In moving from the general appeal to its specific application, Paul has clearly "quit preachin' and gone to meddlin'." Complaining and arguing are the sins that breed disunity and thus blur the effect of the gospel in Philippi. They are to do everything without indulging these attitudes, which reflect "selfish ambition" and "vain conceit" rather than the humility that puts the concerns of others ahead of one's own (v. 3).
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.
Click the button below to continue.
Now that you've created a Bible Gateway account, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus, the ultimate online Bible reading & study experience!
Bible Gateway Plus equips you to answer the toughest questions about faith, God, and the Bible. There's no software to install; it's all integrated seamlessly into your Bible Gateway experience. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.