David Smith of Phoenix, Arizona is a remarkable man. In 2003, at the age of twenty–six Smith weighed 650 pounds. He couldn’t walk 500 feet and couldn’t fit in a car. Worst yet, he was suicidal. How did he get to this point? Smith says his problems began after his family moved to the Phoenix area when he was seven and he was sexually molested by his best friend. Unable to deal with the experience, he cut himself off from everyone and found comfort in eating. A large child to begin with, he quickly became not just one of the tallest kids in his class, but also the heaviest. He became the victim of bullies and gangs who would physically and emotionally beat him up. In his biographical sketch, Smith wrote, “I have been spit on; I have had dirt clots, rocks, bolts, basketballs, books, even feces among other things thrown at me. I started to hate people. Nobody wanted to be my friend. I didn’t even want friends anymore; I just wanted to be left alone.” The physical abuse ended in high school, but the emotional abuse continued. It got so bad, that Smith dropped out of school at the age of seventeen. He didn’t want to take it anymore. And then he got hit with another emotional trauma. His mother, the only person he allowed himself to show any emotion to, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She fought the disease for five years, but in the end it took her life. This drove Smith to eat even more.
Eventually, Smith realized that he wanted to change the course of his life. So he contacted a local Phoenix television station that had a feature hosted by fitness and nutrition guru Chris Powell. After some initial hesitation, Powell took Smith on as a client. Powell started Smith with baby steps that quickly became giant strides. The weight melted off—a phenomenal average of more than fifteen pounds a month. By 2007, just twenty–six months after he decided to transform himself and his life, Smith had lost 410 pounds from a starting weight of 650. Today, Smith is a cut and confident thirty–two year old stud who has women oohing and aahing over him. Even more impressive is the fact that he is now a certified personal trainer who is helping others transform their physical, mental, and emotional health.
David Smith transformed his physical body because he was tired of watching his life waste away. One of the primary motivations for Smith to lose all of his weight was to have a relationship with a woman. Thus, TLC (The Learning Channel) entitled Smith’s story, “The 650-pound Virgin.”
Now, if a young man is that motivated to work out to change his life, how much more so should Christians possess a drive to work out to become spiritually healthy and shapely? Today, God issues the challenge: “Work out or waste away.” In Philippians 2:12–18, Paul provides three tips on how to avoid wasting away.
1. Work out the unity (2:12–13). In our fitness-crazed culture, people often refer to working out the chest, arms, or legs. Some work out with weights, others prefer cardio. But in these first two verses, Paul speaks of working out the unity in the body of Christ. He writes in 2:12:“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This passage begins with the conjunction “so then” (hoste), which indicates that Paul is referring back to what he has previously written (1:27–2:11). Specifically, the term “obeyed” points back to Christ’s obedience in laying down His life (2:8). However, before Paul speaks of obedience or issues a command, he addresses the Philippians as “my beloved.” Paul wants the Philippians to know how much he loves them. Likewise, if you and I want to impact people they need to know how much we love them. Paul follows up his expression of love by encouraging the Philippians to “keep up their good work” (cf. 1:27). He indicates that they have a history of obedience in his presence and in his absence. The measure of our effectiveness in ministry is greatly determined by how people live in our absence. We have accomplished very little if our disciples and fellow believers only live for God when we’re around and then go back to disobedience or complacency when we leave. Those that we invest in must learn to feel responsible to God, not to us. This entails urging our disciples and mentorees not to cling to us, but to cling to Christ. In other words, they should obey the Lord whether other people are watching or not. Now that Paul has affirmed his readers he is ready to exhort them to further action.
