Wouldn’t it be great to be imprisoned? To not be able to go anywhere? To not have the freedom to get up and walk somewhere? I mean, think of how happy you’d be if only you were in chains!!
Okay, not really. But Paul’s example is a great one to follow. He’s imprisoned, awaiting trial, and yet he repeatedly speaks of his joy. Obviously his joy isn’t because he’s imprisoned, but he can have joy nonetheless. There’s several passages throughout Philippians that prove this point—but as they aren’t the focus of this lesson, we’ll not delve into all of them. Instead, I want you to look at Philippians 2:12-18 with me, and we will see that one reason Paul had joy was because faithful Christians are light-bearers in the world.
Light-bearing involves faithfulness to God’s commands (2:12-13)
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye 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 which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
First, Paul loves them. The word “beloved” is the noun form of agape. Literally, it is “loved ones.” Because he loves them, he praises them, and he also encourages them. Isn’t that a great example of shining like a light? When someone does something good, praise them, and encourage them to continue!
Second, they were obedient to the things Paul had delivered to them from God. In other words, they were faithful to the commands of the Lord. The word “obeyed” in the original is two words put together: under and hearing. They listened to the one whom they were under (ultimately, God), recognizing Him as the Master and Ruler. Since “obedience” includes the word “hearing,” is it really possible for someone to obey God without hearing what His word says? And remember, that this is being spoken to Christians—Christians need to continue to “hear the word of the Lord,” or “study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” If you want to shine like lights in the world, drawing people to Christ, then you have to read, study, listen to the commands of God.
Third, Paul encourages them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The phrase “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence” actually goes with this encouraging phrase. They were concerned about their salvation, they energetically worked to maintain their standing before God, while Paul was present. Now, however, Paul encourages them to do it even more so—literally, to work out fully their own salvation—in his absence. It’s like a parent watching his children as they clean their room, or do the dishes, or mow the yard, or whatever task it might be. The children might work steadily and diligently while mom or dad are standing there watching, and the work will get done. But it is far more important, far more impressive, when they do that work without mom and dad’s personal presence right there. How those children obey, how they work when the parents aren’t right there shows what kind of person they truly are. In the same way, Paul encourages the Philippian Christians (and us today as well) to take personal responsibility, to show our true dedication to the Lord by working out our own salvation. 2 John 8 says “Look to yourselves that we lose not the things for which we have worked, but receive a full reward.”
Fourth, they are to work out their own salvation “with fear and trembling.” This doesn’t mean that we are shaking in our boots, afraid that God is going to strike us down the first time we sin. This isn’t talking about never having confidence in our salvation. It is a warning against overconfidence. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power. Wardlaw says:
This fear is self-distrust; it is tenderness of conscience; it is vigilance against temptation; it is the fear which inspiration opposes to high-mindedness in the admonition ‘be not high-minded but fear.’ It is taking heed lest we fall; it is a constant apprehension of the deceitfulness of the heart, and of the insidiousness and power of inward corruption. It is the caution and circumspection which timidly shrinks from whatever would offend and dishonor God and the Savior. And these the child of God will feel and exercise the more he rises above the enfeebling, disheartening, distressing influence of the fear which hath torment. Well might Solomon say of such fear, ‘happy is the man that feareth always”
This goes along well with what Paul says in Galatians 6:1: “If you see a man overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual restore such a man in a spirit of meekness, considering yourself, lest you also be tempted.” In other words, work to gain the full reward, but realize that you can indeed fall, so don’t get overconfident.
Fifth, as light-bearers, those who are faithful to God’s commands, we must realize that it is God working in us. We aren’t the source of the light, God is. When we do good for others, it is God working in us. People in the world don’t see God working and blessing their lives, offering them salvation, except through His people who have the desire (the “will”) and who follow through with the work (the “do”). Just as it is said that Jesus baptized more disciples than John, yet He didn’t do it personally, but through the apostles—one way God works on the hearts and lives of people (Christians and non-Christians) is through His chosen people: faithful Christians. It’s a solemn responsibility and a great honor to know that God is working in us!
Light-bearing involves the proper attitude (2:14-16a)
Do all things without murmurings and disputings so that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life.
It is very rare (if at all) that a biblical writer says anything in a vacuum. That is, it is very rare (if at all) that anything recorded in the Bible isn’t connected in some way to the context around it. Verse 14 is often used without consideration of its context. The principle is still valid, but there’s a purpose behind Paul’s saying “do all things without murmurings and disputings” (without whining and complaining). And here’s the purpose in a nutshell: you can’t shine as lights in the world, bearing the light of God to souls both lost and struggling, when you’re complaining.
