Philippians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Application and Final Appeal
From heaven back to earth; from the worship of the Son and glory of the Father back to Philippi with its suffering and threats of disunity. Thus Paul returns to his present concern--obedience expressed through a common mindset, for the sake of Christ and the gospel--by applying what he has just written to the Philippians' situation. But the return is not with a thud; rather, this is the reason for telling the story of Christ in the first place: as the model and means for them to continue to work out [their] salvation for the sake of (not according to) God's good purpose.The application is in three sentences, which together form a single appeal with a threefold concern: (1) that they return to their common cause, partly (2) for the sake of the gospel in the world and partly also (3) for Paul's sake, and thus for their mutual joy. The first sentence (vv. 12-13) speaks generally, urging that they show their "obedience" by getting their corporate act together (work out your salvation). And lest he be misunderstood, Paul adds an encouraging theological word: God has committed himself to effecting their "obedience" for his own good pleasure. The second sentence (vv. 14-16) gives specifics: complaining and arguing must cease, for the sake of the crooked and depraved Philippi in which they shine like stars as they hold fast the word of life. This sentence concludes on the note of Paul's own ministry among them, which leads to the final sentence (vv. 17-18), where he returns to the theme of his suffering, their faith, and his and their mutual joy.
With these final words the appeal begun in 1:27 comes full circle, serving to bracket the section in two ways. The appeal began by urging them to walk worthy of the gospel whether Paul is present or absent. In verses 12-16 Paul now returns on that theme, at the same time responding to the specific concerns expressed in 2:1-4. Second, the opening appeal was put in the context of (his and their) present suffering (1:29-30); the present appeal ends by urging mutual rejoicing in mutual suffering (2:17-18). This leads directly to verses 19-30, in which he goes on to "what's next" regarding his and their circumstances--that he expects to hear further about "their affairs," now in light of the present letter, after they have learned further about "his affairs," and both from the same source, Timothy.
The momentary "presence/absence" digression deliberately reminds them of the earlier appeal in 1:27. Along with the affectionate vocative (literally, "my beloved ones") and the reminder of their excellent history in this regard (as . . . always), this motif places the appeal to obedience within the context of their long-term friendship and common affection. But obedience to whom, Paul or God, since elsewhere Paul goes either way? In context it most likely means obedience to his earlier appeal in 1:27--2:4. But that automatically means obedience to Christ, the only kind of obedience to his own words that Paul could care anything about. In his view faith in Christ is ultimately expressed as obedience to Christ, not in the sense of following the rules but of being devoted completely to him. This appeal, after all, closely follows the twofold reminder of Christ's own obedience that led to the cross and of his present status as Lord of all.
Obedience in this case takes the form of work out your own salvation, meaning "in your relationships with one another live out the salvation Christ has brought you." This is therefore not a text dealing with individual salvation but an ethical text dealing with the outworking of salvation in the believing community for the sake of the world. That they must comply with this injunction at the individual level is assumed, and that their final salvation will be realized personally and individually is a truth that does not need stating, because that is not at issue here. The present concern is with their being God's people in Philippi, as 2:15 makes certain.
The phrase with fear and trembling indicates how important this matter is for Paul. One does not live out the gospel casually or lightly, especially in light of verses 6-11, but as those who know what it means to stand in awe of the living God. Nothing of cringing or lack of confidence is implied. Rather, the gospel is God's thing, and the God who has saved his people is an awesome God. Thus working out the salvation that God has given them should be done with a sense of "holy awe and wonder" before the God with whom they--and we--have to do.
By putting his appeal this way--urging the Philippians to work out your salvation with fear and trembling--Paul recognizes that he may have painted himself into something of a corner regarding his essential theology. So he immediately puts it in the context of God's action. For, he explains, God is the one who empowers you in this regard. They are indeed to "work at" it (katergazesthe); they are able to do so because God himself is "at work" (energon) in and among them. This does not mean that God is "doing it for them," but that God supplies the working power. Happily for us, God is on the side of his people. Not only does he have our concern at heart, but he actively works in our behalf for the sake of his own good pleasure. The rest of the sentence gives us the "where, what and why" of that empowering.
The "where" is in/among you. As in 1:6 and 2:5, when using this phrase in a corporate context Paul primarily means "among you." For that to happen it must begin in you, that is, in the resolve of each of them to see to it that God's purposes are accomplished in their community.