The command that Paul gives is to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12c). It is frequently pointed out that Paul does not say “work for your salvation,” or “work toward your salvation,” or even “work at your salvation.” Rather he says “work out your salvation.” However, this observation misses the point. Paul is not talking about one’s individual salvation from hell. Instead, he is commanding the church to corporately “work out” their “salvation” (soteria) or present deliverance by applying the truths Paul elaborated upon in 2:6–11. This is evident from the grammar and the context. Grammatically, all of the verbs in 2:12–13 are plural in reference to the church. The pronoun “your” (heauton) is a reflexive plural, which means “work it out among yourselves.” Thus, Paul is not commanding personal introspection, but that we should look out for each other. Contextually, “salvation” has two nuances: Positively, salvation refers to achieving a unity based on imitation of the mind of Christ (2:1–11). Negatively, salvation is further defined below as doing “all things without grumbling or disputing” (2:14; cf. 2:3). The Philippians, then, are to produce the fruit of their salvation, that is, peace, love, and harmony in the Spirit. Rather than fighting with each other, Paul commands the Philippians, and us, to work out our salvation by encouraging each other to grow in humility and unity. This is also expressed in the phrase “fear and trembling,” which can best be summed up by the word “humility.” Humility is the basis for sacrificial service and unity. Humility is the attitude Paul has called for (2:3–4) and is illustrated by the example of Jesus (2:5–11). So work out or waste away.
In 2:13, Paul explains the reason (“for”) that we can work out our salvation: “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” I love this verse! Paul places theos (“God”) first in the sentence for emphasis. He doesn’t just say, “God works in you”; he says, “It is God who is at work in you.” In other words, God doesn’t work and has not worked because man has worked.
He is at work regardless! Paul uses two little phrases “to will” and “to work” to describe God’s activity. Both the desire and the deed belong to God; both the prompting and the performing are attributed to Him. Nevertheless, it is only as we cooperate with Him that we see the true potential of our lives realized. Both sides of the coin are needed: dependence (God’s sovereignty) and discipline (human responsibility). We are responsible to live and work in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, we must always recognize that it is only because God works and has worked that man is capable of any eternally significant work. This verse is one of the most comforting in the New Testament. Sometimes we want to do right but seem to lack the energy or ability. At other times, it can seem that we don’t even want to do right. This verse assures us that God provides the desire to do His will when we do not have it. If we find that we do not want to do right, we can ask God to work in us to create a desire to do His will. This verse gives us confidence that God desires both to motivate and to enable us.
When my kids were younger, whenever we went grocery shopping as a family, they always wanted to push the cart. Now they could barely push a grocery cart because their hands barely reached the bar. Furthermore, their vision was blocked by the wire mesh and the accumulation of boxes and bags. Nevertheless, I would let them push the cart while I stood behind them with my hands resting on the bar, guiding their every move. As the cart wove in and out of the aisles it was obvious to everyone who was making our cart move. But what was obvious to me and every onlooker was not always known to my children. They were proud of their efforts in controlling the cart. Nevertheless, my children were able to move what they could never move because of their father’s strength. Similarly, in the Christian life, it is God who works. You can move things for the Lord that are way beyond you because of your Heavenly Father’s strength. So keep pushing the cart, keep walking, but remember that your cart will stay on course and move a heavy load because of the powerful hands above you. Today, you may be suffering and encountering hardship. You may feel weak and miserable. If so, call on God. He will hear your cry and respond to you. In our time of need we must recognize that God alone can give us the necessary desire and energy to do what He has called us to do. Work out or waste away.
[When we work out what God has worked in, we can work the unity. A second tip is…]
2. Light up the night (2:14–16). Paul challenges the church to brightly shine Christ’s love to a world that desperately needs to see a visible expression of Him. In 2:14 he writes, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” At first glance, this verse appears to mark a shift in Paul’s train of thought. But a closer look reveals three reasons why this verse is bound up with the passage that precedes it. First, Paul has been exhorting his readers to develop a spirit of likemindedness and unity and the key offenses against this unity within the community of believers are grumbling and disputing. Second, to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” as individuals and as a community requires nothing less than the grace of God, and this is the point of 2:12–13. This command is so contrary to natural human inclinations that it is unattainable without the work of the Holy Spirit. Third, grumbling is precisely the opposite of the Christ-like attitude in 2:5–11 that the Philippians were encouraged to model. The central point of that passage is the Lord’s willingness to renounce His rights and become a servant of others.
Grumblers, on the other hand, proudly cling to their “rights” and expect others to serve.
