Having just appealed to the Philippians to bring about unity by showing the same humility that Jesus Christ did (Philippians 2:1-11), Paul now presents reasons why they should live in unity—that they may be blameless and pure and Paul’s work not in vain.
12 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, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Addressing them as ”my beloved” and assuring them that they “have always obeyed” the commands of God passed on to them by him, Paul urges the Philippians to continue to ”work out their own salvation” even though he is not with them to support them. “Therefore” indicates that he is referring specifically to their working for unity by being humble. However his saying elsewhere, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10), suggests that he may have been thinking more generally, wanting the Philippians (and us) to work as hard as possible at being better Christians. He encourages them to do so “with fear and trembling,” reminding them of the awe that we should have in the presence of God.
Some people use “work out your own salvation” to argue that salvation depends on good works as well as on faith in Christ Jesus. Paul would be as upset with such people as he was with those who taught that in his day, his believing strongly that salvation depends entirely on faith. For example, before telling the Ephesians that they were created for good works (see above) he told them, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). And later in Philippians he warned, ”Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2), referring to those who taught that believers needed to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses to be saved. However, despite attributing our salvation to faith, Paul certainly did think that Christians should conduct themselves in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27) and so prayed that the Philippians would grow spiritually (Philippians 1:9-11).
Verse 13 gives us both encouragement and warning. The encouragement is that we can work out our salvation, as just explained, because God (in the person of the Holy Spirit) is working in us, both creating in us the desire to do His will and supplying us with the power by which we can do so. The warning is that, since God is working in us so that our desires and actions will be in accordance with His will, we have no excuse for not working out our salvation.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones offers these helpful suggestions on how we can work out our salvation:
Well, first of all I must submit myself entirely to God. The Apostle puts it here in terms of the amazing account that he gives us of the earthly life of our Lord in verses 5-11. … Clearly the next step is that I must avoid everything that is opposed to God, what the New Testament calls ‘the world’: ’Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world (1 John 2:15). … The best way is to consult the textbook on this subject. Here it is perfectly clear: the more I read the Bible and see the picture of the Christian man, the more I understand the nature of sin and life in this world, and what God has done for me in Christ, then I shall desire the things of God and hate the other. … And the other thing, clearly, is prayer: prayer for an increasing knowledge of God, for a greater measure of the Holy Spirit and for a greater understanding of this word; prayer for guidance, for leading and for understanding. (The Life of Joy: An Exposition of Philippians 1 and 2, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989 reprint, pages 176-78)
14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
Possibly with the disagreement between Euodias and Syntyche in mind (Philippians 4:2), Paul tells the Philippians that they should do everything without complaining and arguing. He says that the result would be their having nothing in their lives that others could justifiably criticize and being pure in the sight of God. Thus they’d “shine as lights” as they held forth (see the next sentence) the gospel in the midst of an evil world, making the unsaved around them want what they have and come to Jesus Christ. The phrase translated “holding fast” in the English Standard Version (and most modern versions of the Bible) is translated “holding forth” in the King James Version and Matthew Henry comments on it, “It is our duty not only to hold fast, but to hold forth the word of life; not only to hold it fast for our own benefit, but to hold it forth for the benefit of others, to hold it forth as the candlestick holds forth the candle, which makes it appear to advantage all around [cf. Matthew 5:14-16], or as the luminaries of the heavens, which shed their influence far and wide [cf. Daniel 12:3]” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Old Tappan, New Jersey, Volume VI, page 735).
The idea of “shine as lights in the world” is well expressed by Tyree in “The Living Epistle”:
Of all modes of inculating Christianity, exemplifying it is the best. The best commentary on the Bible the world has ever seen is a holy life. The most eloquent sermon in behalf of the gospel that the world has ever heard is a uniform, active piety. The best version of the written truth that has ever been made is a consistent religious example. The Christian whose light thus shines not only correctly renders, but beautifies the sacred text…. While the truth is being read from the Bible, and proclaimed from the pulpit, let all the members of our churches second and enforce that truth by the silent eloquence of holy lives, and the world’s conversion will move forward at home and abroad, with primitive speed.” (Quoted in John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Valley Forge: The Judson Press, 1886), 98)
17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Paul pictures the Philippians’ service to God as the main sacrifice and his possible martyrdom as the accompanying drink offering in the Jews’ morning and evening sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-41; Numbers 28:6-7). Later, he tells Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
Paul concludes the passage by using a form of “rejoice” four times— “am glad,” “rejoice with,” “should be glad,” and “rejoice with.” Lynn H. Cohick comments:
The joy Paul experiences is far deeper than happiness, for the latter is based on circumstances. The joy of the Lord is grounded in the sure sufficiency of Christ’s work and the solid hope of our redemption. To rejoice in the midst of suffering, imprisonment, and affliction is to declare boldly that this age does not have the last word. Christ the Savior will return, transform our bodies into conformity to his glorious body, and be declared Lord.(Philippians in The Story of God Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013, page 147).
Yesterday evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host discussed Philippians 2:12-18 guided by the questions given in “The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups.” Our discussion was short but interesting, and as a result of it I added the references to Ephesians 2:8-10 to what I had planned to post.