The "what" is loaded with theology. God empowers both our "doing" (energeo, the verb just used to describe God's "working") and the "willing" that lies behind the doing. Christian ethics has nothing to do with rules that regulate conduct. Rather, it begins with a mind that is transformed by the Spirit, so as not to be conformed to this age but to the character of God, knowing God's will, what is good and pleasing and perfect to him (Rom 12:1-2). We are not those who have been begrudgingly caught by God, so that we obey basically out of fear and trembling over what might happen if we were to do otherwise. Rather, being Christ's means to be converted in the true sense of that word, to have our lives invaded by God's Holy Spirit, who creates in us a new desire toward God that prompts godly behavior in the first place.
But Christian ethics lies not just in the "willing." In Romans 7:18, in his description of life before and outside of Christ looked at from the perspective of life in the Spirit, Paul described pre-Christian life with these same verbs. "To will," he said, was present with him; but without the Spirit, "carrying out [katergazesthai] the good" does not happen. As a believer, however, Paul will have none of that (i.e., of our not being able to carry out the good that we will). Hence he urges the Philippians to "work it out" precisely because God (by his Spirit) is present with us both to will and to act on the good God has prompted us to will.
The "why" (according to his good purpose, NIV) is ambiguous. The word eudokia (good purpose) occurred in 1:15 as the motivation for those who preach Christ out of love and "goodwill" toward Paul. In light of what is about to be urged (v. 14), that meaning could prevail here as well; that is, God is at work in them both to will and to do what promotes goodwill in the community. More likely, however, given the emphasis of the present sentence, Paul intends God's own eudokia--in which case this word probably leans toward "good pleasure," in the sense that God does this for his people because it pleases him so to do. In any case, the preposition hyper should bear its regular sense, "for the sake of." This does not mean that God, despite verse 6, is a self-gratifying being after all. Rather, all that God does he does for his pleasure; but since God is wholly good, what pleases him is not capricious but what is wholly good for those he loves. God's pleasure is pure love; it delights God to delight his people.
Thus with verse 13 Paul puts the imperative into theological perspective. What follows is to be understood as flowing directly out of this word; what pleases God in this instance, of course, is that the Philippians cease the in-fighting that is currently going on among some of them.
The first word, gongysmos, was used once before by Paul, in 1 Cor-inthians 10:10, alluding to Israel's grumbling/murmuring against God and Moses in the desert (Ex 16; Num 14; 16--17). There is every reason to believe that the word carries some of these echoes here as well, since the next part of the sentence clearly echoes Israel's experience in the desert. Like Israel, the Philippians are to stop their "grumbling," which in their case has taken the form of arguing or disputing with one another. Most likely this is the telltale word, for which "grumbling" offers a biblical frame of reference.
The clause that makes up Philippians 2:15-16 presents the reason for the prohibition. Their conduct is to be blameless, so that they might be recognized for who they are, the children of God. The arena is pagan Philippi, now described in the language of Deuteronomy 32:5: a crooked and depraved generation. But being blameless is the penultimate concern. The ultimate concerns are two: the gospel in Philippi, and their own successful arrival at the end, expressed in terms of their being Paul's boast on the day of Christ. Each of these phrases needs brief explanation.
That you might become blameless and pure repeats a concern from Paul's prayer (Phil 1:10), although with different words. The day of Christ is still in view, but the emphasis now is on present conduct. Become blameless is the exact language used by God to begin the renewal of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:1 LXX). The word refers to conduct with which one (probably God in this case) can "find no fault," while pure is directed more toward the heart, not in the sense of "clean" but of "innocent."
With children of God without fault Paul begins his echo of Deuteronomy 32:5 (LXX). Children of God is especially appropriate for those being urged to "obey." Moses states that Israel "no longer" has the right to this designation, to which the Septuagint translator added "being blameworthy" (mometa), a term from the sacrificial system ( "full of blemishes"). Paul picks up this adjective, negates it (a-moma "without fault") and adds "in the midst of" before continuing the rest of the "quotation." He thus converts the whole phrase into its opposite with regard to the Philippians. Over against Israel, they are God's children; by refraining from internal bickering they will be without fault.
