IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 27, July 3 to July 9, 2000

A Sermon on Philippians 2:12-18

by Russell Smith

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you - and in the same way, you must also be glad and rejoice with me.

One Sunday worship, the pastor was praying his usual pastoral prayer, and as he was nearing the end, there was a loud noise near the back. As heads started to turn, the congregation heard a little boy excitedly exclaim, "Mom, I was praying for God to teach me how to whistle, and he just did!"

Philippians 2:12-18 encourages us to have the kind of excitement that little boy had. That boy saw God's hand at work in teaching him how to whistle. Our text tells us that we ought to see God's hand at work in us. This is a powerful and mysterious fact: the creator of the universe is at work within us. Therefore, we ought to rejoice. Paul continually urges his beloved Philippians to rejoice. Read over the epistle and you'll see that Paul overflows with joy - this despite the fact that he is imprisoned and might be facing execution. My point is that Paul is aware of the mightier work that God is doing, and rejoices in it.

This still holds true for us today. The church as a whole is divided; in America we have lost any kind of cultural authority; our values are rejected and mocked. And yet, God is at work in the church. God is moving in strange and unpredictable ways among his people. When we open our eyes to the powerful work that God is doing, then we respond by rejoicing. Our passage for this morning helps to open our eyes by providing several descriptions of God's work: activating, illuminating, encouraging , and gratifying.


This principle is clear from verse 12: "Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Through obedience to the biblical commands, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This fear and trembling is not the fear we have when we go to a horror movie, or the fear of unpleasant things to come. This fear is the biblical fear of God. It is the feeling of awe, respect, and wonder as we stand before a being who is totally beyond our control.

A few years ago John Krakour came out with a book recounting the disastrous climb up mount Everest where 6 people died in a sudden storm. Krakour was an experienced mountain climber, and one of the surviving members of that trip. His prose expresses a respect and reverence for the mountain, and he attributes the tragedy of the trip to humans refusing to play by the rules the mountain demanded. This does not take away from the beauty or mystery or challenge of Everest. Everest is beautiful, but it is not safe. God is very much the same way: He is not safe - but he's good. Paul's intent is to convey the idea that we are not playing a game here - we should not treat obedience cavalierly. We should approach God with awe and reverence.

The obedience itself is obedience to the biblical commands. In this particular book, Paul focuses on unity among believers, self-sacrifice, serving others, rejoicing in all things. But the principle of working out your salvation through obedience applies to all the biblical commands - love God, love your neighbor, the ten commandments, etc. At first look, this seems like an impossible task. We're sinners. We're fallen. How can we possibly live up to that standard? But then we read verse 13: "For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." God is at work in you - God is giving you the desire to obey and the ability to obey. We are not on our own. We have God on our side working from within us.

What about our continuing sin? We as Christians still disobey and ignore God. How does that fact fit into our discussion? I think the key to interpreting this passage, and most of Philippians for that matter, lies back in verse 1:6: "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." This verse pictures a process - God began a good work in you in the past, and he will be faithful to complete it in the future. Where we are right now is somewhere in between. And in that in-between place, God is at work, shaping us like a potter shapes the clay. Molding us, turning us into the glorious work of art that we will become. Steve Brown puts it this way, "I'm not perfect, but I'm better than I was before. And I'm better only because of the grace of God."

So you see, verses 12 and 13 are the gray area where command meets promise. We're told to obey, and we're promised that God will make us want to obey and make us able to obey. God will make it so that our delight is in obedience. Right now, we don't obey perfectly, but that's all right because God is at work in us, and we should rejoice.


Not only is God's work shown in us in activating, it is also shown by illuminating. Look at verse 15: "So that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation in which you shine like stars in the world."

This is a deeply biblical concept. We see it in Genesis 12 when God tells Abraham, "In you all the families of the earth will be blessed." We see it in Matthew 5 when Jesus describes us at the salt of the earth and the light of the world. God has always intended his chosen people to be a blessing to the rest of the world. We live in a sad world - a world hoping for something better. Brothers and sisters, this passage tells us that we offer something better. Our very lives are sermons to this world, showing them how it could be. We are, at our best, refreshingly different. Pagans watch us, and they wonder. A lot of times they can't put their finger on it, but they say, "There's something different about that guy; there's something different about that woman."

She was a waitress in a cafeteria style restaurant. Her job kept her from church most Sundays, but she watched the TV preachers, the good ones anyway; and she prayed and read her bible. She tried hard to make ends meet and still be a good Christian. One day, she had a particularly difficult customer. He cussed and he complained about the funny taste in his tea. She had to take it back three times before he was satisfied. His friends looked like they were a little embarrassed to be with him. He looked sourly at her when she brought the bill, and when she wished him a good night, he merely grunted. This guy came in a couple of times and always wound up in her section. And he was always obnoxious. She tried so hard to be patient. She tried to provide good service. But this guy was wearing on her last nerve. One day, she saw him come in with a group. She found the hostess and whispered to her "Please don't seat him in my section, I don't think I can handle him again." She saw the hostess lead them to a table in her section. She sighed and gritted her teeth and went over to take their order. Before she could get a word out, the man said, "How's my favorite waitress?" Her she was silent, fumbling for words. He turned to his companions. "This lady is the best waitress here - gets your food out to you on time - always friendly - always keeps your drink full." He turned to her and said, "You are the best waitress I've ever had. Whenever I come here, I leave feeling great."

