Many godly men and women in the Bible serve as examples for us of how to live for Christ. They trusted God’s promises and refused to allow persecution, prison, or peril to weaken their faith or obedience to Christ.
As great as the examples of many biblical saints are, the apostle Paul directed Christians to pattern their lives and ministries on the greatest example of all: Jesus Christ. He took on a limited human existence of self-renunciation; selfless humility; and suffering for righteousness’ sake, ultimately submitting to the worst possible death of that time in full obedience to God’s will. Jesus, our great, sovereign God, willingly became a servant during His earthly ministry.
In Philippians 2:12–18, Paul called the Philippian believers to pattern their lives and ministries after Christ in their work, walk, and witness.
The Philippians’ Work
Paul exhorted the Philippians, “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” (vv. 12–13).
Paul instructed believers to live in obedience to God by applying Christ’s teaching every day. The phrase work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (v. 12) does not mean people can acquire salvation by their works for the Lord. Paul clearly taught, “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” (Eph. 2:8–9). These believers already possessed salvation.
However, the Philippians were to live out their salvation with an attitude of “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). This attitude was not a fear of losing their salvation but, rather, “fear and trembling” at the thought of sinning against God. Paul manifested this posture when he took the gospel to Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1–5). The phrase also refers to holding God and His work in respect and reverence.
Paul more fully explained his instruction in Philippians 2:13: “It is God who works in you.” God provides believers with the energy and ability to carry out an effective ministry. He saves those who respond by faith and accept Christ as Savior. Believers partner with God, who has chosen to work through them to accomplish His “good pleasure” through the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 1:5, 9; 2 Th. 1:11).
The Philippians’ Walk
Having exhorted the Philippians to work out their salvation according to God’s purpose, Paul commanded them, “Do all things without complaining and disputing” (Phil. 2:14).
The phrase do all is in the present tense, emphasizing that everything the Philippian believers did was to be done without “complaining and disputing.” Complaining means to grumble or murmur under one’s breath in a soft, almost inaudible voice. A continual complainer lacks wisdom and is not a good testimony either to Christians or the unsaved world.
The Israelites repeatedly complained against Moses and Aaron, bewailing their suffering and claiming they were brought into the Sinai to die. They would rather have died as slaves in Egypt than suffer in the wilderness. These faithless people were ready to reject Moses’ leadership; choose a new leader; and return to Egypt, even if it meant returning to slavery (Num. 11:1–6; 14:1–4; 1 Cor. 10:1–10). Moses, in frustration, called them a “perverse and crooked generation” (Dt. 32:5), “children in whom is no faith” (v. 20).
Paul went on to say, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). That is, what happened to the Israelites during their wilderness wandering was for their instruction.
Israel’s experiences in the wilderness are also warnings to Church Age Christians. We are to repent of sin and stop complaining, lest we lose our usefulness and rewards.
The word disputing [Greek, dialogismos] (Phil. 2:14) means to dialogue, discuss, question, or criticize in a negative way. Those who dispute continually question and criticize things before God and other Christians. Believers must remove such negative attitudes from their lives. Such people lack humility, love, and concern for their testimonies to other Christians.
The Philippians’ Witness
Paul explained why believers need to manifest a godly attitude toward those within the church and the unsaved world: “That you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain” (vv. 15–16).
Christians should live without murmuring and disputing for many reasons:
1. To show that God has already made them “blameless [without reproach] and harmless [pure or innocent of evil], children of God” (v. 15). The word harmless means “pure” [Greek, akeraios] and was used to refer to undiluted wine or metals that were purified from foreign elements. Harmless behavior would give no one within or outside the church just cause to rebuke or find fault with the believers. The word become shows that they were not perfect but were in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. They were not yet blameless and innocent, but Paul hoped they would show themselves without evil in their testimony before a watching world. These believers were to live in a way that no one could legitimately accuse them of evil.
2. To be different from the world because Christians live in a “crooked and perverse generation” (v. 15). Metaphorically, this phrase speaks of humanity being morally and spiritually corrupt. The word perverse means the same as crooked but refers to an individual’s personal actions to deliberately behave in a depraved way. This word describes Israel under Moses (Dt. 32:5), during Christ’s life on Earth (Mt. 17:17), during the formation of the church (Acts 2:40), and the world today.
3. To “shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). Satan has morally and spiritually blinded the minds and hearts of the unsaved to the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3–4). Christ, the Light of the world (Jn. 8:12), has stationed Christians as luminaries whose lives spiritually reflect His light, bringing glory to God (Mt. 5:14–16).
4. To be “holding fast the word of life” in a spiritually dark world (Phil. 2:16). Most commentators believe the phrase holding fast [Greek, epecho] is better translated “holding out.” Here it describes how believers were to treat the “word of life”—Christ’s gospel of redemption leading to eternal life. They were to do so until “the day of Christ,” or until Christ raptures the church. Paul could rejoice (glory) in that day because he would know that his labor in the ministry was not in vain (empty). He would recognize that his ministry in Philippi succeeded and produced much fruit.
The Apostle’s Willingness
Paul did not exhort the Philippians to do anything he was unwilling to do: “Yes, and if [since, because] I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me” (vv. 17–18).
The phrase poured out (Greek, spendo) refers to a drink offering (libation of wine) poured on sacrifices offered to God. Some commentators say Paul was referring to his possible martyrdom; but the verb is in the present tense, most likely a reference to his present ministry among the Philippians. He saw them offering their lives in faithful, sacrificial service to God too. Paul viewed his whole life as a living sacrifice to God.
Paul concluded this section saying he rejoiced in the Philippians, and they also should be glad and rejoice with him. Paul wanted the believers in Philippi to experience the same joy he felt and rejoice with him, as he did with them, in sacrificial service for Christ. And Christ provided the greatest example of all regarding sacrifice and joy (cf. Heb. 12:2–3).