By adding the preposition "in the midst of," Paul also transforms the next words of Deuteronomy 32:5 into their opposite. Originally a crooked and depraved generation described "blameworthy" Israel; here pagan Philippi receives the epithet. In the context of 1:27--2:18, the term probably points to the opposition mentioned in 1:28, the pagan populace of Philippi, who took their devotion to Caesar as lord seriously and found those who advocated another Lord more than just a little nettlesome.
To describe the believers' role in Philippi, Paul uses language from the final apocalyptic vision of Daniel (12:1-4): among whom you shine like stars in the world (NIV universe). The qualifier as you hold out [on to] the word of life brings us face to face with the inherent ambiguity of the final part of this sentence, which also reflects one of the repeated ambiguities of the New Testament: that the people of God are to shine in the world over against its darkness, while simultaneously they are to illumine that darkness. The verb epechontes means "hold on to" (NIV mg) but not in a defensive posture (as in "hold the fort, for I am coming"). Although the believers' role in Philippi puts them in strong contrast (hence in opposition) to the paganism of Philippi, by holding fast the word of life ( "the message that brings life") they are to offer the life that Christ provides to those who are dying.
The eschatological context of Daniel 12:3, whose language Paul has just echoed, apparently prompts him to conclude his (now long) sentence on a similar eschatological note, one of many that permeate the letter. Although the concern is with the Christians' perseverance, the emphasis is once more on his and their relationship. By successfully holding fast the word of life in Philippi, they will be Paul's boast on the day of Christ (see Phil 1:6, 10), language that recalls their "boasting" in 1:26. These final phrases, therefore, are also transitional. Just as he brought them into the picture in 1:25-26 (at the conclusion of "my affairs"), he now uses some of the same language to bring himself back into the picture at the conclusion of "your affairs."
Thus Paul concludes his prohibition (2:14) with the sheer glory that he and they will experience together in the presence of Christ--they because of his ministry among them that brought them to that glory; he because his "glorying" in them, as he and they are in Christ's presence together, is but another way of expressing his "boast in the Lord" (1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17).
The final appended phrase, that I did not run or labor for nothing, is vintage Paul. The two verbs, taken from the games and from manual labor respectively, are among his favorite images for ministry. Life in Christ has the features of a race, with the prize awaiting those who finish (see 3:14). More often in Paul, ministry involves labor; one "works hard in the Lord," just as the tentmaker does in the shop. Paul has invested his whole Christian life in seeing that others also obtain the prize for such running or realize the fruit of such labor. Hence at issue for him is not his own personal "prize"; that prize will consist primarily in having his "beloved" Philippians (and others) there with him (cf. 4:1).
Thus, based on their longtime friendship, this clause serves as a final incentive for them to "obey" by "working out their salvation" while he is "absent" from them. In this letter it is included especially for those whose vision of their certain future has diminished in some way. But could Paul's efforts really be in vain? On the basis of what he says here (vv. 17-18) and elsewhere, the answer seems to be twofold. On the one hand, such an expression as this makes sense only if the potential to have labored in vain really exists; on the other hand, Paul has such confidence in God regarding his converts that it would be unthinkable to him that such a potential would ever be realized. Which leads us to the final sentences in this present section.
The form of the sentence is conditional, in this case expressing a real, not suppositional, condition. Thus (literally): "But if indeed I am being poured out like a drink offering in connection with the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice." The metaphor itself is taken from the Jewish sacrificial system. Pictured is the burnt offering (thysia, "sacrifice"), the service itself (leitourgia) and the drink offering poured out at the sanctuary (spendo) in connection with (not "on" in Jewish ritual) the sacrifice (cf. Num 28:1-7). In 2 Timothy 4:6 Paul uses the metaphor of "being poured out like a drink offering" to point to his expected imminent death. But that is unlikely the intent here, since he is so "confident in the Lord" that he will be released (Phil 2:24; cf. 1:24-26)--not to mention that in 1:30 he has emphasized that he and the Philippians are undergoing "the same struggle," and their dying as the result of suffering is simply not in view in this letter.
Most likely, then, the whole clause is a metaphor for the present suffering that both he and they are experiencing at the hand of the Empire. He pictures his imprisonment as the drink offering that goes along with their "burnt offering," their present struggle in Philippi. That also means that the opening conjunction (ei kai) is not to be taken as concessive ("even though") but as intensive, "if indeed this is happening" (as the case really is). Given the return to this imagery in conjunction with their gift in 4:18, one is also tempted to see their "service of faith" (NIV service coming from your faith) as going beyond their present suffering and including their gift to him, which not only continued their commitment of friendship but was undertaken under their difficult present circumstances.