Paul begins 2:14 with “all things” (panta). This adjective is placed first in the Greek sentence for emphasis. Paul’s point is that absolutely positively nothing is to be done in a spirit of grumbling or disputing. Therefore, we must encourage those who have the gift of grumbling and disputing to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (2:12). Interestingly, an often overlooked observation is that the opposite of “fear and trembling” is “grumbling or disputing.” What exactly is grumbling? It isn’t loud, boisterous, grousing, but rather low-toned, discontented muttering. It is negative, muted comments, complaining, and whining. You can identify a grumbler from yards away by their body language. Grumblers often wear frowns, appear visibly weary, and incessantly shake their head. They also like to sigh deeply. This typically causes caring persons to ask, “What’s wrong?” The grumbler then responds with a list of grievances. Logically speaking, grumbling leads to disputing. “Disputing” is vocal, ill-natured argumentation, verbal expressions of disagreement that stir up suspicions and distrust, doubt, and other disturbing feelings in others. Obviously, there is nothing good to say about either grumbling or disputing. Whimpering, whining, and complaining Christians are sinning, because they are being disobedient to God’s clear command in 2:14.
Grumbling and disputing is rampant in the church. Let’s face it, in the flesh we are all attracted to the “poison of pessimism.” We enjoy negativity, conflict, and a good fight. So we will verbally drive a brother or sister under the bus or at least listen to the travesty happening at the mouth of another. Either way you are guilty of sin: either as an instigator or as an accomplice.
Please realize that Jesus hears every word that you utter, and He will require you to give an account for it in the Day of Judgment (Matt 12:36). Now that’s scary! However, I want you to know that I, too, struggle with grumbling and disputing. Like you, I am guilty of gossip, slander, and a multitude of sins of the tongue. My greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. Knowing this about myself, my goal is to keep short accounts and confess my verbal sins when they occur. As much as I want to be perfect in my speech, I know that I am not, and while I am in this body, I never will be (James 3:2). I don’t expect more from you than I do myself. I hold myself to the highest standard, and as a teacher, whether I like it or not, God holds me to this standard as well (James 3:1). So we are in this battle together. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we must seek to overcome sin together as a church family. We must do everything we can to promote health and holiness among ourselves. We must keep short accounts and seek to go to every length possible to avoid grumbling and disputing. Work out or waste away.
In 2:15–16, Paul provides the purpose behind not grumbling or disputing: “so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless [external purity] and innocent [internal purity], children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.” Whenever he preached this passage, the late, great Ray Stedman used to say, “Ours is a world of crooks and perverts.” How aptly put! In these verses, Paul draws upon two primary Old Testament passages. First, when Paul refers to “a crooked and perverse generation,” he is alluding to the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:5. In the bittersweet song Moses gave to the assembly of Israel just prior to his exodus from this earth, he sharply contrasted the faithfulness of God and the faithlessness of His people. In a sense, the Israelites were working out their salvation in the wilderness. Unfortunately, there is a whole lot of grumbling and complaining. Consequently, Israel disappoints the Lord and disgraces His name in the eyes of others. Moses’ words refer to Israel, but in Phil 2:15 Paul universalizes this phrase to refer to the unbelieving world. His point is simple: We too live “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” that is filled with the sins of grumbling and disputing. We must not make Israel’s mistake and sin with our tongue. Second, Paul uses an analogy from Daniel 12:3, where Daniel likens the “wise” to stars that shine in the universe. Paul’s point is that we are shining stars. He isn’t commanding us to shine; he is saying that we do shine! We are “lights in the world! There’s no need to shout, scream, or make a scene. Just shine! Live a life free of grumbling and disputing. Look for other stars, for Christians shine best not as individual stars but in clusters.
