[Below is the text of a sermon I preached at our church on Sunday morning, 9th July 2017.]
When was the last time you worked out?
For some it may have been this morning, last week, maybe years ago, and maybe never.
But the real answer depends on what I mean by “working out”. Is that physical activity at a gym, or could it mean any physical labour?
Yesterday I cut some wood and brought some from outside into the house. I worked out.
If you cooked something from a recipe you had to work out the proper ingredients and their proportions and quantities. So it may not even relate to physical activity.
We’re into a new financial year and so in the next few months many of us will need to work out where we put those receipts from 12 months ago.
If you’re catching a bus or driving through this city sometimes you need to work out when you need to leave home, or work out which is the best street to drive down or park in.
To really answer the question, “when did you last work out”, we need both context and understanding so we can grasp the overall meaning.
We work out all the time. What matters is what we mean when we work out and whether it’s effective.
The passage we’re looking at this morning speaks of working out. And like the question I’ve just posed, we need to understand the context. We need to understand what the words mean, and what they meant to the original listeners to get a proper grasp on the text.
We’re looking at a couple of verses from Philippians chapter 2.
I don’t want to tell you want I think Paul means when he writes to the church in Philippi. I want to impart what I think God was saying when Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, and we can best do that by taking a brief look at Philippi and how the gospel first appeared there.
The city of Philippi in New Testament times is in Macedonia. These days it would be classed as the north eastern area of Greece near Bulgaria.
The church was founded by Paul. His experiences in Philippi are first mentioned in Acts 16 in what would become known as Paul’s second missionary journey.
Paul was first called to the region in a vision where a man from Macedonia asked him to come and help them. So from the outset Paul’s visit to Philippi was Spirit-led.
Acts 16 records that some of the significant people and events in Philippi were the conversion of Lydia and Lydia’s household. It was in Philippi that the girl with the spirit of divination followed Paul and Silas around. She was someone’s meal ticket and her minders became quite displeased when Paul commanded the evil spirit to leave the girl. As a result Paul and Silas were taken before the magistrates, stripped and beaten with rods.
That evening whilst imprisoned there was a great earthquake and the doors were flung open. The jailer assumed the prisoners had escaped so was about to kill himself.
When he realised Paul and Silas had not escaped, he said those now fairly famous words, “what must I do to be saved”. He and his household believed and were baptised.
What happened in Philippi was a microcosm of the spread of the gospel in Acts – preaching, salvation, baptisms, deliverance, persecution.
Paul visited them later as recorded in Acts 20. So we have some historical context.
The dates are fuzzy, but Paul’s first visit to Philippi was probably around 51AD, and his subsequent visit was around 56AD. An approximate date for the writing of the letter to the Philippians is around 62AD. So there is somewhere around eleven years between when Paul first preached the gospel in Philippi and saw people coming to faith and his letter to them.
Why is this important? Because we need to see that Paul has invested spiritually and prayerfully into the Philippian church over more than a decade. His letter to them wasn’t out of the blue. Perhaps he wrote them a dozen letters or more over that decade.
I can only presume when we get to heaven that we’ll be able to read copies of all of the letters Paul wrote to churches. And they will make for interesting reading!
Reading a little from Philippians chapter 1 gives us a sense of Paul’s deep concern for the believers in Philippi.
I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete [it] until the day of Jesus Christ [Philippians 1:3-6]
There is great concern, great love, genuine desire for the Philippian believers that God will bring about His plans and purposes for them. That provides us with our context for today. Paul wants for the Philippians what God wants for us!
We’re looking in particular at two verses this morning – Philippians 2:12 and 13. If you’ve got a Bible handy, please turn with me to Philippians 2. If you don’t have a Bible handy we have some up the back that you can borrow.
Let me read the two verses and then we’ll delve into them a little. I’m reading from the NKJV.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for [His] good pleasure. [Philippians 2:12-13]
What is it ‘there for’?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say again, Derek Prince used to say that if you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, you need to ask what it’s there for!
Paul writes, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. He’s saying the believers in Philippi have paid attention to what he’s had to say in the past and is urging them to continue.
And his primary urging is to obedience – not only when he is in Philippi, but when he is absent. He is urging the Philippian believers to that same level of obedience that took Jesus to the cross. It is the obedience Paul writes of in verse 8 just a few verses earlier:
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to [the point of] death, even the death of the cross. [Philippians 2:8]
It was a humble obedience. So Paul is setting the scene for how he hopes and believes his readers will respond.
May we approach his words with the same expectancy and desire for obedience in our own lives!
But what is Paul urging the Philippi church to be humble in and obedient about? In the last part of verse 12 Paul’s exhortation is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”.
We need to understand what Paul means by ‘salvation’ before we tackle this idea of working it out.
The word that is translated as “salvation” here is the Greek word soteria. The words in the New Testament most often translated as salvation are sozo and soteria.
They both refer not only to eternal life, but also to healing, to restoration, to deliverance, to completeness - to wholeness of body, soul and spirit.
So Paul is referring to our complete restoration, our wholeness before God.
