christian is to grow.
Now before we move on, let's pause for moment to see how this challenge of Paul's to work out our salvation presents us with two very important questions. First we need to ask ourselves the question: Am I really concerned to work out my salvation? Am I genuinely working hard at my godliness? Because Paul commands us in the light of Jesus' humiliating death for us on the cross to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. So is your salvation something you are actively seeking to work out? Can you honestly say that you have made progress in godliness and Christlikeness in the last year for example? Are you willing to put in the hard graft of soaking yourself in the scriptures and prayer and taking action, so that you will grow in godliness? Think of the soldier's discipline at drill or training, the athlete's hard graft in the gym and on the practice track, the farmer's toil in the field? Would you say you're putting that sort of devotion into your relationship with your saviour? We certainly won't dream of slacking in our devotion to our favourite TV soap, or of not wanting to beat our top score on the PlayStation or working hard to redecorate the bedroom. What about a similar devotion to working out our salvation? Because that is far more important than anything else. So are you working out your salvation?
But a second question is this: Am I thankful for God's work in me? You see when you do see growth in godliness, when you notice that you are growing in love of your fellow believers over a period of time, then who do you thank? Yourself or God? Do you proudly think that you are a better Christian than the next person. Do you catch yourself looking in the mirror and saying: "I really am growing in humility!" Because Paul reminds us that pride has no place in the Christian life. Rather it is God who is at work in you to his good pleasure. If you're growing, and you should be as a Christian, then give God the glory, not yourself. For it's God who is at work in you to will and act according to his good pleasure. So work out your salvation.
2) Shine Out (Vv 14-16)
But Paul will not leave us at the level of theory. He goes on to show us exactly what it will mean in practice to be people who work out our salvation. So his next command to us is to shine out. And again it is an application of what it means to live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Verse 14: "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so 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 as 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." The heart of what Paul is saying in these verses is that we are to shine out. And the reason we are to shine out is because of our new identity ion Christ. According to Paul we are children of God. That is, we are citizens of a new country, heaven. We are God's new people living for him and with his standards. And that will be distinctive in an age which is crooked and depraved.
You see the sad fact is that despite the many good things that are in God's world, yet the reality is that a world which has rebelled against the creator will be a crooked and depraved place. In our own society, we live in a world where children at shot at from passing cars. Where young men and women routinely abuse and fight one another exposing and degrading themselves and calling it a fun night out. We live in a society where abortion and easy divorce are all the more common, and where the elderly are despised and rejected. We live in a society where everyone is out for No.1, where self is king and what we want has the most priority. That's the Britain we live in today, a depraved and crooked place in which very few indeed have heard the name of Jesus. So how counter cultural and distinctive it is then when the children of God live lives which are marked by the new kingdom values, and shine as stars in such evil darkness. That will make an impact won't it? Because when light shines in the darkness, it is very easy to spot.
My father is old enough to remember the bombings of the Second World War. He was brought up in Stockport which suffered from occasional bombing being close to Manchester, and he can clearly remember bombs going off close to where they used to live. And what would happen when the sirens went off was that they'd go and hide under the kitchen table and wait for the all clear. But at that time, what was absolutely vital was that there was no light shining from the houses. Because if a light was on and the curtains were not drawn, then that light could be seen from way up in the night's sky, and the bombers would have an easy target. Because when a light shines in the darkness it is obvious for all to see.
And Paul is saying to this Philippian church, and to you and me, that we are to be lights shining in the darkness of a depraved world, children of God aiming for maturity in Christ, aiming to be blameless and pure. And how are we going to do that? By holding out, but far more likely, holding firm to the word of life. Our versions don't quite capture the meaning of the original words here. Paul isn't talking here about doing evangelism. He's not saying we're to hold out the word of life in terms of telling people about Jesus, right and good though that is. Rather what he's saying here is that we're to hold onto the word of life, standing firm in the gospel and living it out, because that will be a distinctive witness in the world. So how do you keep going in a wicked and depraved world when all around you are opposed to the gospel and you're tempted to go astray? You stand firm in the gospel. You hold fast to the word of life. Only then will you have a good reason to be distinctive in your living as a child of God. And what will a distinctive life look like? Well Paul's application for this Philippian church is in verse 14: "Do everything without complaining or arguing." In a world which spends much of its time whining, moaning and arguing, then how refreshing to have a community of people who are marked by love and humility, who do not as Paul said in verse 4 look to their own interests but who consider others better than themselves. That's what it will mean to be light in a dark world. That's what it will mean to be conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. It means in this case being distinctive in the way we conduct our relationships within the church. It cannot be anything but attractive to the outsider can it, when love and humility mark a church as opposed to self centeredness and pride? Where arguing and complaining are replaced by building each other up and encouraging one another.