Brothers and sisters, we are lights to a sad world. Right now, we don't shine perfectly, but that's okay because God is working through us. And we should rejoice.


So far, we've seen how God works in us activating us to obedience, and how he works through us illuminating the nations. God also works in us by motivating the saints. Look at verses 16-18: "It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you -- and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me." I find this section fascinating because normally when we talk about inspiration and motivation, we talk about heroes. We say what a great man that is. He inspires me. But here Paul turns the tables. He talks about you, my students, being a source of boasting for me the apostle. Now that sounds rather arrogant, doesn't it. It sounds like Paul is taking credit for the spiritual growth of the Philippians. What kind of dunderhead is this Paul to make this claim?

Brothers and Sisters, I assure you that Paul is not a dunderhead. In fact, Paul is so completely sold out to Jesus that anytime he sees spiritual growth he rejoices, for the glory of Christ is being advanced. He says in Galatians 6:14, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ"; and in 1 Corinthians 1:31, "Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord." Paul's boasting comes from the Lord, and from the Lord alone. In effect, he is saying to the Philippians that when they hold fast to the word of God, letting it seep into their lives and transform them, then Paul will know that God is truly working in them and he will rejoice at the work of God. He concludes this passage by saying that even if he is sacrificed - even if he pays the price with his life - that the Philippians should see the hand of the Lord and rejoice. You see, he sets up a paradigm of "I see God working in you - isn't that a great thing?" and "you see God working in me - isn't that a great thing?" God does not want us to be a passive group of people that merely shares a room one hour a week. Rather, he wants us to be intimately connected with each other so that we can see the hand of God moving through each other, and so that we can rejoice and praise and worship at such an awesome event.

I did a missions trip one summer in the low country of South Carolina. The house I worked on belonged to the Burns family, a wonderful and faithful Christian family that was just incredibly poor. Lisa Burns was the oldest daughter - about 28 years old. She had a severe case of cerebral palsy. She was confined to a wheelchair and couldn't control her movements very well. But she had a very sharp mind. She was attending the local branch of the university of South Carolina, working toward her bachelor's degree. When she talked to you, she'd jerk about in her chair and her words came out agonizingly slowly. I was an insecure teenager, and I had no clue what to say. So as I'd come in, I'd greet her with a smile and a "good morning," and then hustle my way up to the roof to get to work. About the middle of the week, as I was going through the house, I passed by and she said, "Russell, you're always smiling and happy and cheerful. I like you."

For me that scene is a picture of the mutual encouragement that Paul talks about. Lisa, as a believer, was encouraging me - speaking to my own insecurities and offering care for me. We in turn, as believers, were encouraging her family - rebuilding the roof, doing interior repairs. Lisa encouraged us by her courage, and we encouraged her by our cheerfulness. By the end of our week there, we were rejoicing in one another.

We are a source of encouragement to one another. Are we perfect encouragers? No, and that's okay because God is at work within us, and we should rejoice.


So God works in us by activating us to obedience, by illuminating the pagans, and by encouraging our Christian brothers and sisters. The final point I want to make is one that I think is often missed: God works in us because it delights him - it is gratifying to him. Look at verse 13 again: "For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure." There are a couple of ways we can read that last phrase: God is willing us to work towards his good pleasure (God is working in us in order to accomplish his good pleasure). Or God is willing us to work out of His good pleasure (God's good pleasure is the motivation for his willing us to work). Which one is right? It doesn't really matter - either way, we see the principle that God is a hedonist. He isn't some celestial iceberg up there in the sky pulling strings. He is active and moving in the world because it brings him joy. Everything that God is doing in each one of you - all the activating, illuminating, and encouraging - all of it is gratifying to God.

What does this mean? It means we should rejoice. When you go before the Father in prayer, be aware of his delight in you. Talk to him about it. Be aware of the things that God is doing in your life. Know that it is all for his good pleasure. Be on the lookout for all the ways God is at work in other Christians and frolic - play - have fun with God. Christianity is not about doom and gloom and just following rule. It is about abundance and being filled.

God is activating you to obedience, illuminating the nations through you, encouraging the believers by you, and gratifying himself in you. I love the story of the piano player who was making his debut performance at Carnegie Hall. At the end of the concert, the crowd went wild, giving him a standing ovation. He walked back out to take a second bow. As he came off the stage, the crowd still applauding wildly, the stage manager noticed that he was crying. He said "Why are you crying - they love you out there - don't you hear their applause? What's wrong?" The piano player said, "Look around the curtain up there to the balcony. In the front row, left-hand side. What do you see?" "I see a lot of people standing and cheering." "And?" "And one man sitting down with his arms crossed." "That one man is my piano teacher."

I want you to understand, brothers and sisters, that God is not like that piano teacher. God is in the balcony going wild. He's yelling out, "That's my boy! That's my girl!" He's pleased and proud of each one of you. How many of you as parents and grandparents have paintings on your refrigerator, or indecipherable clay whatzits from art class. How many of you have homemade valentines cards or little crafty Christmas tree ornaments. You receive all these things from your children, and you delight in them. Much more does God delight in the things he is doing through us.

Are we perfect? Is God done with us? No, and that's okay. Because God is at work in us, and he will be faithful to bring that work to completion. And we should rejoice. You think about that.