In this seventh posting, we are continuing the blog series with content from biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published the New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with HarperChristian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.
In this blog series, we’ll be sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World.
For twelve weeks, Bible Gateway will publish a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the seventh study, A Common Life of Sacrifice | Philippians 2: 12-18
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,
13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 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 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 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. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
Paul’s big idea for the Philippians, intoxicated as some were with Rome’s status-climbing way of life, was living a common life with one another shaped by the other-serving humility of Christ himself. That’s a big idea, a bit abstract at times, and they may have wondered if it had legs. He’s about to give them some legs so they walk straight toward the kingdom of God: they can respond to God’s work, and they can cling to God’s word.
Responding to God’s Work
The core expression in 2:12–13 is “work out your salvation,” with the NIV adding “continue to” because the verb has both a vivid sense as well as an intense engagement by each person in the assembly. “Work out” indicates human responsibility but the word “salvation” tends to trip up many readers. Cohick knows for many the wording here “registers a 9.0 on the theological Richter scale.”
Indeed, gluing the word “work” to “salvation” provokes a raised eyebrow or two for any Christian steeped in justification by faith (not works). Lower the eyebrow because what Paul means is this: Saved people live saved lives. In this context, a saved life is a Christoform-based unity with one another. That’s what a saved life looks like because salvation is holistic: heart, mind, soul, body, personal, and group.
One can be tripped as well by the rather gloomy “with fear and trembling” (2:12). Bible readers may well recall this expression echoing what God’s people experienced in God’s presence (Exodus 15:16). But “fear and trembling” evokes not terror but an all-consuming reverence and awe and humility in the face of God’s majesty and glory.
Saved people put a saved life into effect in humility before a mighty God. Yet, let’s not get too comfortable. God’s sheer presence overwhelms us, prompting our sense of finitude and gratitude to be in God’s presence.
Our responsibility before God is just that: response-ability.
We respond to God’s saving work in us because it is God’s work in us to which we respond. Paul is not giving a 1st Century version of a “God helps those who helpthemselves.” He’s got a different mind, saying instead “for it is God”–not you, not me –” who works [or energizes] in you to will and to act” (2:13).
God’s energy in us promotes the desire “to fulfill his good purpose.” I prefer a translation of “good pleasure” or even “delight” over “purpose.” Think of the Father’s delight in the Son at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:17). Think, then, not so much of God’s working in us to accomplish something but of the Father working in us for God’s delight in us and, by extension, our sheer pleasure of knowing and loving God.
God works in us so we will find life’s deepest joy and pleasure in God.
Clinging to God’s Word
You can count on one hand the number of churches in the history of the church that have not had some “grumbling or arguing” (2:14) and the devastating impact of gossip and slander. Cohick says, “How tempting to tear another down . . . How subtly delicious to nibble on another’s good reputation and eat away at it; we feel our own self nourished.” She continues, “Yet in fact we are ingesting poison.”
Like “fear and trembling,” the term “grumbling” echoes the children of Israel in their march from Egypt to the promised land (Numbers 20:2–5). Notice what can happen though: if we avoid a grumbling posture toward unfulfilled (and sometimes mistaken) expectations we are taking steps toward “blameless and pure.”
Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32:5 from that amazing Song of Moses, a song rehearsing God’s steady faithfulness in the face of Israel’s clunky faithfulness. But to those words of Moses, Paul inserts into Moses’ negative words “without fault.” Not only would they be without fault but they “will shine . . . like the stars” while they are surrounded in Philippi by a “warped and crooked generation” (Philippians 2:15).
Paul has taken the words of Moses and made them fit his context because he wants them to “shine” with the light of the gospel, a shining that is both in word and deed. His words echo Jesus’ own words (Matthew 5:14–16).
Great ideas, but surely we may be asking how we can do this.
We can discover a without-fault and shining-like-stars faithfulness if we “hold firmly” or cling to “the word of life” (2:16). We should not reduce the “word of life” to the Bible no matter how important the Bible is to us. Rather, this is Life itself’s word, that is, the gospel about Jesus Christ.
Paul has some personally invested goals. If they cling to Jesus as the word of Life itself, Paul will be able to stand proud “on the day of Christ,” that is, the second coming (2:16). He suddenly flips a switch to anticipate that he may not live that long by saying “even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice” (2:17). The imagery is that drink offerings were poured out on the sacrifice at the altar, and here the Philippians are the sacrifice and Paul is the drink offering, which suggests Paul realizes he just may become a martyr for the faith. No matter for Paul: “I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”
We can tie Paul’s mixing of imagery together now. Christlikeness salvation and sacrificial service are each one image of how the Philippians are to live a common life marked by humble other-centeredness, the very paradigm of God’s own life embodied in Jesus Christ.
Questions for Reflection and Application
- How does the phrase “saved people live saved lives” help nuance the idea of “work out your salvation”?
- What is Paul’s view of sacrifice? How does he himself expect to be a sacrifice?
- How does Paul alter Moses’ words to fit Paul’s context?
- What does a “saved life” look like for you?
- If God works in us to accomplish God’s delight in us, how does that impact your view of your interactions with God? In what ways do you find pleasure and delight in God, and how do you experience God’s delight in you?
Do you have more questions about the verses mentioned above?
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