And once again Paul is asking us a very simple question. How distinctive are you? How much light do you dispel in a dark world? Or to put it another way, which is a question I often ask myself: How different am I really to my non Christian neighbours next door? Am I really that distinctive? Do I really stand out from the crowd in my lifestyle, in the way I live for Christ. Of course for every person in this room there will be different areas of challenge to be distinctive. But consider one or two. What about for those who live on the university campus, who spend their time mixing with students, whether at college or at university. How distinctive is your Christian life and witness from that of your non Christian friends around. How about the way you conduct yourself in your attitude to alcohol or sex. The way you spend your time and the topics of conversation. Is there really any difference, or are you just a little bit nicer because you're a Christian and slightly weirder because you go to UCU on Mondays? Could you honestly say you are shining brightly in a dark world, that you are really that different from your non Christian friends?
Or how about in other areas of work, with the people we meet each day. Will we be distinctive in our attitude to other people, seeking to build people up rather than tear them down by gossip and slander. How about this week with Halloween coming up? Will we be distinctive in witnessing to the Light of the world instead of things associated with darkness, perhaps at an office party or a school event? There are numerous ways we could think of in our lives to be distinct. The question is are we being distinctive, shining as stars in a depraved world. And notice that Paul is concerned to challenge the Philippians not to make them feel guilty, but rather because he is concerned at the end of verse 16 that he did not labour in vain. In other words he does not want all this effort he has put into the Philippians to come to nothing because they turn out to be faithless and fruitless. For he knows that the mark of an authentic Christian is someone who is working out their salvation by being distinct in a dark world, holding firm to the word of life. Could he say the same of you or me? Be distinctive, says Paul, and shine out.
3) Sold Out (Vv 17-18)
Then finally, Paul's last command to us is to be sold out. And it's not so much a command as a description of the Philippian church, and in that sense it is a great challenge. And it's not that they had sold out spiritually, or lost their way. Rather Paul rejoices in them because they are totally sold out for God, totally devoted to the gospel and God's servant Paul. See what Paul says about this church in verses 17-18: "But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should rejoice be glad and rejoice with me." Now we need to know a little bit about sacrifices to understand what Paul is saying here. In the OT, sacrifices of animals were made to God by the people of Israel on a daily basis in order to bring about forgiveness for the people of God. And when you sacrificed your goat or lamb or pigeon if you were poor or whatever it was, you would pour some wine on the top of it to finish off the sacrifice. It would be the final act of sacrifice, and that was known as a drink offering. And Paul here is using the language of sacrifice as an illustration of his own and the Philippians' devotion to God and his work. What Paul is saying is that he is willing to give up his own life for the sake of the Philippians, to be poured out, so to speak for them. But his sacrifice for them, in being imprisoned for the gospel's sake, is made in the knowledge that the Philippians themselves have already made huge sacrifices for the sake of the gospel. His life is a like a drink offering on top of their gospel sacrifice. His point is that they are partners together in sacrificing themselves for the work of the gospel. Now the language may be a little alien to us, but understand the main point. That the Philippians, and Paul too, are totally sold out to God for the gospel's sake. They are totally devoted to their Lord and Saviour. And that brings about a common joy and delight. Because nothing brings more joy than serving and sacrificing yourself for God and his gospel.
And that church in Philippi stands as a great challenge to us as we consider our collective witness here at St. John's. Could we say that we are that sold out for Christ? Would Paul say of us that his service is a mere drink offering on top of our sacrifice?
Well, as we finish, I want to quote to you the words of a communist who challenged Christians on their commitment to the gospel. These are powerful words and they illustrate the truths that Paul is speaking about here to the Philippians. He says: "The gospel is a much more powerful weapon for the renewal of society than is our Marxist philosophy, but all the same it is we who will finally beat you. We communists do not play with words. We are realists, and seeing that we are determined to achieve our object, we know how to obtain the means. Of our salaries and wages we keep only what is strictly necessary, and we give up our free time and part of our holidays. You, however, give only a little time and hardly any money for the spreading of the gospel of Christ. How can anybody believe in the supreme value of this gospel if you do not practice it, if you do not spread it and if you do not sacrifice neither time nor money for it? We believe in our communist message and we are willing to sacrifice everything, even our life. But you people are afraid even to soil your hands."
Well they are strong words aren't they? But it's not guilt or injured pride that is to be our motivation for gospel living and witness, but the sacrifice of Jesus for us on the cross. Because these verses teach us the proper response to what God has already done for us through his Jesus. This is what it means to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Not mingling with the crowd but being distinctive. It means we must work out, shine out and be sold out. The only question is "are we doing it"?
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