I want us to hang onto these two words sozo and soteria:
The word sozo is a verb – a doing word from my school days just a few decades ago; and soteria is a noun – it is a thing, an idea, an object. So we are being sozo’d to bring about our soteria. We are being saved to bring about our salvation.
If you go to a Doctor and he prescribes some medication you take it for healing so you become healed. It’s the same idea of being saved so we are saved.
Salvation is an event, a process and a result.
When I first committed my life to Jesus in 1979 I was saved that instant; but I am also growing in that salvation ever since; and I will be saved when Jesus returns.
There are really three tenses applicable to the person who is a believer – we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.
We were saved when we first committed our lives to Jesus and believed in His Name.
We are being saved as we progress in understanding and applying Kingdom truths into our lives.
And we will be saved on that day when Jesus returns.
An event, a process and a result!
Working it Out
So what is Paul suggesting we do to “work out” our salvation – this wholeness, this process?
Let me be clear that this is in no way “working for” salvation. Paul doesn’t say “work for your salvation” or “work towards your salvation”. Scripture states that salvation is a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8-9 is quite clear that…
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; [it is] the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9]
It is given by God, not earned by us. It is not something owed to us because of work, but a gift freely offered.
This “working out” carries with it the idea of labouring; of putting in effort; to see something come to fruition.
It is to activate our faith, to see it in evidence in our lives. It means to see fruit, to see benefit.
It is not a matter of figuring something out as actually doing it.
It is not the case of just understanding the theory but putting it into practice.
The Amplified version says, “work out (cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete) your own salvation”.
And it is a word in the imperative implying that it is an ongoing activity. Some translations say “continue to work out your salvation”. It’s not a one-off task, but something we need to be continually doing.
Speaking from experience, if I decide I need to work out in the gym there is no value in doing it once. You don’t do it once and expect results (well, maybe we do expect results, but we don’t get them!) I can’t do a weights session and see instantaneous and permanent benefit. It only comes with time, with application and with repetition.
So what Paul is encouraging the beloved believers to do is:
- To persist, and to persist in persisting.
- It is to continue, and continue continuing.
- To persevere, and persevere in persevering.
Let me reiterate that it is not effort to achieve salvation. It is not doing enough good works that we hope will be acceptable to God so He’ll let us in to heaven. It is accepting the salvation that God has brought.
It is not confidence in our ability to be religious; it is confidence in God’s love and God’s word and God’s promises. In the words of Jude 24, it is confidence that God is “able to keep you from stumbling, and to present [you] faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy,”
We get a broader picture of this from 2 Corinthians 2:14-15:
Now thanks [be] to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. [2 Corinthians 2:14-15]
The thanks belong to God. He is doing the leading. We are merely carriers of the fragrance of Christ. And it is that fragrance that can bring life to our world as people accept what Jesus has done for them.
As we carry that fragrance, we are working out our salvation. Sometimes the fragrance of Christ in our lives is masked by other smells – of sin, of pride, of religiousness, of anger, of independence.
Appropriate Fear and Trembling
As we move on Paul gives us a heads up as to the attitude we should have as we persevere, as we persist. He’s already indicated he is looking for obedience, now he adds that it is to be “with fear and trembling”.
Our salvation is not an entitlement. We can’t demand it with arrogance or presumption. The price of our salvation was Jesus coming to this earth, suffering and being killed. It is not something to take lightly or easily.
In a sense that’s what Communion is for – to dwell on the price paid, the sacrifice offered, the body broken and blood shed.
It is a treasure hidden in a field. It is the pearl of great price. It is the dragnet that brings to light every person for judgement.
Our salvation has been granted, gifted by the greatest act of sacrifice and humility ever seen on this planet.
And it is not to be approached lightly or treated jokingly.
When I read of “fear and trembling” at the end of verse 12 I don’t get a sense of cowering, of hiding our faces in the corner. Instead I get a view of humility, of gratitude, of reverence, of behaving appropriately.
The Message translation says be “reverent and sensitive before God”. The New Living Translation speaks of a “deep reverence”. I think they sum it up well!
As God Works In
To recap briefly; we’ve considered what Paul believes our attitude towards this passage should be – of approaching his words with humility and obedience; and we’ve considered what it means to work out our salvation; and we understand salvation in the broader sense of wholeness; and we’ve also seen that we need to display appropriate reverence and sensitivity.
Now we come to the “why”. The why of these verses is contained in verse 13. Let me read it:
for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for [His] good pleasure. [Philippians 2:13]
There is a fascinating comparison being drawn here that was pointed out by a couple of commentators. And that is that we are to work out the salvation that God works in us.
Jacobus Johannes Müller, a New Testament professor in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s says, “the believer must finish, must carry to conclusion, must apply to its fullest consequences what is already given by God in principle … He must ‘work out’ what God in His grace has ‘worked in’.”
Notice this commentator says “in principle”. God has provided or worked in everything we need for our spiritual life and growth, but we need to work it out. 2 Peter 1 speaks of this:
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that [pertain] to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption [that is] in the world through lust. But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. [2 Peter 1:2-7]
There is a mutuality, a synergy, an agreement, if you like, between me and God that we will both work on my life.