My family and I drove across the country to the east coast a couple years ago. In order to save money, we decided to drop in on some family members along the way, making use of their spare bedrooms. In each place we went, we were told we were welcome to stay (we did contact them all ahead of time, so it wasn’t a surprise). However, at one place, it was made clear to us that it was an inconvenience for them to let us stay the night. They were put out. Their attitude in helping us out was such that we won’t ever go there again.
You can’t take the gospel to others and expect them to respond when you have a complaining attitude. Imagine it. You go up to someone and say, “I’ve got this great news. Wish I didn’t have to tell it to you, though.” What kind of response are you going to receive from that? I’ll tell you: You’ve lost the chance of ever reaching them with the gospel ever again.
The NIV translates it as “complaining and arguing.” We snuff out our light when all that people see from us is arguing. While there is a time and place for discussing biblical topics with brethren—yes, even having disagreements and perhaps even arguing (depending on what the other person is advocating)—your public Facebook feed probably isn’t the place for it. Some people’s Facebook profile is nothing but calling out or condemning people in the church! And one such person, when asking a friend to study the Bible with him, received a rejection because all he saw from this man was arguing with his own brethren!
After making that statement, Paul explains why they should “do all things without murmurings or complainings: “So that you might become blameless and harmless, children of God, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation [literally, generation], among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
We need to be concerned about how we are viewed by non-Christians. We must live blamelessly—live in a way that we can’t be accused of maliciousness or evil intent. We must live harmlessly—doing no damage or injury to others by what we say or do. We must show ourselves to be children of God. Jesus said that “by this shall all me know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” He also included a similar idea in His prayer in John 17: “that they may be one…so that the world can see that you have sent me.” A requirement for elders is that they “must have a good report from those outside” (1 Timothy 3).
We become blameless, harmless, children of God, and we shine as lights in the world when we have the proper attitude and use that godly disposition to show the love of Jesus Christ to others! The world is in darkness, and God shines forth, giving light to those lost and stumbling in sin through us.
But Paul closes this thought with a reminder that it isn’t just the attitude, it must include the Scriptures as well: “Holding forth the word of life.” We keep our lives aligned with the word of God, and when we share the love of Christ with others, we make sure to point them to the same thing: the engrafted word which is able to save their souls (James 1:21).
Light-bearing leads to eternal rejoicing (2:16b-18)
So that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain. Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me.
Ultimately, God through Paul is saying that true light-bearers will receive the eternal reward. It will be a day of great rejoicing on different levels.
First, Paul himself would rejoice “in the day of Christ.” He would rejoice to see familiar faces in that great resurrection reunion. His rejoicing was because he would be reunited with friends and loved one, but also that his work among them was not in vain.
Three years ago, Jesse and I took in three Indian boys in order to keep them out of “the system” when their parents went to jail. It was a rough couple months for us, as those boys hadn’t been disciplined, hadn’t been trained, didn’t care about schoolwork. But we labored with them until their parents got out of jail. Earlier this month, I got a message from one of the boys thanking us for everything we did for them, and how the time with us is a bright memory for them. When you hear things like that, you can’t help but rejoice that your labor was not in vain—that the work you did had an impact on the lives of others. It’s no wonder Paul said he would rejoice in the day of Christ!
Second, Paul would rejoice that he had the smallest part in helping them—and that they had the larger part to play. Literally, Paul says “if I be poured out on the sacrifice…” In both Jewish and pagan sacrifices, the drink offering, which was poured out, was the smallest part of the offering. Paul said that the “sacrifice” (the main part of the offering) was their faith. Paul knew that bringing the gospel to them, working with them, and teaching them was important—but their final salvation ultimately rested on their faith put into action. Paul’s rejoicing came as a result of knowing that the little work he did with them led to their own personal faith and works in the Lord as light-bearers.
Third, the Christians in Philippi would rejoice as well because of their soul’s salvation in the day of Christ. Paul says “I joy, and rejoice with you.”
Fourth, the Christians in Philippi would rejoice because they got to be reunited with the one who brought the gospel to them: “For the same cause, you also rejoice, and rejoice with me.”
Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace,
In the mansions, bright and blessed,
He’ll prepare for us a place
When we all get to heaven
What a day of rejoicing that will be
When we all see Jesus
We’ll sing and shout the victory.
From the time I was a little kid, sitting in Sunday school, I sang the song “This little light of mine.” (sometimes “Christian light” or “gospel light) In that song, we try to teach the children to let their lights shine for Jesus. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” We try to teach this principle to the children, but we might want to start realizing it applies to us adults as well.
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!
Won’t let Satan [blow] it out, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, all the time, let it shine.
If we let God’s light shine through us by our obedience, our love, our attitude, and our actions, then we will make it to heaven—but more than that, we will be able to rejoice because of others who are there as a result of our labor with them.
Are you a light-bearer?
-Bradley S. Cobb