Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:12-13
In the last few months, I have kept coming back to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. That is where our community, The Work of Christ, has focused our theme verse for the year – Philippians 2:14-16. And that is why I want to more clearly understand why and how God has called us to hold tight and shine bright.
Paul begins by telling the community of disciples at Philippi that something has changed. They now lack something that had been tremendously helpful to them in the past. Paul used to be with them, now he is gone.
Imagine for a moment that you are a member of this Philippian community. Every day or two you gather in the home of Lydia where the Apostle Paul teaches, leads worship, and provides pastoral care and direction for the little flock. Imagine how powerful this relationship with Paul would be: for you, your spouse, your family, and your Christian friends.
A lot of the vision, structure, and energy for your community comes from Paul. A lot of the vision, structure, and energy for your own life comes from Paul too. Everyone obeys him because they trust him, they recognize his wisdom, and even more importantly, they recognize the call of God on his life to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to you – a Gentile. You know the slave girl, from whom Paul cast out a demon. You are friends with the jailer and his household, who experienced up close and personal Paul’s miraculous release from prison. Imagine how powerful all this would be.
Now, Paul is gone. And, now that Paul is gone a bit of division is beginning to emerge. Vision, structure, energy, and unity needs to come from someone else. Someone needs to do something. The big question is who?
The gift of salvation and our work in living it out
You, says Paul, you have work to do. You need to work out your own salvation, and you need to do it with fear and trembling. Wow! Talk about a challenging job description. Let’s break it into pieces.
I think it is important for us to understand that salvation does not come from our work. Paul would be the first to make that point, and did: By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Salvation, however, has implications. Salvation flows from being put into a right relationship with the Father, through Jesus Christ who emptied Himself for us (the wonderful poem of Philippians 2:5-11).
Therefore,” Paul says in verse 12, therefore, you have work to do. You need to grapple with the situation you are in, you need to figure out what to do, you need to come up with the vision, the structure, the energy – you need to work on unity too. I wish I was there to help you like I used to, but I am not, so get to work. (OK, I’m putting words into Paul’s mouth, but that seems to be the essence of what he is saying.)
Obey and live out what God has called us to do
A big part of that work, Paul says, is obedience – specifically obedience to what they had learned from him in the past. Paul had taught the Philippian Christians how to live the Christian life. Now he is gone. Now some cracks have formed. When Paul says “work out” he is not saying come up with something entirely new; rather he telling them to apply what they had learned in the past to this new situation and do that.
As a member of a Christian community of disciples, I hear “obey” with a particular perspective. When I joined the Work of Christ community, I went through a period of formation and learned how to live the Christian life. My life circumstances are VERY different now from what they were back in 1974, but the principles I learned back then still work pretty well because they are based on God’s word.
This passage struck me in a new way recently. Our community is in a different situation today. Some of the vision, structure, and energy we had a year ago is harder to come by. All the stuff we had worked out for our Christian life (individual and corporate) is just a bit different now. And, yes, we don’t always agree about stuff. To put even more words into Paul’s mouth: So now, not only as you did before Covid but much more during Covid, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. In this new situation, how do I worship God, follow Jesus, and do mission. How do I do this personally and how do we do this in unity together (which is very much the topic of Philippians 2).
God is at work in us
In the face of this daunting assignment, Paul offers a nice word of encouragement and a more challenging word of encouragement. Let’s look at the nice word first.
“God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (2:13) That is the RSV translation, perhaps the NET translation is clearer: “The one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of His good pleasure – is God.”
I recognize my own weakness and constant failures, but Paul assure me I am not doing this work on my own. God, Himself, is at work in me; God is at work in us. Or, as Paul makes much the same point a few verses earlier: I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). He is doing all this because He takes pleasure in us: The Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory (Psalms 149:4).
Awe and reverence that draw us closer to God
OK, we need to deal also with the more challenging word of encouragement: fear and trembling. Again, the NET translation may provide a better understanding: “Continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence.” The point here is very similar to one made in the Old Testament: Do all the words of this law which are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 28:58) Because our God is awesome, because He is holy, we should not take our duty to Him lightly.
Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, proclaimed: Grant to us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life. (Luke 1:74-75) So, not fear that drives us away, but awe and reverence that draws us closer; awe and reverence that motivates diligence; awe and reverence that causes us to see that we are God’s servants and He is not ours. Lord Jesus, in this situation, may we express our love for you and our reverence for you by giving ourselves fully to the work you are doing in us and through us. Because You are at work in us, we can and will do the work you have given us to do.