What God works into my life by way of grace and mercy and favour and gifts and love I am to work out in displaying that same grace and mercy and love and favour and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He works in. I work out.
If I try to work out these things without being in relationship with God then they are dead works. They are me trying to appease God and earn His favour, but that doesn’t work.
Whilst it is a mutual arrangement, but it is not a fair or equal arrangement. It is mutual but it is not in the middle.
Do you know where God meets us? At the cross. The cross is the intersection where God’s love meets our faith, and where God’s purposes for us and commitment to us is fully seen. And it is in our weakness, not our strength.
Bob Utley, an American pastor and teacher has written, “Salvation is all of God and totally free but it requires an active, costly, repentant, continuing faith response”. We see this particularly clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:10:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God [which was] with me. [1 Corinthians 15:10]
It almost reads like a paradox – God works, and we work. But it is all God, but we still work. It is best resolved by seeing our work as a response, a thanksgiving to God for His work on our behalf.
God’s Good Pleasure
We are to seek holiness, sanctification. We are to approach this with humility and obedience. The aim, the purpose is God’s good pleasure.
There is no room for boasting or pride. Paul told the church in Corinth he was determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
God owes us nothing but has provided us with everything.
We read similarly in Ephesians 1. In this chapter are several references to God’s pleasure and purpose and plan. Could you turn with me to Ephesians 1?
3 Blessed [be] the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly [places] in Christ,
5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.
9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself,
12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.
14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. [Ephesians 1:3, 5, 6, 9, 12, 14]
In fact, just read the whole of Ephesians 1 to get a view of this great expanse of God’s love and purpose.
It’s a bit like looking up at the Milky Way on a dark, clear night. The more you look the more you see and you are almost overcome by the breadth and beauty of what you see. Yet what you see is just a fraction of what is there.
What God Wants
We are to work out our salvation, and that salvation is what has been worked in us by God through grace.
It is a matter of making your faith work. Of receiving and seeing the benefits of the gospel in your life, your family, your church, your town, your workplace, your situation. And if you don’t see this salvation in terms of healing, deliverance and salvation then keep working it out!
It needs to be done with humility and obedience; with reverence and submission. But it needs to be done.
But we must continue continuing; persist persistently.
I think we’re lacking some of this persistence in our churches today.
We’re lacking some of the desire to see our salvation fully worked out in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.
But our persistence and obedience must stem from our acceptance of Jesus, of submission to the Spirit, as a response to God’s grace and mercy, not an attempt to earn that mercy!
But we’re not asking because we deserve it. We deserve hell.
We need and want all of the good things God has for us – in this world and the next.
We need to be carriers of the fragrance of Christ. Not sending off our own smells of sin or pride or religiousness, but only Christ.
He brings healing and deliverance and salvation.
He wants His kingdom on earth the same as it is in heaven.
That is God’s rule, God’s way.
It’s not what our federal government wants that is important.
It’s not what Donald Trump wants that we’re interested in.
It’s not a matter of what the World Bank or the world Health Organisation thinks is important or significant.
It’s not what the United Nations or United Airlines or United Dairies or even Manchester United think we should care about.
We should want what God wants – and that is a united church full of people who all send off the aroma of Christ.
Churches full of people who have been saved, are being saved and will be saved.
People who are working out their salvation with obedience and humility and reverence and sensitivity.
I don’t believe God is interested in labels such as catholics, protestants, pentecostals, brethren, premillenialists, post-millenialists, amillenialists. He’s after people who love Him, love Jesus and love the Holy Spirit.
He wants disciples, not dividers. Deliverers, not disputers.
We’re to be interested in what interests God and that is His Kingdom, His love, His mercy, His grace, His healing, His deliverance, His glory and His praise echoing through this world and the next.
That’s what Philippians 2:12-13 says to me – make sure salvation is working for you in body, soul and spirit. If it’s not working for me then I’m no advertisement for it for anyone else. See it working, and work it out with obedience and humility. Continue continuing. Have the spiritual audacity to read and believe and trust God at His word!
As we conclude, let me pray:
Heavenly Father, we want to reflect on your word in Philippians.
If we have not taken that step of faith to trust in Jesus and His name and His work upon the cross, may you make your presence known to us. Give us dreams and visions. Send people across our path who reflect your love and your grace – who carry that aroma of Christ. Don’t let us rest until we find our rest in you.
If we have believed and trusted in the name of Jesus but have lost our way or lost our first love, we want to continue, to persist, to persevere. May we have a greater desire for You. May we regain that first love of your gospel. May we see and understand what Your salvation is to us and for us. May we work out what You have worked in.
Father as we mature in our faith may we continue working out our salvation. May we see it manifested in eternal life, healing and deliverance. May we see Your Kingdom complete in our body, soul and spirit. May we strive with obedience and humility. May we be reverent and sensitive to You. And may we see continuing transformation in our lives, our families and our communities.
In the strong Name of Jesus and for Your Kingdom and Glory we pray. Amen.