If this is how we are to understand the if part of the clause, then what of the connection with verse 16? The logic seems to be that rather than Paul's having run in vain, which in fact is unthinkable, his present suffering, which is also on their behalf in the midst of their own suffering, presents the real picture of their relationship. What is missing is an implied middle step. Thus the whole would go something like "I expect you to be my grounds for boasting at the day of Christ, evidence that I have not labored in vain. (And presently my labor includes imprisonment, as yours does suffering in Philippi.) But if indeed my present struggle represents a kind of drink offering to go along with your own suffering on behalf of the gospel, then I rejoice."
The "then" part of the sentence deliberately recalls 1:18. Even in the midst of what appear to be untoward circumstances, one's relationship with God does not change. At this point several matters about this theme in Philippians need to be noted. First, "joy" is primarily a verb in Philippians; it is something one does, not how one feels (as in the NIV's am glad). Second, as the reiteration of the imperative in 3:1 and 4:4 makes clear, "rejoicing" is not related to one's circumstances but is "in the Lord," as in the scores of Old Testament texts (especially in the Psalter) that Paul is echoing. That is, "rejoicing in the Lord" is part and parcel of Christian life and is quite unrelated to the present lay of the land. Indeed, this present text is very much reminiscent of the conclusion of Habakkuk's lament (3:17-18):
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
This is not "sour grapes," nor making the best of a bad situation, nor "delight in feeling bad"; this has to do with true faith, and thus perspective, based as it is on the unshakable foundation of the work of Christ, both past and future.
Since Paul is so completely at home in the world of Scripture, as God's very Word, and since he really believes that "to live is Christ, to die is gain," he simply expresses this confidence in a thoroughly biblical way. Despite the constant "room service" he is provided (see 1:13), it is not the Rome Hilton, in a room with a view, where he currently finds himself. Yet his perspective is the right one, so "I rejoice," on my own as it were, but since we are in this thing together, I . . . rejoice with all of you as well. Which, of course, invites them to rejoice in the Lord by presuming that they are already doing so!
But just in case, he invites them to reciprocate: "In the same way you also rejoice (on your own, as it were), and then join me in rejoicing together" (see v. 19). To this point every mention of "joy," except in 1:25, has had to do with Paul. With this imperative in verse 18 a subtle, but noticeable, shift toward them takes place. What began in 1:25 as concern for their "progress and joy in the faith" is now put into the form of an imperative, an imperative that will recur at further points in the rest of the letter; significantly, its first occurrence is totally intertwined with Paul's joy and is found in the context of rejoicing in the midst of suffering and opposition.
Here, then, is the most likely reason for this otherwise unusual conclusion to the long appeal of 1:27--2:18. Paul has already modeled joy in the face of opposition and suffering (1:18); his concern for the Philippians is with both their "progress" and their "joy" regarding the gospel. Now, in anticipation of the renewal of their joy at the coming of Epaphroditus (2:28) and the imperative to "rejoice in the Lord (always)" that frames the final exhortation (3:1; 4:4), Paul begins by linking that imperative to his own joy, both in the context of present suffering and in the mutuality of that suffering.
Two significant theological points emerge here. First, we must not lose sight of the fact that everything else that is said is brought to bear on the opening imperative: Do everything without complaining or arguing. Because most of us are good at such behavior, it is easy to dismiss this as "mundane"; but the very fact that Paul spends so much energy giving biblical and theological support to it suggests otherwise. This is spoken in the context of their--and our--being God's children in a fallen, twisted world. Our corporate behavior, especially as that is reflected in our attitudes toward one another, goes a long way toward determining how effectively we hold out the word of life in such a world. Thus evangelism is the bottom line, and internal bickering among the people of God is thoroughly counterproductive activity.
Second, Paul's use of the story of Israel (in this case its failure) as his way of including the Philippians as God's people--indeed, as the true continuity of his people--says much about our own place in God's story. Again, the concern is with our behavior--with our succeeding where Israel failed. The underlying theology in all of this is God's own character, as that is now reflected in his children who bear his likeness as we live out the life of the future in the present age. Only as we reflect God's own likeness will our evangelism be worth anything at all, in terms of its aim and in terms of success.