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Work Out Your Salvation

Date: Jul. 12, 2020

Author: Michael Mark

Philippians 2:12-30

Key Verse: Philippians 2:12

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

The great Renaissance artist Michelangelo was a master at sculpting and painting, and one of his most famous quotes is this: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  Now I’ve never sculpted anything in my life, but I totally get this quote, and thought it was a very imaginative way to look at a block of stone.  There’s something inside there that can be revealed, but not without careful skill and effort, but once that effort is applied, something amazing appears.  We may not all be sculptors, but as Christians God has put something wondrous inside of all of us that can be worked out to reveal something beautiful, something good, something pleasing, and something glorious.  What that is we will see in today’s passage.

As we progress through this letter to the church at Philippi, we are focusing on the theme of “Living Joyfully.”  This is the New Testament epistle of joy and we are learning that joy is not a fleeting emotion, but it is an attitude and a way of life that we can live.  That way of life, as we learned in the past two weeks, is to live a life worthy of the gospel, part of the secret of joy.  Last week we learned about how joy is made complete through humility and valuing others above ourselves.  Paul painted a very profound picture of Christ Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation, showing his obedience of the Son of God to give up his life for us through his death on the cross.  The final result was his resurrection and glorification, proving our sins have been paid for and our salvation has been secured.  Eternal life is eternal joy, and there can be no joy greater than being like Christ and seeing others becoming more like him.

In light of this revelation of who Jesus is and what he has done, Paul now exhorts the Philippian church on what they should do, or continue to do.  Look at v.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.”  The “therefore” connects to the previous revelation given about Jesus, and Paul commends them for their sincere obedience. Paul taught only what Jesus taught, the obedience that comes through faith – to turn away from sin, to love one another, and to disciple one another.  Their obedience was constant, even when Paul was away.  This is commendable.  Think about what happens at school when the teacher is out or leaves the room.  It has been my experience, I don’t know about yours, where the students “take a break” from their school work.  But not so with the Philippians.  Even when Paul was hundreds and hundreds of miles away, their obedience not only continued, but seemed to increase, “much more,” Paul says.

So Paul gives the exhortation: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”  He didn’t say begin to work out your salvation, but “continue.”  Their obedience was how they were working out their salvation, and Paul tells them to keep on doing that.  But let’s take a moment here to consider what this means, to “work out your salvation.”  To “work out” means to put in the effort until you get a result.  Does this mean they have to work for their salvation?  Does it mean we have to work to earn our salvation?  Surely, it does not mean that.  Paul wrote extensively in the book of Romans that salvation is not by works but by faith.  He says that in all of his letters.

If this does not contradict all of Paul’s teaching, then what does it mean to “work out your salvation?”  One way to understand it is to see it as “work out what God has worked in.”  God has worked in to you salvation.  God has given you salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross.  That is why you cannot even earn it.  Salvation is given to you as a gift from God when you repent and believe in the name of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit has worked salvation into you, you are saved by grace through faith.  Jesus said this in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  This is the treasure that you have when you believed: you know God because you know Jesus.  God has given you the knowledge of himself through Jesus, and that is salvation, that is eternal life.  This is what God has worked into you: the knowledge of himself.  When you know God, you begin to know what he requires, your conscience comes to life in terms of what is right and wrong.  When you know God, you begin to have the fear of God, which is wisdom.  When you have the fear of God, you begin to obey God, and when you obey God, you become more like Christ, and that is the working out of salvation.  You become more and more like Christ, revealing the salvation and the love of God that was put into your heart. 

Non-Christians cannot work this out.  They have nothing to work out.  But Christians have this treasure now buried within, that needs to be worked out to be revealed.  What do you do when you know there’s a hidden treasure somewhere?  You make every effort to find it!  There was a Treasure Hunt set up in 2010 by an 80 year old man named Forrest Fenn, who hid a treasure chest worth more than a million dollars somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.  This is a true story.  He initially put the clues to find it in his autobiography, and later published it on Instagram.  Supposedly several thousands of people went to search for this treasure, and 2 people even lost their lives trying to find it.  It was found just in June of this year, almost 10 years later.  If this is the response to a treasure that can perish, spoil and fade, how much more should we make every effort to work out this eternal treasure put into our hearts by God?  If you know that it is that close, you would want to find it.