In 2:15–16, Paul also shares three consequences that stem from grumbling and disputing.
o First, when we grumble and dispute we waste the opportunity to share Christ (2:15). If we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we shine as lights in the world, allowing people to see the goodness of God through us. On the other hand, if we grumble and dispute, we waste the opportunity to show off God by blending right into the darkness of the world. No one likes “bad advertising.” Life is discouraging enough as it is! This is why Paul writes that we are to be characterized by “holding fast (epechontes) the word of life,” by enduring persecution in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. This relates to the subject of walking worthily of the gospel (1:27). To prevent disunity from extinguishing the testimony of a church, we must “hold fast the word of life.” That is, we must obediently achieve Jesus’ unity. A true gospel witness demands a true gospel lifestyle.
o Second, when we grumble and dispute we waste an opportunity to be rewarded at Christ’s return (2:16a). The phrase “the day of Christ” refers to the judgment seat of Christ when believers will be rewarded by Christ. Paul lived his life bearing in mind a day of future accountability. He lived today in light of tomorrow. Today he was with them; tomorrow he may be with Him, and he did not want to be ashamed. He longed for his life’s work to abound to God’s glory. Like Paul, you and I must keep the day of Christ on the forefront of our minds. For on that day, we will all give an account for how we have worked for unity in the local churches that we have served.
o Third, when we grumble and dispute we waste the investment of godly leaders (2:16b). Paul acknowledges that it is possible for leaders to “run in vain” and “toil in vain” when their followers fail to walk in a manner worthy of Christ. Think about the leaders and servants that have invested in your life. How devastating would it be to hear such faithful brothers and sisters feel that their investment in you was wasted? Paul commands you and me to “count others more significant than yourselves” (2:3b ESV). When we undermine the unity of the body, we fail those who should matter most to us in the spiritual realm.
Two small children were not happy about being on a plane. Their cries of complaint filled the cabin. Just before takeoff, a flight attendant stopped next to them and said with a big smile, “What is all this squawking up here?” After charming the fussy three-year-old and his younger sister for a few minutes, the flight attendant bent down and whispered very seriously, “I must remind you this is a non-squawking flight.” The little ones became unbelievably quiet, which made everyone feel better. Let’s face it; it’s a long journey when you have to sit in the squawking section. Likewise, the church’s journey to glory can be painful and laborious when there’s squawking. That is why I would like to call us to become a non-squawking church! This doesn’t mean I’m trying to use brute biblical force to shut people up. Far from it! I just want to make sure that we aren’t unnecessarily whining. If you do have a concern, share it with a pastor and then sign up for being a part of the solution to your concern. Work out or waste away.
[Light up the night by refusing to grumble or dispute. Paul’s third tip is…]
3. Rejoice in the ministry (2:17–18). Paul insists that we should have joy in the ministry. In 2:17–18, Paul writes, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.” Paul sees himself as a drink offering—one that has been poured out for Jesus and others. In the sacrificial system under the Old Covenant, the priests would take the animal sacrifices and spread them on the altar to be consumed by fire. Then they would take a drink offering and pour it on top of that searing hot flame. Inevitably, the liquid would turn into steam and it would go up in a wisp of smoke. Paul is saying: I love people, and I am here to serve people and to sacrifice for people so much that, if necessary, I am willing for my life to just go up in steam to the Lord that I may be a blessing to other people. But please note: Paul’s focus is upon the sacrifice of the Philippians. His sacrifice is a modest drink offering. In other words, the ministry of others is more important to Paul than his own ministry. He yearns for the success of others. Consequently, in 2:17b–18, Paul uses a form of the word “rejoice” four times! If your ministry is currently a burden or an obligation, you may be in the wrong ministry. God wants you to rejoice in your ministry and the ministries of others. He wants you to offer yourself to Him and to others as a pleasing sacrifice. As you do so, you will find the fulfillment that God intends for you to have in ministry.
A while back, I read a story about Madonna. You know Madonna, right? Well, I am referring another Madonna—78 year old SISTER Madonna Buder. Buder began competing in triathlons after she turned fifty. Since that time she has completed more than 320 triathlons. Even more impressive, Buder has even completed 40 Ironman class events which consist of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26 mile run. This is astonishing! When asked about her exploits, Buder responds: “Well, you know, as long as God is giving you your health, there’s no reason to stop.” How does this relate to her work as a nun? Buder answers, “There is no limit, no boundaries to when and where you can commune with God. It doesn’t have to be in church all the time.” WOW!
Today, God wants you to live a life characterized by perseverance. While you may not choose to complete triathlons and Ironman events, you are called to work out and grow in Christ. May you look for any and every opportunity to promote health and unity in the church. Work out or waste away. Those are your only choices.