Philippians has the highest number of occurrences of “gospel” per chapter (9 times in 4 chapters) of all Paul’s letters (really, of any book in the NT). It’s an important word. For Paul in Philippians, it has to do with the ministry of Christ--both the person and work of Christ (2:5-11) and the work of the church to promote the gospel to the world (1:5, 1:7, etc.). So this section of Philippians, even though the word “gospel” is not used, has a gospel-centric focus to it.
Paul begins this section with the word “therefore.” This ties this section to what came before, specifically the hymn about Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, and his choosing life as a slave among us. Calling attention to Christ’s obedience, Paul then challenges his readers to continued obedience in the way of Christ. This is what it means to “continue to work out your salvation.” This is not a way to earn salvation or to put deeds above faith. God is still the one who provides grace and does so freely. All Paul means here is that we should continue to obey, just as we have obeyed.
The proper attitude is “fear and trembling.” If we proceed in the fear of the Lord, we will not be led to believe that we are earning anything for ourselves. Rather, we are humbly submitting to God in obedience. If that sounds familiar, it should--it’s what Jesus himself did! (Phil. 2:5-11) So we work out our salvation by staying obedient to the Lord.
But there is also a communal element here. The “yous” and “yours” in this passage are plural. Paul is speaking not just to individuals, but to individuals as they make up the community of the people of God. It is not enough for you and I to work out our salvation in isolation; rather, we work it out together--and sometimes my efforts to work out my salvation impact yours. Remember the commands in 2:1-4 about being one in spirit and of one mind? The ground for these commands is the common encouragement and unity that we have in Christ. Likewise, here, we are to work together, collectively, to work out our salvation.
The end result of continuing in obedience is that God’s “good purpose” will be fulfilled (2:13). What is God’s purpose? God’s purpose is simply that his people become a community of blessing and purity to the world around them. This is why the very next command in this passage is “Quit grumbling!” (2:14)
Grumbling is one sin that God’s people were guilty of throughout the entire Old Testament. Apparently, it continued into the New Testament church. And if you listen closely, I bet you’ll still find grumbling going on in today’s churches! Rather than focusing on purity and blamelessness; rather than focusing on love and service and obedience; and rather than focusing on the word of life, we grumble. We grumble because we don’t get our way, or because we don’t like what someone else did or said, or because we don’t think we’re getting a fair shake from God. And this grumbling ruins our witness to others.
This is why Paul reminds the Philippian believers (and us) that we live in a “warped and crooked generation.” This is nothing new. This phrase is actually a citation from Deuteronomy (Deut. 32:5). In all ages, God has called his people to live apart from the people around them, not in an isolationist sense but in a missional sense. If we can quit grumbling with each other and live obediently in service with love for others (not just those in our church but also those in our neighborhoods, places of employment, and social circles) we will “shine among them like stars in the sky.”
This text is actually an evangelistic text. Focusing on revealing the “word of life” through our obedient, loving, serving lives, we can bless those among us and reveal Jesus to them as well. This is why Paul taught that we are to have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had! (2:5) When we live like him, others see him. We both build up our own community and enable others to be added to it, as they see the light creeping in to the darkness of their lives.
So how are you living? Are you too caught up in how some other Christian offended you? Are you grumbling because you don’t like some aspect of your church’s worship experience? Are you selfishly serving yourself instead of others? Become obedient instead. Quit grumbling. Quit complaining. Hold to the word of life and continue in obedience--and in this way, bless those around you.