Paul also adds that the Philippians should work out their salvation with “fear and trembling.”  Fear and trembling?  We were just talking about joy, what does fear and trembling have to do with joy?  Well, fear and trembling don’t have to be incompatible with joy.  In fact, the right kind of fear and trembling will actually produce joy in the results.  What kind of fear and trembling is this?  It’s not a fear of losing your salvation.  You cannot lose your salvation.  It’s not a fear that paralyzes you.  This fear comes from knowing God, and the great blessing he has given you.  It is the fear that the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the King of kings, the Commander of the whole host of angel armies, has given you commands that you must keep.  If an authority figure whom you have much respect for gives you an order, you are careful to do what they say.  This keeps you humble, and can safeguard against pride and other evils, which hinder the working out of your salvation.  The other aspect is trembling, and this refers to a distrust in your own ability to meet the requirements, yet you do your best.  When God confirmed his promise to King David that a son descended from him would become an eternal king, David went before the Lord and said, “Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”  We tremble, because we are sinners, unable to do good.  We tremble, because the things God commands us to do are very great, but thankfully, we are not left to our own devices.  The right kind of fear and trembling removes all confidence in ourselves, and puts our trust and dependency on God, who can and will help us. That is something we can rejoice in.

See v.13, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  Here is something very powerful that God can do, that we cannot really see or explain, except when it is worked out by our actions.  It is God who works in you to will.  Who can change your mind?  Who can bend your will to submission?  I cannot. Most of the time, I don’t even know what you desire, what you want, let alone change your mind.  But God changes your will.  He causes you to want to do good, and then he energizes you, he empowers you to act on that will to fulfill his good purpose.  From the beginning of this passage to now, we see two things at work. One is you working out your salvation.  Do make every effort.  In v.13, it is God working in you.  It’s hard to explain, so I think of it this way.  If your love for God and the desire to know him deepens, if you are convicted of selfish or sinful ways and desire to love others more, if the things of this world are growing strangely dim, then God is working in you.  Your desire is to do good, because he is working in you to fulfill his good purpose.  This is in fact, what we have been saved to do.  This is what our salvation should look like.  We should be doing good things more and more.  Eph 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” 

Look at v.14, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.”  Working out your salvation will not be an easy endeavor. You may face trials, tests and sufferings, disagreements, misunderstandings and setbacks.  Sometimes God may be in the process of humbling you, or teaching you to depend on him.  Sometimes God’s will doesn’t align with your expectations, or sometimes there are conflicts between the wills between believers.  The grumbling Paul mentions here can be compared to the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness after they were delivered from Egypt.  One time they grumbled because they were thirsty, and grumbled against Moses saying that he brought them out of Egypt to die.  From our vantage point, we know God brought them out of Egypt to save them, and he would not cause them to perish.  But in their trial they thought God brought them out to die.  Grumbling may reveal a lack of faith in God.  People often grumble because they seem to inconvenience one another.  There is also no joy in grumbling, and often, being around someone who grumbles can be draining or take away joy. 

Arguing has many of the similar characteristics as grumbling.  Grumbling seems to be a more personal, secret discontentment, while arguing seems to be more outwardly visible, but they both are similar.  Often grumbling and arguing will show selfishness, pride or a lack of faith.  When those outside see Christians arguing amongst each other, and not resolving the issue, it cannot glorify God.  The world won’t see a difference between Christians and themselves.  A good way to prevent much grumbling and arguments is to humble ourselves, and value each others interests over our own.  If everyone looked out for the benefit or welfare of the other person, there may be no need to grumble or argue. 

Paul gives the reason we should do all things without grumbling or arguing in v.15.  He says, “So that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”  When we grumble due to a lack of faith, it could lead to sinning against God.  Sometimes grumbling makes us sin in anger.  When we argue, the world can find fault with Christians.  But when we work out our salvation, serving one another in humility and love, this really causes the love of God to be revealed among us, especially in how we defer to one another.  Then, as Paul says, we will appear as children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.  Indeed, arguments and divisions abound in this world, especially in our current time – disagreements now can escalate quickly into arguments and hatred. 

A community of Christians that help and serve one another in love will stand out and shine like stars in an age of confusion, lies and misinformation.  In v.16a, Paul gives the basis for our working out our salvation, our doing everything without grumbling or arguing, and for our shining like stars, and that is “as you hold firmly to the word of life.”  The word of life is our foundation, the source and guide to what we are to do, and what we are to know about God.  Holding firmly to it means to trust it and obey it.  In other translations, v.16a also says “as you hold forth the word of life.”  It could mean both.  Holding forth means to show it to others so that they could receive it.  That’s also how we shine like stars, as we spread the gospel and the truth in this warped and crooked generation.

As Paul continues this letter he is explaining to the Philippians that he will send Timothy to them and Epaphroditus.  As we come to the conclusion we’ll look at Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus as 3 examples of what it looks like to work out your salvation.  At the heart of working out your salvation, we discussed that it is not earning your salvation, but revealing Christ in you, and growing in the image of Christ gradually through the practice of good works powered by the Holy Spirit.  Another word for this, as we discussed in our elder’s meeting Monday, is sanctification.  It is the process of becoming holy, becoming more and more like Christ and unlike the world.  If I were to summarize sanctification, it is this: to die to self, and to live for Christ.  And that is what working out your salvation is: dying to self, and living for Christ day by day.  We will look at how Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus exemplified this.

First, Paul.  Look at v. 17-18 “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.  So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”  To understand what Paul is saying here, we need to understand the sacrifices of the burnt offering and the drink offering.  In the Mosaic Law, a drink offering was poured on top of a burnt offering, and the smoke would become like an aroma pleasing to the Lord, like providing food for God.  Such sacrifices pleased God.  Sometimes Paul referred to the people he ministered to as an offering acceptable to God, such as in Rom 15:16.  So here, Paul is saying that the Philippian church’s service is an offering to God, like the burnt offering.  Paul is the drink offering, and being poured out refers to him giving his life to them.  Together, they become one offering pleasing to God, and for this reason, he rejoices and tells them to rejoice also. The pouring of the drink offering can allude to his martyrdom, but he did expect to be released from prison at this time.  Still, he could rejoice, even in the face of death, because of the glory that awaits those who are pleasing to the Lord.

Paul then describes Timothy, in v.20-21 “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare.  For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”  Paul was planning to send Timothy to Philippi, perhaps to strengthen and encourage them.  His mission was to show genuine concern for their welfare.  Timothy was singled out and commended as someone who looked out for the interest of Jesus Christ.  Can we say that about ourselves?  As those who look out for the interests of Jesus Christ?  Now, we do have to look out for our own interests, to an extent.  How can we serve, if our own lives are a mess?  We do have to take care of ourselves spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically before we can take care of others.  But the error would be to be so consumed by our own interests that we neglect other’s interests and even Jesus’ interests.  To look out for our own interests and others, is like saying love your neighbor as yourself.  Care for your neighbor as you would care for yourself.  But do not neglect your neighbor.  The passage doesn’t say what Jesus’ interests are, but if I were to take a guess it would be his church, and his kingdom.  We ought to care for our lives, but also for others lives, and for the church, and for God’s kingdom.  Paul had mentioned in Ch. 1 that there were believers in Rome who preached Christ out of selfish ambition, trying to make trouble for him.  In Rome he could find no ministers, other than Timothy, who would be a benefit to the church in Philippi.  See how much Paul cared for the Philippian church also.  Timothy was such a great help and comfort for Paul, he loved him as his own son, but for the benefit of the Philippian church, he was willing to send all he had to help them out.

Third Paul takes about Epaphroditus.  The Philippian church really wanted to help Paul, but they were 800 miles (1300 km) away.  They were unable to help Paul at such a distance, but they found a way.  They sent Epaphroditus with a monetary gift, and perhaps even told him to stay to help meet any needs Paul had as well.  Now he was being sent back early.  The Philippian church might think that his service was not satisfactory, but Paul writes to assure them that he is being sent back with high honor.  We can see the qualities of Epaphroditus.  Paul called him a brother, a coworker and fellow soldier.  Three commendable titles.  And he was a messenger of Philippi.  He got sick, but it was so severe that he almost died.  Whether it was on the way to Paul, or while ministering to Paul, in either case, he got sick while in service to the Lord.  The Lord had mercy on him, and restored his health – but look at his main concern.  Epaprhoditus’ main concern was for the distress of his home church.  He cared for them even from afar.  But Paul’s main commendation is this, in v.30, “because he almost died for the work of Christ.  He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.”  He risked his life for the work of Christ.  Now, it’s not that he was reckless.  He probably didn’t expect to get sick.  But this is what he did do – he travelled 800 miles to minister to Paul who was put in prison.  This is also close to risking his life, but in essence, he gave his life for the work of Christ.  He too is an example of someone who died to self, and lived for Christ, working out his salvation with trembling and fear.

Work out what God has worked in.  God has worked into you salvation.  He has given you the truth, and the light that is His Son, Jesus Christ.  He has given you life, eternal life.  And when you work out your salvation, this treasure in your jar of clay, you will already show glimpses of light like the stars in the sky.  Michelangelo said every block of stone has a statue inside of it, and he worked out the image from the stone.  But God says this in Eze 36:27-29 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws…you will be my people, and I will be your God.”  So we rejoice, and we can rejoice in all circumstances because of the salvation that is in us, even as we age, and as we come to face trials and sufferings, Paul says this in 1 Cor 4:16-17, “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”  Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, make every effort to live genuine Christian lives, dying to your sin, and living for Christ, loving and serving one another without grumbling but with joy, and may the Holy Spirit help us.

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